That is Melvin Lorenzo Stinnie in the middle, leading the Chef Ted crew on what was probably his 10,000th job working for/with me. It was Reunion Weekend 2013 on The University of Virginia's Lawn and the last time we worked together. Melvin left this world on July 9, 2015 at the age of 62. He was the paternal head of at least nine grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. Sweet reader, if there was ever a man in this world that deserves eternal rest, it is one Melvin Lorenzo Stinnie.
There was/still is a lot of controversy concerning the demolition of Vinegar Hill. Like many American cities in the 60's and 70's, whites had fled to the suburbs and built giant air-conditioned shopping malls with plenty of parking. As a result the inner cities fell into decline and festered with crime, closed stores and poverty. Do-gooders declared Vinegar Hill a shanty town and it was bulldozed in the mid 1960's. The Westhaven Housing Project was built nearby in the name of urban renewal. This forced displacement with little or no involvement or representation was also the destruction of African-American businesses and economic life, which led to the breaking of cultural, social and familial ties.
One night we were catering a party in a very clubby old school room in the University of Virginia's old school Alderman Library. By chance, they were displaying these pictures, history and comment as to prophetically remember this troubling past. Melvin ended up crying as he looked at the above pictures and more. It was the first time in his life he had ever seen pictures of his vanquished neighborhood....his family surely did not have a scrapbook to record their upbringing.
Another night we were catering the re-opening of a long neglected old school movie theater. The mover and shaker money class had gotten together and propelled the renaissance of all but abandoned downtown into flat out gentrification. I hesitate to use the word gentrification because of it negative connotations because what we now have is better. I remember the downtown mall in the late 1970's and it was a hodgepodge of empty storefronts, single men weekly occupancy
Yes, most would say that it is better now, but as Melvin looked out on the 99% white crowd of the downtown of today (above), sharing $9 herbal infusions, and thought it was better than the old pool hall neighborhood, where he knew everybody and everybody knew him, he kept it to himself.
But I digress from the renovated theater. They had not finished the whole building. The front of the house was beautifully done and the tinkling of champagne glasses and the munching of smoked salmon on blinis continued before the speakers and feature presentation. The back of the house, in the area behind the new stage was basically untouched since it was built in 1912, construction debris and old stagecraft paraphernalia was littered about. As we put the final dollop of scallion sour cream on another tray of blinis, Melvin pointed up at a sign that was painted on the wall, obviously unchanged from 1912.
It read: COLORED ENTRANCE ONLY.
Melvin explained, without a trace of bitterness, how this was the back door entrance for African-Americans in his younger days and they had to sit in the balcony. He reminisced of sneaking in here to see the black entertainers of the day that were on what was then called the chittlin' circuit. Who knows, maybe James Brown and Otis Redding were some of them.