Downtown vendors, residents seek normalcy during Aug. 12 anniversary
At 8:30 a.m. Saturday, one year after the torch-lit white nationalist rally at the University of Virginia, most of the vehicles traversing the core of downtown Charlottesville belonged to law enforcement. On the Downtown Mall, some shops remained open and the few pedestrians there entered through two entry points where bags were searched.
Despite the cordoned-off streets and walkways and heavy police presence as the community braced for anniversary of the Aug. 12, 2017, Unite the Right rally, residents and entrepreneurs whose livelihoods depend on Saturday customers tried to balance vigilance and normalcy.
Under dreary skies and creeping humidity, hundreds of people milled around IX Art Park, just south of the mall, to patronize the Summer Market, the temporary home of the Charlottesville City Market.
The city officially canceled Saturday’s City Market on Aug. 2, citing a desire to be “committed to the safety of vendors, staff and the community” and offered alternative locations, such as the Albemarle Farmers Market in Hollymead Town Center and the Scottsville Farmers Market.
But, before the cancellation notice was made, the vendors who wished to sell somewhere in or near the city were considering their options.
“It was kind of a contingency,” Holly Hammond, who helped organize the market at IX, said Wednesday. “The city was concerned — I don’t know how long. We heard about it probably a month ago, them kinda polling vendors if they would want to attend on the 11th. And then I at the time was like, ‘If it does get canceled, do we have a backup plan?’ because, for a lot of farms, this is our peak season, so missing a Saturday is a big deal.”
Hammond is the co-founder of Whisper Hill Farm in Scottsville. The organic vegetable farm has been a participant of City Market for the past eight years.
While they were discussing their next steps, Hammond said, IX Art Park offered to host the market if the city shut down the site on Water Street between South First Street and Second Street Southwest.
“This really wasn’t a difficult decision for us,” Susan Krischel, a co-founder of IX Art Park said Tuesday. “… We fully appreciate the security concerns facing the city. But, the farmers market is a major source of income for some of these vendors. One week doesn’t sound like a lot, but it can make a big difference to a farmer who has a short selling season to begin with. If they don’t sell their harvest, it rots. This is their economic livelihood.”
For many of the vendors, fears of spoiled produce were assuaged Saturday. Before the market’s closure at noon, some of the stands reportedly were sold out of their inventory.
Among those with brisk sales was Free Union Grass Farm in Albemarle County. In between waiting on customers in a rapidly growing line, co-owner Joel Slezak said business was “booming”
“It’s really good,” he said. “It’s a good location for a market.”
Summer Market, which featured about 30 vendors instead of the normal 110, Hammond said, included a wide range of sellers.
“It’s a good mix of ag vendors — meat, bread, produce, fruit and then some food vendors, prepared food… coffee,” Hammond said Wednesday. “There are several art vendors, as well.”
Hammond said that beyond her typical 10-12 hours working a day, she took on coordinating the market’s relocation. Although it was hard work, “for me, it’s worth it, and it’s been a little fun community organizing project,” she said.
“I feel like everyone has a spirit of cooperation, which has made it a lot easier” Hammond said.
On Friday, Erica Hellen, co-owner of Free Union Grass Farm, expressed her gratitude for IX offering its space for the Summer Market.
“We would really have tried to find a way to meet with customers either way,” she said. “We’re going to take a big hit financially, but I understand that the city has to do something.”
Although an alternative site worked out for most of the City Market vendors, Hammond said they would have liked a decision earlier than last week.
“From our perspective, we were needing direction,” Hammond said. “I would have preferred a direct answer a month or two ago, so we could have had a little more planning time to let customers know and create that backup plan.”
Hellen agreed, saying the City Market and accommodating it sometimes felt like a “back burner” issue, mentioning disruptions such as the upcoming market relocation when the West2nd project is underway.
“What [IX is] doing for Charlottesville sometimes surpasses what the city does in term of actually giving a shit about the farmers market,” she said.
Several customers expressed gratitude to the farmers for finding another venue.
“While I understand the town being shut down, I think the best way is to not let fear dictate our lives. Small businesses should not be penalized for an unfortunately sad anniversary,” said Anna Dinwiddie, a customer at the Whisper Hill Farm stall.
“We shop here regularly, and it seemed improper to not do so today,” Heather Bryden said.
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Friendship Court, a development of subsidized rental units neighboring IX, was quiet on Saturday. The gates surrounding it were locked, and parking was only accessible to residents throughout the weekend.
“People have said, ‘I’ve rented a lot of movies,’ or ‘I’ve got Netflix, and that’s what I’m going to be doing,’” Claudette Grant, the community organizer for Friendship Court, said Friday. “I think people are feeling that they’re going to hunker down.”
Last year, white supremacists were rumored to be traveling towards Friendship Court at the end of the Unite the Right rally. A group of counter-protesters was walking towards the neighborhood when a car alleged to be driven by James Alex Fields Jr., of Ohio, rammed into them, wounding many and killing local resident Heather Heyer.
This year, Charlottesville has offered extra security, including patrols and response teams, to neighborhoods like Friendship Court.
“We’ve talked to and identified those populations who would be considered vulnerable based on ideologies, based on religious beliefs, based on even their sexual orientation or even low-wealth communities,” Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney said at a Wednesday press conference. “We also understand that our black and brown communities are often targeted initially for intimidation.”
The city also held a meeting at Friendship Court to discuss the security measures. Although Grant and staffers hand-delivered flyers to everyone in the development, few attended.
“For some folks, they feel like, ‘Too little, too late. [The police] didn’t come last year,’” Grant said. “But then there are residents who are more curious, more wanting to know what’s happening.”
Friendship Court staffers gave security numbers and personal phone numbers to residents. Grant said that she hoped residents would call in an emergency, although earlier experiences of racial profiling might affect their desire to bring police into the neighborhood.
“When you’re a person of color, you’re always thinking about that,” Grant said. “There’s that delicate balance that you hope is made, so that people understand that [the police] are here to protect and provide safety. … They’re not out here trying to get you just because.”
Along with shuttering City Market, several other security measures were enacted downtown. Only two pedestrian entrances — where South First Street and Second Street Southeast intersect Water Street — provided access to a secured area stretching roughly from the Downtown Mall to Jefferson Street between McIntire Road and Ninth Street Northeast.
People who wished to access the secured area were subject to search.
“We are closely monitoring the intelligence that’s available to us about who might be coming or who is going elsewhere. I think we would be irresponsible if we didn’t have a plan like the one you’re seeing,” city spokesman Brian Wheeler said at the Wednesday press conference.
City officials have released a litany of prohibited items that did not include handguns. Legislation that would have allowed the city to prohibit firearms in instances like this weekend did not make it out of committee in this year’s General Assembly session.
The Downtown Mall was empty in the morning, but foot traffic picked up over the course of the day.
“I do feel for [downtown merchants], too,” Hammond said. “Friday through Sunday is hard, and it’s summer, so that’s when they’re really relying on it. … Hopefully, the community keeps stepping out and supporting people.”