Local beer, local music, local art: Where others might have relied solely on grand municipal reinvestment programs to revitalize their city center, Richmond residents have taken the lead themselves. Yes, there are big civic institutions like the wholly impressive glass-and-steel Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (which will feature an exhibition of over 500 objects in the largest collection of Fabergé in the U. S., including Fabergé eggs, from July to October of this year), but there are also from-the-ground-up galleries like the nonprofit 1708 Gallery and the Page Bond Gallery (it turns out my Segway tour guide is a painter by trade; he exhibits in both places).
You can see this vibrant DIY energy in neighborhood fixtures such as Lamplighter Roasting Company, whose owners converted a gas station into a more caffeinated type of fueling station. I went there to tank up with a drink they call the Black Eye, a cup of dark coffee with two shots of espresso dropped in, like a sake bomb for caffeine. Copies of ?Gutwrench, a local zine, hang on the news rack. Even the register is hacked for maximum quirk: As the (tattooed) barrista rang up my order, the register blinked the words Hi Mom back at me.
But for me, the school buses are what really epitomize Richmond’s startup attitude. Not the kind that brings kids to school — those are pretty much like the buses in any other town. Rather, there are two unique businesses using converted school buses that have captured the spirit of the city. The first is the To the Bottom and Back (2BNB) bus, which is actually a small fleet of buses painted in colors that Wavy Gravy could be proud of. They offer free rides from the many watering holes of the Shockoe Bottom district along the river back up to the areas around Virginia Commonwealth University where students live (and are probably still celebrating the men’s basketball team’s glorious ride to the Final Four of the 2011 NCAA tournament). A nonprofit initiative powered by donations from local businesses and residents, with the laudable goal of cutting down on drunk driving, the 2BNB fleet has become a part of Richmond’s landscape. An added trick: The buses are GPS-trackable through their iPhone app, which helped me figure out exactly when it was time to put down the glass and head out of Republic Restaurant & Bar (more Legend!) for a free ride down Main Street.
The second is the Farm to Family bus (also known as F2F, of course). This bus, the brainchild of local food evangelists Suzi and Mark Lilly, got more than just a paint job for its overhaul. In 2009, the Lillys were concerned about the lack of fresh, local produce, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods of Richmond. So Mark gutted an old school bus they owned and used salvaged barn wood to transform it into a traveling farmers market. He drives the bus and parks in various Richmond neighborhoods, including the “food deserts” where their bus may be bringing the only green vegetables for sale. When I catch up with the bus — parked in front of their produce store on the outskirts of town — it is stocked with seasonal vegetables such as squash, turnips, kale and creasy greens, all grown within 150 miles of Richmond. Their idea, which has attracted national attention, is powerful, Mark says, because of its simplicity. But the most important thing, he says, was that they took the initiative. “No change is gonna come from the top down,” he says. “It has to come from you.”