There's the cliché about our first impressions always being right. Problem is, that statement is often wrong. We asked five people — natives and newcomers to our region — to share their stories of arriving, returning or even choosing not to leave here: A young woman finds something other than she expected after a cross-continental journey. An artist finds a town that's different than the one he left. An author discovers unexpected roots amid a historic enclave, while a financial pro chooses an entrepreneurial risk over leaving. And as the nation embraces change, one woman also alters her view of her new hometown.
The Silver Lining
Richmond seemed like a mistake — until it didn't
In March 2007, Brandie Young moved to Richmond, after spending a few hours here for a job interview. Her initial impressions, after a two-week road trip from Alaska, weren't positive: a cheap motel with a stingy towel policy and, at the other end of the cost spectrum, $16 martinis. Then her cat died. But despite her initial troubles, Young — a mobility specialist for the blind — now calls the city "home."
I was living in Alaska for almost six years, and I loved it. It was such an adventure; I traveled all over in little bush planes, and I worked with blind people up there as well.
I grew up in Pennsylvania, so I wanted to move back to the East Coast, and there was a job open in Richmond, working for the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired. I interviewed and got the position, so I decided to drive down here [from Alaska] instead of flying. I asked my best friend, Lori, "Why don't you take some time off work and drive down with me?" It was so much fun — it was the road trip of a lifetime.
Day two was when a dog bit me. We got to this little cabin/gas station. It was in the middle of Watson Lake, in the Yukon. This crusty old guy comes out and pumps my gas. I never even touched [the dog] Foxy Lady. But I leaned over and said, "Bye, Foxy Lady," and she bit me really hard in the knee, and I started screaming. And this man came out and started cursing at his dog.
There were caribou and eagles and buffalo, deer, fox. Then we went through Banff, Canada, and it was beautiful. We were the only vehicle on the road — you're driving through the mountains, and you don't see any other vehicles for hours. "Oh, there's a caribou, there's a moose!" They're right there, next to your car.
I was really nervous when we got to Richmond. Coming from Alaska, where there are no billboards and it's low-key, and then coming to Richmond — it was pretty overwhelming at first.
We rolled into town, and it was 11 at night. We found a motel, and it was 42 dollars. I said, "We'll take it." I should have known — when I pulled up and there was Plexiglas — that I shouldn't stay there.
But we stayed in the motel, and there were no towels, so I went back, and the manager slipped me some towels through the Plexiglas, and I said, "Well, I'm going to need three towels," and he said, "There are only two of you." We ended up not even showering that night because the shower was so gross, and we had to slide the stupid towels through the Plexiglas the next morning, or we wouldn't get our receipt. That night we went to a bar, and I ordered a martini — it was 16 dollars. I remember crying, "What are we doing in this city?"
I looked at the Fan at a few apartments, but I wound up finding something in the West End. My parents drove down my cat from Pennsylvania, and three days later, she died.
The whole transition was really difficult for me at first. I know it's God's grace that I'm happy in Richmond. I started hiking in the James River area, I joined a running group through the Richmond Sports Backers, and I ran the marathon this past fall.
So, there's been a lot of activity. There's a great church I'm involved in, and I have a lot of friends from there. My job is wonderful; I serve 13 counties in the area. What I do is work with people who are blind or vision-impaired, and I teach them how to use a long, white cane and travel independently. My co-workers are great, and that's made the transition easier, too.
I like going to music shows at Innsbrook; I started exploring the Shenandoah area a little, so that's been fun — camping and hiking out there. I've grown in appreciation for Richmond.
It has been a gradual process. It is home now — I'm not going back to Alaska. And I guess Richmond seemed so big, but it's definitely gotten smaller. And now I have a wonderful boyfriend, and that makes life a little easier too. —As told to Kate Andrews
Coming to Terms
A Richmond native reconciles his personal differences with the town he loves
Last year, at 63 years old, portrait painter Louis Briel came back to Richmond after nine years in Los Angeles. Throughout his life, he says, anyone who was paying attention could have figured out that he is gay. Nevertheless, during the decades he grew up here, he kept the fact close to his vest. Returning to Virginia from California, Briel found that his hometown had changed some and so had he.
Being the only kid in third-grade in 1952 wearing a Stevenson for President button defined my early relationship with Richmond.
One of my first realizations at that age was that it wasn't popular here, in 1952, to be a liberal or progressive. My parents were of a political leaning that was not in fashion here.
As soon as I knew what "gay" was — although I didn't have a word for it, I knew that's what I was — it became obvious to me that it was not OK, in the same way that being a Democrat here was not OK and in the same way that black people had to sit in the back of the bus.
It was going to have to be a secret.
I don't think that necessarily has to do with just Richmond — the same thing was going on in Los Angeles at the time. It's not that it was more comfortable to be gay in Los Angeles, but politically it was more "out." In Richmond, at best, there was a quiet, genteel acceptance of everybody's lifestyle so long as we didn't talk about it.
My life went on in Richmond, however, and as I became an adult, I made some peace with being a liberal in a conservative town, and gay at a time and place where it hardly was comfortable. I had to choose my friends and words carefully. I became a portrait painter of some note and developed a career with success here and nationally.
During my childhood I had often perused Life and Look magazines and took note that everything glamorous, modern and fun seemed to happen in California. So, I vowed someday to move there, far away from my overprotective mother and Confederate generals.
Finally, I visited Los Angeles in 1988, to see the retrospective show of paintings by David Hockney, my art hero and an "out" gay man. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I felt at home. Sunshine, sea breezes and sliding glass doors welcomed me to a landscape where gay folks had some legal protections. Finally, in 1999, I made the move and for nine years, I easily negotiated everything but the traffic in a place that is welcoming, hopeful and politically progressive.
But L.A. is a movie town, it's a camera town — not a portrait-painting town — so I decided to move back home in the fall of 2008 to reclaim my reputation as a painter.
Richmond and its surroundings, I discovered, had turned much more progressive and, witness the recent election, even blue. I chose to live downtown in a converted industrial loft — to participate in inner-city vitality. And I aligned myself with groups like Equality Virginia and the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth that are fighting hard for equality.
I made the decision when I came back to Richmond that I was not going to be in the closet. I mean, before, anyone who was paying attention or cared much about me usually could figure out that I am gay.
But today I find myself much more inclined to talk about it, to be who I am, than I was nine years ago when I left here.
On balance, I'm glad to be back. I know who I am and who I am not. I still choose my friends carefully, my words less so. The architecture and history of the place speak to me now in a way they didn't before, with a softness and non-political genuineness. The older you get, after all, the stronger you feel the pull of nostalgia.
It may also be that as I've grown older, I've grown up some, too. —As told to Jack Cooksey
After seven years and a historic grass-roots movement, a transplanted resident gains a sense of community
Terri-ann Brown, 39, is a mother of two and works for the Virginia Tobacco Settlement Foundation. She and her husband, Gary, a sales representative for Verizon, moved to Richmond from Northern Virginia in 2001. Brown volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2007, canvassing door to door, registering voters and hosting primary parties at her home. Through her work on the campaign, she came to see a different Richmond than the city she thought she knew.
Once we moved here, I began to feel like Richmond was somewhat divided racially, somewhat divided among socioeconomic lines, and I felt like Richmond was a very conservative city, which I didn't really have a sense of before I moved here.
I think I'm a pretty open-minded person. Growing up in Boston, I went to school with people of different races, different religions. I came from an environment that was pretty open and liberal. And living in Northern Virginia, you're exposed to many more races and cultures and religions than down here.
I originally heard of Barack Obama at a Tim Kaine rally, when [Kaine] was running for governor, and that was my first time ever hearing Barack Obama speak, stumping for Tim Kaine. I was very impressed. … I said to myself he should run for president, and when he finally announced, I decided to get involved. I had never been involved in a political campaign before, but I just really believed in his approach to governing and his approach to bringing people together, and I wanted to do whatever I could do.
I had lived in my house since 2001, and I only knew my immediate next-door neighbor. … Someone called me from the campaign and asked me to have a party for my subdivision, and I was like, "But I don't know my neighbors. I don't have anyone to invite!" He said, "Don't worry; we'll start a Web site." And at around 8 o'clock that night, cars started pulling up out in front of my house, and it was amazing.
I think when both people work a full-time job, life takes over and you somehow become isolated from your neighbors.
It just feels good now to be able to know people, know their names, know where they work. If you run into them at Ukrop's, you strike up a conversation. One day I was leaving work and I saw one of the guys who attended my house party, and we struck up a conversation. One of the women who attended my house party called me when she had tickets to Dave Matthews, to see if I wanted to go.
I think the fact that the campaign asked us to go knock on doors and talk to complete strangers also created an environment where you were able to talk to people you normally wouldn't talk to. I found that people were willing to sit on the porch and say, "Let's talk about issues." No one was ever rude to me. They were very cordial. I was somewhat afraid that some people might be rude, that some people might be mean, but I never got any of that. People were always offering us something to drink or asking if we needed to use the restroom — even if we disagreed on the issues.
One time I went out during this big rainstorm, and I went up to this man's door and knocked and told him I was a volunteer for Barack Obama's campaign. He said he was a McCain supporter, so I asked if there was anything he wanted to know about Barack Obama that he didn't. We ended up having a long conversation. I sat down on his porch, and we had a decent conversation about things — like the issues that were important to him.
I think I did kind of have this preconceived notion that there weren't as many people who thought the same way that I did in Richmond. I definitely see a different Richmond after working on the campaign — some of it probably was my own bias coming into it, but I just feel like now that it's a community that is more open, a community that lets people of different generations, different races, different religions come together around some common ground and work together. —As told to Richard Foster
While exploring Petersburg's rich history, one newcomer stumbles on his own
Six years ago, author Jeff Abugel and his wife bought a historic home in Petersburg and began renovating it while keeping residence in Iowa. Then three years ago, they became full-time residents. Along the way, Abugel discovered family roots there, dating to the Civil War, and found that he's waging his own small battles for the city's welfare.
Recently, I found myself stuck in traffic on Boulevard in Colonial Heights. With some time to take in the scenery, I couldn't help but think of Henry Miller's classic description of Myrtle Avenue in New York:
"… down this street no saint ever walked… nor did any flower ever grow there, nor did the sun strike it squarely, nor did the rain ever wash it."
The world is full of Myrtle Avenues. Streets like Boulevard assault the eye with fast-food and payday-loan joints, gas stations and tattoo parlors — urban blight. I had lived near such arteries before, but none of them ended with an escape, a bridge to another time. This one did.
When I crossed the bridge into Petersburg, I left all the Myrtle Avenues behind. I descended into my familiar world of brick and mortar, cobblestone and tin roofs, and ancient dwellings where saints and poets did in fact walk, where genius did abide.
"I love this town," I thought. But why? My first impressions six years earlier hardly reflected such passion.
Our reasons for moving were simple: My wife had family in Northern Virginia, and our careers allowed us to work from virtually anywhere. We were sick of Iowa winters, and wanted an affordable historic home.
Southern roots also exerted their influence. My great-great grandfather, one Greene B. Stringer, had fought for the Confederacy, somewhere. But I was pure Yankee. Having grown up in New York, I regarded Petersburg as just another Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope — a place that had fallen on hard times that would rise again. A place worth investing in while it was still down.
We made our move in stages. While still living in Iowa, we visited Petersburg every other month, worked on our 1870 house and got to know our neighbors. All the while, the joys of living here — the proximity to Richmond, the beach and Charlottesville, and all they have to offer — made themselves increasingly apparent. Over time, our street began to change. The drug house across the intersection burned, and new residents restored it. An eclectic mix of people who loved history and porch culture — doctors, welders, teachers, and flight attendants — began moving in one by one. By the time we settled permanently, we enjoyed a neighborhood friendlier than any we had ever known.
Most newcomers quickly develop a love-hate relationship with the town. They adore the town's architecture, its rich history and, most important, the sense of community. The negatives are hated as passionately as the positives are loved — intolerable statistics such as a 43 percent illiteracy rate, chronic unemployment, drugs and teenage pregnancy.
Yet years of indifference to the town's inherent historic assets have yielded a strange irony. Many of the oldest houses and commercial buildings remain largely original, free of cobbled remodeling — still standing through luck and the protection of federal historic-landmark status. Prospective immigrants delight in the possibility of owning an 18th- or 19th-century house for a fraction of what it would cost elsewhere. The town's decline is, in fact, the catalyst behind its renaissance.
Many of us realize exactly what we have and are committed to saving it. And with us will come changes that hopefully will fix lives, as well as broken windows.
Ultimately, a strange twist sealed my commitment to my new hometown. A local Civil War expert informed me that Green B. Stringer, my ancestor, had defended Petersburg during the siege of 1864. A family member was here, fighting enemies from without, more than 150 years before I'd ever heard of the place. It seems fitting that I should be here now, fighting the good fight against whatever enemies lie within. — By Jeff Abugel
Taking an entrepreneurial leap for the sake of remaining in Richmond
When Wachovia Securities purchased A.G. Edwards last year, many employees relocated to the new headquarters in St. Louis, Mo. But not Michael Jones, who instead co-founded Riverfront Investment Group. The asset-management firm employs 17 people, 16 of whom left Wachovia.
I first learned about the merger with A.G. Edwards when my boss called me in; they were in the final stages of negotiations. He said we're going to be buying A.G. Edwards, and the first reaction was, "Hey, that's great."
Then he said the headquarters would be moving to St. Louis. There was an overwhelming sense of shock. Then it was the full stages of grief. I became determined that no matter what the firm did, I would be staying in Richmond, a decision I came to within the space of a couple of minutes after picking up the phone and talking with my wife.
We had relocated for Wachovia a few years before, in 1999 to 2000, to Charlotte, North Carolina, which is a lovely city — but it wasn't home. And when we got the chance to relocate back to Richmond, the kids, my wife — it was literally that, coming home. This is where our friends are. We love it here, we love the mountains, we love the beach, we love everything about it. So, this is where we're going to retire.
With the exception of a year in New York and a year in Charlotte, we have been here. We're like ping-pong balls; every time we bounce to a new city, we bounce back.
My morale and my plans got a huge boost when two members of my asset-management team came into
my office and said, "We're going to stay here, and we're going to try to do something on our own, and we'd like you to do it with us, but if you're going to St. Louis, you're not in."
I went to my boss and my boss' boss, and I said that we're not going to St. Louis. That was within a week of the merger being announced, June of 2007.
They made it very clear that we would not still be employees if we stayed in Richmond. And so we told them we wanted permission to start working on developing some business alternatives that we would go to work for if and when Wachovia moved out to St. Louis and when we were no longer employees there. And they gave us permission to do that and also were very clear that they were ultimately going to try to persuade us to stay with the firm.
We said, "I don't think so, but OK," and so we continued to do our jobs, and they continued to try to persuade us to come to St. Louis. They were very generous with the financial incentives they offered. They tried to paint a picture of what the future firm would look like and what our role in that firm could be and the leadership role we could have in one of the largest brokerage firms in the country.
It finally became clear around October 2007 that we were at an impasse with Wachovia. We came to an agreement that we were leaving. And the company wanted us to wait until April 2008, so we said, "OK, we'd like some things from you. We'd like our track record — the money-management track record that's so important to building a small business. We'd like the ability to at least ask our key people if they'd like to join Riverfront. And we'd like the ability to sell our products to Wachovia financial advisers." They ultimately agreed to the first two.
The issue overriding it all was our families wanted to stay here, they were extraordinarily happy here, and two, we' d been through an awful lot of merger integrations, and every time the firm got a whole lot bigger, it didn't necessarily get more fun. A lot of times, it got a lot less fun. And in this merger, boy, the firm almost doubled in size.
My new firm might not be as big, we might not have as much influence, everyone might not have heard of us, but we have a lot more control over our environment. And, therefore, we have a lot more fun. And the one thing that definitely unites this team and holds it together cohesively is where we live. —As told to Kate Andrews