Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Thank God I'm an Urban Girl

In the ongoing saga of "You know you're old when...," I had to explain Kodachrome to a woman tonight.

I was at the Valentine, taking in the vintage photography show, "Edith Shelton's Richmond," a sampling of the thousands of color photographs taken by an amateur photographer in Richmond during the '60s, '70s and '80s, and particularly intrigued by her focus on the Jackson Ward and Carver neighborhoods.

For me, the photographs were a treasure trove of neighborhood streets and blocks I pass often. A horse-drawn ice wagon on Baker Street, the horse grazing on grass, a little girl on Brook Road two blocks from my house, the John Woo Laundry on Second Street. Houseboats that used to reside at 17th and Dock Streets.

In true Kodachrome style, a shot of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church on Easter Sunday in the 1950s was a riot of colorful hats against cars of orange, dark blue, pale green and turquoise.

Because Edith had shot on slide film - Kodachrome- the Valentine had included a carousel slide projector and an explanation of the vivid beauty of Kodachrome. After reading it, the woman walked over to friends and asked if they knew the song "Kodachrome."

They didn't. Eavesdropping, of course, I spoke before I thought, asking how she could not know "Kodachrome."

"You know it?" she responded incredulously. "It came up on my playlist today and then I just read that sign about it. That's what the song was about?"

Clearly she was having a moment of synchronicity.

So it was that I wound up downstairs at the Valentine Museum explaining what Paul Simon's song was about to three people who'd never heard of it. Because somebody's got to.

I'd walked there for this month's Community Conversation, but I'd arrived early because I wanted to check out Alyssa Solomon's photography exhibit, "A Chicken in Every Plot" about Richmond's backyard chicken scene.

Since backyard chickens became legal again, people all over town - Church Hill, Fulton Hill, Woodland Heights, Windsor Farms, the Executive Mansion, even my beloved Jackson Ward - now have yard birds in residence and chicken-owner Alyssa photographed them.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm fascinated by coop architecture since that seems to be one way people can express themselves, besides with their choice of fanciful breeds of chicken. Fun fact learned tonight: it was English breeding with Chinese fowl that resulted in those fancifully-plumed birds in the pictures.

Adding to the cool factor was a wall of photographs of deviled egg dishes, those fanciful plates meant to hold slippery egg halves and look just as pretty when they're empty, which never takes long with deviled eggs. From the Valentine collection came egg cups, egg cozies (who knew?), metal egg crates and a 1935 photograph of a woman and her chickens in Jackson Ward.

The exhibition tied in nicely with tonight's Community Conversation topic: Urban Farming, which brought out a really good-sized crowd. I'd barely slapped on a name tag and found a seat when a friend sat down next to me and a stranger looked at my name tag and said, "Hi, Karen! You have great hair" moments before things got started.

The Valentine's director always starts things off with a slide show from the collection and tonight's showed us images of the many outdoor farm markets Richmond once had, as well as a wonderful shot of a woman picking blackberries in the shadow of the John Marshall Hotel.

A few of the images shown were even Edith Shelton's, abundantly obvious because of their brilliant colors.

Next came audience polling to figure out who we were and what we think about certain subjects. This part of the evening always starts with a fun question so people can get the hang of the devices we use and tonight's question was about what happened in Iowa.

Once results were in, facilitator Matt observed, "Hmm, 42% of you are Sanders supporters and you're at an urban agriculture event. How interesting!"

Politics aside, discussion was robust tonight because there were so many people passionate about the topic in attendance. I don't know about the others, but from 31st Street Baptist Church's nine-year old urban farm to Tricycle Garden's Manchester farmette which I just saw for the first time last month, I learned all kinds of things tonight.

Like Slow Food RVA and the ARK of Taste, a living catalog of local foods facing extinction, such as the Hayman sweet potato, Hog Island sheep, Bradford watermelon and Hog Island fig, all delicious and all being brought back by local chefs, seed savers and food lovers.

We used to have 15,000 kinds of apples growing and now we have 1,500.

Pigs are the only animal you can't have in the city. You can have up to four hens, but no roosters. We have one cow in the city and multiple horses. Spayed feral cats with up-to-date shots are available free if you have a mice problem on your property.

Talking about how so many people get into urban farming by first growing tomatoes, the guy next to me nailed it. "Tomatoes are the gateway drug to farming." All hail the heirloom.

Unrelated to farming, but best story: the FBI did a raid on a local house and found a cottonmouth snake being used to guard the owners' drugs and money. Brilliant, right?

And then there's what other people learned.

They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day

Isn't it?


  1. I know what Kodachrome is (even though I admit to never using it) and remember quite a lovely set of pieces reported on NPR when the last Kodachrome factory was closed a few years ago. I hope you feel less old now =)