Tag Archives: Christopher Silver

Selling Memory

A few months ago, I wrote a post on my generation: many of us living, working, and studying far from the places of our birth. This post is a semi-related follow-up to answer questions related to memory of the place you’ve left.

Today, I want to write about how and why we think about the past. In particular, I want to write about nostalgia. Nostalgia is longing for what has been lost and holding onto memories of a place and a people from the past.

It’s also a comic book store in Willow Lawn:

Nostalgia Plus

As a cities guy, I first started thinking about nostalgia the summer after my second year while working in Richmond and reading Twentieth-Century Richmond by Christopher Silver. Driving through the region’s sprawl, I lamented the loss of what I believed was once a dense and invested place. I longed to return to the Richmond of the early 1900s with its streetcars and city festivals. I was amazed at how dense Richmond was and how much people cared about this place and cities in general. I wondered if I’d been born in the wrong century. In a previous post, “Longing for a Heyday,” I wondered that many American cities like Richmond are stuck in an unhealthy, backward gaze toward something they once were: places that people loved. Even cities that are actually old are sometimes forced to appear old in a certain, scripted way that flattens their experience.

By the end of the summer, I realized that I had made a mistake: holding onto nostalgia for the past involves denying the difficult realities of life at the time. I began to integrate my knowledge that the early 1900s was also a time when the KKK was experiencing a rebirth, segregation was increasing, and dirt roads were the norm. I also remembered that public health at the time was a nightmare. In my final presentation on the research, I called for an attitude of “thoughtful nostalgia” that learned from certain aspects of the past, while accepting their context in the overall reality of life at the time. It was an important shift for me and one that I have carried to this day.

A year later, I read Greg Dickinson‘s article “Memories for Sale: Nostalgia and the construction of identity in Old Pasadena.” It’s a fascinating piece about memory and place: Memory place. He writes that Old Pasadena has been crafted into a shopping center where people can visit and consume nostalgia in the form of architecture, period-themed restaurants, and walkable city streets. Most Americans live in places that were built since the 50s, but we like to visit places where we can feel like we’re connecting with the past. He writes:

“Old Pasadena’s new, old style is more a set change than a revival of the ‘real’ past. This nostalgic recollection formed as a movie articulates with the nostalgic films that Fredric Jameson suggests are typical of postmodern culture…For Jameson, nostalgia is a dialectal response that attempts to overcome, consciously or unconsciously, the emptiness left by the postmodern loss of the past.

This loss of the past, for Jameson, includes the very elements lamented by authors such as Robert Bellah–loss of communities of memory, loss of the extended or nuclear family and loss of concrete relations caused by the abstractions of post-fordist economic structures. Old Pasadena becomes one of the dramatic sites that responds with simulacra of the past to the contradictions of the present.”

The last four generations have, in essence, left historical places behind and replaced them with lesser representations, simulacra, that assuage the loneliness of our displaced souls. We consciously and unconsciously seek lives within historical context, or, as James Kunstler called it, “a hopeful present.” Kunstler states that the “public realm” needs to tell us where we are geographically and where we are as a society.

Today, while some seek architectural authenticity, others are left with historical references to old times on new buildings. The result is absurd on the verge of caricature, but we don’t even notice it anymore:

Old brick road

This is a photo from a development in Richmond that Ed Slipek playfully called “the future.” At West Broad Village, the future looks strangely like the past. With references to French, American Colonial, Italianate (?) and modern strip mall styles, the development doesn’t tell you much about our society in a coherent way, but instead calls upon a whole host of references to look like “something.” This is the veneer of nostalgia Americans have used to cloak the cinderblock and steel of our daily lives.

Once you start to see it, you will notice it everywhere.

I hope that as we begin to see this commodified nostalgia for what it is the market will respond with more thoughtful developments. I realize most real estate developers weren’t assigned Dickinson in college and I don’t expect everyone to think the way I think. I’m mostly just concerned with the nation America will be in 50 or 100 years.

I hope we’re building places that will still have worth for what they represent on their ownnot for the past civilizations that they reference.

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Start at the Edge (cont.)

Yesterday, I read the weekend commentary from the Richmond Times-Dispatch titled “Direct traffic to our creative capital” (follow this link for one editorial and you will also see a link for “related” articles) and felt kind of compelled to write a response. The first section of this post yesterday was directly related to the way we talk about Richmond and why we are stuck in an outdated paradigm.

Now, I want to write the article I really intended to write all along: My opinions on how we should focus future developments in the city of Richmond.

#1 We need more people

Some Richmonders still cling the idea that a beautiful city is one that is relatively quiet and “clean,” but in reality many city functions cannot survive without a critical mass of residents. Case in point, many people (including myself) have been talking about trolleys in Richmond. “We invented them! Bring them back!” But we can’t just talk about “trolleys in Richmond” and not make some account for the changes that have occurred since 1888 when they first rolled out. In 1900, just a decade later, Richmond’s population density according to the census was 16,000 people per square mile. That was the highest population density of any city in the south (Christopher Silver, Twentieth-Century Richmond, 63). Compared to the measly 3,415 citizens per square mile living in Richmond today, the Richmond of 1900 was clearly capable of supporting systems of mass transit. Today, we just aren’t in the same place. I wrote once about the idea of “Longing for a Heyday” and how I/we sometimes look to some time in the past when cities were great. I don’t think we need that sort of shallow nostalgia, but rather a reasoned comparison between the Richmond of the past and the Richmond of today.

Our primary goal should be to get people here in the highest density possible. Remove all restrictions on ancillary unit rentals, remove unnecessary P&Z, and bring neighborhoods back to downtown: row houses and mansions alike. Get the density up, then we can talk about street cars et. al.

#2 Distrust Regional Collaboration

When multiple localities have vastly different values and strong competitive interest, collaboration is strained at best. Chesterfield wants more retail/corporate, Henrico wants more of everything, and Richmond wants to become a creative, welcoming city for all. What is there to talk about? Richmond needs to distrust regional collaboration at the government level and continue to invest in the physical condition as well as the residents of the city. Like I said in my last post, compared to the past 60 years, it’s a good time to be an American city. The tide is turning in our favor and if we are patient enough we may later return to the bargaining table with more than humble requests. Also, if the ballpark isn’t good enough, let the Squirrels go. We can use that space for a new neighborhood (see #1) and add to the growing Northside community.

#3 Cover the Highway

I was speechless when I read the commentary printed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch this weekend. Speechless. I don’t know Josh Dare, Tom Silvestri, or Sean Connaughton personally, but I imagine them to be very nice people. I also imagine them to be a lot like my parents’ friends which means we could definitely get along over drinks or dinner, but every once in a while I might have to bite my tongue. And that is what I did as I read through their commentary while sitting around others in a public space.

Here is my reply to the idea of improving the highway experience: First, don’t hold the highway against the people of Richmond. It exists as yet another shameful reminder of how Richmond officials often destroyed the city they were charged to represent. As most Richmonders are now aware, the people of Richmond soundly defeated the highway plan in the 50s only to later be sidestepped by a policy loophole. Second, want to make a statement? Cover the highway. The entire stretch from Shockoe Bottom to beyond Jackson Ward. Take a tip from Dallas, Boston, and Hamburg: Urban highways are bad business.

Cover the highway, build a park, and reconnect the city. The statement this would make is that we care more about the wellbeing of committed, local citizens than the opinions of temporary passersby and we would rather move them along to their destination with as little harm to the city as possible. Besides, if they do have a destination (which is most likely) they really just want a Wawa coffee and some gas for their car.

#4 Build on the parking lots

I know, I know, I know. We need to have parking lots because we have to make sure that everyone can drive and park where they work and play, etc. But if we are going to move forward, we must build on our parking lots. This isn’t really up for debate. Look at what was once the neighborhood of Gamble’s Hill and tell me that you like things the way they are. We must build on our parking lots and reclaim this valuable (and finite) urban space.

#5 Start at the edge

Finally, the real conversation is not about strangers on the highway, it’s about residents in the neighborhoods surrounding our city. What do they think about us? Why do they feel so confident about their relative position? The redevelopment policy that Richmond should begin to pursue should be a two-pronged policy targeting not just the core, but also the edge of this city. We’re not going to expand our boundaries so we might as well dig some trenches and settle in. This is what the city fathers should have done 60 years ago. Rather than bring the blight of the suburbs into the heart of the city, we take the beauty of the city to the edge of the suburbs. Begin to create a stark contrast from city to county along every major corridor with street trees, bike lanes, on-street parking, and high-density development. Build brick and stone columns at the border denoting that the driver has left or entered a place that cares just as much about the space between buildings as it does about what is on the shelves inside.

Stake a claim. Start at the edge.

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.