Photo by Brooke Marsh
We talked with native Richmonders who returned home and with adopted sons and daughters who came here for a new opportunity. How has the region changed since they left and returned? Is Richmond what they expected it to be?
Return to RVA
Photo by Jay Paul
Diane Giles Iannone
Moved back in 2013
Young, free and ready to roam, Diane Giles Iannone graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and promptly split town. She traveled for a year and a half before taking a media job in Northern Virginia and then other jobs throughout the Washington, D.C., area.
But then came marriage to husband Dave Iannone in 2010 and relocation to Columbia, Maryland. Two years later, the Iannones had a daughter, Maylin, and found themselves in need of a support system. “We found it really difficult not having family around,” Iannone says.
They moved in October 2013, bringing Iannone back to her old stomping grounds of Mechanicsville. “This area is so different now, and I know I enjoy being here,” she says.
She regrets giving up the D.C. music scene with more big name acts but was “pleasantly surprised” to return here to a robust downtown food scene.
Iannone’s biggest gains: her family’s escape from the megalopolis traffic grind and a realization that the Richmond region’s culture is, comparatively, just more relaxed.
In Maryland, for example, she had joined a Moms International group as a social outlet, but found the parenting culture to be a touch too intense. She’s been happy with her new network. “It’s a great group,” she says. “I feel like it’s a little more laid back here, whereas up there I think people were a little more ... interested in what you were doing than I wanted them to be.”
Photo by Chet Strange
Cleaning services business owner
Moved back in 2008
Before moving to Richmond in May 1994, Edy Lorisme was “living in the mouth of the devil.” His native Haiti roiled with conflict, so he, his wife, Marie, and their five children relocated to Virginia from Port-au-Prince as political refugees. (Their sixth child was born the year after their move.)
A Catholic-based resettlement agency assisted Lorisme with provisional housing in Chesterfield County and helped find his first of several jobs here. But after more than a decade in the region, in 2006, Lorisme looked south and moved to Atlanta, with visions of success as a small-business owner.
“That was the biggest mistake I made in my life,” he recalls with a touch of laughter. The big city felt impersonal and difficult — people had a problem with understanding his English.
He returned to Richmond in 2008, and within a year was working at his current job as a Collegiate School custodian. He also started his own commercial cleaning business, Seven Stars Services.
After Atlanta, Lorisme, now 60, returned with gratitude for the Richmond region’s people, who he says are usually quick with simple courtesies, are patient with his Haitian-flavored English and seem ready to lend a hand.
“When I [came] back to Richmond, that’s where my happiness returned,” he says. “I felt like I was coming home. ... When you come back here, you feel, ‘Ah, this is the place I belong.’ ”
Photo by Chris Smith
Deputy director of human resources, volunteers and community service at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Moved back in 2015
“It’s encoded in my DNA to be a Richmonder, no matter where I am,” says Kimberly Wilson, who was born and raised in the city’s North Side and graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1982.
Where Wilson has been, however, is on the move, up the ladder of an ambitious career that often moved her out of town for years at a time, beginning not long after she earned her political science degree from Mary Washington College in 1986. The 52-year-old’s string of administrative positions have included stints at Howard University, the University of Richmond and at The George Washington University, where she most recently oversaw human resources for 15 different departments within the school.
Late last year, though, Wilson returned to town as the deputy director of human resources, volunteers and community service at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Her family’s Richmond history dates to the late 1800s, she says — her connections to friends and colleagues run generations deep in some cases. She appreciates what she sees as a culture of caring here. When she suffered the deaths of her brother, her mother and her father over the years, she notes, friends from all corners of her life here reached out, even when she was away. “They embrace you,” she says. “I really love Richmond. So, I’m hoping to stay here for a good little stint.”
Photo by Chris Smith
Moved back in 2010
It was 1968 when a teenager from Roanoke, Barry Fitzgerald, showed up as a freshman at the newly minted Virginia Commonwealth University to begin art school. “I went there for two years and dropped out to play rock ‘n’ roll,” he says.
He took on “weird jobs” to feed his “rock ‘n’ roll habit,” eventually winding up in Single Bullet Theory, a local band that toured and flirted with the ’80s pop chart before splitting.
The band gig, however, inadvertently redirected Fitzgerald to his ultimate career in architectural photography, drawing him to Key West, Florida, in early 1995.
Fifteen years later, Fitzgerald’s love affair with South Florida faded. He witnessed Richmond’s transformation from afar, while noting that his legion of friends, dating back to his art school days, were still around. In 2010, he bought a house in the city’s Newtowne West district and returned to an arts community that had grown exponentially since his first days in Richmond.
“I felt the pull,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s that Richmond Rubber Band Theory: You can leave, but you can’t stay left. It snaps you right back."
New Faces in Town
Photo by Chet Strange
Copywriter/technical editor at Capital One
Moved here in 2011
Boston, Chicago and Cleveland, Ohio: This was the geographic hit list preceding Meg Rains’ ultimate decision to call Richmond home. But also there was her divorce after three and a half years of marriage and the death of her mother in the same rough patch of life.
“I wanted to start over,” Rains says, so in 2011 she pointed her car toward Fredericksburg, Virginia, where her father had moved to retire. It was just the staging ground for her next move.
“I thought, ‘I really want to go to Richmond.’ “ The main attraction was her friendship with the only two locals she knew: former graduate school classmate Alison Titus and Joshua Poteat, both poets and copywriters for The Martin Agency.
Rains rented a Church Hill apartment in September 2011, after getting hired as a copywriter for Capital One. Her friends introduced her to a widening circle of writers, artists and professionals who still spark her creativity. Rains also revels in the old Southern soul of the place, connecting her to her Arkansas roots. “There’s so much grace and grit,” she says. “There’s just enough of both. … I’m drawn to all the energy that’s still around from way back when.”
She’s found a sense of equilibrium in the pace of the region’s culture, the ease of the people she’d meet. “I came here to rebuild my life,” Rains says, “and it was a great soft landing. ... All of my intuitions about it were right.”
Photo by Kim Frost
Monti Narayan Datta
Associate professor at University of Richmond
Moved here in 2009
Monti Datta, an associate professor of political science at University of Richmond, grew up in Los Angeles, California. His first notions of Virginia and its capital city, he recalls a bit playfully, were informed by reruns of the 1970s show “The Waltons.” The TV facsimile of our fair city, of course, wasn’t quite valid preparation for his eventual move here in 2009, after completing his doctorate on the West Coast.
“As a Californian moving to Virginia, I definitely felt a culture shock,” he says. He was encouraged by the immediate warmth of his colleagues who threw a welcome party for him, and the cocoon of UR’s small liberal arts environment hit a new note in his academic career, a pleasant surprise after his experiences at large public universities.
Witnessing the region’s socioeconomic disparities and confronting its history as a slave-trading center intensified his interest in modern slavery issues and spurred him to volunteer at the Richmond Justice Center.
When Datta teaches courses on human rights and modern slavery, he takes students down to the slave trail along the banks of the James River for a more visceral lesson.
People here, he observes, offer a folksy, relaxed charm and do not seem rushed. “Maybe that slowness is a little more conducive to mindfulness and being present.” It’s a trait, he says, that bigger cities could use, too.
Photo by Kim Frost
Founder, Nettie’s Naturally Bakery
Moved here in 2011
It’s no small distance from South Africa to Jackson Ward, yet Lynette Potgieter keeps enough space in her heart for both places, plus several major global cities connecting the path from her native country to her new home.
Now 41, Potgieter left South Africa at 23 and set off on a globe-trekking career in optometry that took her to London, then Sydney, Australia, where she lived for 10 years before following a job to San Diego, California.
During a bicoastal business trip to Richmond she was wooed — and moved to the city in August 2011. “The friendliness of the people was the first thing that really stood out for me,” she says.
She started a wholesale business specializing in gluten-free, sugar-free goods along the way: Nettie’s Naturally Bakery, which tapped into a critical dietary niche specifically tailored to diabetics, celiac sufferers and others. In search of a commercial kitchen, she found a space in Jackson Ward, at Clay and Adams streets, and set up shop. “I’ll be honest,” she says. “I didn’t like it at first. ... I didn’t have an appreciation of what the area was about when I first moved here.”
The sense of community among residents and other business owners, and the ongoing revival of Jackson Ward endeared her to the place, so she moved into the same building, above her bakery, which now operates as a café and storefront.
Her world travels give her a broad view, she says, an appreciation that perhaps escapes some Richmond natives. “For a city this size,” Potgieter recalls, “I was quite taken by the way that the people look out for each other.”
Photo by Jay Paul
Segment Lead for Marketing Operations at Capital One
Moved here in 2011
“I was in D.C. for about 15 years, I guess, and I hit a burnout point,” recalls Eric Axelson, who planted roots here in August 2011. His thoughts of buying a house had been tempered by the reality of exorbitant real estate prices.
The Northern Virginia native looked south, to where his sister lives. After all, there was his premonition years earlier, while visiting town with the band The Dismemberment Plan; he remarked to a friend that Richmond was the kind of place he could see himself moving to one day, when he was older.
“Lo and behold, I did, and I think a lot of it was the vibe,” he says of his attraction to the place. “People come off a little more laid back down here.”
In his four-plus years as a Richmond resident, the 44-year-old has settled snugly into the local scene with his wife, Rachel, who followed him from D.C. after some two-city dating for about a year. The couple married in Church Hill in 2014 and moved last year to their first home in the North Barton Heights neighborhood.
“We saw how fast the North Side was changing,” he says, “and we decided we wanted to be a part of that.”
D.C. had its winning points, of course: major league soccer, more global diversity and a more sophisticated dining scene. Here, it’s the Richmond Kickers, a still-evolving culinary identity and a respite from the career-obsessed culture on the Potomac.
“All the trade-offs ...” Axelson says. “To me, they’ve felt worth it.”