A seedy neighborhood transformed into an economic corridor

Posted on 14 April 2010 by admin

The exorcism and transformation of one tiny neighborhood in Richmond.

While Richmond is home to many historic neighborhoods, not all can claim such infamous tales, nor independent revitalization, as the Devil’s Triangle.  Concentrated efforts in the past six years have transformed this once rough neighborhood  into an economic corridor and designation for locals and visitors alike.  Overall, it was a slow, gradual change lasting more than 20 years, but one that the city just recently recognized.

Conversion of the Richmond area known as the Devil’s Triangle has involved many factors, people, and investors. The area’s time-line extends far back, before it was even known by such a moniker.

Trolley’s came through in the 1920s. The streets bustled and hosted a hospital, butcher, pharmacy, barber, newsstand, cigarette shop and even briefly, the city’s second Ukrops.
In the late ‘70s through the early ‘90s, a darker side of history cast a long shadow in which many seedy activities took place. Drugs. Prostitution. Alcoholism. Bar brawls. Gunfights. Robberies.

The Devil’s Triangle spans less than a mile, and is bundled into an urban area that Richmond locals refer to as the Upper Fan, which developed much later than the rest of the Fan, a general term for the part of the city that boasts VCU and historic homes.

The boundaries of the Devil’s Triangle run from Monument Ave. on the north to Kensington Ave. on the south, from the Boulevard on the east to Belmont Ave. to the west.

An aura of ill repute once enshrouded this tiny neighborhood area with a big reputation. There was a lot of crime, and a rougher clientele made the bars too foreboding for most Fan residents.

“If there was any corner of Richmond that was notorious, it was this corner,” said Rich Holden, former owner of the bar Felix, and current partner in Bandazian & Holden, the investors who have contributed substantially towards the area’s transformation.

For three decades The Devil’s Triangle has been Holden’s beat.  He has been involved with these streets since the early ‘80s; as a proprietor, resident, and now, major real estate investor.  Holden owned and operated Felix seven days a week, one of the three bars which formed the original Devil’s Triangle; Felix, The Ritz, and Cafe 21.

“It was very Southern blue collar, lower income, lots of people on welfare,” said Holden, as he explained the common denominators among residents.

There were also Vietnam vets with psychological problems, biker gangs, and criminals. When the police were out looking for someone, their first stop was The Ritz, and odds were good the suspect would be apprehended.

“One reason the police sort of tolerated The Ritz, and didn’t put more pressure on them was because their suspects would gravitate towards the bar and it made them easy to find,” said Holden.
“It was a place where you would see a lot of drunken fights and could find drugs, even prostitution,” said Sean McClain, the owner of Banditos Burrito Lounge, now in its 13th year of operations.


Holden purchased Babe’s restaurant in anticipation of Fan renovations moving over the Boulevard, a former boundary that divided the more desirable city area from the less. The renovations didn’t really begin to happen until the later ‘90s, almost 20 years after Holden had opened Felix.

The local oasis for sundries and octane, a 7-11, opened in the late ‘80s. It brought floodlights and 24 hour activity to a dark corner once inhabited by an auto-body shop that doubled as a drug trafficking hotspot.

“It was one of the worst things we could have had. At night there was no lighting and it provided opportunity for all sorts of questionable characters and activities, especially drugs and drug dealing,” said Holden, who watched cars steadily come and go in the evening.

At that time, drug customers were the only destination traffic that the area received, no outsiders or families visited the bars. Clientele for the bars came only from within the small neighborhood. By the time Holden closed his doors, there were 250 people banned from the bar. His wasn’t the roughest location either, of these Wild West saloon-like bars, where people were sometimes asked to check weapons when entering.

The tales are numerous, as Holden attests, and for years, he had a front row seat.

Bodies would fly out the Ritz. Someone checked a hand grenade. Gunfights. A dent in the door frame at Cafe Diem, formerly Cafe 21, is claimed to have come from a ricocheting bullet.

Mark Holmberg, former reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, once arrived on the scene of a gunshot call to find the victim still chugging beer at the bar, as blood oozed from his wounds.
Listen to reporter Mark Holmberg’s account of a gunfight in the Devil’s Triangle.


Richard Arthur, owner of Cafe Diem, was actually born in this neighborhood, at the former Johnston Willis hospital. He purchased Cafe 21 nine years ago, when the original owner died.

Arthur explained that the bar’s design was with intention to minimize causalities. He recalled the tire irons that hung from each end of the bar when he took over it. The bar’s brick construction was built four deep, with intention to halt a 357 magnum bullet in its path.

His first year in business, Arthur held a fundraiser to replace the old bar stools.

“The bar stools were clunky and heavy, designed so that a rowdy patron would topple over if they tried to wield one above their head,” said Arthur.

Those days are gone.

Street lights, brightly colored paint, and hefty financial investment are a few ways to cast out the devil.

Eventually, the Fan spilled over the Boulevard. The integration and extension of the Fan, and a keen focus on redevelopment finally prompted the long awaited, and necessary, exorcism.
Old rooming houses were converted. Buildings were gutted and restored. The demographics began to change. The median income jumped from $25,000 to $75,000 and crime dropped. No one knows where all the former residents went, but the Fan migration took away the rowdy clientele.

“I sometimes am amazed. It’s a totally different place. I look up and down these streets and can’t believe the change since the ‘80s,” said Holden, who rarely, if ever, sees anyone who used to frequent the area.

“It’s a historic neighborhood that offers all modern conveniences,” said Ray Bonis, a Devil’s Triangle resident for 10 years.

Bonis, who lives in the apartments located in the converted Johnston Willis hospital, never anticipated staying this long. An avid historian employed by the VCU collections department, Bonis not only benefits from the neighborhood’s accommodations, he also blogs about the area.
Ray Bonis, a local resident for ten years, describes the appeal of the Devil’s Triangle.


Holden mentioned that a lot of hands were involved in the revitalization of the neighborhood, and doesn’t think that Bandazian & Holden can take complete credit. Bandito’s relocated here in 2003, and had prior success changing the gateway to Oregon Hill, their former location.

Bandazian & Holden purchased all the commercial properties along the notorious two blocks, and also have numerous residential holdings in the area. Inspired by a district in Charleston, S.C., renovations included adding more street lights for safety, coating the buildings in fresh paint of vibrant colors, and removing several awnings to make the storefronts more inviting.
Three bars still inhabit the original corners, but now they attract families and are considered destination spots from other neighborhoods.
Take a look into the Devil’s Triangle


The city has acknowledged the efforts made by the real estate company. Recently they met with Mayor Dwight C. Jones and his Deputy Chief Peter Chapman, to discuss future plans that include getting the power and phone lines underground and making other aesthetic upgrades.

Holden claimed that the city is considering giving them a special designation, similar to Carytown.

“The city really likes what we’ve done here, because it took a problem away from them. The police attention took man hours. Now it is an area that they can point to with pride,” said Holden.

While the city funds might be coming in soon, everything that happened previously was private investment. Business owners saw an opportunity to cast out the devil, to change the neighborhood’s reputation and existence.

Holden doesn’t seem to keen on the lasting nickname. Having worn many hats, from a bar owner deep in the trenches to an investor calling the shots, might make Holden leery to associate the infamous reputation with the burgeoning business district. And after all, those who refer to it as The Devil’s Triangle were not likely to have ever visited in its heyday.

Arthur likes the moniker, as does McClain.

“Now it seems to be one of those places that lives in the lore of the old days,” said Sean McClain, who noted the nickname is just a catchy way to describe a business district, much like Hell’s Kitchen, N.Y.
McClain shook his head thoughtfully and offered an observation that perhaps the devil really has nothing to do with this thriving business district.

“I don’t think the devil lives here. I have to say, I don’t think he lives in this triangle,” emphasized McClain.


10 Comments For This Post

  1. Nathan Hughes Says:

    Great article! I love hearing stories of how it used to be around here, and I’m glad to see some of them shared here for everyone to read.

    And I hope the name of the area sticks. I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon, and I’m fine with that!

  2. Christina Ritchie Rogers Says:

    Alix, great neighborhood snapshot. The second video is powerful – it is unreal to hear those stories, spoken by the people who remember them (like checking weapons at the door). Some great shots in there – the one with people walking by in the reflection of the front window was one of my favorites.

  3. Doug Walker Says:

    This is what Richmond is missing. A fresh perspective on some of our great stories. This city is full of unique circumstances and quirky characters. I have heard enough about the civil war history of Richmond. I want to hear the relevant parts of Richmond’s past and what makes it a great city. You have hit on a fundamental part of what makes this town tick.
    I applaud your interviews with people, not of people.You didn’t approach them as caricatures. It seemed as if you had an open honest conversation with these folks; not some sensationalized gimmick. I like the approach. It was a refreshing change from what I see on the evening news.
    I would like to see what you have for a follow up. More stories from Richmond I hope.

  4. Andrea Odiorne Says:

    It’s really refreshing to see a historical context for the neighborhoods and culture of the settings that immediacy of journalism, often overlooks. Great perspective! I thing this article will be of lasting value.

  5. c. whitney Says:

    In ’76 after college i moved back into the area. Lived on the Boulevard between Cary & Ellwood in an apartment best described as seedy. Such was life…. Would occasionally frequest the Rainbow Inn. Good Greek salads. Took my girlfriend at the time, (later my 1st wife)…she didn’t like it. However I kinda dug it’s rough & tumble vibe. Had a great juke box with some Dylan tunes that were popular at the time. The proprietor used to advertize on WGOE for an open house on Thanksgiving Day… free turkey dinners. Gotta love that attitude! The other bars… Ritz, etc… gotta admit I was a wuss.. too chicken to go there.. too many bikes out front. My stepsister Kay H… she was the tough cookie. She’d go anywhere… especially if there was trouble. Those joints oozed trouble. It’s changed now… there’s a cafe that serves real coffee…a welcome change. Still the area has a certain funk that’s irreplaceable. I like it.

  6. Jade Pollay Says:

    My father, Glen Pollay (Blackie to everyone who knew him) owned the Ritz in the now infamous “devil’s triangle”. Yes, it was a rough neighborhood. Yes, lots of criminals frequented his & surounding bars. HOWEVER, he had very loyal customers who loved him. If you didn’t have money & couldn’t pay ur tab? Fine, pay him next time. If u had one too many? He’d call a taxi to take u home. One of the reasons the Ritz closed was because he was too nice, he let people slide too often & in result lost money. Ask anyone who actually frequented the Ritz & knew my father and they will tell you that he was a great man who would give you the shirt off his back if u were cold. I have been approached on countless occasions upon learning who my father was & been told stories of how Blackie helped them out or just how great he was & their condolences on his passing. The history and revitalization is an important story to tell of the history of our city, but the history of these bars & the people who ran them aren’t all bad. Although I’m glad the Ritz hasn’t been forgotten, I would like people to see that truth from all angles.

  7. admin Says:

    Jade, I’ve tried to contact you a couple of times. I would love to do a follow-up story on the Devil’s Triangle. Your perspective would be great!

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  9. hokie1999 Says:

    I lived in the Devil’s Triangle in the 1990s and the stories you’ve heard about the place are no exaggeration. One of my favorite memories was the Great Motorcycle Fire of 1992.

    The Felix, now Caliente, was the bar of choice for all the bikers in Richmond at the time. My apartment was on Monument Avenue and backed up to the Felix. Though the bikers never gave me a problem, last call was traumatic. At two in the morning, the bikers would come out of the Felix, rev up their Harleys, wake everyone up, and drive off.

    One Sunday morning in May 1992, this guy came out of the Felix, red-lined his bike for about 10 minutes. VROOM, VROOOMMM, VROOOOMMMM!!! The blinds in my apartment rattled from the noise. He took off north on Sheppard Street to Monument Avenue, where he tried to turn right, but was so drunk, he hit the curb and fell off.

    The gas cap came off the bike, gas poured on the engine, it caught fire, and when I got there, the flames were 20 feet in the air. The guy was on the sidewalk with one of his shoes lying nearby. He was semi-conscious or perhaps semi-sober. All the lights are on at all the houses on Monument Avenue. The people were on their balconies watching the show, music was playing. It was a carnival.

    The fire department showed up and rather than put the fire out, they let it burn. The bike’s dials melted, the wiring and seat burned up; it was a mess. The tail lights of the cars parked nearby melted from the heat.

    About this time, the bike’s OWNER shows up. Apparently he had lent the bike to his friend or now former friend. The owner looked like the Wolfman; bushy red hair, a beard, stocky. He dived on the driver and started choking him. Four cops come up and each grabbed a limb. They threw the Wolfman into the paddy wagon. They arrested a few other people and took the driver away in an ambulance.

    So end of story.

    But for years afterward the motorcycle fire was a landmark in the Devils Triangle. There was a greasy spot on the sidewalk at the corner where the bike burned. A few months after the fire, this woman’s car broke down at the corner. While she was waiting for the wrecker, people were telling her: “Yeah, lady, this is the spot where the motorcycle burned up. See that big greasy spot there by your right foot….” She had a scared look on her face and waited impatiently for a cab to arrive.

    The Devil’s Triangle. Never a dull moment!

  10. hokie1999 Says:

    One perspective on the origin of the Devils Triangle starts on Grace Street in the early 1990s. The blocks of West Grace Street between Harrison Street and Cherry Street were the “Combat Zone”.

    There were bars like the Jade Elephant, Hababa’s, The Village Cafe and there was the Lee Art x-rated movie theater. People flooded the sidewalks like Atlantic Avenue at Virginia Beach and people constantly trolled along in their cars on Grace Street.

    After complaints from VCU, businesses and citizens in the area, the city got the ABC to revoke some liquor licenses while cutting back the serving hours of other bars. This forced a number of bars out of business.

    After that, a lot of the down-and-outters came to my part of town, the Devil’s Triangle. Though there had always been bars in the DT, and there had always been a certain clientele, that all mushroomed when the city tried to solve the problem on Grace Street, only to worsen the problem @ the DT.

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