Tuesday night in downtown Richmond, about 100 people watched, while on a movie screen set up at the Main Street Station, pictures of marketplaces and open plazas from around the world flashed across the screen.
These concerned and highly motivated citizens were brainstorming ideas on how to upgrade and update what is an historical fixture in downtown Richmond, the 17th Street Farmer's Market. The project to turn the market into something resembling an open plaza needs to be completed before Richmond hosts the UCI Road World Championships in September 2015.
A key theme of the project is "versatility." Planners can envision the area being used as a produce market in the morning, and as a space for outdoor dining and crafts in the afternoons. In the evening, movable movie screens could be set up to show films. The project could benefit the Shockoe area and the whole downtown area.
Using the past to explain the future
The 17th Street market had the good fortune of being located in the perfect spot when it was first conceived in 1737. It was placed exactly at the intersection of probably the busiest road at that time, between Richmond and Williamsburg. Its proximity to the James River and Shockoe Creek was an obvious plus because this made it easier to unload goods coming from the coast.
The market was to become one of the city's oldest landmarks and the city's first public market, giving rise to the name, "The First Market Square." When the General Assembly moved to Richmond in 1779, the market officially became a "public market." Over the years this market place was to play many roles in the history of the Commonwealth and in the city of Richmond.
As competition became more intense between Richmond and Williamsburg, the anticipation of wealth from trade brought people to the city, and the market grew. By the year 1854, when the market received its first "makeover," the sale of "goods" soon included slaves from Africa, brought upriver to the docks at Shockoe Slip. The building of a large market building at the corner of 17th and Main Streets was given the name, "The First Market House."
By the start of the Civil War, the market had become a hangout for Confederate soldiers, eventually giving way to Union soldiers convening at the very same places. The market also got a public whipping post, not a great honor by any means. The Market Square ended the century serving as a place for many public gatherings such as social gatherings, political speeches, and religious meetings.
By the 1900's, the 17th Street Farmer's Market had become a neutral meeting place for the races. Blacks and whites were forced by necessity to walk on the street together, shopping for their produce and other goods. The market was still a meeting place, too.
Things came crashing down economically for the market and Shockoe Bottom by the mid-1950's. The economic downturn can be attributed to the building of stores all around the growing city, as well as new factories pulling subsistence farmers away from the land with regular paychecks. As a result, things went into decline, and the area suffered.
In the late 1970's and into the early 1980's, a renovation plan was put into effect and the farmers market got a brand new face lift. The project was funded and executed by the Council Committee on Public Buildings, and the dismal future for one of Richmond’s oldest landmarks ended. Now, with one more attempt at some plastic surgery, we will soon see a newly revived and thriving 17th Street Farmers Market by 2015.