Posted by: Necci – May 01, 2012
I first learned about therehere.org when a friend of mine linked to it on facebook. I’d never heard of the site, but anything relating to the history of Richmond immediately catches my eye, so I needed no further reason to check it out. What I found was a fascinating look at the neglected buildings of downtown Richmond, in particular a section of East Broad and Grace Streets, stretching from 1st to 6th St. In the mission statement on its front page, There/Here bills itself as a “thorough inventory [of Richmond] specific to dormant properties,” and “a web-based place to publicize pressure through change.” I also learned that There/Here, both a website and an advocacy group, had been launched through a grant from VCU’s School Of The Arts. This made sense particularly in light of the more artistic slant some of their work, as documented on the website, had taken towards the issue of urban vacancy in downtown RVA.
Fascinated by what I’d discovered thus far, and hoping to find out more, I sent an email to the website’s contact address, requesting an interview. No names appeared on the site, so I had no idea who I’d hear back from. The response I received was from Tyler King, an architectural history student at VCU and the unofficial leader of the There/Here project. He and I agreed to meet for coffee and conversation at Lamplighter Roasting Company a few weeks later. Tyler turned out to be a friendly but soft-spoken fellow, and the general background noise of the coffee shop made my tape of the conversation somewhat difficult to decipher, but I caught most of it--certainly enough to gather a lot of interesting information about There/Here.
Tyler, who is originally from Abingdon, VA, came to Richmond after studying architecture at a university in Boston. “That was great,” he told me, “but we weren’t really designing based on any specific place, or any specific problem. As soon as I came to Richmond, I got attached to the problem here.” And what was that problem? “All the scales of the streets and buildings guide you to what should be the downtown,” he explained. “What’s really surprising is that there isn’t any activity there.” He found the proliferation of vacant buildings in the area fascinating, and wanted to learn more about them. “There’s always a story that's embedded in a building. That's kind of my mission when I go into buildings--to find the story. It's not as journalistic as that--it's more like aboveground archaeology.”
Walking around those largely vacant blocks, taking pictures and attempting to talk to landlords and developers, inspired Tyler to create the advocacy group and website that became There/Here. It started with a grant from VCU’s School Of The Arts, which covered the year 2011. The grant funded the launch of the website, and a great deal of painstaking and no doubt tedious research goes into finding the information that eventually appears online. There’s a lot of information, too. When you log onto therehere.org, the first thing you see is a map of downtown Richmond that is covered in grey circles, representing the vacant buildings within that five-block stretch of Broad and Grace Streets. All of these grey circles--and there are quite a few--link to individual web pages on which the members of There/Here have recorded all the information they’ve been able to learn about each building, including current ownership, past occupants, and both vintage and modern photos.
Tyler thinks that there needs to be a different attitude about vacancy within urban areas. “When it comes down to it, there's always going to be a movement of vacant buildings. It doesn't necessarily have to be a negative thing for the city.” How could these vacant buildings be turned into a positive element within the larger cityscape? Tyler definitely has ideas. “A lot of [artists] now are working with this idea of memory and place,” he explains. “They see these buildings, and think, ‘This would be a great place for my installation,’ or for a performance piece, or something. Since the website’s launched, so many people are getting in touch with me about using the buildings. And sometimes that can happen, but there's this attitude with a lot of building owners, of ‘What's the immediate economic outcome for me?’” Convincing recalcitrant developers that the spaces can be used beneficially, even in situations that don’t involve a profitable business entering into a multi-year lease, can be a challenge. Tyler hopes that resistance will lessen in time. “I think after a year, once we can say, ‘Look at the attention these buildings have gotten as a result of these artists going in and doing things,’ most private companies will be more receptive. You can play both sides of it a bit, and say, ‘There is a [positive] economic outcome. It's the attention that's brought to it.’”
Now we’re talking about the stuff that caught my interest in the first place--the artistic events and installations within vacant buildings that There/Here have been involved with. The installations were inspired by things that the There/Here crew found while exploring vacant buildings. Their first find was entitled “Nothing Missing But The Voice,” named for the slogan of the Foster Photo Studio, which occupied 404 E. Grace St. over half a century ago. Finding a collection of badly deteriorated negatives within the space, There/Here developed them at Safelight Community Darkroom. This resulted in what they call “a redeveloped ruin,” skeletal photographs only barely visible through years of damage caused by neglect.
Feeling that this art project hadn’t reached as many as it could have, considering that it was only publicly visible online, they chose a much more highly visible project for their next installation. After finding a sign that said “Will Return” inside of 224 E. Broad St., which has been vacant for nearly a decade, they decided to highlight this irony by pasting large letters reading “Will Return” onto the outside of the building. The letters were removed after less than a week. According to a statement on therehere.org, “One of the people Douglas Development employs to maintain some of their buildings thought that they were put up by a religious fanatic.” Tyler found this amusing. “I was talking to Bill Martin from the Valentine Richmond History Center about [the removal of the sign], and he said, ‘I think [the sign] is great. But it's graffiti, whether you like it or not.’ I told him we'd asked permission, but he was like, ‘Yeah, well...’” What was left behind was almost like an art installation in itself, though. “What's great is that you can still see the adhesive from the ‘Will Return’ letters. Which I need to take off, but I kinda like it. It looks like another inlay of metal or something.”
They’ve also held events in the vacant buildings. Their first event, though, “Chocolate-Covered Data,” was actually held at Lift Coffee. “It was a way to educate all of the people who were asking, ‘What is this about?’” Tyler explains. “I went through and told people how to fill out [There/Here’s building information] forms, and why, and they actually went through on the city's website and filled in some information about the buildings. After that, though, I realized that people don't want to fill out forms as much as they want to hang out.”
To that end, their second event, “Repair,” was hosted in the building that occupies 120-124 E. Broad St. This is the former location of the Rabow Department Store, which closed in the late 80s. The space was donated for the night by Polis/Living Cities, an LLC created by Douglas Development. The biggest developer currently operating in the area There/Here focuses on, Douglas Development have also been the most receptive to allowing use of their buildings, which Tyler found to be a pleasant surprise. He thinks this receptiveness might be due to their office being located in the middle of the area. “They have an office right across the street,” he says. “They're working on these renderings all day, thinking, ‘What if there was a Forever 21, or a Target here?’ They might get sick of that, and think, ‘Well, what would happen if we actually activated [the space]?’ And that's where I came in.”
For this event, which was held in what was basically a shell of a building, maps of the area were suspended from beams, depicting vacancies and occupied buildings, as well as different property uses and zonings, in different colors. There/Here invited attendees to post ideas for usage of the vacant space, and received suggestions for a bagel shop, studios for artists, and vertical gardens in place of empty parking garages. Tyler felt that the event was a great success. “[7th District] Councilwoman [Cynthia] Newbille was there, that was great. But it was great to get all of those people in the same room--[such as] a representative from Douglas Development, which doesn't get a great rep in the press--and to bring them together with people from, for example, the Storefront For Community Design. Because yeah, some of those people are capitalists, and some are trying to do some good in the community. I was hoping that some kind of osmosis would happen there.”
Before the event, the There/Here crew located the six-foot-tall letters that had once made up the Rabow Department Store’s sign, gathering dust in the buidling’s basement. They brought three of them up into the storefront at 120 E. Broad St, and used them to spell out the word “RAW.” Now propped up against the wall inside that building, they’re somewhat obscured, but still visible through the building’s front windows. “It's funny though,” Tyler says of the rearrangement. “I was reading about the history of that sign, and those letters were rearranged to spell out ‘Rabow’ from the store's former name, which was Arrow.” In their re-ordering of the sign’s letters, There/Here were unwittingly replicating a similar re-ordering that took place over half a century before.
Of course, the ultimate question that has to be asked with any works of art or advocacy that take place around vacant buildings is one of urban renewal. What’s There/Here’s official position on the subject? Tyler doesn’t want to commit to any thought process that’s too definitively structured. “I hate master plans,” he says. “These dormant clusters are always going to be in flux. Inbetween, you have people like Decayed Richmond, who are going into these spaces and finding beauty in decay. If somehow that can give way to whatever happens next, that would be great. And it does happen. I don't think I would get behind any comprehensive renewal plan. Anything that's too prescriptive, I tend to be skeptical of. I think the word ‘revitalization’ is sometimes code for gentrification. [Which] is kind of inevitable, but if you can attack that cycle at the right angle, something good can come out of it. And then once one place is gentrified, there's automatically another that isn't.”
There/Here intend to broaden their own focus to include other neighborhoods in Richmond that suffer from a similar surfeit of vacancies to that which plagues E. Broad and Grace Streets. And despite the fact that their grant ended at the end of 2011, Tyler has no intention of ceasing to work on the project. “I'd really like to do some more [events],” he says. “I'm looking at spaces. I'm wondering, though, if the next one should be in the next cluster of buildings that we set to document.” Right now, the plan is for that cluster to be the Manchester neighborhood, south of their current area of concentration, across the James River.
The most recent post on therehere.org seeks volunteers to help with various researching tasks that the group is currently engaged in. It states in part: “The goal is to have an informal network of people who engage with and expound upon this data on a regular basis. The projects listed are self-directed and can be completed at a pace that suits you.” From searching through VCU’s Special Collections and the Valentine’s collection of Richmond City Directories to walking Hull St in Manchester during regular business hours and taking note of which buildings appear to be vacant, there are a variety of tasks that There/Here are engaged in. Tyler expects to remain in Richmond for the foreseeable future. “Anytime I go to another place, I think, ‘Yeah, well, that was great, but Richmond's home,’” he says. As he works to make his home a better place, we can all look forward to hearing more from There/Here in the future.
By Andrew Necci