Tag Archives: I-95

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first section of this post yesterday was directly related to the way we talk about Richmond and why we are stuck in an outdated paradigm.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.

Movement and Moment

Over the course of the past year, I’ve been writing my way through a bunch of different thoughts and ideas and the result has basically become the entirety of this blog. At the same time, I’ve also been gradually trying to connect the dots with one underlying theme: that life is all about circulation and significance, the movement as well as the moment.

Since my words don’t always make a lot of sense, I’m constantly trying to find new ways to explain myself and share what I think is interesting about the world: examples of circulation and significance in our daily lives. Most of these places are either what I consider Highways (circulation) or Hallowed Halls (significance). Today, I get to write about a place that embodies both of these characteristics and the tension that exists between the two.

I recently visited the Negro Burial Ground just east of downtown Richmond in Shockoe Valley. My approach to this site was across a VCU parking lot and through a tunnel under Broad St. As you walk through the tunnel, you emerge onto a huge empty field of beautiful grass that was once yet another parking lot in downtown Richmond. In recent years, the asphalt was removed and this area was designated “A Place of Contemplation and Reflection.” I appreciate this area mostly because it’s a complicated place. There aren’t physical buildings that most people would consider “historic,” but what happened on this one piece of ground (the public execution and careless burial of enslaved and free people) is considered enough to make the place significant today. Once a place of fear and violence, it has been restored to the people of Richmond as a place of silence and careful thought.

While I think the site itself is certainly worth visiting, what I really care about is a place located just above the actual burial grounds. From this vantage, you can see that less than 50 yards away from this place of contemplation is Interstate 95 in all of its glory. The cars and tractor trailers fly by on this crazy asphalt slingshot that shoots cars straight through the heart of my city. Like all highways, it’s a totally anonymous no man’s land where you don’t walk, you don’t slow down, and you don’t typically notice the historic burial grounds nearby. When you’re on a highway like this, you don’t care much for where you are because you’re more focussed on where you’re going. That’s essentially the nature of movement.

To get the photo above, I climbed up a little hill to the foot of the Broad St. bridge I had previously walked underneath. For a while, I just sat up on the hill and watched the disinterested movement of the highway next to the contemplative stillness of the old burial ground. I realized that we need both the movement and the moment, but I think sometimes we feel like we have to make a choice: You have to be either ambitious or thoughtful, motivated or lazy. When I experience a place like this, it reminds me that we should be aware of both aspects of life. It also makes me a little more hopeful that my writing is still relevant. What I have learned through writing this blog is still teaching me and making the world a more interesting place.

While I was looking out on the scene, I realized that photos and words are limited media for describing ideas such as movement and moment. So I filmed a brief and simple video (below) that might help to further explain this relationship. It’s much more about the idea than the video itself … and I recommend muting the video sound and listening to Lisbon, OH by Bon Iver while you watch it.

As always, more to come.

P.S.  to Gwarlingo for the movement/moment pairing … it used to be found in their explanation of the meaning of the word Guarlingo which is Welsh for the sound a grandfather clock makes before it strikes on the hour, “the movement before the moment.” Of course, my blog is about the movement and the moment, but I thought it was an interesting side note.