I’ve done no research and have an admittedly jaundiced point of view, but as it is mine and I’m honest about it, it is at least one valid point of view about Richmond, Virginia. And it is probably not too far off from a description of many American cities of this relative size - especially in the southeast and Middle Atlantic States. Just as the discovery of reverberating microwaves from outer space helped confirm the Big Bang; reverberations from two historic events reverberate throughout the dynamic fabric of life in Richmond: the Civil War and forced busing in the sixties to achieve racial integration. Both were utter disasters for Richmond, both carry a legacy from the past into the present. Richmond is a city of two peoples who live in time space dimensions that only intersect at the work place. Black/white, Richmond is more segregated in many ways than it was in the fifties when I grew up in a blue-collar community in South Richmond. There the streets were laid out alphabetically: Albany, Boston, Chicago, Dinwiddie, etc. – I lived on Gordon. The blacks, “niggers" to many back then, were already moving onto Chicago and as this onward crush moved alphabetically street by street, our white neighbors and my family fled west to the suburbs.
I remember the water fountains marked “white” and “black”, a bus driver stopping half way down a block to tell an elderly black woman that she wasn’t sitting back far enough, and attending the University of Richmond in the sixties when there was not one black student on campus. Forced busing disrupted this stable, if adherently unfair system, but did it in a way that left such scar tissue that has never healed. Today blacks and whites go to separate churches, separate shopping malls, live in separate communities, and essentially go to separate schools – there are many exceptions but this is the rule.
Richmond is very PC, politically correct, whites submit to it, blacks insists on it. What was the Mosque, an Arabic architecture auditorium that served for my high school graduation, has been renamed the Landmark Building so as not to affront Muslims. And now a civic auditorium, it on one night will find an event with a 100% white audience followed the next night with another event and a 100% black audience. The reconstructed downtown historic canal system drew major fire when it unveiled large banners depicting Civil War scenes. Arthur Ashe, the tennis star, found controversy when, just as a youth he was unable to play on white public courts, now deceased, his statue was to be installed on Richmond’s Monument Avenue alongside cherished Civil War icons.
Richmond’s demographics, social events, and even city planning are at the effect of this racial divide. Downtown, which in my youth was centered around two adjacent major department stores, Thalheimer's and Miller and Rhodes, each taking up a whole city block – today they exist as skeletons and around them are showcased one failed attempt after another at urban renewal. The city center was renewed, large buildings almost skyscrapers, create the skyline one sees driving through on I-95, but these are daytime offices only and to find life on the street after 6:00 pm is rare.
Having developed a walking tradition after living for years in Europe, I often go into downtown Richmond where I’ve staked out a 9.2 mile circuit – to walk in the suburbs where I live is impractical as there are no real places to walk except out in the street and a pedestrian is so rare as to be conspicuous. I have little fear walking the block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood. Richmond is relatively safe. Well policed. Street crime would be rare where there is no one on the streets. People live behind multi locked doors, security systems, with caller ID on their phones, and unlisted phone numbers – suspicious and wary. My elderly aunt only asked for one thing for Christmas – a paper shredder so that her identity wouldn’t be stolen from someone she imagined would be rummaging through her trash.
One gets the impression that the city is characterized by quiet withdrawal, of inactivity, just work-a-day-routine. The major downtown campus of VCU, in an area called the Fan, which has for many years been a enclave of more liberal whites who were never displaced and who are augmented by a few gays and young couples who still look for an alternative to the tacky suburbs. The at night deserted downtown business district, the gleaming white Capitol sitting on a hill, the Shockoe Bottom, where night life struggles to gain a hold and where suburban youths do drive in from the suburbs to eat pizza and drink beer, a few clubs and one struggling strip joint, and then up the seventh of Richmond’s hills (Richmond like Rome was built on seven hills) to the top of Church Hill where a handful of old homes with wrought iron porches have been lovingly restored and which is another white holdout. From here the city lies stretched out, asleep, the James River bisecting, the interstate bisecting, the city carved into sections and districts. And close by the St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry chose liberty. How, I wonder that those early patriots, Washington, Jefferson, Marshall, Henry would feel as uncomfortable here today as I do – amidst a population that aspires to little, has no causes, involves itself in little beyond getting through the day, the week, the year.
I’ve stayed at seven homes of friends and relatives since returning from abroad three years ago. I was away from America for ten years and had been away from Richmond for over thirty after growing up here and living here through college and a stint at the local DuPont nylon plant. The change is dramatic, such that little is familiar. Physically the change is impressive, buildings, highways, bridges, but far more noticeable is the change in the citizenry. At dinner wherever I stay, the same topics prevail: work, work, work, and shopping, shopping, shopping. And work is never countenanced in positive terms, but as a struggle, a stress. And shopping seems programmed by the inexorable forces of the pervasive marketing of something, anything, that will make life bearable, occasionally even pleasurable.
As someone who hasn’t seen a nephew in many years, and suddenly sees now a grown boy who was last seen as a child, I am viewing Richmond. Those who were here experienced the changes gradually; I see them glaringly. Grocery stores, hardware stores and bookstores when I was last here are now grocery airplane hangers, hardware airplane hangers, and bookstore airplane hangers – temples to mass consumption.
Shopping is obsessive, the mails bring a plethora of ads, the constantly on TV brings more, and the focal point of most of Richmond is the shopping center. Here too there are two types - white shopping centers and shopping centers that were once white. They fill almost to capacity on weekends and are the center of social as well as commercial life for families. And in many cases they represent the only viable destination outside the home except for church. Richmond still goes to church. A puritanical, often southern Baptist fundamentalist religion still envelops a region that is actually just east of Jerry Falwell and just west of Pat Robertson. Churches should be questioned as tax exempt, as in reality they are more social clubs, country clubs without the golf course. The generation strata are most noticeable here with senior and elderly Richmond much in view along side young families still tied to family values. But the spiritual essence is slipping noticeably and the blatant hypocrisy underlining is ever more evident.
Still the puritanical ethos remains in the work ethic and attracts new business, albeit service industries such as large banks, Capital One, and Circuit City that have replaced the previously dominant manufacturers like Phillip Morris, Reynolds Metals, and a major DuPont plant. And there is a respect for the rule of law, an eye for an eye mentality that maintains the bias for capital punishment and is anti-abortion. Richmonders are both socially and fiscally conservative but live in a state with large population centers in both northern Virginia and Norfolk that are alien to Richmonders and that are far more liberal. This dichotomy is evidenced in a State legislature that is controlled by Republicans but headed by a Democratic governor. That in reality gives Richmonders little pause as few could name either the Governor, or their Senators, nor have any real interest in politics whatsoever.
Comparatively Richmonders seem to live lives of quiet desperation, caught up in the confluence of stagnant economic times, and seemingly convinced that events outside their own lives and families and friends are completely beyond their control. These are not particularly sophisticated people; from the places I’ve stayed at I find it unusual to engage conversations that broach politics, religion, sex, culture, art, world affairs – seemingly from both a lack of interest and a general unawareness. Just as Maslow predicted, when a lower level need is attacked, individuals and even communities revert back to lower need levels. Here too it seems that Richmonders have, as their main need, security, in an increasingly insecure world. Jobs and job security is an issue, the failing social security system is an issue, the imploding of the stock market is an issue. Those in and entering the work force acutely feel these insecurities. They contrast their plight with the apparent opportunities previous generations had for job security: sitting at a comfortable desk shuffling papers and drinking coffee all day. Those jobs are gone forever,
Contrasted against Richmond’s city life is its suburban life – large rather affluent suburbs with attractive homes. A typical one is Woodlake – a community situated around a lake formed a few years ago by damming Swift Creek. On one side is Woodlake and on the other is Brandermill, built with an eye for an expected electronics industry influx that never happened. Homes are carefully crafted facades with manicured lawns vying one against another for pronouncing the normalcy of the owners – often soccer moms and dads who do all the right things dictated by the suburban social ritual. Life here is rather contrived, artificial, but does suffice in many ways to obscure the realties and banalities of Richmond as a whole.
For the last two years I, along with tens of thousands of similarly out placed middle mangers, chasing an ever-shrinking pool of suitable careers, have taken a temporary job as a night clerk at a 7-Eleven. At night the business is slow enough that I have ample time to converse with the cross section of Richmonders who wander in: affluent suburbanites, policemen, nurses, construction workers, and teenagers. Enough conversations to reach a general consensus in several areas. These people rather universally see the past now as better in quality of life than the present or the future, but see this slide as inexorable. They lack the sense that an individual can anymore really make a difference in any broad or universal context. They are convinced of the control of powerful people and institutions and see themselves as powerless. The legal system is seen as the legal industry, the health system as the health industry, and the education system as the education industry – and government itself becomes more and more blurred with industry clout and power. They find the government they live under to not be user friendly, not be attendant of their needs and values, not to be trusted – yet what can they do but accept the situation. There is no fight here – Patrick Henry has no heirs.
More and more customers arrive engaged in cell phone conversations. They hardly heed other patrons or the anonymous clerk at check out. The one side of their conversations suggest a spouse is somewhere directing them down an aisle and instructing them on particular purchases and following their movements home from work. Terms like multi tasking and 24/7 seep into the vocabulary. And someone uses food stamps to buy designer bottled water shipped all the way over from France – a place few could find on a map.
Thus Richmond, like many similarly situated American cites is despondent, increasingly pessimistic, yet still industrious, hard working, and instilled with puritanical virtues imbued from their parents and their parents before them. A wellspring of unmet needs and values that presents colossal opportunity to whomever can unlock new quality of life approaches, whomever can offer new visions, new models. Perhaps there are models for this already existing in much of Europe – after all, the ancestors of white Richmonders fled Europe just a few generations prior to seek a new life, liberty, tolerance, opportunity - and that shinning light uplifted many generations. Perhaps that model could serve as inspiration to a sea change of values that could and would impact Richmond.