Rainy and chilly…not exactly perfect weather for an outdoor festival? Naw…it’s a PERFECT day for the 43rd Street Festival of the Arts. Tucked away just a block off Forest Hill Avenue, this street festival of art, music, food and family entertainment is a perfect kick-off to fall events and it benefits Freedom House, whose sole mission is helping our fellow Richmonders. For 20 years now, this festival has delighted us with art spanning the sophistocated and the silly, with unusual jewelry, sculptures, woodcrafts, and more.

I was thrilled to see Joseph Craig English with his art display today. Way back in the 1970’s, before I had children and therefore was perpetually poor, I invested in art. I encountered English’s silkscreens in a shop in Carytown and fell in love. Striking in their bold colors, off-the-wall perspectives and timeless in their appeal, his art is amazing. My Little Tavern Diner print (“Please Pay When Served”) still makes me smile. Well, that may be in part because once in Maryland in a C&P training class, I won a bet when I ate ten Little Tavern hamburgers. The diner scene takes me back to a time of gluttony, but still. It makes me smile. And I was astonished back in 1976 to see a record (yes, a RECORD) album cover of one of his pictures that we owned. Of course I bought the record. Who wouldn’t?

Well-established artists like English and Sue Henshaw, with her fun pottery in the form of practical drawer pulls or nonsensical fish, as well as new artist combine to make this festival a FEASTival of art, dazzling the senses. It’s also a feast for the heart because you always meet friends (or, in my case, cousins) and that’s a joy. And I get the added benefit of a mini-class reunion with singer John Sankey, artist Sue Hensaw (we must have been a creative bunch!) and others.

And the music! We arrived as Susan Greenbaum’s set started but all the groups are good. Susan’s got the voice of an angel but with the power of Ethel Merman…only it’s housed in this tiny little body. Her voice must reside in her guitar, there’s simply nowhere else for it to live! And the Blues Catz are a great tradition at the Festival. John Sankey, who went to high school with me, is a staunch supporter of the festival (of course, he is, it’s his neighborhood!) and his band’s earthy sound is worth the trip alone.

It’s only fitting that great entertainment and food be found near Forest HIll Park. Today it’s a pleasant retreat from urban life but it has a past. A pretty rowdy one, in fact.

In the early 1900’s Forest Hill Park was an amusement park, complete with roller coaster. Richmonders rode from “town” on the streetcar and were dazzled by the sounds and smells of a rollicking entertainment center. My great grandfather was a streetcar conductor and photographer. This photo from his collection seems incongruous when we view the pastoral hills and walking paths of the park today but back then, it rocked.

As Richmond grew in the late 1800’s, development around Semmes Avenue and Forest Hill was brisk. Woodland Heights is a charming neighborhood of Victorian homes, complete with tin roofs, stained glass windows and high ceilings. I have (somewhere in the mess) a real estate brochure from those days, which boasts country living within easy commute of Richmond. Huh. Sounds like going to Powhatan or Goochland these days but they were talking about the part of town east of the Nickel Bridge. We’d call it IN town. How times change.

And they do. The Nickel Bridge is no longer a nickel. The days when native Richmonders knew which toll collector handed out hard candies when you paid your toll are long gone as is that generous toll collector. Now your Smartag flashes thank you but it’s not the same. The stories (Urban myths? Who knows?) of MCV students holding out cadaver hands with nickels clutched in dead hands are probably not even part of my children’s story repertoire and certainly haven’t passed to younger generations. But when I was growing up, I heard and believed…that MCV students stole hands, “handed” (pardon the pun) them out the window and left them in the shocked toll conductor’s grasp. Like I said, times change. It’s not even MCV anymore but VCU…and I really miss those peppermint candies.

Yeah, times change. But the essence of the Forest Hill neighborhood is constant. A tree-lined street to stroll down, gardens of vivid flowers sprinkled with crepe myrtle blooms to admire, neighbors to wave to and kids on bikes to dodge…that century-old brochure is as relevant today as when it was first printed. The 43rd Street Festival of Art proves it. Forest Hill is a great place to live and a great place to visit on a chilly, wet Saturday.

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