‘West Main Street’ brings local history to Virginia Film Festival
Twenty-three years since it was first released, a documentary about Charlottesville’s West Main Street sold out a screening at the 2018 Virginia Film Festival.
“West Main Street,” directed by local filmmakers Chris Farina and Reid Oechslin, portrays the businesses, institutions and people on the historic thoroughfare between downtown Charlottesville and the University of Virginia during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Farina told the audience at Lighthouse Studio’s Vinegar Hill Theatre on Saturday that he hopes the newly digitized film will help a new generation of Charlottesville residents find unity in their shared history.
“Considering what Charlottesville went through in 2017, I just like felt like this town needed it,” Farina said. “There is a real power in looking to our past to try to understand our present.”
Farina and Oechslin’s interviews with longtime residents explore how Charlottesville changed during the 20th century. In one scene, owners of businesses on The Corner describe how the construction of Interstate 64 and the U.S. 250 Bypass diverted traffic away from West Main, drawing some of their patrons farther away from town.
The film also examines Charlottesville’s history of racial segregation and its continuing legacy. Black interviewees reflect on demolition of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood in the 1960s and the subsequent development of the Westhaven public housing site.
An interview with Cindy Stratton, then the director of the Barrett Early Learning Center, references the crack epidemic that was devastating Charlottesville’s black neighborhoods and families at the time the documentary was filmed.
“We need to, as a black community, rejuvenate that sense of community care, so that we are all taking care of all of our children,” Stratton says in the film.
“In the 1980s, people in Charlottesville weren’t talking about race as much as they are today,” Farina said. “That was one thing we tried to do in this film.”
“West Main Street” also features interviews with the late George R. Ferguson, a black funeral home director and civil rights leader; and the late Rebecca McGinness, who taught at the segregated Jefferson School for more than 40 years.
“George Ferguson and Rebecca McGinness weren’t just African-American heroes, or Charlottesville heroes. They were American heroes,” Farina said.
Oechslin said that efforts to create access to education and opportunity in Charlottesville stand out as one of the central themes of “West Main Street.”
“That is America’s project, but it is in sharp focus in this city,” Oechslin said.
While student apartment complexes, hotels and an expansion of the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital have transformed West Main Street since the film was made, some things haven’t changed. In one scene, workers at the White Spot restaurant laugh about trucks getting caught beneath the railroad trestle on The Corner.
Coy Barefoot, executive director of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, said his organization is partnering with Lighthouse Studio for the “‘West Main Street’ Legacy Project’” to help teenage filmmakers make historical documentaries about other Charlottesville neighborhoods.
Oechslin, the former manager of the Vinegar Hill Theatre, said he has no plans to make a “West Main Street” sequel of his own.
“I think it is time for young people to do that work,” Oechslin said. “Lighthouse is giving young people in the community the tools to do that. I think it is their turn.”
Farina’s latest film, “Seats at the Table,” will be shown at Newcomb Hall Theatre at 2 p.m. Sunday. The documentary follows a UVa class that brings together university students and residents of a maximum-security juvenile correctional center through the study of Russian literature.