Start at the Edge

As a resident of Richmond for the past five years, I have had the privilege of living through an exciting and dynamic season of change. It seems that after about 60 years of condescension and loss, it’s becoming a good time to be an American city. It’s a good time to be Richmond.

So, with that in mind, I was a little surprised when I read three editorials recently published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch addressing the “issue” of the view of Richmond from the highway. As I read each article, I felt that importance had been placed, not on the city, but on the opinions of passersby. This editorial is a response to those articles and perhaps generations of similar articles that have come before them. I believe that before we have a conversation about Richmond, we need to have an understanding of how the city changed during the twentieth century and more importantly what changed about the way we talk about cities in general.

My undergraduate education on the urban crisis in America presented changes in the city as a process of politics, prejudice, and technological advancement. More recently, I have come to understand the urban crisis as a gradual shift in investment and perception that took the American city, a source of pride, and turned it into a mark of shame. Furthermore, I understand the urban crisis as a rhetorical war between old and new. The goal of the war, as with any, was to frame the other as “backward” and the self as “progressive.” While Richmond attempted to maintain dignity, new technologies seemed dissatisfied with older cities: You’re too compact, too dilapidated, too prone to riot and rot.

As each new suburb was developed it became yet another statement to the American people pointing toward the promise of new, more civilized places with room to roam and play. Within this promise there was also a clear distinction being made from the archaic, dark city where most Americans at the time resided. As with all major shifts, the new way of doing things had to work to undo the more traditional ways of life. Many believe that the post-war zeitgeist of modernization, on a national level, did much to shift popular opinion. But on a local level, citizens of the Richmond metro-region still had to prove to residents that there was a more abundant life to be lived on the other side of the city limits.

This was accomplished through a series of events: The celebrated opening of Willow Lawn Shopping Center (1956), the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (1959), the failure of plans for consolidation with Henrico (1967) and other semi-related moments along the way. Each of these also had their corollary effect on the life of the city exemplified by events such as the closing of Miller and Rhodes/Thalhimers, the destruction of urban neighborhoods, and the political isolation that conclusively trapped and humbled this once-proud American city.

As money and people continued to migrate to the suburbs, local officials turned their attention from annexation to urban renewal. “If we can’t have the suburbs,” I imagine them thinking, “we have to do something about this city.” But rather than invest in what already existed, they fixated on dreams of what could be. “We get it” they tried to say “and we’ll fix it,” just don’t move your family to the suburbs.

As Silver writes, the city then “embraced urban renewal with a sense of urgency unprecedented in Richmond … Consolidation would have afforded vast new areas for growth and would have enabled the city to continue its policy of neglect toward inner-city areas” (254). Now left to embrace the demands of reality, Richmond’s city fathers sold out and destroyed much that today would protected as historical. They were always looking to what the city could be rather than accepting the city as is.

To me, this moment of urban renewal was a sign that the suburbs had won the war. This was the point in the story where it was finally decided that new was in fact better than old: Look! Even the city hates the city. In the decades that followed the tumultuous 60s and 70s, much has been said of the potential of cities, but almost all of it with the understanding that cities have something to prove. To this day, the standard to which Americans hold their cities is strangely high while their commitment to funding urban institutions and infrastructure is remarkably low. As Kunstler might argue, this is because we are no longer a nation of citizens; we are a nation of consumers.

Additionally, it seems that many of us have a powerful aversion to cities because we’re still trapped by the negative stigma established all those years ago. While local boosters proclaim, “Richmond is a city of art and great food!” critics reply, “Parking lots! Potholes! Prostitutes!” And regardless of their merit, these conversations do little to change the paradigm.

In this sadly familiar conversation, the subject is always “the city.” The place that needs to change is the city. The place that we want to love is the city. But this is not the perspective of an insider. Instead, we need to recognize that this critique is one of suburban condescension. The suburbs are still trying to prove their worth and their legitimacy and they are still quick to do so by orienting themselves against the “corrupt” and ” inefficient” locality they are ashamed to call neighbor, but delighted to visit for a basketball game.

We cannot have a productive conversation about Richmond until we move past the negative stigma that outsiders have placed on the city and begin to see Richmond as good once again. We should welcome visitors to come and enjoy themselves in the city, but our ultimate concern must be with the needs and desires of existing residents. Developments in Richmond should be for the city, not at the city’s expense, because that is what we can sustain and appreciate. And no longer should we consider developments for someone else to enjoy.

We have nothing to prove and everything to gain.

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