The old City Hall ca. 1905, designed by Detroit architect Elijah Myers and completed in 1894. Today it is used for state offices. (Photo courtesy of the Cook Collection at the Valentine)
Back in the bad old days of the mid-1990s, I attended a conference organized by the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission and was among the other earnests there to discuss “regional cooperation.”
These were times when Richmond’s murder rate stood at about 150 corpses per annum, when City Council was embroiled either in scandal or attempting to avoid arrest from said scandal, and the center city had cratered from both the loss of retail and the ham-fisted efforts to shock the place back to life. During the ensuing discussion, an older man (seemed older to me, as I was at the time quite younger than now), rose from the bleachers burning from a three-alarm ire. He announced that Richmond, incapable of governing itself, should turn in the ancient city charter and submit to the better administrations of Chesterfield and/or Henrico counties.
I wondered about the practicalities.
Would our City of Monumental Juxtapositions get divvied up like Vienna, Austria, after World War II and patrolled by police forces of the three municipalities? Would it require state-approved letters of transit by those seeking to get in and out? I imagined desperate characters gathered at a shabby café on Belt Boulevard to await their turn on the bus to Skinquarter and Varina, and wrenching scenes of families crossing the Falling Creek Reservoir in overloaded skiffs. I’d written about how the counties wanted no truck with Richmond’s lame and infirm, nor its poor and huddled masses — most of whom were not white, though nobody actually said so — yearning to breathe free air conditioning. When talking about, for example, extending bus service into the counties, I heard about not wanting “an urban element” disturbing the comity of the cul-de-sac archipelago.
If some things haven’t changed since that meeting, others have. Poverty has taken root in the inner-ring suburbs, while the city is growing again, energized by younger professionals with disposable incomes.
These new residents, often from larger cities, have reasonable expectations of proper schooling for their progeny, good roads, trash collection, and wise stewardship of public spaces and access ways.
Lately, we’ve experienced some engine trouble.
In public forums today, there is caviling and wailing about the disastrous past seven years since the citizenry started directly electing its mayor. We indulge ourselves in pangs of past glories both real and imagined because they provide odd comfort. As we enter the next mayoral campaign season, it’s useful to examine just how we got here.
Let’s begin with Adon Allen Yoder. He would tell you governance of Richmond has never been pretty.
Yoder, a “radical revolutionist tho’ conservative” socialist (strong on women’s rights, weak on black civil liberties) lambasted Richmond’s city government a little more than a century ago as a “botched and bunglesome machine.”
A Lynchburg native, Yoder was the fourth of seven children of Mennonite educator Jacob E. Yoder, who founded that city’s African-American schools. His father’s causes made Adon a target for insults and worse, but he, too, grew up seeking to rectify social injustices.
After a brief and disappointing stint in the Baptist ministry, Adon Yoder became a proto-blogger from 1909 to 1911, printing his weekly pamphlet “The Idea.” He gained modest support in Richmond by “saying in public what others say in private.”
He named names of municipal malefactors, printed city commissioners’ gambling winnings, showed cracks in the foundations of new schools, described the houses of prostitution in Shockoe Valley — and implied that some members of the police commission earned rent from the bordellos. He expressed exasperation about the city engineer’s incompetence and showed that in Richmond, public business was rife with corruption. For his trouble, Yoder was beaten, incarcerated and sued.
Richmond’s government structure at the time imitated the state and federal levels: a two-house city legislature formed of a Common Council and Board of Aldermen and brokered by a popularly elected mayor. Some 56 chummy white men ran Richmond. They oversaw a byzantine arrangement of commissions and committees. Even the city’s own leaders realized the futility of the mess.
Yoder left town in March 1911 to seek treatment for his tubercular wife. As if to spite him, the Common Council Special Joint Committee released a report eight months later calling for a “radical” restructuring of city government. The next year, the city underwent reduction from eight council wards to four. An administrative board of five members elected at-large for four-year terms assumed the major responsibilities of prior committees. The board oversaw the city works, utilities and the engineer’s office. Council retained control of the purse strings and the lawmaking.
That was the first of three charter changes Richmond would undergo before reaching its present mayor-at-large over a nine-member council.
Put another way, every other generation, we revise or completely overhaul our system of governance. And each time, we stand on the precipice, frustrated by the administration and a decided lack of leadership, transparency and accountability. How does this happen? What is the underpinning reason for these repeated failures? What’s wrong with Richmond?
We’ll enter this skin-pricking thicket next month in Part the Second.