A Postcard from the Old Dominion

In Richmond, Virginia on the third Monday in January a curious thing occurs.  Walking down Monument Avenue in the predawn light one might encounter men gathering in front of the largest statue on Monument.  Their quest is one of commemoration.  Clad in grey uniforms, with leather ammunition bags and bed rolls slung over their shoulders they prepare to stand sentry before Robert E. Lee until the sun returns below the horizon.  It is Lee-Jackson Day in Richmond and Civil War remembrance season has officially begun.  I’m not sure what to love about Richmond more, that people continue to commemorate the losers of a war that took place over 150 years ago or that the Richmond City Council is kosher with balding, overweight, middle-aged men in battle gear from the 1860’s carrying rifles (probably loaded) within the city limits, just in case a damn Yankee tourist fails to avert his eyes from the Lee’s statue, “Look away ya’ll, look away, don’t you know who that is?”

In Virginia boy trucks are not neutered

Our recent trip to Richmond really reminded us how much we enjoyed living there.  It has nearly everything that we would want in a community.  The city of Richmond has a population of  205,000 but if you include all of those people who ran off to the suburbs it increases to approximately 1.2 million, which makes it a city large enough to have a professional symphony orchestra and ballet company but not large enough to have a significant traffic problem.  It also makes Richmond large enough for real contrast, and to explain what I mean requires another short story.  Sunday brunch is a serious matter here for all who would refer to themselves as true Richmonders.  Biscuits and gravy, Eggs Benedict and frittatas of every imaginable permutation abound along with copious Bloody Marys.  Richmond does Sunday morning right, as soon as church is over.  The best brunch in Richmond is undoubtably Godfrey’s on Grace Street, and as long as you enjoy eating what has been voted “the best brunch in Richmond” while dodging the well apportioned breasts from Godfrey’s stable of transsexuals then you are all set.  Its “Drag Brunch” you see!  So if you like the thought of a city that embraces both civil war re-enactors and drag queens then please, read on.

Any post that waxes enthusiastically about a particular location must, I think, provide an accounting of its attributes, the things that justify enthusiasm other than part-time soldiers and men dressed up as women.  Richmond has a vibrant food scene; during our time living in Richmond we typically ate out four nights a week (this was obviously a time when we had more money to spend on ourselves) and made it a habit to eat at a different restaurant most nights.  While we were in Richmond visiting friends last week, we ate at many of our favorite places, like Bottoms Up Pizza, Millie’s Diner, Legends Brewery and the Thai Diner Too.  Second, Richmond has plentiful public parks; Byrd Park, Forest Hill Park, Belle Isle and Maymont are places near and dear to us.  What better place to go for a run, take the dog out or play with the kids?  Third, Richmond is well represented in the arts and sciences; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (which recently featured an exhibition of Picasso’s work), The Children’s Museum, Science Museum and Virginia Historical Society are all wonderful and free of the crowding and craziness of museums in many other cities.

Richmond is a city of staggering beauty.  I have been told that it is home to the largest Victorian neighborhood in the United States.  The area called “The Fan” is huge, and full of beautiful Victorian row houses in various states of restoration.  This area spills over into Monument Avenue which has been called “the most beautiful street in America.”  Lined with gorgeous old houses and separated by a green strip of grass and the occasional statue of a dead Confederate general, I have spent many an afternoon strolling (or running in marathon season) down this street captivated by the architecture.  And finally the James River is a center point.  Nowhere else does a large river with class four rapids flow through the middle of a city.  It is actually possible to kayak some decent whitewater before donning a three-piece suit in the Belle Isle parking lot and going off to dismantle some recently bought company in a corner office of the James Center.  The last sentence makes some serious generalizations I know, most people don’t know how to kayak!

Upon reading the previous paragraph one could be forgiven for thinking that Richmond, Virginia might be the perfect medium city but, of course, Richmond is not without its problems.  One evening during our stay I met some friends out at Legend’s Brewery on the south side of the James River.  Driving home I met what is a rather uncommon event in Richmond, a traffic jam.  Yes, I-95 Northbound was bumper to bumper at 11:00pm on a Wednesday night.  Making a snap decision not to sit in traffic on my way north, I instead impetuously chose to take a short cut along Chamberlayne Avenue.  I remembered running along this road during the Richmond Marathon, but this particular evening I don’t mind saying that I very quickly regretted my shortcut and at the first stop-light performed one of those surreptitious under the arm door locking procedures typical of any white boy who has strayed into a neighborhood where he doesn’t belong.  Buildings quickly became dilapidated once I crossed the interstate at Belvidere Road, trash became more frequent in the gutter, businesses changed from florists, convenience stores and restaurants to check cashing joints, bodegas and fast food dives.  In short, I had driven right into the poor section of town.

To be fair this was not my first (or even umpteenth) time driving into areas of Richmond where the people have not had the same opportunities, education or prospects that most of us take for granted.  Consequently, along with poverty, desperation, and frustration comes a comparative rise in violence, social dysfunction and drug use.  And the disturbing reality of this poverty is that overwhelmingly, the faces you see are black.  While living in Richmond I had worked for an organization that served grieving children, so I had seen much of the effect of poverty, but it had been many years since I had confronted these issues and I was not prepared to witness it again at this moment.   As I drove along Chamberlayne Avenue I was taken aback at the change the dividing interstate had wrought.  Even at 11:00pm on a weeknight people were out walking around, sitting on porches, watching the “goings on” but not in the innocent way that an old man might at a gas station. There was a feeling of stagnantness (is that even a word?) like, this is the way that this shit has been going down forever, why would it ever change?  A profound feeling of… resignation.

As I sat at a traffic light, I saw a man being arrested by three policemen (all with cruisers parked and lights flashing).  They  threw him on one of their cars, bent his arms around behind and roughly cuffed him.  I have no idea what he did and I am sure that the policemen were scared and wanting to ensure their own safety, but I was shocked by the brutality of the arrest.  Later, I saw a man buy drugs from another on the sidewalk in clear view of a dozen people and several passing cars.  I saw dealers, pimps, girls turning tricks, homeless, the drugged and insane, all mixed in with people just trying to make ends meet, just trying to get through the day.  I became fixated by these people, the “regular people” just living their lives, but in between such challenges that most of us will never understand.  I could not conceive of trying to live, go to work, shop for food, walk the dog or raise my daughter amongst such obvious difficulties.

In many ways Richmond is still dealing with the issues resulting from segregation and the Civil War.  It is not the only city in America (or the world for that matter) that is witness to a glaring disparity between the wealthy and the poor, haves and the have-nots, black and white, but there is a certain irony when you see it in the former capital of the Confederacy. Despite all of this, there are wonderful parts of Richmond where these barriers seem to be disappearing.  Forest Hill, Carytown, Church Hill and North Side are neighborhoods peopled by more than White Anglo-Saxon or African-American exclusively.  And it was to the North Side that I now arrived, at the driveway to my buddy Sean’s house.  Sean and his wife Jess live in (justifiably proudly) a safe and racially diverse neighborhood.  Seeking this location was important in thinking about the raising on their two wonderful children and I am full of admiration for them.  Way to go guys!

A Richmond City worker must have been having a bad day

My friend Matt the TV star is proud to be from Richmond.  Born, it seems, with Richmond, Virginia tattooed onto his arse, Matt never stops loving everything about his city.  It was Matt that introduced me to much I love about Richmond. Afternoons spent sipping beers at Chiocca’s, a wonderful basement bar tucked neatly away under a Victorian row house in Carytown, training runs across the Nickel Bridge (which, contrary to popular belief, never really cost a nickel) and down into the wonder wilds of the James River park system, Bloody Marys and Sunday brunch at Sidewalk Café and most importantly, the delights of sushi paired with a bucket of tater-tots at Sticky Rice, the wonderfully bohemian new wave sushi/fish and chip shop.  With all of that, despite its challenges, who could not love Richmond?  It  is a city that I once called home, and still draws me as strongly as anywhere else that I have lived. Perhaps, one day, we will come back here and experience all that we love again while seeing the progress that continues to be made in healing old wounds and righting old wrongs.  Oh, and get a bucket of tots with my dragon roll.

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6 Responses to A Postcard from the Old Dominion

  1. Ann Forster says:

    Your best piece so far Marcus. I loved the desciptions of the row houses and the feeling of the city. I was slightly scared that you went into a dangerous neighbourhood ,even though i know you had a lot to do with that area when you lived there. As usual there is a lot about eating and drinking!!! i am glad you had such a nice visit there before you come home, I loved the time I spent in Richmond.

  2. Ruth says:

    Fantastic post Marcus…..you could easily slip into a journalist’s role in Australia when you return…not long now. Happy travels….. I look forward to hearing more….but stay in the safe (ish) parts won’t you… :)
    Love Ruth xx

    • Ruth,

      Thanks for the wonderful praise. The writing is proving to be a great hobby while we are in this transition phase. I hope that you enjoy more as we progress through Europe and Africa. See you in October.

  3. Kurt says:

    I very much enjoyed your post, Marcus. In your informal conversational style, you eloquently capture what many of us love about Richmond — it’s beauty, parks & neighborhoods, restaurants, and people. It’s not paradise, but there’s a kind of quirkiness and complexity that’s not easy to describe — yet draws it somehow us together. I especially enjoy the way Richmond supports runners with the races and training team offerings. And the music festivals down by the river are an awful lot of fun.

    As one who spends a good deal of time with teens who live in poverty, I wish that we as a community would do more to bridge our economic and racial divides. On a hopeful note, lots of youth show resilience in many ways that inspire me. Overcoming significant family losses, dealing with addictions, managing traumas — there are many challenges that confront our youth and families during these trying times. These problems will not be remedied anytime soon, but it is good to know that there are caring people who offer a lot of help and support at times. Sometimes, there are small/brief encounters that can be life changing. I love those moments when I get to see it happen.

    • Wow Kurt,

      Thanks for the comment. I have been very lucky to meet such wonderful friends, you are certainly one of my heroes. Leaving America has been so exciting but we often forget about those things that we will leave behind, our friends are certainly the thing that causes us the most heartache. I hope that we continue to correspond and hopefully meet occasionally to take a hike with ol’ Ed, tell dirty jokes and philosophize. Those moments have become some of my most treasured memories. Take care and thanks for weighing in on the blog.

      Marcus

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