A solid guide to some sweet secret spots in Richmond, VA.
There are two things that almost any Richmonder will ask the moment you arrive within the city limits: “Do you want a beer?” (usually as it’s being placed in your hand) and “Do you want to go to the river?” Should you agree, you’ll most likely be taken down through the woods and over slippery rocks taunting you with skull fractures.
The James River is a destination for nearly anyone who comes to the city, and rightfully so. It’s a beautiful body of water that’s inspired countless country songs and inspirational metal epics. But, if you end up going to the wrong part of the river, you’ll be surrounded by wandering children, angry dads, and the shitty task of walking for more than half a mile to find a free patch of land. This is also a surefire way to accidentally end up getting hit by stray footballs and having your shoes stolen by tweens.
If you head to the river with the younger locals, you’ll most likely be going to Texas Beach. Even though the name is a bit of a misnomer (poison ivy, thorns, broken glass, and not so much sand), it’s the perfect place to lie around on a giant rock with a 40 and become dangerously dehydrated. Brave souls are welcome to swim, though the water is notoriously disgusting and in a rough current you can get sucked downstream.
You’ll find yourself surrounded by plenty of teenagers in various states of undress with fifths of Mad Dog and a lot of crust punks and college kids mixed in with the train-hopping set seeking a quick and extremely public bathing solution. Move farther into the woods and you’ll find a dogpile of anonymous gay sex for Richmond’s older crowd.
The only downer is that Texas Beach is (surprise) completely worthless in the winter due to the amount of wading necessary to get to a good spot. Your best bet is to sit on the train tracks, stare longingly at the water, and write a song about it.
If you’ve heard any stories about the culture in Richmond, it’s more than likely that you’ve heard about the lore surrounding the train tracks that border parts of the river. These deliver fresh crops of punks to the city with every cargo load and pick up the ones who are out of beer and goodwill.
The swing itself is a rope hanging from the train tracks above the water. I haven’t been able to pin down exactly what it’s tied to, and it seems that it’s a mystery to everyone and no one gives a shit. It hasn’t broken so far, right?
There are three ways to do the jump. The first is to jump off of the low ledge, which is recommended for those who have already finished their required six-pack or people who are simply afraid of breaking important parts of their body. I also have to note that it’s important to do all of this naked. This is generally accompanied by stories of people getting rope burn in terrible places and another unfortunate soul who had his dick literally impaled when he fell off midswing.
Once you’ve splashed down from tier one, it’s time to take it up a notch. The second ledge is uncomfortably high and way more precarious. This is a great way to impress your native friends or earn a hasty tour of Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. You gain extra points by walking around for the next two days pointing at an exposed bone asking if it “looks bad.” This could also earn you free tickets to see GWAR.
If you’re through beer number 12 and have lost your sense of direction and self-worth, then you can take the third (and stupidest) option, which is to actually jump from the train tracks. I have only seen people teeter and climb down, later shamed by their sense of self-preservation. People you are with may claim that they’ve done this before. If they continue to brag, egg them on and get ready to set some shattered limbs.
ABANDONED POWER PLANT AT BELLE ISLE
Belle Isle is yet another traditional Richmond destination for those looking to swim, relax, throw Frisbees, and take part in other wholesome family activities. If you date a girl from Richmond, it is more than likely that she will ask you to go on a picnic here every week. However, you’ll also find Richmond’s most reverb-heavy party spot in the form of a decrepit and decaying power plant.
My first experience with the place came several years ago when I spent a drunken night trying to find my way up the trail to the plant in the pitch-black while trying to elude the cops. At the time, they were very aware that dozens of kids were making their way out to the plant, and they were shining their flashlights at the bridge, trying to catch people illegally crossing. Nothing sucks like having to crouch and tiptoe over the length of an entire bridge.
We ended up at the front entrance to find the entire place barely lit with sporadic dashes of cell-phone light and Johnny Cash blasting from a battery-powered stereo. Kids in the center were huddled around a gigantic bonfire, tossing bottles and cans into it (because they make the best fuel). The perimeter was lined with high, gaping windows with eaves large enough to hold those who felt like scaling the walls. Needless to say it was an amazing night.
The plant is only a sporadic party spot, but it has gained a lot of notoriety on the side as a place to experiment with psychedelics. The building has an amazing crumbling interior with more than its share of gaping holes and cracks that I’m told look pretty mesmerizing while tripping. Hell, even at night the outline of the place lit by the dim glow of candles or a bonfire can look pretty sinister without being fucked up. Plenty of beleaguered hippies also dot the area, and a friend of mine who went there to do mushrooms once encountered one of these old souls with a group of younger friends, a giant bag of weed, and a Taser, shocking his friends and yelling, “Prepare your mind, motherfuckers!”
One of the more interesting things about this location is that the city has actually made it easier to get there in the past several years by putting in a gravel path and adding markers. Sure it’s a historic site and all, but it still seems odd to have an unintentional civic blessing bestowed on the place. I guess at some point they decided it was easier to help kids find their way out of the place than stranding them in the nearby swamplands.
As you might have guessed by this point, Skateland is a place where the sweetly coated nostalgia of childhood is replaced with violence, blood, and tons of alcohol. As the home of the River City Roller Girls, Skateland sees more than its share of shoving, elbows, and blood during derby season and generally finds its rink and sidelines filled to the gills with giddy townsfolk egging on their favorite teams.
The venue also packs in people for private birthday parties, which are regularly stocked with kegs and are rarely, if ever, private. If anything, Skateland seems to be Richmond’s ultimate ideal of combining heavy drinking with possibly exhausting amounts of physical activity on a device that nearly everyone there traded in for Rollerblades when they were eight. Nothing beats the sight of hordes of 20-somethings attempting to slow down enough while coming off of the rink to grab their drinks off of one of the surrounding tables.
Interestingly enough, this is a place that hasn’t really gotten worse over the years. Plenty of kids from the city went here in their youth and fondly remember the mattress behind the building where ambitious middle school kids lost their virginity. Also, the place used to be BYOB, which created the awesome sight of protective kids sitting on stacks of 24-packs of PBR for their friends who had assigned them to be lookouts. Sadly, Skateland now apparently stocks legit alcohol, which I imagine is served by the same unbelievably creepy staff they had before. If the Overlook Hotel had been outfitted with a skating rink, it would be Skateland.
THE BIKE LOT
By this point, it’s quite clear that Richmond would cease to function without its bikes. Were there to be any mass rapture of the bicycles of the city, almost every subculture would be crippled, except for kids in moped gangs, who would declare martial law. As far as I can tell, the rules consist primarily of “Have a good time” and “Don’t ruin someone else’s good time,” which works out quite well for the events that happen here. I’ve seen upward of 500 kids packed into this place, crawling on the roof, and generally clinging to any free surface like a swarm of bees. But people generally follow the rules and avoid causing shit because of the respect that the Cutthroats have built up around the city.
Location-wise, the Lot is pretty disconnected from most of Richmond’s other gathering places. In order to get there, you have to make your way through downtown into the Manchester district, which houses many of the city’s old industrial powerhouses. If you’ve got the time, it’s worth your while to go look at some of the abandoned factories and art galleries that litter the area the Bike Lot is tucked into.
Once there, you’ll be confronted with daunting amounts of fencing that only yield to the public during events there. When it’s not being inhabited by the city’s great unwashed, most of the people down there are really friendly and welcoming. On any given day you’ll find people tweaking bikes or practicing tricks on the grounds, as well as bands practicing at top volume with the doors down.