Streetcars, deemed obsolescent, were burned for scrap off Government Road in the late 1940s. (Photo courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch)
Corduroy your collective brow over this puzzlement.
Why can’t Richmond produce a Joe Riley Jr., who has spent most of his adult life as mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, a leader so beloved they named their baseball stadium after him? Where is our Cory Booker, the former (and controversial) mayor of Newark, New Jersey? Where is our Fiorello La Guardia, the great New York City mayor — you know, the one with an airport named after him?
Richmond should have a mayor worthy of lofty recollection, or why even bother to elect one? Somebody must govern, and this person oughtn’t run the city into bankruptcy or fill departmental vacancies with a passing parade of mercenary functionaries from out of town who, like Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow, know nothing — except where to cash their departure checks.
And if crisis is necessary to summon the kind of people willing to rise to the challenge, where are they? The city’s tangled financial situation and its hydra-headed bureaucracy with seemingly no one in charge constitute a threat to Richmond’s future and its residents.
Since the time Richmond incorporated as a city in 1782, why has there not been one popularly elected mayor to whom we can point and say: “That’s the bar an elected official needs to reach.” And I don’t mean the bar at a preferred establishment (which I’m not against).
In part one of this series, we learned that in 1912, Richmond saw the first of three charter changes. It was a “radical restructuring” of city governance that put in place a five-member elected Administrative Board, which oversaw public works, utilities and the engineer’s office. City Council still controlled the purse strings.
That structure lasted all of six years. In 1918, the General Assembly ordered a special election that did away with the Administrative Board.
The order came after a study of city governance by the then-well-known New York City Bureau of Municipal Research at the request of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce. The study produced a 1,000-page report, the bulk of which was bad news, very bad news, indeed.
The problem with the Administrative Board, according to the report, was its elected status. “Popular elections, however democratic they may be, cannot be depended upon as a means of selecting properly qualified executives.” The Bureau report argued for creating a post of “central executive officer” and abolishing the board in favor of a strong elected mayor and a small council. The consultants also pushed for a five-member City Planning Commission to direct the city’s growth.
Neither this herald cry for executive decision-making nor the salary of $5,000 a year ($93,217 in today’s money) proved enough to induce Richmond’s business leaders to drag themselves from dark wood-paneled, cigar-smoke shrouded club rooms to come up with someone who fit the bill.
The mayor at the time was George Ainslie. Educated at both the Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia, Ainslie was run out of office in 1924, accused of extravagant spending. His successor was Medical College of Virginia physician and one-term state delegate Fulmer Bright. Bright campaigned on the slogan of “as good government for less money or better government for the same money.” Bright, never married, a natty dresser and a brigadier general in the National Guard, ran the city for 16 years and his astounding obstinacy ran the gamut from orneriness to absurdity.
Fulmer Bright (right) with Gov. John Pollard (left). (Photo courtesy of The Valentine)
He opposed hiring additional firefighters and was forced to add a director of public safety by court order. He argued against Byrd Airport, the State Library, the appointment of black police officers, purchasing the Mosque from the Shriners, and federal low-income housing projects. To Bright, the New Deal constituted a character-harming charity. He did next to nothing to alleviate suffering in the middle of the Depression. He vetoed a 1939 City Council resolution calling for public housing to mitigate slum conditions offered by a biracial committee organized to study the problem. He wanted local business to deal with the challenge and stay within the Jim Crow-prescribed boundaries.
By 1940, Gordon Barbour Ambler, a pro-planning, project housing and annexation proponent, dimmed Bright’s political career and became Richmond’s World War II mayor.
The years from 1948 to 1949 were pivotal for Richmond. The city at long last adopted an all-encompassing plan for future development that favored oxymoronic parkways and expressways and altered the government into a city manager-council form that essentially reduced the mayor to a figurehead elected by City Council from among its members. The city also stood by and allowed the privately run historic electric, 61-year-old streetcar system to end.
The way was cleared to bulldoze older neighborhoods, build public housing and highways that divided the city by race and class, and create a center city more appropriate for the Eastern Bloc than the New South.
We’ve lived with the legacy of this master plan ever since. More on that next time.