Archive | Investigative Reporting

Richmond food deserts produce urban farm trend

Posted on 19 July 2010 by admin

Next week, on July 29, Short Pump will add another Kroger to its already abundant stock of grocers that have flocked to the West End. This new Kroger, at 91,000 square feet, will become the eighth store in the area.  Short Pump will now host just two grocery stores more than the entire Richmond metro area. The opening places Henrico county in the lead over Chesterfield, and other local counties, for access to grocery stores, despite Chesterfield county having twice the amount of square mileage as Henrico. One zip code, 23233, contains almost as many grocery stores as the city of Richmond, regardless of the vast gap in population served.  Based on census data, Short Pump has 50,000 residents, compared to Richmond’s total population of 200,000. Now, that’s just one zip code.  For every 10,000 residents in all of Henrico County, there are 1.5 grocery stores, whereas in Richmond City the availability is drastically lower, at .5 stores for every 10,000. The zip codes in Richmond that are absent of grocers peddling cheaper, nutritious food tend to be the areas where income is on average 20 percent below poverty; Highland Park, Barton Heights, Jackson Ward and Monroe Ward.

Churchill has one market, but many in the northern part of the district feel it is not very easily accessed.  This is an area where 53 percent live below poverty level, and only have expensive corner stores as grocery store alternatives. Those Churchill residents with personal transportation tend to shop outside the city. Other residents without personal transportation and dwelling on the North end of Churchill, near Nine Mile road, are left with no options other than corner stores, or a bus ride that includes a transfer–just to get two miles down the road.

“Many residents here shop outside the city and that’s too bad. I would like to see our tax dollars kept here,” said John Murden, long time Churchill resident, teacher and blogger.

“You go out to a suburban grocery store and you see what you can get in the way of fresh produce, or organics,” Murden added.

Churchill, with its diverse population and income levels, is an under-served community and Murden said that all the residents are asking for better grocery options.

National Agenda spearheads changes
The need for better food options in underserved communities was recognized by President Obama, who in his FY2011 budget proposal earmarked $400 million to help bring new markets to areas like Richmond’s Highland Park or Churchill.

More than half of this money, split between three agencies, will include tax credits designed to stimulate private investments.  This national program hopes to create better options for the 23 million citizens nationally who live without access to grocery stores.

The barriers of investment in underserved communities are something that the Food Trust, with its nation-wide programs, understands well.  Since 1992 the Food Trust has worked at creating better markets in Philadelphia. Their success has become a model for many states, and they are now partnering with the White House.

Obstacles that create food deserts
“Well, parcels of land [in a city] are scare and they are expensive, comparably,” said Brian Lang, director of the Food Trust’s Supermarket Campaign, in response to barriers in urban development.

“Additionally, in a dense city, a developer has to assemble from various lots of parcels and the remediation costs make it more expensive than just bulldozing a suburban greenfield,” added Lang.

At a recent charette, Churchill residents vocalized the need for a grocery store to 7th District Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille.  Samuel Patterson, liaison for the councilwoman, confirmed that residents believe the lot at 25th and Nine Mile road, owned by the RRHA, is the perfect spot.

“A grocery store there has been on the table for a while,” said Patterson.

While the suggestion gathers dust, local residents have gathered their gardening tools and found an alternative supply for fresh, healthy food.

Residents create new solutions
Churchill resident Lisa Taranto decided to start growing her own food and help Richmond residents do the same. The first garden, Jefferson Avenue Community Garden, in Churchill, was launched 8 years ago.  Now in its eighth season, that first garden has grown an organization that has expanded into four Community Gardens, three Learning Gardens, a green house, and now an urban farm.

“We believed community gardens and the simple act of growing food were the fastest ways to improve the health of the community–both for the residents and the environment,” said Taranto.

The urban farm, Richmond’s first, is located at 9th and Bainbridge, and spans a half acre. The urban farm is a year round food operation yielding enough food to open a farm stand twice a week–on Tuesday and Thursday. The location is in a low-income neighborhood, 26 percent below poverty, that has no easy commercial access to fresh, healthy food.

No surprise, sales are doing great.

“We anticipate around $10,000 in sales, and hope to double that next year,” said Taranto.

Tricycle Gardens has introduced Richmond to the complete cycle of food production; seeding, gardening, harvesting, canning, cooking and sustainable ecological practices.

The work hasn’t gone unnoticed. The organization’s willingness to advocate at city and state levels for sound agricultural and ecological policy and the use of food as a way to improve shared civic spaces fits nicely with Mayor Dwight Jones sustainability goals for the city of Richmond.

Taranto now sits on a city advisory committee that plans to turn vacant, city-owned properties into community gardens.

City gets involved in urban farming

“They see it as a good thing for the city,” said Taranto, when asked why the city has initiated such a project.

“Study after study shows that it (community gardens) decreases crime, increases biodiversity, increases community leadership and ownership,” she added.

Alicia Zatcoff, recently appointed Sustainability Manager of the City of Richmond, said one of the many goals of this program is to foster community.

“This program is part of Mayor Jones sustainiability goals for the city; to improve the quality of life for residents, improve our environment, enhance economic conditions and help provide a food source within the city” said Zatcoff.

There will be about 100 plots, spread throughout the city, that will likely be made available towards the end of the year, after City Council passes the ordinance that approves the permits process.

The city will work directly with groups, like neighborhood associations, who will in turn parcel out the individual plots. There will be a fee.

Mayor Jones is also creating a Blue Ribbon Health Commission to examine health issues within urban communities. The mayor is on board with the national trend that associates health issues with lower-income neighborhoods and their lack of access to quality food.

“Of course providing healthy foods will help address health issues like obesity and diabetes,’ said Zatcoff.

All of these initiatives, working in tandem, just might accomplish more for the community than a grocery store ever could.

But a reasonable proportion of grocery stores per capita and per square mile should stay on the table.


A helpful map of local zip codes.

This data was compiled through several steps.

  • Scraping the Internet Super Pages. This involved calling many grocery stores to see if they were really grocery stores, or still open. Corner stores are NOT counted. Although that would be a useful map for comparison, and something I hope to get around to doing. Feel free to do it yourself!
  • That data was cleaned up and pasted into an excel file, then cleaned up some more.
  • I used Microsoft Access to match zip codes and store volume with Census data: household income, per capita, percent below poverty line…
    *I decided NOT to include store names. Those can be viewed on this excel sheet.
  • Then I did an extensive search on zip codes and counties, using this website and the above map. I added that info to each individual zip, plus I added in square mileage and overall county statistics based on census data, 2009.
  • This info is compiled into this final spread sheet. I also realized it was important to include the zip codes WITHOUT grocery stores, so I added that info in. You will not see complete statistics for those zips. I didn’t have them in the census profile database that I used.
  • Using that spread sheet I ran my analysis
  • Then I went to ManyEyes to create my graphics, and used Mapalist to produce the map of areas without grocery stores

Richmond Grocery Stores, by County, zip, and ranking

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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.


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