Remembered by family and friends as a brash visionary with a heart of gold, Gabe Silverman, 73, godfather of Charlottesville Downtown development and the arts, died after suffering cardiac arrest on Sunday, November 10 in New York City.
Days after his death, those who knew and loved Silverman are struggling to believe they’ll never again see the shaggy haired, denim-wearing developer known for dropping “F” bombs and chain smoking unapologetically as he’d lope down the Downtown Mall or West Main Street, stopping to greet passersby at every chance.
“He was always curious. He wanted to talk to anybody,” said the older of Silverman’s two daughters, Kia Brown, the day after her father’s death. “It didn’t matter if you were selling a bus ticket. Everyone could have a fantastic idea.”
Similar sentiments poured out in scores of comments made under a post about Silverman’s death on Waldo Jaquith’s blog, cvillenews.com. Recollections of Silverman’s support in any number of artistic endeavors included tales of him offering not only heartfelt advice on how to pursue a passion that would improve the community but a means to do it through free or discounted rents he’d offer at his various properties around town.
“What Gabe understood was that the artist needs to pray through their art and that the right space can make that possible,” wrote one, Ray Schwartz, who recalled Silverman’s role in opening the New Dance Space in the 1990s in the upstairs of the building that now houses Hamiltons’ restaurant.
It was Silverman’s open-mindedness that helped plant the seeds of Live Arts back in 1989, when he and his San Francisco-based business partner Allan Cadgene gave culture-loving brothers Thane and Will Kerner permission to host raves in his Old Michie Building on East Market Street, then went a step further by introducing them to a group of people who were hoping to launch a local theater company. While most landlords wouldn’t have welcomed late night, wild parties—nor would they have taken a risk with a long-term lease for a fledgling theater company—Silverman was different.
“Gabe and Allie knew we had limited resources,” said Will Kerner. “But their strategy as we’ve seen over the years is to take chances—take chances with artists.”
Silverman, who was born in Los Angeles and studied architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, was himself a painter, and his late wife, Karen, who died in 2004 after a lengthy battle with cancer, was also an acclaimed artist and art teacher. Karen’s brother was one of Silverman’s Berkeley classmates, and introduced the pair.
“They were a beautiful love story,” said Brown, who said her parents moved to Charlottesville with their young daughters in 1977.
“My mom didn’t want to live in California—she was from the South,” Brown explained. “Virginia was as far as my dad was willing to go.”
By that time, Silverman had found success redeveloping San Francisco’s Mission District with Cadgene and another close friend named Gery MacDonald, who was also a silent partner in many Charlottesville projects. Cadgene, who was traveling on Monday, the day after Silverman’s death, could not immediately be reached for comment.
When Silverman left California, he brought his enthusiasm for reinvigorating urban spaces east to Virginia.
In addition to the Old Michie Building, which not only provided the first home for Live Arts but is also widely credited with helping to transform the sleepy Downtown Mall of the 1970s and ’80s into the thriving cultural hub it is today, Silverman worked on the Ix project between Monticello and Elliott avenues and created the Main Street Market, a colorful and successful consortium of food-related businesses at the corner of Fourth and West Main streets.
One of his greatest unrealized ambitions, said his longtime friend, author Jonathan Coleman, was to turn the old Blue Ridge Hospital near Monticello into a vocational school for crafts and learning trades. He couldn’t convince the University, which owned the property, to agree to the plan. “He felt that UVA had let him down on some level,” said Coleman.
Another frustration arose over the city’s rejection of his plans for a multi-use development at the Amtrak property on West Main Street. After that setback, he set his sights on the stretch of West Main between Ridge/McIntire and the University, pushing the city to invest in and beautify the neglected corridor.
His frustration with bureaucracy could at times spill out in invective laced tirades.
“He’d often say, I’m done, I don’t want to do this anymore,” said Coleman, describing Silverman raging after particularly difficult confrontations with the city or the University. But the “down” times didn’t last long. “The next thing you know, he’d have meetings at UVA,” Coleman recalled. “He was the best sort of restless. He really wanted to make a difference.”
In early October, according to Brown, Silverman visited his younger daughter, Taije, a poet currently living in London, her husband, and her toddler son. Silverman relished the role of grandfather, said Brown, who visited her father and his girlfriend of several years in New York the weekend of his death, which came nearly a month after he’d suffered an aortic aneurysm dissection, a condition that is almost always immediately fatal. Silverman’s girlfriend, Dana Ostrowski, a graduate nursing student with whom Silverman had been in a committed relationship for three years, rushed him to the hospital, and he underwent emergency surgery. He appeared to be recovering well, Ostrowski and Brown said, before suffering cardiac arrest.
“We had a great day on Saturday,” said Brown, recalling some of the last hours she spent with her father. “We walked outside, he was voraciously reading the Wall Street Journal, he was painting. He really was a Renaissance man.”
But while the scope of his accomplishments in Charlottesville is broad and has led more than one friend to compare him to Thomas Jefferson, Silverman himself worried that he hadn’t done enough.
“He needed to be reminded of that and reassured of that,” said Coleman. “That he was making a significant difference in Charlottesville.”
Those fears were misplaced as evidenced by the seemingly endless stories of his generosity and achievements that are now being shared.
“He never compromised his integrity and what he believed in,” Brown said. “He was always pushing for a greater good and to make his community better.”
A graveside service for Gabe Silverman will be held at 11am on Thursday, November 14, at Monticello Memory Gardens. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations honoring: The Karen Shea Silverman Endowed Fellowship, The VCCA, 154 San Angelo Drive, Amherst, Virginia 24521.