Our very own Pulitzer Prize-winning Ellen Glasgow once said, "All change is not growth; as all movement is not forward."
She wasn't contemplating the asssorted studies on regional issues of the last, oh, 50 years, but she was on the money, just the same.
Like sudden bursts of blossoms emerging from the cracks of a sidewalk, talk of regionalism regularly emerges in the media. I’m a guilty perpetrator myself. You can see here and here. Oh, and yes, here.
And now I’m wearying. Because from all these studies, nothing positive or substantive ever seems to happen — as if that’s the whole idea. It’s like that old Soviet Union ball-bearing plant where workers made the ball bearings, melted them and then remade them, in perpetuity. Full employment, yes, progress, nyet.
Yet here is a man I greatly respect, VCU urban-studies professor Morton Gulak, leading a study at the behest of the Greater Richmond Chamber and the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission through the nice people at the Capitol Region Collaborative.
An exercise in which 55 planners from throughout the region participated included asking them (among other things) to name recognizable features: 71 percent singled out the James River, a whopping 31 percent mentioned Short Pump and a mere 15 percent apiece gave props todowntown or the Fan District. (The italics are mine.)
Gulak is quoted as saying, “The region is not ‘imageable’ at all. In order to have a basis of cooperation, we’ve got to have an image of what we’re talking about.”
Some have tried. But the Easter Island heads of the region haven’t really warmed to the notion of pushing our collective stories as an epic in which we all share. Neither the history nor the future belong to any one person or group, but to all of us.
I keep thinking about Vizzini, “The Smartest Man in the World” played by Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride, and his consistent use of the word “inconceivable.” Which is what happens in a collective manner whenever regional identity is bruited, and the snorted retort is something like Richmond needs to turn in its city charter and admit failure.
My mind, too, goes back to a post about a talk given by then (and still, I guess) mayor Dwight C. Jones (Remember him? I wrote a feature on him back in the heady days of last year.)
During that talk, the mayor sounded some quite fine phrases that I praised, but almost two years later, there’s not much substance following them. Don’t get me wrong. You don’t turn a supertanker around on a dime.
The kind of change the Greater Metropolitan Area (or “A-ree-ya” if you’re speaking old Richmondese) needs — deep, paradigm-shifting, fundamental alterations — likely won’t occur short of two things: 1) A massive catastrophe the likes of which we cannot imagine nor would we wish to occur. This would, however, make provincial differences look like just what they are: imaginary, based in ego. 2) A neuralizer device to alter synaptic firings and, with surgical precision, change people’s modes of thought.
Of course, if such a device existed, those who created the thing would likely choose circumstances that seemed more important than snapping the Richmond region’s mind-forged manacles.
We have done the same thing for so long that it often seems as if our politics cannot conscience an alternative. But, as someone once said, real political change comes as if through the slow grinding of boards. All this said, I don’t mind these conferences and reports, if they can get us a little more down the road to policies that work on a regional basis.
Problem is, I have just one lifetime, and the region's challenges won't wait. We need some actual change that is growth, and some progress that is forward, not as singular entities but together.