Tuesday, April 05, 2011

A Guide To Richmond, Virginia, by someone who is from there and actually likes the place

I wrote the following as a response to a hit piece written about Richmond, Virginia by Jason Linkins and published in The Awl. I don't know that much about Mr. Linkins; he is apparently one of those people who come to Virginia from somewhere north of here to take advantage of Virginia's fantastic public universities before heading back north to bad mouth our commonwealth without ever really gaining an understanding about what Richmond or Virginia are really about.

Virginia's State Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson

The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament has been very kind to my hometown Richmond, Virginia this year. Two teams based in Richmond, Virginia made it to the so-called Sweet 16. This achievement had some people, tongue-in-cheek I am sure—calling Richmond, Virginia "Basketball Town, USA" and other such funny names that celebrated and satirized our sudden elevation. Richmond suddenly found itself the center of attention, the target of articles like Jason Linkins' "A Guide To Richmond, VA, By a Guy Who Lived There from '93 to '97."

I'm from Richmond, Virginia and I attended Virginia Commonwealth University. Indeed, I finished up my MA in Writing and Rhetoric in 1993, just as Mr. Linkins was beginning work on his MFA. I couldn't help noting some inaccuracies in Mr. Linkins' piece, and I could not resist trying to correct some of the more egregious ones.

Richmond, Virginia is the center of a growing metropolitan area in central Virginia. Mr. Linkins referred to Richmond as a "mostly busted-ass city on the banks of the James River," and refers to "old-school" residents of Richmond as "Richmondites," which is pretty much a confession that he doesn't know what he is talking about.

For starters, old-school Richmonders refer to themselves as, well, "Richmonders." Calling a Richmonder a "Richmondite" makes about as much sense as calling a New Yorker a "New Yorkite." If I showed up in Manhattan and began referring to you good people as "New Yorkites" you'd think I was an idiot, so you can imagine what most Richmonders would think of Mr. Linkins. Let me try and address some of the distortions from Mr. Linkins' article in order to give you a better picture of the city of Richmond, Virginia.

Mr. Linkins mocks Richmond's Monument Avenue with an exclamation: "Richmond loves them some confederate[sic] heroes!" Aside from his failure to capitalize the word "Confederate," this sentence contains at least one other error: it states Richmond's attitude towards the late Southern Confederacy in the present tense when it should be in the past tense. Richmond "loved" the Southern Confederacy. The statues of Confederate heroes that Linkins refers to were erected between 1890 and 1929 when living veterans of the American Civil War were not so uncommon and Southerners who knew and remembered these men wanted to celebrate their lives.

Contemporary Virginians have largely come around to recognize that the American Civil War was waged by Southerners to preserve slavery and, as such, isn't really something to celebrate or "love." But Monument Avenue is generally recognized to be one of the most beautiful streets in the United States, and the statues are part of that. No, we haven't gotten around to tearing down the statues—statues are expensive you know—but most Richmonders look on them as ironic artifacts from another time. Mr. Linkins—showing up sixty-four years after the last Confederate statue was erected on Monument Avenue—clearly wasn't privy to the joke. Matthew Fontaine Maury wasn't even much of a Confederate: his statue celebrates his role as an explorer, the "Pathfinder of the Seas." It was intended for Washington, D.C. but was rejected and ended up on Richmond's Monument Avenue because Maury had left the U.S. Navy and cast his fortunes with the Confederacy. Only real Richmonders who have lived in Richmond for most of their lives know that sort of thing.

Richmond, Virginia on the James River

The fact that the most recent statue on Monument Avenue is that of Arthur Ashe points to the great distance traveled by Richmond and Richmonders in the sixty-six years between the last Confederate statue erected on Monument Avenue and the placement of the Arthur Ashe Monument seems to have escaped Mr. Linkins. The fact that Mr. Linkins seems to think that Arthur Ashe was just a tennis player just points to the issue of his ignorance of Richmond and Richmonders, because as Richmonders go, Arthur Ashe was a great man. Yes, he was a tennis star, but Ashe used his tennis celebrity to promote civil rights, education, philanthropy, and AIDS awareness.

Ashe died before his time at the age of 50 when he contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion during open heart surgery. He faced his impending death with incredible courage and after his death he lay in state at the Virginia Governor's Mansion. The last person to be given that particular honor was Lieutenant General "Stonewall" Jackson of the Confederate Army in 1863. If you want to understand Richmond and Richmonders, you have to be able to understand the journey from Stonewall Jackson to Arthur Ashe. You have to understand how our ideal of heroism evolved from a soldier of the Confederacy who died of wounds received in battle to a man of peace, an athlete who enriched his community and then faced his own untimely death with courage. That's Richmond.

But to be honest, it isn't the best executed statue in Richmond—on that score at least Linkins is correct.

Main Street looking down into Shockoe Bottom from Chimborazo Hill

On the difference between the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University--Mr. Linkins provides a litany of negative descriptions of Virginia Commonwealth University students, mostly based on which drugs the students allegedly indulge in. He then categorizes students of the University of Richmond as being like UVA students, only dumber. In doing so, Mr. Linkins once again misses the central distinction, the really critical differences in the things he tries, but fails, to describe.

The real and most significant difference between the two schools is that the University of Richmond is a private school for people from outside of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University is a public school for the people of central Virginia. Locals like to make the following distinction: the University of Richmond is a university IN Richmond while Virginia Commonwealth University is the university FOR Richmond. The real story, which Mr. Linkins completely missed, is that while the preppie private school was eliminated from the Sweet 16 it was the scruffy "townie" school that fought its way to the Final 4. This is in no way meant as a knock on the University of Richmond, which is a great school but has little or nothing to do with the lives of most Richmonders, unlike VCU which is pretty much omnipresent.

Mr. Linkins made much of the fact that there are Ku Klux Klan members in Virginia, that most of Richmond's streetwalkers are transvestites, that we have a lot of one-way streets, and that many New Yorkers illegally obtain guns in Virginia. I suspect I wouldn't have to look too hard to find hate groups in any city. Prostitution isn't that common here in Virginia—is it a big deal in New York? Are all the streets in New York two-way? It does suck about the guns—we really shouldn't be selling them to New Yorkers.

Mr. Linkins finishes his story with an anecdote about an old drunken derelict keeping him awake at night by screaming drunken gibberish. Really? So if I walk down the streets of New York City I'm not going to encounter a few drunks spouting gibberish? I've been to New York City: it's a wonderful place, but it has its fair share of derelicts. Trying to smear Richmond on the basis of that one derelict is neither fair nor accurate.

Let me wrap this response up by telling you a few things about Richmond that might surprise you. First of all, let me just say that Richmond really is a deeply flawed, but beautiful city. We have many serious problems that we are still working on. We have come a long way on the question of race, but we still have a long, long way to travel on that road. This coming weekend we are celebrating new historical markers in Shockoe Bottom that mark key sites in Virginia's—and America's—slave history. It is a metaphor in many ways: Monument Avenue is the old establishment, beautiful but fading, recognized for the false image it presents, while down in Shockoe Bottom we are just beginning the process of excavating Lumpkin's Slave Jail and the Old Slave Burial Grounds. Richmond is poised to begin digging into its history.

Saturday night at the Byrd Theatre

But there's so much more to Richmond than its history. There's the lifestyle. I've lived in other cities; major cities like San Diego and Dallas. The thing that sets Richmond's lifestyle apart is its focus on weekend festivals. Name any major league sport there is (baseball, football, hockey, soccer, women's basketball, arena football) and Dallas, Texas has a franchise. Not Richmond. Richmond contents itself with a AA minor league baseball team: the Flying Squirrels. But we more than fill the space left by a lack of sporting events with festivals devoted to music, food, and drink. From the middle of March when we celebrate St. Patrick's Day with several events, right down until our many Christmas holiday events, we (over)compensate for our lack of sports teams by having big festivals devoted to various causes every weekend.

The fact that Mr. Linkins failed to mention a day at the park at Maymont Park, holiday shopping in Carytown, catching a movie at the Byrd Theatre, laying out by the James River on Belle Isle, going to Friday Cheers on Brown's Island, the Watermelon Festival, the Easter Parade on Monument Avenue, grocery shopping at Ukrops, or any of a hundred other typical Richmond things to do call into question his fitness for describing the good or the bad of Richmond. If you are really interested in what makes Richmond special, then it's much better for you to ask a Richmonder.

Sunset on the James River, seen from the Nickel Bridge

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