Almost three years ago, not long after moving from Denver to Richmond, I wrote a piece for this magazine’s business publication in which I described my considerable culture shock. I can’t say I’ve gotten over it.
I remain bewitched by the dogwood flower and dazzled by the height of the trees, suspicious of all this green and its startling voracity. I still cannot get over the grandeur of the James River, which reduces the Rio Grande of my youth to a muddy and forlorn hint of a waterway. And I remain convinced that this summer will be the one in which the humidity triumphs and I drown in my own sweat.
I am a lifelong Westerner living in a Southern city. Or a mid-Atlantic one. Or an Eastern one. It all depends on who’s drawing the cultural map. I’ve come to find Richmond’s identity inspires possessiveness among its residents. No assertion is neutral. Instead, a staking out of ground takes place, a preemptive strike in an argument that long preceded me about who Richmond was and who it is.
I’ve never lived in a place where I cannot regularly see the horizon. I’ve never lived in a town where fecundity and decay do such pitched battle. Or a city so potholed and dark at night. I have lived in wealthy communities and in poor, working-class ones, but not in a place like Richmond, where the results of generations of privilege and generations of deprivation are so stark and intertwined and clearly demarcated by race.
“It’s a funky city,” my husband reported during his first visit in 2012. “I can’t tell if it’s a place on its way up or its way down. It looks like it could go either way.”
Up, we would both say three years later. The demographic tide has turned toward cities, and if it took a little longer to reach Richmond, it is plainly here. Have you been to Manchester lately? And Scott’s Addition is multiplying.
Old Richmond. New Richmond. I am drawn to the in-between Richmond, to the Richmond that is an ongoing act of reconciliation. The Richmond that is ever negotiating between past and future, Southerner and new Southerner, those from here and those who will come — and keep coming. The Richmond that is not “either/or,” but “and.”
There’s so much ground to explore, and that’s what I intend to do with the Sunday story. We share a city, but a city is never one place, one thing, one experience, one identity. The column will run every Sunday through this newsletter. One column also will appear in the print magazine.
What am I looking for in a Sunday story? The short answer: stories that tell us something about ourselves as Richmonders and residents of the region. I am a lover of neighborhoods, which is where the life of a city happens. I am drawn to what are typically called “ordinary folks,” though ordinary so rarely is. People’s lives are full of edges, blind curves, sudden glory and cataclysmic loss. In that way the life of an individual is the life of a neighborhood is the life of a city.
I am drawn to issues that force us to define what is important to us as a city and why. In Denver, where I was a city columnist, I wrote about families, immigrant and native, living on a residential block changed by immigration. I wrote about public housing residents certain the city’s plans to redevelop public housing had little do with them and everything to do with the rising value of the land upon which they lived. I wrote about teachers and students getting through the day at a high school overwhelmed by poverty and stifled by bureaucracy. The same big-picture issues — immigration, poverty, public education — exist here in Richmond. They are the backdrop. What draws me are the people and the choices they make against that backdrop.
I can’t say I knew a lot about Richmond before I moved here. Which is to say I knew nothing. It’s going to take me a lot longer than three years to figure out the half of it. That’s the challenge of this job. That’s the privilege of it.
Tell me about your Richmond. Tell me about the Richmond you want to see, the Richmond you hope — or fear — we are becoming. Tell me about your family, your neighborhood, your issues. I need your eyes and ears. Welcome to the Sunday story.