Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Misunderstanding Richmond

Richmond Folk Festival
Richmond, Virginia may be one of the most misunderstood cities in the United States—let me give you one quick example. A few weeks ago I was listening to Melissa Harris Perry's weekend morning news show and I heard Perry lash into Richmond because Monument Avenue—one of the Nation's most beautiful streets—has a handful of statues of Confederates erected for the most part during the late 1800s. Perry implied that the statues were somehow proof of Richmond's backwardness, of Richmonders tendency to cling to the Lost Cause.

What Perry failed to realize is that, Confederate statues notwithstanding, Monument Avenue stands near the center of one of the most liberal neighborhoods in the country, let alone Virginia. The part of Monument Avenue that contains the statues of Confederate heroes lies for the most part in Richmond's 2nd ward, and Barack Obama carried the 2nd ward in 2008 with more than 70% of the vote. Not much of a Confederate stronghold if you ask me.

Railroad Earth at Friday Cheers
The fact of the matter is Richmond is a very liberal city. Barack Obama collected slightly more than 79% of the vote in the former capital of the Confederacy. So where does Richmond get its reputation from conservatism? There are two primary sources: the state capital and our local newspaper.

Richmond is the capital city of a state that is trending Democratic, but has been viciously gerrymandered by the dwindling Republican ruling class. Capitol Square—aka "Capitol Squaristan"—is the least Richmond-like thing in Richmond. Every year Richmond's liberal majority has to watch with clenched teeth as the Republican-dominated legislature passes laws that are only thinly disguised partisan attacks on women, gays, ethnic minorities, students, and anyone else they want to push around or abuse. And then poorly informed pundits say things like "Richmond did this," or "Richmond did that."

Richmond's Capitol Square has become a place where Republicans use riot police to rough up ordinary citizens who are trying to peacefully express their dissent, but that has little to do with Richmond because almost none of the Republicans calling the shots in "Capitol Squaristan" are actually from Richmond. If the people of Richmond had control of state government, then Virginia would be a very different place.

Virginia is a state that has already demographically turned the corner and is becoming a Democratic majority state. What we are witnessing is an awkward transition period in which the old elites attempt to hold onto power through political dirty tricks and riot police.

Richmond has a lot of healing to do though. As the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond suffers from an old, unhealed wound. Like any wound that has been picked at, but never really treated, it's left a scar. Richmond as a community still hasn't dealt with the legacy of slavery. As a society we have pasted a series of band-aids over this boil without ever lancing it and dealing with the source of our social illness. Jim Crow followed emancipation, and then White Flight and Massive Resistance followed desegregation. The legacy of this racial divide has been poverty and it is something this city still struggles with. African Americans have acquired equality under the law, but the fight continues for equality of opportunity. There are hopeful signs in the creation of the Richmond Slavery Trail and the proposed National Slavery Museum in Richmond, but Richmond will never heal the wound of the American Civil War until it embraces the simple truth that the war was caused by the South's desire to maintain the institution of slavery in the face of a maturing American society that rejected the brutal practice of chattel slavery.

Richmond is a liberal city that, until very recently, was shackled to the corpse of a right wing newspaper called the Richmond Times Dispatch. For decades Richmond has been (ill)-served by the Bryan family's insistence on a far-right wing editorial policy at Richmond's only major daily newspaper, the Richmond Times Dispatch. The Richmond Times Dispatch has been on the wrong side of history since before the American Civil War. The paper and its corporate predecessors (like the Daily Dispatch) supported in turn Slavery, Secession, Jim Crow, Segregation, the Klan, and Massive Resistance.

Sunset over Shockoe Valley and Main Street
Is it any surprise that in recent years that the Richmond Times Dispatch has functioned as little more than the mouthpiece of the Republican Party of Virginia? John McCain failed to get even 21% of the vote in Richmond, Virginia in 2008, despite the shameful, biased, hucksterism of the Richmond Times Dispatch—a paper a majority of Richmonders refer to as the "Richmond Times Disgrace." Major newspapers have the potential to serve as town halls for their communities, serving as a forum for the free exchange of ideas, but by any reasonable standard, the Richmond Times Dispatch has failed miserably in that mission.

It was a hopeful day, then, when the Richmond Times Dispatch's parent company announced last week that it was selling the Times Dispatch to Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Richmond may be on the verge of getting something it has never had: a newspaper that pitches the news down the middle, honestly, and without regard for partisan advantage.

Fireworks over Brown's Island
Here's a secret that few people know about Richmond, even Richmonders: Richmond is at it's best when it is entertaining guests. We are a bit like a dysfunctional family that is able to put aside our disagreements while we gather to throw a party for out of town friends. Richmond needs to embrace its role as a regional entertainment center. Doing away with the admissions tax would lead to an increase in the amount and variety of ticketed entertainments options. Music venues and theaters have always struggled in Richmond, at least in recent memory.

This is in no small part due to the failure on the part of Richmond's leadership to understand the difference between income tax, property tax, sales tax, and a gross receipts tax. Richmond's admissions tax is a gross receipts tax—a throwback that marks Richmond as 50 years behind the times. It is nothing short of appalling that Mayor Dwight Jones can, on the one hand laud the truly spectacular economic impact that entertainment has on Richmond's economy when he praises Richmond's Landmark Theater for attracting shows like "The Lion King" while simultaneously upholding the admissions tax which limits the ability of venues like the Landmark to attract more shows. The admissions tax punishes entertainment venues for taking the risk of bringing entertainment options to Richmond in spite of the widely acknowledged fact that every successful show that is brought to Richmond provides a tremendous boost to our local economy.

Haxall's Canal at night
Richmond, Virginia is poised in the edge of what could be a renaissance. It remains to be seen whether this city can resolve the issues that dog it, create a space for honest dialogue, and embrace its future as a entertainment center for the growing metropolitan center of Central Virginia. Either way, for better or worse, I'm going along for the ride.

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