Along with other arts-friendly bloggers, I was invited to a lunch meeting last week by John Bryan, the president of the new Arts Council of Richmond (soon to be renamed “CultureWorks”). The discussion was wide-ranging, and centered on what kind of advocacy role that CultureWorks should take as it refreshes its mission to be the focal organization for arts and culture in the Metro Richmond area.
At the meeting, the very personable Bryan challenged the assembled to come up with one main issue that CultureWorks should focus on that would greatly benefit the city’s grassroots arts community. There were some fine ideas passed around — Terry Rea over at SlantBlog had an inspired notion about a billboard art competition (read all about that here), and more than a few folks mentioned the city’s crippling admissions tax on concerts. If you’ll recall, getting rid of the admissions tax was a recommendation of the recent Regional Arts and Cultural Plan.
Why was this meeting, called by John Bryan, such a big deal? Well, the Arts Council of Richmond has heretofore been rather toothless and ineffective. While it has helped to distribute area arts dollars, the non-profit has functioned more or less as a front and a rubber stamp for the region’s richest arts organizations. Up until now, it has not seen advocacy as its true calling, and what happens on the grassroots level has either been ignored or shunted aside.
The net result of the organization’s timidity and ineffectiveness is that there has been no one to represent the arts and cultural community on issues relating to the law, economic development or civic outreach. A dysfunctional arrangement like this can result in, say, a large arts center being built with mostly taxpayer money but without any real input from the artistic community… or our most successful arts-related ventures being ignored when it is time to allocate city resources.
For me, the answer to the challenge is as simple as today’s headlines. I believe John Bryan is sincere when he asks for feedback, but if CultureWorks is really going to be relevant and helpful, it needs to get tough and play a strong advocacy role in the affairs of Richmond’s beleaguered arts and music scene.
It needs to start a campaign that promotes and argues for Cultural Sanity in our city.
And it needs to do it now — before the thriving grassroots galleries that fuel Curated Culture’s First Friday Artwalk are buried under a bureaucratic pile of citations, ordinances and heavy-handed “busts”; before yet another established music club is shut down by nervous politicians and new unnecessary restrictions; before we see one more retailer, boutique or bowling alley shut down for holding small-scale music shows inside their business (when a warning letter would do just fine); before the Fan District Association’s censorious “Party Patrol” becomes better-funded than the city’s own police department.
As Chris Dovi spells out in this week’s Style Weekly, there is a war on culture currently being waged by the City of Richmond and its Community Assisted Public Safety (CAPS) program. This will not come as a shock to longtime Save Richmond readers.
CAPS, of course, was set up to do something a bit more serious and substantial than busting small-scale music shows because they weren’t properly “licensed.” But, as Dovi’s article shows, there has been some serious — and rather suspicious — mission creep of late.
As shown [emphasis mine]:
Richmond’s CAPS program originated about eight years ago, an outgrowth of the community policing philosophy that the best way to fight crime is to attack its roots. The idea behind it is simple: that crime requires not just a victim and a criminal, but also a location. The program uses simple tools such as strict enforcement of existing building and fire codes and fines for unpaid taxes or fees to treat criminal infections that, left untreated, could sicken entire neighborhoods.
But over the years, this initial mission of attacking drug dens, boarded-up or abandoned houses, and other festering community eyesores has shifted ever so slightly.
The shift is still community-complaint driven, and still uses code violations to close down or clean up targeted properties. But those targets no longer necessarily harbor the same sort of drug or street crime that some people say was the original target of the program. Today, they might also be churches, art galleries or day-care centers.
Even as the program has proven to be a uniquely effective tool in clearing out drug houses, prostitution and all kinds of unsavory activities in some of Richmond’s struggling neighborhoods to the praise of residents and community leaders, some business owners wonder if the help being offered is in their best interest. Or in the interest of someone who doesn’t approve of the city’s current arts and music renaissance.
“CAPS is putting a cap on capitalism,” says Danny Ingram, owner of Community Chest, a concert booking agency. The program’s activities of late seem targeted at small-time local music and arts promotion, he says, even as its enforcements against illegal boarding houses and neglected vacant property continue. Ingram’s business has suffered a handful of canceled shows at venues hit by such enforcements — often on the day the show was to go on.
“They take action during business hours and in front of customers,” he says, pointing to numerous busts before or during performances that helped spell the end of the Artist Underground Cafe, a club once on Monument Avenue. “Christ! Send us a letter in the mail letting us know, or just one person to come speak with us! Then take action if we don’t correct the issues. It’s overkill to send in the cavalry and scare us into submission.”
Submission is literally the intent with the program. By sending in this cavalry, the goal is to interfere so much in the operation of an undesirable activity — like a drug house — as to make the perpetrators give up and move on.
Which is why the arts community sees more bullish enforcement by CAPS as a potential threat to the city’s growing grass-roots arts movement.
“People are getting scared shitless,” Ingram says. “Business owners, we don’t have an extra five or six grand sitting around to pay off these tickets that don’t make any sense.”
The tickets for violations often are for blocked fire exits, inadequate occupancy permits or expired business licenses — often justified, he admits. But targeting a legitimate business and ticketing it for issues that could often be found in any building in the city is over the line, he says. Building and fire code issues are common to almost any building or business in the city, program officials acknowledge.
In the past few months, targets have included Rumors clothing boutique near Virginia Commonwealth University and the Plaza Bowl duckpin bowling alley at Southside Plaza. Both have featured live music shows mostly catering to twenty-something audiences. They’re venues living double lives as concert spaces and a clothing store or bowling alley.
I’m sure you are wondering how these CAPS folks pick out their targets. You might guess that they would be focusing on the biggest law-breakers, the most heinous safety violators. You would be wrong. Actually, they pick the easiest places that they can bust.
“We’d like to thank Style magazine,” says Michael Gleason, chief of tax enforcement with the city’s Department of Finance, also a member of the 4th Precinct team, referring to coverage of the local arts and culture community. He also credits the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a variety of alternative publications in the city for providing a convenient directory of potential violators among the arts and music scene.
Social networking sites, too, have made it easy to track people being overly creative with the use of their retail or commercial space, says Lt. William Andrews, an assistant fire marshal.
“When they start advertising one way or another, it makes it very easy,” Andrews says, calling bands playing in retail stores a red flag. “You hear about something and it sounds a little different — you check it out and see if there’s any issues.”
Andrews says his initiation of an enforcement action against Plaza Bowl came after reading about bands playing there as part of Style Weekly’s recent Music Issue, an annual feature that pays special attention to local bands, venues and musicians.
“If he’d applied for a permit for the stage … that’s working in the right direction,” Andrews says of Plaza Bowl’s business owner, Jim Szilagyi. “If he started using the stage [without a permit], that’s a problem.”
In fact, that was exactly the problem at Plaza Bowl. When Szilagyi bought the struggling bowling alley, music became his financial salvation, inspiring him to tear up a few lanes in October and replace them with a raised stage area. He did it all without a permit, a situation he’s trying to rectify.
My favorite part of these kinds of articles is when some lazy bureaucrat starts telling you that, no, really, despite the conspicuous chokehold being applied to area culture, he’s actually a big supporter of the arts.
“Arts and music is a big part of Richmond,” says tax man Gleason, a lifelong Richmonder with a love for the community’s rich history and diversity of arts culture, pointing to the current success of the arts community in promoting itself to the betterment of downtown: “That’s the best thing that’s happened to Richmond is the blossoming. … we want to encourage it. We want to have more venues; we only want to make sure that they do it correctly.”
Szilagyi says he’s trying, even as he works to save what likely is the 50-year-old Southside Plaza’s only remaining original tenant.
“I think the city’s been pretty reasonable with me,” he says, though he expressed reservations about talking because of concerns that his efforts to make amends might be stymied. “I didn’t like it at first, but I understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
But what he didn’t understand was the afternoon when city officials showed up on his door and didn’t ask for bowling shoes and pitchers of Miller Lite.
“It seemed kind of crazy, the type of enforcement,” says Szilagyi, who likens his run-in with CAPS to a raid. He points out his door and across his parking lot to the rest of the long strip mall, filled with boarded-up stores and rent-to-own shops, wondering what authorities might find there. “I don’t understand how they’re not cracking down on these [storefront] churches. If they’re really concerned about safety, they should be going after everybody.”
Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it?
You’d best throw common sense out the window. Here comes a city councilperson.
Plaza Bowl is in the 8th District, home to City Councilwoman Reva Trammell, one of the enforcement program’s earliest proponents nearly a decade ago. In the midst of her first multiterm stint on council — and also in the midst of a crisis in her blighted South Side district — she worked to start an enforcement effort based on similar programs elsewhere.
“If you rode this district,” Trammell says, “I could show you things that would turn your stomach.” The blight problem persists, she says, though greatly improved because of the enforcement efforts. “You look in my district and we’ve tried so hard to clean things up.”
The main offenders in Trammell’s eyes, both then and now, are the city’s serial slum lords — the often out-of-state absentee owners who live beyond reach of state laws. It’s these people, she says, that such enforcements were created to take down.
She hadn’t heard about the enforcement at Plaza Bowl and wonders aloud why Szilagyi hasn’t called her. She struggles to answer whether the program has departed from its earlier mission when it targets a bowling alley with bands.
“I think [Community Development’s CAPS program manager] Cindy Moser would have to answer that,” she says. “I know the city is looking for all the money it can get right now. The city, we’re in a struggle for our life right now.”
Read that last quote again.
“I know the city is looking for all the money it can right now. The City, we’re in a struggle for our life right now.”
You’ll recall, of course, that Ms. Trammell was one of the councilpeople who voted in favor of CenterStage’s recent $25 million bailout from the city — she also voted to give the privately-held arts center $500,000 a year in walking around money.
But, now, the 8th district rep all but admits that the city is aggressively enforcing the code violations of small arts-related events… at the same time that it needs millions to build an expensive opera house downtown that does not enjoy widespread support in the arts community.
There are so many reasons why all of this is wrong. But it looks like those who have visited the comments box over at the Style article are already in the process of listing them. A sampling of public opinion:
Tuesday, May 26, 2009 3:17:08 PM by sad
i think its a shame when the government has to step in and squash something that’s really helped the city. I remember when plaza bowl had broken lanes, creepy parking lot lurkers, and hardly any customers. Since community chest started booking shows there its become nicer, safer and a destination spot for great music. Without the culture that community chest provides richmond is just another one of those cities who have an unsued/boarded up downtown and no soul. CAPS have way too much time on their hands. i dunno maybe they should be spending their time fighting crime- not tourism and local thriving businesses.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009 3:53:18 PM by Anonymous
I have made it out to Plaza Bowl for shows about once a month since last November, that is more than the total of my trips to that area in the past 10 years. It’s a great cheap date, and the bowling is a blast! We don’t need the police to protect us from that!
Shame on Michael Gleason for using Richmond’s cultural scene as fodder for his shameless misuse of city funds.
Stop haggling over weather to spend $650 million on a new ballpark (for what team?), or weather to drive cop cars home, and prioritize: find a better way to protect and serve our community.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009 4:03:43 PM by Moon
Say it ain’t so, Joe (or Dwight). Please tell me the rumors that the sudden rash of art and music venue “raids” throughout Richmond are NOT being coordinated by City Hall in an effort to focus more attention on the often floundering CENTER STAGE project. Dozens of small, independent art galleries are now bringing thousands of visitors to Manchester and the WEST Broad St. “Arts District” on a regular basis, and the success of the restored National Theater is attracting loads of visitors to the EAST Broad St area. Are our city “leaders?” afraid Center Stage is destined to become another soon-to-be-abandoned 6th Street Market fiasco if the competition is not quickly eradicated before its intended opening date?
Tuesday, May 26, 2009 4:22:35 PM by Stuart
“We’d like to thank Style Weekly,” Gleason’s quote says it all. They’re not out to crush music and art, they’re just lazy city officials who’ve become complacent with CAPS enforcement. It’s a lot easier for them to bust shows they read about online or in this paper than it is to sniff out crack houses and absentee slumlords. They need to earn their keep and get back to the original mission of CAPS, which is crime and blight abatement.
This isn’t CAPS mission creep, it is lazy enforcement.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009 12:39:26 AM by Howard Zinn:
I agree Moon, it is hard NOT to make the connection with the CenterStage opening. Maybe, if they bust all of these “venues” for their petty violations, we will have no where else to go BUT CenterStage.
Actually, that is wrong… most of us will not be able to afford the ticket cost to attend events at CenterStage, especially since so much of our tax dollars are going towards BUILDING it. (Much less being able to attend the VMFA) These poor businesses can barely keep their doors open as it is. After being hit with one of these code violations, they are sure to close their doors. With no money coming in from the city to sustain the cultural movement that ALREADY exists, they put our own money into a project destined for failure…a project that 90% of Richmonders were against to begin with. I cannot help but laugh at the way our city has been running for the past 35 years. Their backwards way of solving problems will be, if not always be the demise of so many creative staples that bring (brought) life to Richmond and made a name for us.
Way to go Richmond!
Wednesday, May 27, 2009 12:30:57 PM by Alex:
What the city is doing isn’t wrong, per say. As mentioned in the article by most of the business owners, the laws ARE on the books and they have every right to enforce it.
However, the obvious problem is that businesses like Rumors aren’t going to get licenses. They do what they do in an effort to help the local music community - they are not profiting from it. In fact, they are losing money on utilities and are donating their time, just to give underground touring bands a place to play. They are not going to pay for licenses yearly and all of that because they just don’t get enough in return.
In the end, the city is not going to make any profit and these businesses will just operate as what they are during the day (bowling pin, clothes store, restaurant, etc) and the music scene here will die. Richmond’s music scene has historically been rich and is a lot of the reason people come to visit (hell, I even moved here for it!) which is way more beneficial than throwing a big deal about the business paying a 7% entertainment tax on $40 in donations for a band who is just trying to get gas money to the next city.
Like I said, as far as law is concerned, they are doing nothing wrong. But going after the arts is just going to turn Richmond back into an unsafe, economically failing city like it was not too long ago.
So what’s the answer? I guess the area’s artists and musicians could all move to Petersburg.
Or we could stand up and fight. And it would be great to have a champion leading the fight. If the new CultureWorks is intent on advocating for arts and culture — and if it needs suggestions on one big issue to trumpet — might I suggest that the newly-rejuvenated Arts Council start a very visible and vocal campaign that lobbies against Richmond’s ongoing war on arts and culture?
And if Mr. Bryan takes up the call, he should have plenty to say. After all, the city is about to spend millions on a new ballpark in order to lure more people downtown — at the same time that it is forcing out and aggressively fining the people who are already patronizing and doing business downtown.
Clearly it is time to fight for cultural sanity in Richmond. And for sanity in general.
Everything else is just fish art outside of banks.