Monday, August 04, 2014

Accordions Helped Me Keep a Promise

At the A Ring Around the Diamond event yesterday, we had a little over 100 people out there. Perhaps, to some who rode by in their cars, the unusual doings looked more like a performance art piece than a political rally -- a demonstration to dramatize the opposition to the mayor's so-called "revitalization" plan. But with all the arts and show biz hams we had on hand at the Diamond, maybe it was both.

No, Mayor Dwight Jones didn't show. Neither did the cops. 

Riding over to the Diamond in Larry Rohr's orange '74 VW bus, he predicted 77 people would show up for the parade. So we topped a practiced wizard's best guess. Truth is, I had no idea how many people to expect. How could anybody?

Nonetheless, I thought all along that the number 1,000 and the notion of circling the Diamond would catch people’s attention and spark interest. OK, I actually wanted 10,000 people to show up, but I knew better than to expect it. My real plan was to march around the Diamond with whatever turnout we had. That’s what we did. One former Richmond mayor was there. An enthusiastic Rudy McCollum was working the crowd.

Wishful thinking aside, what happened at the Diamond was gratifying. Thanks to Barry Bless and Karen Weatherspoon Sokohl we had accordions leading the parade that circled the Diamond. Three television stations sent reporters with cameras. So the stunt drew the coverage we schemers had hoped would also turn out.

Some history: In 2005 and 2009 I covered the baseball stadium debate for In both instances I saw building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom as another build-it-and-they-will-come folly in the making. Thus, my opposition to baseball in the Bottom is nothing new. So much for disclosure.

Some eight months ago, when Mayor Dwight Jones' announcement revived the twice-killed idea of dropping a baseball stadium into that same neighborhood, it was disappointing. However, my own thinking about the issue has evolved over the years. Since the critical and box office success of the Oscar-winning film, “12 Years a Slave” (2013), Richmond's slave jail history leading up to the Civil War has become more interesting to a lot of people, here and elsewhere. No doubt, there are folks at City Hall who wish that movie’s release could have been delayed a year or two.

Having grown up in Richmond, I’d like to better understand the slave market business that once thrived in this city. Everybody has heard plenty about Richmond's days during the Civil War. Not so much about the way of life in the 30 years leading up to war, especially as it pertained to Shockoe Bottom. Accordingly, I’d also like to learn more about how that aspect of local history was rather effectively covered up for so long. Regarding the institution of slavery, it's time to shine a new light on how our history books were cooked in the 20th century.

A fresh look needs to be taken at how the truth was systematically processed into palatable lies -- denial. For instance, in 1961 my seventh-grade history book, which was used in all of Virginia's public schools, had this to say at the end of Chapter 29:
Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to those arguments.
In 2014, to think building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom will really facilitate the scholarly investigation of that neighborhood’s history and archeology is just more denial. The same sort of denial that fueled Massive Resistance in the 1950s and ‘60s. The same desire to bury history that was behind the writing of that damn book of pickled history. 

So please do put me on the growing list of those who believe a slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom, sans ballpark, will draw tourists from all over the world. Still, I don’t quarrel with those who oppose baseball in the Bottom for other reasons. Richmond residents who oppose building a new stadium anywhere, saying that with schoolhouse roofs caving in taxpayers ought not to spend another nickel on spectator sports, have a good point. Those who assert that a lot of Flying Squirrels fans aren't likely to go to the Bottom for games, probably know more about local baseball fans than the mayor does.

My personal reason for having taken up the baseball stadium location cause stems, in part, from being asked to write a story about a benefit show in December for STYLE Weekly. Click here to read my review of the “Billy Ray Hatley Tribute Concert at the National.” After spending the afternoon backstage, watching the musicians and stage hands put the complicated show together, and then being there for the show to feel the vibe from the connection between those on stage and in the audience, I was knocked out.

All that, while the weather outside was wretched and they had no idea who would show up. The common desire to celebrate Hatley’s contributions as a musician/songwriter and to help out his family was uplifting. Filled with admiration for the effort it took to put that show together, I decided then to act upon something that had been bothering me. I had been resisting the notion that I needed to step out of the fog of geezerhood to do something, propaganda-wise, to combat the LovingRVA campaign, and ultimately stop Shockoe Stadium from being built.

It was wintertime and the job seemed too big for a guy out of the loop. But being so close to that Hatley show suddenly gave me courage that I could focus the scattered pockets of opposition to Shockoe Stadium. Thus, I soon put my shoulder to a push to let Richmond’s voters weigh in, by way of an advisory  referendum.

After so many years of watching the parade go by and making my wisecracks as a commentator, I decided to cross the line and become an activist for a cause. It became my New Year's Resolution. 

On August 1 the deadline to use signed petitions to get a referendum on the ballot passed. Unfortunately, I don't know how many signatures the Citizens Referendum Group gathered on its petitions for two ballot issues. The group fell apart; it’s too bad its laudable effort was sabotaged by some complicated agendas.

While five members of City Council can still combine to put a referendum on the ballot, it looks quite unlikely. Still, talking about a referendum was useful to the debate. Seeing the fear it inspired among the boosters for the mayor’s plan was revealing. 

Back to Sunday’s colorful demonstration -- there was no sense of failure hanging in the air. Via local news broadcasts, explanations of our impromptu group’s presence at the ballpark have become part of the record of the stadium story. There are lots of nice photos of smiling demonstrators on Facebook. It seems most of them enjoyed the experience. At the moment, some in the group seem poised to do more. Good. 

Now I believe I have followed through on that promise to myself, a resolution that was inspired by live music. My thanks go out to all who helped promote the event, and especially to the faithful who showed up. The point of this piece is not to say I’m giving up. Far from it, but I simply can’t go on neglecting other projects, to stay on top of this worthwhile cause. The stark reality of my need to make some money is bearing down on me.

To finish up, I hope some of those civic-minded individuals who marched around the ballpark, following the accordions playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” will hear the call to do what they can to keep the parade moving. The cause needs more leaders with new ideas. Focusing the scattered opposition is still smart. And, of course, please keep me in the loop.

Note: Here’s the link to the report on that ran on WRIC Channel 8 on Sunday evening.

-- Aug. 3, 2014: Top photo from WRIC Channel 8. Bottom photo by Mark Brown.

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