A view of the James River from the Federal Reserve Bank building on Byrd Street downtown.
There between Liverpool, England, and the nation of Scotland, after Rio de Janeiro, but before Palm Springs, Calif., sits our very own Richmond, Va. It’s one of Frommer's' Top Destinations for 2014. But what’s the graph about beneath the image of the State Capitol?
The Civil War.
It starts with, “Once the South was repelled from Gettysburg by the Union, the third year of the Civil War became all about Virginia — in fact, more major fights happened in that state than any other. The year 2014 is the 150th anniversary of many of its biggest battles.”
Well, fine. It’s the Sesquicentennial that seems already to have gone on longer than the war. Of course, I've been writing about it since 2009. Then, after explaining to the would-be visitor that Richmond is also convenient to battlefields and Williamsburg, it ends with, “Richmond is coming into its own as a choice regional destination with a growing slate of breweries, farm-to-table restaurants, and even white-water river rapid activities cutting right through downtown. While you weren't looking, Richmond got cool.”
Thanks, Frommer’s. That'll make'em cancel that flight to Rio in a hot second.
Now, look. I'm not kvetching here just because I like to. And I'm not an ingrate. It's because whenever Richmond pops up in the national press, whether for actual news or travel pieces, often within the first paragraph comes the throw-away time-place locator description, “former capital of Confederacy.” This assumes that the readership knows that 150ish years ago, there was this policy discussion that left more than 600,000 people dead and major Southern cities in smoldering ruins — including Richmond. And that it wasn’t that entirely long ago — two fairly usual lifetimes laid end to end.
It’s easier to say, “Confederate capital” than “training ground for Edgar Allan Poe” or “origin place of the world’s first electric transit system,” or even “birthplace of Dirt Woman.”
Still, it’s like publications north of the Mason-Dixon won’t acknowledge that Richmond has tallied 400 years of post-European settlement history aside. Instead, we get pointed out for those four that ended in ashes. Like the Beatles sang, "Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight, carry that weight a long time."
But here in the 21st century, that bit of Richmond-as-Confederate-crucible shorthand is getting a little shopworn. Whatever else that happened here gets short shrift by journalistic efficiency that in one respect, depending on the story, may carry a patronizing, “look how far they’ve come,” when referring to our art museum, basketball team or tattoo infestation, or tut-tutting when grumping about Monument Avenue’s statues (as though we’re out there facing them and genuflecting every day) which, I understand, isn’t helped by our periodic outbreaks of neo-Confederate flag-waving nostalgapologists.
This identification of Richmond by Civil War proxy happens often enough that I read a May travel blogpost by Emily Saladino three times before realizing the word “Confederate” didn’t figure into it.
Saladino also plucked my heart strings in August with a piece in New York magazine about get-aways that saved a picture of the Jefferson Davis statute on Monument for “An Oddball Day” of activities. The caption, “The Old South is still present, as in this Jefferson Davis memorial.” I know about captioning images, and how you try to be clever and descriptive, but it’s tough for me determine if the tone here was resigned, appalled or matter-of-fact. It’s like those Vanity Fair magazine headshots of actors mugging to various descriptions. And, in fairness, she may not have written the line.
But Saladino managed what her peers seem incapable of, and that is not pointing out the obvious nor insulting the reader’s intelligence through expedient brevity.
But like Reese Witherspoon’s reeanctor father in Sweet Home Alabama says as he lurches with a shrug out the door to his reenactment, “It’s history! It happened!” We cannot, nor should we, ignore, but just as we seem to be reaching escape velocity from the clutches of the past, something revivifies them, whether flaggers or the baseball stadium relocation flap doodle. And all that happy art stuff that makes for such great pictures gets set aside as if to say, “This is what they’re really like.”
Previously to this, in 2010, Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Stephen Koff got my hopes up but he couldn't avoid the Confederate conundrum/cliche in the second graph.
And then there was Aimee Mann. She's from here — Midlothian, close enough — and Open High graduate. Earlier this year she was on Mark Maron’s podcast, WTF, and Maron demonstrated a basic lack of knowledge of the city covered over by snark. You can’t listen to it now unless you want to become a Premium Member. But he poormouthed the place, and Aimee — who left here in the late 1970s — says we can’t just get our “stuff” together to make a real music scene. I really like Aimee Mann (sat on a tree limb at the San Francisco Hardly Strictly Festival to watch her a few years ago), and, sure, we were far less together in ’78, but believe it or not, our arts culture has changed since then.
Mann, of course, doesn’t need to care about us anymore since she walks on a larger stage as a citizen of the world. But still, it hurt, Aimee Mann. And I thought you were great on Portlandia,by the way, hearing those Richmond inflections that are still not totally gone from your wonderful voice. Sigh.
Richmond is more complicated than we’re given credit for and, I would offer, is also incredibly exasperating. But at least the French took us off their “Enter At Your Own Risk” list.
Now, that’s cool.