The fourth installment of a monthly series in which a hometown Richmonder who has spent over a decade abroad explores the many different neighborhoods accessible by GRTC bus lines to discover the ways transit connects us all.
Stranded in the triangle of land between the Powhite Parkway, the Downtown Expressway, and the place where they intertwine lies a quaint and oft-forgotten neighborhood of mostly one-story shotgun houses. This charmingly demure part of town rarely receives any attention (or visitors) outside of the roughly dozen nights a year it hosts the fans of what has become a popular local institution. The neighborhood itself would lack a name were it not for its largest resident: City Stadium.
The University of Richmond constructed the stadium in 1929 at a cost of just $80,000 to serve as the home field for its football team. Although considered small for today’s era of mega-stadiums, ninety years ago an arena that seats approximately 22,000 people would have been considered luxuriously capacious. Unglamorous as some may find it, the Richmond Kickers have declared City Stadium home, securing a 40-year lease on the property from the city in 2016. In exchange, the Kickers will invest $20 million worth of upgrades into the venue. Such forward thinking seems to come easily to the Kickers — a team that has built itself from the ground up over the past two and a half decades.
Founded in 1993, the Richmond Kickers are tied with the Charleston Battery as the oldest continuously-run soccer team in the country. A year after the Kickers moved in to City Stadium (known as U of R Stadium until 2010 when the Spiders ended their lease and moved back onto campus), Richmond hosted the qualifying match for the North, Central American & Caribbean section of the 1998 FIFA World Cup. The match attracted thousands of fans and put Virginia’s sole professional soccer team on the map.
Since the early years, the Kickers have more than quadrupled their average attendance. With the increasing popularity and inclusive spirit of the sport, the team believes investing in outreach could one day make them Richmonders’ top team to cheer for. The first demographic the Kickers targeted is the region’s skyrocketing Latinx population. Last season’s hosting of RCD Espanyol from the beloved La Liga proved a true coup, drawing huge crowds and marking the first time a team from Spain’s top flight appeared in Virginia.
This year the Kickers transformed their June 1st home game against North Texas SC into a Pride Night themed overture to Virginia’s LGBTQ+ community. Live music, happy hour deals, and an auction of rainbow warmup jerseys that benefited Health Brigade added up to a strong effort by the Kickers’ management to make queer Richmonders feel not only welcome but celebrated.
The River City Red Army — a ragtag group of rabid fans who typically take over Section O of the stadium — took their dedication to inclusion a step further when they set off a rainbow-colored smoke bomb at the start of the game, instead of the usual bright red of the Kickers’ jerseys. The Red Army isn’t just making a show of supporting Richmond’s LGBTQ population, they are putting their money where their mouth is through a Prideraiser campaign to donate $200 per goal to Diversity Richmond for every goal the team scores during Pride Month.
With over 4,500 attendees on Pride Night — a strong showing for Richmond’s soccer club — the Kickers’ embrace of our region’s growing diversity seems to be paying off. Just as City Stadium becomes an ever more popular destination, so too will homebuyers increasingly flock to the Stadium neighborhood, a surprisingly affordable pocket of the city whose proximity to Carytown and small-town feel cannot go ignored forever.
Standing at the corner of Freeman Avenue and Maplewood Road adjacent to the gravel-strewn expanse that serves as City Stadium’s parking lot, it struck me how convenient it must be to take the bus to a Kickers game. In just eight minutes, Route 20 will take you to or from the Science Museum Pulse Station. The same could be said of the Diamond, just a 15-minute walk or a 10-minute bus ride from that same Pulse stop.
Increasing the frequency of the 20 to 15 minutes rather than 30, or even changing the schedule to five- or ten-minute intervals during the hour or two before and after Kickers’ and Flying Squirrels’ home games may be enough to convince more city dwellers to ditch their cars in favor of transit. The Kickers’ small gravel lot isn’t a huge eyesore and doesn’t contribute to our city’s terrible urban heat island; however, the Diamond (mis)manages its footprint on the city very differently.
The overwhelming majority of the area surrounding the Diamond is wasted on endless asphalt. More successful sports arenas strategically surround themselves with the dense housing, retail, offices, and greenspace needed to activate the neighborhood beyond the few dozen days a year the team is in town.
Venues like our capital’s Nationals Park, or Boston’s Fenway Park, have reinvigorated entire neighborhoods. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision an alternate future for the Boulevard, similar to the rapid development of D.C.’s Navy Yard. Repurposing industrial and unused land has the added bonus of not displacing anyone, an increasing concern for the city.
As I pondered ways to manage the symptoms and side effects of gentrification, I checked the GRTC app (powered by Google Maps) and Transit App to figure out when the next bus would come. GRTC estimated a 20-minute wait while Transit predicted just five. Exactly five minutes later the 20 arrived, providing more evidence that GRTC should cut the budget for its app and invest the savings in increasing coverage or frequency of service.
In just 17 minutes, the 20 zipped its way northward to the Diamond through Carytown, past Cary Street Station, up Robinson Street in the Fan, and through the southeastern corner of Scott’s Addition, passing some of Richmond’s choicest watering holes. The two sports arenas and the plethora of dive bars and small eateries along the route make the 20 an ideal bus for an evening out on the town, whether it’s a game with your friends or a date with your boo.
Sometimes nomenclature can be so important to us that we duke it out for decades until we decide what to call something. Other times, a name can sit on a map for a century and a half without anyone speaking it or even knowing its providence. Such is the duality surrounding Richmond’s second stadium: the Diamond.
The formal name of this post-industrial area bounded by I-95/64 to the North and the CSX line to the South is Acca Yard. Assumptions the name must be a long-forgotten railroad acronym for something like the “Atlantic Coastal Connection Area” are unfounded.
According to the Virginia Historical Society, this part of Richmond was once owned by Preston Belvin, a successful furniture manufacturer. As the head of the local Shriners chapter, Belvin named his farm where he raised Arabian racehorses after the ancient Palestinian city of Akka, which is today Acre in Israel. When he sold his farm at the turn of the nineteenth century, the railroad simply kept the eccentric name which still floats above the area — largely ignored — on Google Maps.
Far from being a nonissue, the renaming of the Diamond’s main corridor, the Boulevard, proved to be a three decade long endeavor. After Arthur Ashe’s passing from HIV/AIDS in 1993, his family and many admirers made multiple attempts to rename the Boulevard in his honor. The third time was the charm, thanks to a healthy does of white guilt following the blackface revelations of our Commonwealth’s Governor and Attorney General as well as the diligent work of City Councilmember Kim Gray, who introduced the measure and represents the area, yet was relegated to a mere prop at the celebratory ceremonies in favor of a lineup of all male speakers.
Despite the recent revelry now that Richmond has finally dedicated one of its most prominent promenades to a black man — 400 years after the first enslaved Africans were brought to these shores in chains, there is another positive renaming of sorts this area is known for: the Flying Squirrels. In 2008, the Richmond Braves ended 42 years of problematic chanting and chopping the air like fans’ forearms were tomahawks and moved to Gwinnet County, Georgia in a hissyfit after the city’s plans to build a new stadium in Shockoe Bottom collapsed.
Two years later the Flying Squirrels swooped in. Despite their overly gendered mascot duo of Nutzy and Nutasha, the Squirrels’ irreverent approach to America’s national pastime has resonated with Richmonders who seem to enjoy going to a game more as an excuse for a beer and a hotdog than as an opportunity to watch athletics in action. The team consistently fills up two thirds of the roughly 9,000 seats available since large advertising banners began occupying the upper quarter of the arena.
To chart a future course towards sold out games the Squirrels are following the same playbook as the Kickers: outreach to the relatively untapped markets of potential Latinx and LGBTQ fans. Every Friday home game this season, Richmond’s baseball team has been transforming into Las Ardillas Voladoras (“the Flying Squirrels” in Spanish) in an effort to draw in our region’s booming Latino population.
With Virginia Pride as their ally, tonight the Squirrels hope to knock their queer outreach out of the park with their first-ever Pride Night at the Diamond. Even if the game is no good, this evening’s debut of the 2019 Pride Guide by GayRVA and Virginia Pride means attendees will at least receive some interesting reading material. However, with ticket pre-sales already scraping 4,000, the event looks set to be one of the Squirrels’ biggest nights of the year; similarly, the Kickers’ Pride Night proved to be their second-best attended of the season.
Richmond’s two largest sports arenas have an outsized impact on our city, just as the Kickers and Flying Squirrels play a central role in the cultural branding of the Commonwealth’s capital. The success or failure of these athletic franchises will play a crucial role in the development of the neighborhoods which host them. The increasing popularity of the Kickers has the potential to bring a wave of revitalization to one of the sleepiest swathes of the city — or it could result in rising rents and displacement for Stadium’s overwhelmingly elderly population.
A deal to relocate ABC’s headquarters to Hanover County could provide the required space for a new ballpark, transforming the Diamond into the mixed-use multi-modal neighborhood Scott’s Addition pretends to be. Or such a deal could simply lead to a bigger ballpark with more impermeable asphalt parking lots, and doom the Diamond to be as dead most days as it is now.
Whether you attend a game or not, Richmond’s two local sports teams will continue to shape the fabric and culture of our city.
Photos by Wyatt Gordon, except where noted