By the time my writers conference ended in Richmond, Virginia, I had been sitting for two days and I desperately needed to move. Serendipitously, I discovered that the conference fell on the same weekend as Richmond’s Annual Folk Music Festival, and so I decided to extend my stay by a day to enjoy this historic city and attend the festival on the shores of the James River.
I set out early yesterday morning, determined to see as much of Richmond as possible on foot. From the center of downtown, I followed Broad Street toward Virginia Commonwealth University. Many of the lovely old buildings in this part of downtown are in disrepair and a large percentage of the storefronts are empty, but signs of rebirth abound. Coffee shops, crafters, retailers, and art galleries are moving into this Soho-like neighborhood as the old buildings are painstakingly restored. This former dairy and police station are just two examples of the inner city revitalization:
When I reached the VCU campus I diverted through Monroe Park, which is surrounded on all sides by historic structures, like the Old Landmark Theater, the tower of which is shown here framed by fall foliage:
On the other side of the park I picked up Franklin Street. Here I discovered stately old stone and brick homes tucked between the scattered university buildings. A series of monuments honoring J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee stood in the wide median of this broad, tree-lined avenue.
A mile or so further I cut over to Park Avenue and headed back toward the city center. The historic houses here seemed determined to distinguish themselves from their cousins on Franklin. Their exteriors were painted in rich hues that perfectly accented the golden leaves skittering along the sidewalks.
On the opposite side of downtown, more history awaited. St. Paul’s Church stood at the entrance to Capitol Square, which is home to the Governor’s Mansion and the State Capitol building:
Since it was approaching 2 p.m., I decided to make my way to the riverfront and catch the late afternoon acts at the Folk Music Festival. I threaded my way through the upscale neighborhood known as Shockoe Slip, with its village shops and cobblestone streets, and started downhill.
At the bottom of the hill I followed the 1.5 mile long promenade running along the towpath of the old James River and Kanawha Canal. Here I made stops at the turning basin, the old hydro plant, and the flume that in years past drove the six water wheels that powered 31 pairs of grinding stones at the old Gallego Flour Mill.
As I descended from the path onto Brown’s Island, the first of five performance stages came into view, this one sheltered under a giant white tent. Rather than elbow my way through the huge crowd that had gathered to hear the Dale Watson band, I plunked down on the grass outside the tent. When the last strains of their Honky Tonk music had faded, the crowd began to drift away, only to be replaced by a new audience anxious to hear the next performers, a popular Washington, D.C. band known simply as EU. I grabbed a seat inside the tent but I wasn’t sitting for long; like everyone else under the tent, I was on my feet from the moment EU started belting out their syncopated go-go music. As the crowd swayed and bounced, I threaded my way around the dance floor, alternating between dancing and snapping photos of the joyful faces and seething bodies around me:
Following the heavy beat of EU’s music, I wandered to the next tent to watch Hopi Indian dancers perform to the accompaniment of native hand-carved flutes, and then climbed the bluff along the riverfront to yet another stage to hear two Hawaiian musicians play Slack Key guitars.
Still, the festival had more to offer; at the fifth stage I joined the throbbing crowd as Plena Libre belted out their Puerto Rican orchestral salsa music. I swear I was still bouncing when I got back to the hotel half an hour later.
Richmond is only about a four and a half hour drive from the Outer Banks, yet I never took the time to visit this fascinating city during the 11 years I lived in Kill Devil Hills. I’m just glad I finally discovered all it has to offer and am looking forward to attending both the James River Writers Conference and the Folk Music Festival again next year. And the second time around I’ll tack on a couple of extra days to hike some of the beautiful trails in and around Richmond.