Tag Archives: Richmond

Baseball at the Heart

The mayor’s proposal for Shockoe Bottom is a bit of a chameleon. When it was first revealed, it seemed like it was clearly a ballpark plan: baseball balloons, Nutzy, Parney Parnell cracking jokes. But as the plan progressed, this central goal became secondary to a host of other justifications for the development.

The phrase, “not just a ballpark plan,” has become popular in this current debate at the same time supporters of the mayor’s plan have proudly placed signs proclaiming, “I support Shockoe Ballpark,” in front yards and businesses. Clearly, we are confused. Like many, I’ve studied the proposal for Shockoe Bottom and attempted to make sense of all the arguments. As always with these sorts of plans, it is necessary to distinguish the certain from the projected.

Beyond all the letters of intent, the promises, and the economic projections, there is a baseball stadium. This stadium project will likely cost around $167M including interest over the next 30 years. We will hopefully finish paying off the debt around 2046. I will be almost 60 years old. These are the certainties of the mayor’s proposal. All other elements of the plan are subsidiary to the ballpark.

Below I have compiled four common arguments (other than baseball) and reasons why they are not substantive or central to the Shockoe plan:

#1. This plan will improve schools in Richmond

Schools argument

This is a photo of a billboard paid for by the LovingRVA ad campaign. It’s simple, it’s clear, it’s exciting. How could any of us say no to a promise like “More $$$ for schools?” It pulls at our heart strings and connects the plan to something we love.

Then I realized: this is not a schools plan. Not a single dollar of this plan is allocated for school maintenance, construction, or modernization. There isn’t a contract that says that our government is obligated to increase school funding a certain amount each year. We also don’t have any idea how much added tax revenue this plan will generate so there can be no sure promise made for future increases.

And yet, we are being promised that this plan is for our schools and our children.

After digging around, I realized the connection from this plan to schools is pretty weak. The most I could find was a quote from Mayor Jones in the RT-D:

“I think that as we continue to negotiate with City Council people and get them on board, that there’s probably going to be some designated streams that go to some various places that people feel very strongly about….”

Wow. Either Jones was badly misrepresented or the mayor did a terrible job convincing me that that this plan will have any meaningful connection to things I “feel very strongly about.” This schools argument  is like playing “seven degrees of the Mayor’s economic development plan.” Where will all the money end up? We have no idea. But I promise there’s definitely a chance you could get a slice.

And I’m particularly annoyed because I do have a soft spot for schools. The need in RPS is incredible. There are countless reports and articles on the financial need and the deteriorating infrastructure of our school system. Our mayor is promising us more money will be sent to schools, but he isn’t saying how much. All we know is if we build the stadium in Shockoe and if it’s surrounded by lucrative businesses and if we can attract huge amounts of private investment on the Boulevard, then we will have more money that might be allocated to schools.

To me, that seems like a lot of “ifs.” If you care about schools, ask the mayor to sign on the dotted line. Anything less is empty promises.

#2. This plan will provide access to good, affordable food

grocery

I’ve heard this argument regularly enough that it deserves to be included in this list. I haven’t seen it on a billboard, but this is the argument that seems to tug at the “food justice” movement in Richmond and the desire for residents to have access to healthy, affordable food.

As a resident of the East End, I think it would be great to have a new grocery store. I think it will provide access to good food for a wide economic spectrum of people. Residents nearby will be able to walk to get their food rather than drive around the corner to Farm Fresh. Many riding public transit will be able to get off 10 minutes earlier than they would for the Kroger on Broad St. I wouldn’t have to drive out to the Martin’s at White Oak for fresh vegetables. Sounds great to me.

I just keep returning to the fact that the grocery store is not a central element of this plan. Honestly, this grocery store has more to do with economic development and the mayor’s revenue bonds financing scheme. I think we would have built anything there if it promised to bring in a certain amount of revenue each year. Also, do we have to build a baseball stadium to have a grocery store? More on that later.

#3. This plan will memorialize and interpret Richmond history

museum 2

The third claim is that this plan has been created in order for Richmond to restore the history of slavery to its rightful place. On the cover of the Venture Richmond “Downtown’s Transformation 2014” document (an unfortunate title), there is a presumptuous photo of the proposed slavery heritage site, an element of the Mayor’s proposed revitalization plan. On the second page of the document there is a photo of the ballpark. For some reason, Venture Richmond chose to promote the heritage site.

Here’s the problem: the slavery heritage site is not funded. We honestly don’t know when or if it will ever be built. To further complicate things, Richmond City Council and the state legislature of Virginia have recently committed funds to the construction of a slavery museum. Is the heritage site enough to fit the specifications of these funds? We don’t know. There are designs for a full museum, but they haven’t been adopted by the city or promoted publicly to my knowledge. If all funds go toward the museum, how will we pay to memorialize the Lumpkin’s Jail site?

Many of us are in favor of building something to commemorate the history of slavery in Richmond. The Washington Post even wrote an editorial in support of a slavery museum back in December. It’s certainly the most historically, culturally, and socially important element of the mayor’s plan, but it’s not the main attraction. This “heritage site” has been tacked onto the ballpark plan to satisfy those of us who care about history, culture, and memory.

It’s a beautiful design and I would like to see it in Shockoe Bottom. But I have to wonder: why do we need to spend $52,250,000 for a baseball stadium so that we can memorialize the history of slavery in our city?

I’m also very concerned with the process by which this heritage site/museum has been developed. When municipalities plan and construct museums or heritage sites, they typically spend years developing a network of scholars, institutions, community members, foundations, and government agencies in order to strategize the future success of the enterprise. If done well, this process results in a site that is ready to receive public school tour groups (where will the busses park?), host educational events (who will coordinate?), conduct relevant research, and curate exhibits to keep the material relevant and interesting for visitors. This sort of strategic planning results in a place that is vibrant and well-loved by locals and out-of-town visitors for generations to come.

If the mayor’s plan were truly a plan devoted to the history of Shockoe Bottom, there would already be a consortium of interested individuals from all over the nation and the world developing potential directions for the space and the building. Right now all I see is a pretty picture.

#4. This plan will stimulate the economy in Richmond

city

The argument for economic development is the lynchpin of this entire plan. Many believe that the “baseball stadium + hotel + grocery store + heritage site + apartments + future development on the Boulevard” plan holds the greatest possible economic benefit for years to come.

I have to respectfully disagree. If maximum economic output were the ultimate goal of this plan, Richmond wouldn’t have a baseball stadium at all. Minor league franchises are mostly money losers. They are highly subsidized franchises with all salaries paid for by their parent major league team and stadiums funded by localities. So it’s counterintuitive to include a ballpark in an economic development plan. Unless by “economic development” you mean “we need to find a way to pay for this darn baseball stadium.”

Also, not only are minor league stadiums expensive on the front end, they usually require renovations 20-25 years after they are built. It’s fitting that our local leaders travelled to Durham in January. A few weeks before the Richmond delegation made their trek, The Hearld Sun reported that the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, opened in 1995, the model for our ballpark scheme, is now planning a $20M renovation. Nineteen years after it first opened.

If it weren’t for the ballpark, Shockoe Bottom wouldn’t even be on the mayor’s radar. This flood plain is surrounded by the many hills of Richmond that don’t require a $20M investment in infrastructure for development to start tomorrow. There are cranes up in Richmond right now already investing in the future of this city. The only reason we’re talking about Shockoe Bottom is because we have this baseball team and we need to find a place to put them that can generate enough money to pay of the enormous sum it will cost to construct a brand new stadium. But if economic development were the goal, we would be saving our future tax dollars for general use rather than for servicing the debt on a baseball stadium for the next 30 years.

So why are we calling this an development plan? The argument is this: the ballpark should go in Shockoe Bottom because it’s best in Shockoe Bottom because it will allow us to 0pen the area to private development so that the lease on the ballpark will be paid for. This is a cyclical argument: we have to spend money so that we can make money to pay off the money that we spent. Also, the word for that is not “free.” The only legitimate argument for economic development is on the Boulevard, everyone agrees on that. But why has there been so little planning done for this site? How sure can we be sure of its success?

You may be asking, “What about all the data that proves the stadium is a good idea for Shockoe Bottom?” Here we have to make a critical distinction between data-driven projects and data-justified projects. Throughout the planning process, our leaders have selectively chosen data that supports their goal: constructing a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. We can be certain this was not an externally vetted process. All the evidence we have seen is simply a case that our leaders have developed to debate and defend their plan. That’s not my idea of leadership.

Regarding this plan for Shockoe Bottom, we can only be sure of the expenditures. The revenue is all projected based on letters of intent and market analysis.

Again, expenditures = contracts. Revenue = projections.

The report put together by Davenport & Co. LLC includes a comparison between developing the Boulevard and Shockoe Bottom. According to this report, putting the ballpark in Shockoe Bottom is a responsible option. But in the low estimate for revenue generated in Shockoe bottom, the debt service (at $4,062,976) is greater than total revenue ($3,874,778) which leaves a projected deficit of $188,198 annually. And everyone has been telling me this ballpark is “free.” Am I reading that wrong? If this project were truly concerned with economic development, it would not include the city of Richmond diverting tax revenue toward paying off the debt service for the next 30 years.

Our leader is convinced the ballpark is our ticket to success when it is actually the ball and chain we will drag, year by year, into our own reluctant future.

***

My final question is, why isn’t Mayor Jones talking about the ballpark?

Perhaps it’s because an estimated 70% of the people that go to the Squirrels games live in Henrico and Chesterfield. Does it matter? I think so. Why should we divert $4.8M in tax dollars each year for the next 30 years to pay for an entertainment facility that primarily exists for county residents? Or why didn’t we wait for a more unilateral deal? In 2003, the counties were planning to pay two thirds of an $18,500,000 ballpark renovation. That proposal was sidelined by a local official that decided he wanted to build a new ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. The deal was scrapped, Nothing has happened ever since. Now we’re planning to pay 100% by going out on our own.

Mayor Jones seems to only talk only about economic development. Many other leaders in Richmond are excited about the heritage site. Most of my friends are excited about the benefits for local schools. All the while we’re skating around the most controversial elements of the plan: the cost of the ballpark, the lack of public support for the ballpark, and the location of the ballpark.

I’ll leave the last word to Andrew Zimbalist:

“Cities spend millions of dollars to support a variety of cultural activities that are not expected to have positive economic effects, such as subsidizing a local symphony or maintaining a public park. Sports teams can have a powerful cultural or social impact on a community. If that effect is valued by the local residents, then they may well decide that some public dollars are appropriate. However, if the public or its political representatives are trying to make the case that a team or a facility by itself will be an important development tool, then the electorate should think twice before opening its collective wallet.”

Richmond, if we want a new baseball stadium, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about how much we might be willing to invest in a new stadium. Let’s talk about where we would want it to be built. Let’s not allow ourselves to be convinced into needing a stadium for a host of unrelated reasons.

Top 10 reasons the Shockoe ballpark is a bad idea

At this point, we all know that Mayor Jones wants to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. He’s doing his best to convince us that it’s a good idea for Richmond. Here are 10 reasons why I think he’s wrong:

1. Baseball parks are disposable. Baseball stadiums don’t last. Even Yankee’s Stadium, “The house that Ruth built,” was demolished for something bigger and better. Here it is in all its glorious ruin:

Yankee Stadium

In the case of Shockoe Bottom, we are planning to build more developments alongside our stadium concourse. Do we have a plan for how we’re going to retrofit the concourse when the stadium is out of date? Honestly, how long will this stadium last. 50 years? 100 years? I bet Main St. Station will be standing long after the ballpark has come and gone.

2. The team could ditch us. Contracts can always be broken. If the team leaves, the league has apparently agreed to cover the cost, but what will we do with the space at that point? Last fall, the Atlanta Braves announced they have received the government approval to build a new stadium in nearby Cobb County. They recently released stunning designs for this new stadium complex that they are hoping finish by the 2017 season. If they move forward with the plan, Atlanta will start scrambling to find a new use for Turner Field:

turner field

3. Stadiums are only good for one thing. It’s not good to devote so much valuable urban land to one single use. Urban areas are dense and integrated with housing, businesses, institutions, and public space all nearby. These areas of cities are best for many uses (at a park you can picnic, host a concert, play basketball, organize, or do yoga). In contrast, ballparks are PERFECT for the suburbs where everything is already spread out, huge and single-use. One example is Ranger’s stadium in Arlington:

Rangers

4. Stadiums don’t add value to daily life. Stadiums are used for about 164 games each year. Even on those days, they are only full for the 3-5 hours that visitors spend on the premises. The other 201 days they are mostly empty aside from practices and sports camps for kids. For the majority of their lifespan, stadiums are empty. In contrast, some of the most-visited places in the world are places that simply enhance the daily life of residents and tourists for generations:

Brooklyn

Even intersections can become 24-hour tourist attractions:

Times square

5. Baseball stadiums are not public space. In the middle of almost every admirable city there is open, public space (see two photos above). Public space can be integrated into the fabric of the city: alongside railroad tracks and highways, next to rivers, and across from businesses. Here are a few more:

Copenhagen
PortlandDresden

6. Richmond doesn’t want a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. Mayor Jones and his advisers are the sort of politicians that believe they know what’s best for their citizens. There will never be a public vote on this plan because Jones knows that it would fail. He also wouldn’t put to a vote because he doesn’t care. This attitude is particularly offensive as someone who thinks that Richmond is a pretty smart and sophisticated place. I honestly believe if Jones had engaged a group of knowledgable citizens in the process, the final plan would have been incredible. Maybe we would have ended up with something like this:

bryan park

Notice all the shops and cafes nearby? Bryant Park is an asset to many businesses  in the area and is connected to the nearby New York Public Library. It’s also a model that could be emulated in Richmond. The park is maintained by a publicly-funded private entity, the Bryant Park Corporation. According to Wikipedia, “… BPC is now funded by assessments on property and businesses adjacent to the park, and by revenue generated from events held at the park.”

7. Richmond is the River City. If Mayor Jones wants to build a signature development, he should focus on something that is quintessentially “Richmond.” He should invest in something that is unique and timeless:

James

I know the mayor has plans to continue the riverfront redevelopment plan, but I don’t think he realizes the ballpark could begin to outweigh the river in our public image. Richmond could be known as a city of timeless architecture and natural beauty. The ballpark is neither of those things.

8. The ballpark is destined for mediocrity. Why do we want the crown jewel of Richmond to be a stadium for a minor league baseball team? As we improve our image locally and nationally, we should strive to keep our most valuable assets in the center of the city. I love The Squirrels and I think their games are fun and easy to love. I just think we can do better for the center of our city. Many people have mentioned the need for a slavery museum. There has been a backlash of people saying that museums are boring, but I think a museum could be world-class, free, and could encourage a spirit of learning. Unlike a baseball team, local history isn’t going anywhere. Also, we would have an easier time seeking donations for something historically significant. Maybe something like this:

Bilbao

Bilbao is a city of 350,000 people in northern Spain. This museum cost $89 million through a partnership with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Richmond is a city of 201,000 people. We’re planning to build a minor league baseball stadium for $50 million without any international partnership. Which project is worth the cost? The whole world knows about Bilbao because that city dared to do something world-class. Even Roanoke turned heads in 2007 with the construction of a museum that set a new design standard for the region.

9. We’ve tried this before. The city of Richmond has funded and subsidized many single-use, large-scale venues in the past. These include the Richmond Coliseum, the Greater Richmond Convention Center, and the Carpenter Center. Each of these was built or renovated with the hope that they would help revitalize the area around them. The results have been mixed. I personally love the Carpenter Center and I think that it has been the most successful example in conjunction with grants extended to business on Grace St. More recently, efforts to encourage development on Broad have had incredible results. These have come from the hard work of citizens and government employees. The large-scale developments may have played some small role. That sort of revitalization will come with a more small-scale, intensional reinvestment program.

10. Richmond deserves better. It’s really irresponsible to spend our time and precious resources on something that will eventually be outdated. We can’t devote valuable land in the center of our city to the construction of a building that will be used for 70 days out of the year by a minor league baseball team that could leave. Even if they leave after 30 years, we’ll still be scrambling to find a use for the space. But there is no other use for the space because stadiums can’t be retrofitted or rebuilt. We can’t afford to ignore the rest of the city and try, once again, to revitalize Richmond with a big, flashy project downtown that is being celebrated as the future of Richmond.

If we must have a big project, we should at least build something that will be historically, architecturally, and culturally significant as well as something that is relevant to the place and people of Richmond.

“World-class cities are not built on a foundation of minor-league ideas.”

Minor League City

The mayor of Richmond has plans to build a new baseball stadium in the historic neighborhood of Shockoe Bottom. It’s been called, “the best ballpark in minor league baseball.” In the past two months, this plan has provoked fierce debates in Richmond. Part of the opposition has been to the planning process. The Mayor chose to develop the plan without meaningful public input. Furthermore, there are reasons to believe the plan itself does not meet the full potential of this land in the heart of our city. Here is what it would look like:

Jones Plan

Of all the ways to present this plan to the people of Richmond, Mayor Jones chose what I call the “blitzkrieg method.” That’s where politicians attempt to stun the public with a fully developed plan without getting any public input. This also happens to be the method that Richmond leaders chose when first planning I-95 straight through Shockoe Bottom and Jackson Ward. This method is the most “efficient” on the front end, but results in bad ideas down the road because there is so little information being shared. Mayor Jones and his team followed this planning model because they knew that Richmonders didn’t want a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. They knew that there would be no chance for constructive criticism.

Rather than listen and seek to understand the opposition, Mayor Jones had people put together this plan then he threw a party for himself to celebrate:

New Ballpark

Here’s a link to the complete RTD coverage of the story if you’re interested.

When I first saw the “LovingRVA” plan I was definitely impressed. I thought it was beautiful and coherent. I was amazed that the footprint of the ballpark could somehow miss all the slave auction sites in Shockoe Bottom. I didn’t understand how the stadium actually fit, but it seemed to make sense. Also, I was pleased that the designs included other elements that I could get more excited about such as this “Slavery and Freedom Heritage Site” over Lumpkin’s Jail:

Slavery-Freedom

The plan also includes a grocery store, a hotel for visitors, and even more apartments to bring people to Shockoe Bottom. It seemed like they thought of everything.

And that’s when I realized I’d been blitzed.

As I followed the story and talked with others I realized the flashy plan simply wasn’t ready.  Mayor Jones had “thought of everything” in a paternalistic way because he didn’t want public input. Mayor Jones feared it would be immediately rejected by a vocal community of people that care deeply about the past and the future of this city.

But that’s an area of disagreement because Jones seems to believe that the future of the city is this baseball stadium. So Jones is trying to push the plan through.

Mayor Jones and his allies seem to have a short-sighted concern for the present. In 50 years, he most likely won’t be around to help the next generation of Richmonders figure out what to do with another old, dilapidated sports arena. And he doesn’t seem to care.

People in favor of this “ballpark + hotel + grocery + heritage site plan” seem to have very little patience for the planning process. Proponents seem to have very little patience at all. And proponents also seem to think that bad ideas become good ideas after a few years of sitting on the shelf. There is an unbelievable excitement for the plan, almost a greed, that has clouded our logic. This perspective can be seen in a post a friend left on my Facebook page:

“… while this may not be the ideal, it’s a good plan with a lot of stake holders, public and private, that want to see it work. No, I don’t like how it was put together any more than anybody else. But this is the best, most workable plan to resolve the seemingly never-ending stadium debate that I’ve seen in 6 1/2 years I’ve lived in Richmond.”

In a recent article in the Richmond Times Dispatch, Mayor Jones said something similar:

“Jones said the city needs to act swiftly in order to have a new stadium ready by 2016 and because others are ‘eyeing’ the $11 million that then-Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed in the state budget for the slavery commemoration.

The mayor also said it’s not good for the city to have a prolonged debate involving ‘people who are anti-growth and anti-economic development.'”

Ok, we’re all tired of the ballpark debate. But is the best response to just say, “Forget it, let’s spend $80M on this plan so we can be sure we won’t ever have to hear about it again.”

Proponents of the Jones plan are acting like this is the first time we ever had pretty plans drawn for our city. They tell me this is the best thing for Richmond. They argue that this is going to put money into Richmond’s schools and pave our streets. They say they are “loving” RVA.

So anyone who opposes the plan hates Richmond, wants to defund the schools, and hopes the city spirals into ruin and shame. And that’s what’s so ridiculous about the rhetoric in this ballpark conversation. Most reasonable people believe the benefits to the tax base will be marginal. There are new businesses and apartments being built in Richmond every year. Each has made a small contribution to the city’s tax base. The impact of the Mayor’s project will not be any more significant.

Of course, it will be publicized 10x as loudly.

And besides, every added bit is just a ruse to distract us from the baseball park. Jones knew that it would be politically divisive so he loaded the ballpark down with a “something for everyone” patchwork plan to make it more acceptable to a wide audience. A week after the ballpark plan came out, I joked to some of my friends that I would actually prefer the ballpark plan if we simply removed the ballpark. The smaller elements seemed to properly fit the neighborhood and also fill a need.

The ballpark itself is just a shortsighted, small-town idea. I remember when I was a sophomore in college the city of Richmond floated the idea of a ballpark in Shockoe and it was generally opposed. Those opponents (along with a host of new allies) are still not impressed. To them, it’s not about a flashy or beautiful plan. It’s about determining the best use of valuable, urban space. And they believe that baseball in Shockoe is fundamentally a bad idea.

In response, they have drafted this plan:

Shockoe

Here’s another view from above:

new shockoe vision

This alternative plan fits the street grid. It honors the natural features of Shockoe Valley. It provides for a full museum devoted to the history of Richmond and the city’s role in international trade of enslaved people. It’s still very preliminary because they haven’t been given much time, but it’s a move in a new direction for Shockoe Bottom and the city of Richmond. This plan allows Richmond to accurately and adequately tell a story that is globally significant. This history is not just a “black eye” for Richmond. The era of slavery is quite possibly Richmond’s most important moment in global history.

One vocal supporter of the Jones plan told me this new option is “ridiculous.” He told me the private investment will never agree to the plan without the ballpark. But it seems like he and others are too distracted by $125 million and projected future revenue to think critically about other options to this plan. We’re all acting as if we’ve never seen this kind of money before. Fresh Market just built within the Richmond tax base. Our universities have been flooding the local market with construction projects every year. The $30 million First Freedom Center in Shockoe Slip is projected to bring “162 construction jobs, 76 hotel jobs, and $930,000 a year in tax revenue for Richmond.” The McGuire Woods building currently under construction “represents a combined investment of more than $110 million.” The new VCU children’s hospital up the hill is costing an estimated $168  million and, when completed, will provide numerous year-round, entry-level jobs to residents of the city and nearby East End.

Clearly, we don’t need to build a baseball park just to convince a little private investment. Without the baseball stadium, they say, no one will want to build in a flood plain.  So why don’t we encourage more development on the many hills of Richmond where we don’t need the ballpark concourse in the first place?

Have you seen the old Gamble’s Hill neighborhood lately? There are nearly three full city blocks taken up by parking lots and it’s located directly adjacent to downtown Richmond. Not in a flood plain. Also, what about the old Murphy’s Hotel location at 8th and Broad? Or the half-block space by Center Stage? What about Manchester? Is there any comparative analysis of these locations to determine their potential for generating more tax revenue for the city?

Richmond desperately needs more tax revenue. We don’t desperately need a new  minor league baseball stadium. The two seem to be getting confused.

I’ve heard a lot of people talking about “private investment,” but I haven’t heard many people getting creative about the many sources of funding at our disposal. To build something great, Richmond could allocate tax revenue, apply to federal/state/foundation grants, ask the universities to pitch in, and seek out private donations from the wealthiest Richmonders down to the average citizen. Below are two world-class projects that were paid through generous donations from citizens, corporations, foundations and local tax dollars.

Millenium Park in Chicago:

millenium

And Klyde Warren Park built directly over a highway in downtown Dallas:

Klyde

These are not examples of what we should do necessarily. These are examples to say, “If we build something that people are excited about, they might be willing to pitch in.” There are many wealthy Richmonders and foundations who would consider signing onto a plan for Richmond that is both world-class and enduring. The ballpark would be neither.

I also don’t trust the statistics that are being used to convince me that the ballpark is a good idea financially. I worry that we’re putting too much hope in the projections of tax revenue and not spending enough time developing the project itself. Instead of building an “OK” project with the hope of later economic vitality, we should build something that is world-class so that in the worst-case scenario (where overall tax revenue changes very little) we will at least still have something that is world-class. This is simply an argument for making the most of the variables that we can control rather than pushing through something less-than-stellar to get to the variables we can’t necessarily control. Also, if it’s a good idea it should be able to stand for itself.

That brings me to my closing thoughts on the idea of a ballpark in Shockoe.

Richmond should leverage assets that are world-class and significant to the identity of Richmond. If we’re going to spend over $80 million on a project, why don’t we spend it on something that people will visit from more than 10 miles away? Why don’t we build something timeless?

I love the Flying Squirrels. I don’t believe they are integral to the success of the city of Richmond. Richmond is made up of artists, businesspeople, state and local governments, universities, entrepreneurs, historic buildings and neighborhoods, the James River rapids, and many incredible institutions that are more pervasive and invested than a baseball team that has been here for a couple of years. Together, those assets could become world-class.

Minor league baseball will always be minor league. At this point in the debate, it actually makes me sad for Richmond that our leader is putting all of his political clout behind this plan. When you take a step back from the glitzy designs and ancillary projects you realize that it’s just a minor league baseball stadium.

At first, I couldn’t tell why I was so annoyed by the Jones plan. Was I just another development-averse history buff?

No. I realized it’s because I am embarrassed for Richmond. I have come to love this place that educated me and gave me my first job. I’ve travelled the world and I believe that this city could become something truly noteworthy. I think that Richmond could make national or international news for a project that is unique and inspiring.

We could make a statement that is thought-provoking. We could shift a trend or start a conversation. I want the rest of the world to wish they had been here sooner. I want them to feel like they missed out. I want Richmond to be one step ahead.

And minor league baseball is not a step ahead of anyone. In fact, it’s more of a step behind. By investing millions of dollars into a feeder team, we are simply reinforcing the second-rate status of our city to the major league team that we serve. Furthermore, by continuing to grovel for minor league baseball we are giving more and more legitimacy to the world-class cities where baseball has long been king. We did the same thing with the Redskins training camp. I know the Redskins camp is cool, but it basically says: we’re on the outskirts of greatness. As an institution, baseball is the same way. It has nothing to do with Richmond. It is not “our best side.” It’s not “ours” at all. And yet every few years one of our leaders gets the idea that it’s our ticket to fame.

Somehow, we have begun to believe that our city will be saved by the construction of a temporary stadium for a team that’s not even formally connected to our city. Baseball doesn’t make cities great. Great cities make for great institutions.

For the past 60 years, the leadership in Richmond have sliced and diced our city’s most historic core. In an effort to save these places, they’ve destroyed them. With broad brush strokes, the current mayor and his allies are fighting for more of the same. Instead of restoring the oldest neighborhood in Richmond (one of the oldest in Virginia), we want to dig it out and haul it away.

A few weeks ago, Mayor Jones took city council and the press to Durham to learn about their baseball stadium and to talk about how local leadership managed to sidestep democracy during the planning process. Jones and others got all excited about what they learned there just like they did in Denver and Norfolk and everywhere else. But I’m so tired of Richmond leadership going to other cities to find the answers to our problems. If they had to drive somewhere, they should have driven two hours north to D.C. where locals are developing world-class ideas and feeding world-class aspirations.

And I don’t want to hear about the Nats stadium as an argument in favor of a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. The stadium in D.C. is tucked away in the southeast corner of the city. What’s at the center of D.C.? The Mall:

Sky-View-national_mall-

The center of New York is Central Park:

central park

Boston has the Boston Common and Emerald Necklace, San Francisco has Golden Gate Park, the list goes on. Great cities have at their core beautiful, timeless spaces where people have been congregating daily for centuries.

What about cities with ballparks downtown? Detroit:

detroit

Charlotte:

Generial aerial views on uptown / downtown / city center Charlotte skyline

I know everyone loves Charlotte right now, but look at how much land is taken by highways, parking lots, and the stadium. These were once neighborhoods where people lived, shopped, worshiped and recreated. Not to mention that some of these developments went through the heart of the city’s black community, Second Ward. That neighborhood was cleared starting in 1963, paved, and later sold and developed because “no one seemed to want it.”

I contend that the urban stadium is not a symbol of progress, but an admission of defeat. It’s significant that few thriving cities have a stadium at their core in the way that Richmond is proposing. In contrast, these cities have consistently committed to improving the quality of daily life from transportation to housing to public art and institutions of learning to public spaces and recreation. That is what makes a city worth visiting. That is what makes a great city great: connecting valuable assets with efficient and beautiful public investment.

And this is why I get angry every time I hear that phrase, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” That statement is said to people like me who don’t support the ballpark, a “nice thing” I apparently “don’t deserve.” There is so much wrong with the comment, but the most clear response is that Richmond deserves nicer things. In the instance of this ballpark plan we have set our sights so sadly low.

But this was not always the case. When Rachel Flynn was Director of Planning and Development, Richmonders passed a thoughtful and comprehensive plan for downtown that, if enacted, would finally unite the core of this city in a way that is sensible and beautiful. It would transform Richmond.

The plan was democratically developed, it was given a thorough review, and I’m guessing Jones hopes it will remain forgotten like every other world-class idea that Ms. Flynn gifted this city. Two years after this plan was passed she was demoted and run off by our small-town politics. She has since worked for Otak, and she is now the Director of Urban Planing in Oakland, California. I guess she’s better off without us, but Richmond will never know how much it has missed by losing someone so brilliant who loved Richmond so well.

Here’s a page from the downtown plan published in 2009:

Richmond Downtown Plan

For the rest of the plan, click here.

The Richmond Downtown Plan was guided by seven core principles:

  1. Variety and choice
  2. Traditional city
  3. Urban architecture
  4. Green
  5. River
  6. History
  7. Mixed-income

These are principles that sought to make Richmond a more livable, historically relevant, and desirable city. This plan would enhance Richmond’s world-class assets without being over-bearing. It would create a city that is accessible and integrated. In contrast, Mayor Jones’ primary goal seems to be generating more tax revenue. But he has missed the point: people invest in cities when they invest in themselves. Sidewalks, street trees, parks, bike lanes, public art: These are a few ways that Richmond could continue to make itself more attractive to private investment.

Large single-use projects such as the Coliseum, the Greater Richmond Convention Center, City Stadium, and the Redskins Training Camp (even the Siegel Center and Robins Stadium) have moments of vibrant activity connected by long stretches of nothing. Small businesses nearby rarely benefit from their proximity.  Visitors come for events then leave without stopping nearby. Everything, from food to entertainment, is provided “in house.” These big venues serve a valuable function in the city, but should be relegated to the edges where no one will notice their vacuous presence.

The center of a city should exist to facilitate and enhance residents’ daily lives.

***

In a few weeks, the Richmond City council may vote to construct a stadium so insignificant it will never be written about in any noteworthy international or national publication or be visited by leaders from beyond our state. It will exist for approximately 50 years and then it will surely be destroyed.

At that point I suppose the people of Richmond will once again be given a chance to discuss the value of their history and identity to the rest of the nation and the world. Perhaps at that point Richmond will look to rebuild the baseball stadium elsewhere and restore the historic urban grid laid out by William Mayo in 1737. We might replace it with something that is uniquely “Richmond.” Until then, I suppose we’ll have whatever our elected officials decide is best for us.

If the stadium is constructed, many people will try and claim that it has resulted in great advancements for our city. It will not take much for this project to be deemed a success. But we will never get the chance to know what the space could have been. Richmond never got the chance to dream.

If we want to build a new centerpiece for Richmond. If we want a “crown jewel” development for our city, here is my advice:

Build something that will still be relevant in 100 years.
Build something that people will travel more than 10 miles to visit.
Build something that will be open to visitors all hours of the day.
Build something connected to the history and identity of Richmond.
Build something that will make generations of Richmond proud.
Build something that will turn heads.
Build something that is architecturally innovative.
Build something that is innovative in general.
Build something that is environmentally integrated.
Build something that is thoughtful.
Build something that is the first of its kind.
Build something that is truly world-class.

We are living in the midst of a renaissance in Richmond, but the guy at the top seems to have completely missed it. Some might say that my hopes are too lofty for Richmond. Maybe I’m the deluded one. Or maybe I’m just worried that we’re moving in the wrong direction.

World-class cities are not built on a foundation of minor-league ideas.

Everybody’s doing it

When Richmond was debating whether to construct an urban highway, one argument used in favor of the highway was the citation of other cities with urban highways. Here are two prime examples from June 4, 1950:

june 4 1950-eight cities with highways say they're good-news-propoganda

june 4 1950-First ad-Forward Richmond Highway Committee in favor-Political ad

To read an opinion article related to this topic, click here.
For more artifacts like this, check out my page, “Highways in Richmond?

Book review: How Children Succeed

I love books written by journalists. In his latest, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough weaves together delicate personal stories and obscure academic research into a nonfiction that reads like the biography of a life I would be proud to live.

Beyond a student’s GPA and SAT score,  there is an entirely different measure that determines whether a they have what it takes to succeed. These “hidden” strengths are called a range of terms including non-cognitive skills, socio-emotional intelligence, soft skills, and character. Without a critical mass of these character traits, which range from self-control to optimism, an individual has a significantly lower chance of success. The research on character forces us to look past academic knowledge to something deeper that guides our choices and drives our behaviors. While the new psychological research is fascinating, the idea of character isn’t the most revolutionary.

But there’s another concept that I find to be more eyeopening and important: the idea that stress in life causes harm to the body and the mind. I first wrote about this topic in a blog post a year ago in response to a This American Life episode. In it, Ira Glass (also a reader of the book) interviews Tough and others  about the emerging research on the relationship between stress and the brain. As I listened, I memorized the phrase, “the biology of stress.”

As in, the biological response to the stress of life.

You see, ever since I graduated from college I’ve followed a meandering path of books on topics such as leadership, therapy, and growth. But none of these books made a biological connection between life and the body. In his book, Tough more clearly describes this connection as the HPA Axis which stands for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (the chemical) response to stress. It’s this system that senses stress and responds in an attempt to protect the person involved. When these chemicals flood your brain, you lose the parts of your brain that house the executive function and revert to a “fight or flight” response and a more reactionary animal nature. Sadly, the more often you’re in stressful situations, the more likely this will be your primary response to life.

It’s this connection that most influenced me when I heard  Tough speak about his book at the Sabot School in Richmond. (I’m also proud to say I shook his hand and spoke with him when sat down at the end my row before the program.) While he spoke, I diagramed his speech on my bulletin:

Notes from Paul Tough event

As you can see, I found two main ideas: The Biology of Stress and the Psychology of Growth. It’s clear from the research that trauma and stress (and especially chronic stress) wreak havoc on the human brain, stunt learning, and prevent growth. But there is also incredible research in the field of psychology about the antidote to this stress: a secure attachment to parents who are are comforting and who help children manage their stress. For those who are older, a caring adult and a safe support group can also provide opportunities for people to feel accepted and to accept themselves.

This acceptance is the first step to growth.

But there also is a surprising third point that connects both stress and growth: that is the believe that growth is enhanced by, indeed requires, the presence of stress. And on the affluent end of the spectrum, Tough and others believe there is even a deficit of adversity which prevents students from ever fully developing into themselves. They simply pass from one institution to another seeking stability and a straightforward path of rewards for their work. In contrast, students in poor communities have a much higher risk of failure, but the students that get out have something their wealthier peers lack: the knowledge that they have achieved something great and the determination to do it again. I drew another diagram while trying to explain this concept to my girlfriend and simultaneously trying to understand it myself:

Notes on Class and SuccessThe point is not to be naive about poverty (especially extreme poverty) and it’s also not about “success” in monetary terms, but in the more personal sense of achievement. Tough writes that the point is to be more understanding of the role of adversity. For the high school student I mentor in Richmond, it wouldn’t help for me to remove all adversity from his life. That would stunt growth as well. Instead, I need to give him a safe place to feel accepted, to know he is loved, and to enjoy life for a moment. He can go to school or the basketball court and know that I’m only a phone call away. And, of course, when he needs something that he definitely can’t get on his own, I’ll do my best to help him out.

Which brings me to Fatima.

I first met Fatima while she was walking home from work one day this summer. I am friends with her roommate, but I had never met her so I made the connection and asked her about her life. I quickly realized that Fatima has a goal: she is determined to get her driver’s license. So I agreed I would teach her how to drive and do whatever I could to help her. A month or two later, I got a call and for the past two weeks, her roommate and I have been riding in the passenger seat while Fatima, timid and incredibly nervous, has been learning how to drive.

This morning, I picked her up to go to the DMV and take the driving test for the first time. She told me she has three chances to get it right before her learner’s permit expires on October 14 so she wanted to get an early start. “I want to drive,” she said when I picked her up. “I want to drive to the DMV.” Aside from a few “dad moments,” I kept my cool on the way and she got us both there with relative skill. As expected, the place was crowded so Fatima got in line to get her number (to wait in another line) and I sat in a seat nearby.

As she stood there, a short, middle-aged Moroccan woman, I was amazed by her courage. No mother or father was there to help her. No husband, partner, or lifelong friend was there with her for support. A stranger (me) was her only chance to get this right and to accomplish her goal. But to Fatima, none of that mattered. It didn’t matter that the woman behind the counter was a little rude or that she was surrounded by people speaking a foreign language. She was focused on one thing: getting a driver’s license to get a car to get a job.

And at first I thought she was incredible for her courage, ambition, and resilience (qualities she certainly possesses in great measure). But, as Tough writes in his book, that is never the full story. While we were waiting in her third line of the morning, I asked her about her family. She told me that she has three younger brothers: one who lives in Rhode Island, and who two live in Morocco with her mother. Her father has passed away. “How is your mom?” I asked mostly to be polite.

“She’s doing good,” Fatima replied.

“Do you get to talk to her very often?”

“Oh yes, I talk to her everyday.”

Every day. I don’t quite know what drives Fatima, but I know it’s somehow connected to the relationship she has with her mother and her brothers. She is loved. And every day when she goes out into this stressful, foreign world she knows that she can return home to a conversation with her mom, a peace, a calm. She’s even told her mom about me, about her goal of getting her license and the stressful test she has to take. And from this loving relationship she goes back out into the world, ready to fight every step of the way. Tough writes that this is the fundamental difference between stress that harms and stress that results in growth: a chance to be restored.

This book may make you think about your life, your kids, your students, your friends. It’s a study that pushes the conversation about “education reform” to a new and more meaningful place: failure, success, and the perilous journey in between.

Sadly, Fatima did not pass the driving test today. I don’t even think the instructor let her out of the parking lot. She very gently told us that Fatima needs more practice. She was just way too nervous and unable to complete some basic tasks as a result. I know she was devastated. After months of work and hours of waiting, she her license was still out of reach..

If that were the end of the story, if Fatima went home and gave up on her dreams, it would be a pretty sad story. But I am sure that she is Skyping with her mom as I write this post, telling her all about this morning, the lines at the DMV and the events of the day. And as she shares with her mom, Fatima is slowly replacing her own stress and fear with her mom’s love and acceptance. She even called me a few hours later to make sure I would let her know when I found a time to take her back for her second test. I believe that through her experiences today Fatima will move forward more prepared for the test and determined to pass.

And that is how anyone succeeds.

Watercolor Richmond

I just stumbled upon an article in Good about a program that produces interesting maps of your favorite places all over the world. Considering how much I love maps and cities, this site made my day.

Here’s a watercolor of Richmond:

Richmond Watercolor

While I was at it, I also made one of Detroit:

Detroit watercolor

Here’s Tyler:

Tyler

And just for fun … Istanbul:

Istanbul

And Copenhagen:

Copenhagen

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.

Stop making public transit a social justice issue

Dear friends, colleagues, and activists in Richmond,

For the past several months I’ve been hearing an “access to jobs” argument for regional transit in the Richmond Region. This argument proposes to connect poor residents in Richmond with entry-level jobs in the surrounding counties.

I’m afraid this approach will not be received well.

Richmond city bus

I believe the statistics and I understand the need for jobs in Richmond on a very personal level. I just don’t think the current approach is savvy. When I see Powerpoint slides depicting the number of people in Richmond who need jobs and the number of entry-level positons in the counties, this is what I hear:

“Hey Henrico and Chesterfield, look, we have all these people that need entry-level jobs and you have all these entry-level jobs. Wanna pay to transport our least-well-off residents to your strip malls and corporate offices so they can take work from your growing poor and immigrant populations?”

Wow. Is that how they managed regional public transit in other cities? By shaming municipalities into investing into something that their own residents don’t yet desire? Is that how we make decisions in Richmond? Do the counties even need Richmonders to fill those jobs? Something tells me that if the entry-level jobs in the counties weren’t being filled employers in the counties would be pressuring their local leaders for regional transit. I have heard no such demand.

I am 100% committed to advocating for a more efficient system of transportation in this region. I am open to the idea of BRT being the model for that system. I want more density, more connectivity, and healthier communities in Richmond. But I don’t think that framing this particular initiative as a social justice issue is going to get us anywhere. Is it a social justice issue? Of course. People should not have to own a car to get a job. Is that the best way to approach the topic with our more conservative and flighty neighbors?

By all means, no.

Busses in America are already stigmatized. Let’s stop exacerbating the problem. Instead, let’s find and emphasize more reasons why our neighbors could benefit from regional public transit. Here are a few to start: safe and reliable transportation for the young and elderly, a chance for residents to work with WiFi on their daily commute, and an option to travel downtown quickly without the stress and hassle of parking. I also read a great article a while ago about the therapeutic qualities of the D.C. Metro and I LOVE this piece by a man who wrote and illustrated a book while riding the train to work. Here’s a video from NextCity with countless more: “God Created Transit.”

The one benefit that I’ve heard mentioned, economic revitalization, should be more celebrated and emphasized! Transit-oriented development has incredible potential in this low-density region and streets like Hull and Broad are full of vacant lots ready for new development. Also, in order to make transit viable we’re going to need the density of nodes along the BRT corridor so it’s integral to the success of the project itself.

I don’t want us to see public transit as an indulgence that the suburbs have to buy in order to cover their sins of wealth and security. Public transit is a relaxing, efficient, and social way to travel. In the past year, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with acquaintances, and laughed with my coworkers on the bus to and from work. I love the bus and I invite the rest of the region to consider whether more of our neighborhoods should enjoy access to public transit as I do.

In short, public transit is a party and everyone’s invited. It’s just that some in this region are going to have to drive to get there.

p.s. thanks for sharing the video @curtrog 🙂

Generations of Mentors

You know that brief moment in “Tarzan” when he is flying through the air between vines? That’s basically been my life for the last five years.

Like many of you, I left my family and friends to start college in Richmond. My first night in town, I had dinner with a student named Dan and listened while he shared his story. He became my first friend and connection to this place.

The next day, he introduced me to a few of his friends and his favorite professor. We laughed, they made fun of each other, and I began to imagine that life on this campus might actually work. In some small way, I was closer to home.

I had no idea how fast time in college would move. I especially didn’t know how significant those first few friends would be in providing me with advice as I made my way through the maze of classes, programs and professors. Without their help, I might have never found that sneaky second vine.

Looking back, I wonder why I listened at all. I could have disregarded their advice and found my own way. But for some reason I appreciated their experience and trusted strangers in a strange place.

Lesson #1: When life gives you strangers, hear them out. At the very least, you’ll have a story to tell. At best, you’ll have a new guide to show you the way.

These new friends told me which classes to take (and which not to take), welcomed me into their community and drove me to the ER when I fell out of a tree and broke my arm. That’s right, this Tarzan metaphor just got real.

Not much has changed from those early days in Richmond. If I’m honest, the vines just feel farther apart and the fall much farther below. The only difference is that I now have faith that someone will introduce me to someone who can show me the way.

I’ve also matured a little since then. I certainly appreciate people more than I used to. While I usually took advice from others, I also regularly took it for granted.

Appreciating our mentors doesn’t mean we have to become our mentors, but it does mean that we have to give some effort. We have to be willing to say yes to something new and outside of our comfort zone.

Lesson #2: Receiving advice means humbling yourself long enough to actually listen.

I’ve also learned (many times over) that being mentored isn’t simply about receiving advice. Mentoring is not a product to consume or even a loan to repay. It’s also not supposed to make me feel good about myself or confirm what I already know. At its best, mentoring is a truth and a challenge. Mentoring first says, “I think you can do it,” and then, “Here’s what it’s going to take.”

Being mentored then becomes more about making choices than discussing ideas. When you receive wise counsel, it’s not a hypothetical in a book; it’s wisdom applied to your life. Receive it and say, “Thank you.”

Lesson #3: The more often you ignore someone else’s advice (for no good reason), the less likely they will be to share it.

When we commit to being mentored, we become a part of generations of mentors who have been acquiring and passing down wisdom for years. Open yourself up to wise counsel, prepare to be honest, and be willing to be wrong. Then, if you really want to be stretched, you can become a mentor yourself.

You may think that you’re not patient enough to mentor or that you don’t have enough time. But that is exactly why you should do it. If life gives you a chance to grow in a new (and uncomfortable) direction, shouldn’t you take it?

You can become more patient and eventually learn how to make time for the relationships that matter most. You can have the chance to pass on what was taught and the advice you have been given. And, for what it’s worth, I think you’d make a great mentor.

This article first appeared in print on January 30, 2013, in The Collegian.

We, the Mobile

As I rode home from work on Friday, I decided I needed to get out of Richmond. For me, a 70-mile drive to Charlottesville is far enough to feel like I got “away” from my routine life. That drive down I-64 was the beginning of an idea that has everything to do with highways and hallowed halls: the faster you can get somewhere the closer it feels.

I’ve been told that humans have always considered a reasonable commute to be about a half of an hour to an hour of travel. Walking, that would be about 3.5 miles. Driving, that could be a trip from Trenton to New York. Flying, that’s a D.C. to Chicago commute that no child dreams to have when they grow up. While the amount of time we travel to work has remained relatively the same, the increase in distance has been significant. The affects of this distance are profound.

In the early 1900s, before the Model T and good roads, many wealthy Americans owned second homes just outside the city. In Boston, for instance, this was the rural getaway known as Jamaca Plain. Near Richmond, it was the neighborhood of Bon Air. Originally a retreat ten miles outside the city, Bon Air was frequented by Richmonders who wanted to get “away” from the stifling life of an industrial city. Today, Bon Air is near the middle of a metropolitan region and considered just another inner suburb. Meanwhile, the wealthiest residents are more likely to have second homes in Sun Valley or Naples than rural Virgina. The idea of buying a second home 10 miles away seems absurd. The faster you can get somewhere, the closer it feels. But is it actually close?

Many American cities today are populated by the children of faraway parents that raised them and watched them leave. I am one of these children. I was given the chance to move over 1,000 miles from home to live somewhere new and exciting. I have been given the chance to go out on my own. But when did this become normal? We, the millennials, are the fifth generation of Americans with access to cheap gasoline and the third generation to grow up with interstate highways.

We grew up as the unsettled generation of an increasingly mobile nation. There have always been wealthy people, but there have not always been turbojets and 70 mph speed limits. This has changed the way we see distance and separation.

For instance, I live about three-and-a-half hours away from my hometown of Tyler, TX. By plane. So that’s about 22 hours away by car and 349 hours by foot. When I left Tyler for college I didn’t really think it was a big deal. Now, it feels significantly farther than I originally imagined. In my sixth year of life away from Texas I can say there is much I have learned while I’ve been away. I wouldn’t change my decision to leave if I had the chance. I love the city where I live and the university where I studied.

But there is this simple, lingering question I am asked every once in a while that I can never completely answer: “So, how’d you end up in Richmond?”

Like most, I tend to focus on the “pull” factors of migration. Oh, I came here for college and fell in love with the city. I usually also make a joke about how the University’s website was easy to navigate or that Richmond wasn’t as cold as Boston, another city I considered for school. But why, as a senior in high school, did I not consider a single school in Texas or even somewhere closer like New Orleans or St. Louis? Why the 1,000-mile trek? There are a few easy answers I can think of:

  1. My brothers did it
  2. My parents let us
  3. I knew I would only be “a flight away”

But that doesn’t really answer the question. While there was a draw to move away, there were also significant “push” factors that sent me away from my southern home. In the land of football and Rick Perry, I didn’t really think there was a place for a friendly writer trying to make a difference. I made lots of unfavorable generalizations to justify my move away, but at the same time I was more focussed on where I was headed. When I applied to college, I dreamed of a place where people liked to read and write, where Christians didn’t all look the same, and where it wasn’t weird to suck at basketball. I didn’t know if I would find that, but I figured it was worth a shot. Everywhere I went in Texas, I saw the same story and realized that, while I think it’s a great story, it would be a hard one to fit into.

So I got out. I became one of the many confused Texpatriots simultaneously displaying a Texas flag and critiquing that beautiful, mineral-rich place.

And here I am: living in an old mansion in Richmond, working at an amazing university that also happens to be my alma mater. My neighborhood is both dangerous and beautiful depending on who you ask. My house is used as a tutoring site for hundreds of kids each year. My city has representations of American architecture going back to the 1700s, fine art, public murals, excellent restaurants, and more. It’s not D.C., but it’s also not snooty and it suits me well.

And yet, if you notice, all the positives aren’t really adding up. There’s always the question, “But what?” Living in Richmond is awesome, but it involves this thing I call the golden triangle of growing up: the pull between a career, a significant other, and family/hometown.

This is how it plays out:

Whenever I think about moving home (or at least near family), my first thought is that I can’t go back until I get somewhere in my career. There’s not much of a market in Tyler for someone who made up their own major in college. Then, whenever I think about advancing my career (a word I routinely misspell) which might involve grad school somewhere far away, I immediately think about my girlfriend and wonder how the timing of both will work out. Thinking about our relationship then takes me back to thinking about moving home and I imagine a life of holiday swaps and long-distance in-laws. Again, when I think about home, I think about my career pulling me all across the nation and I wonder what my little sister will be up to as she finishes high school and enters young adulthood herself. I wonder if my parents will be sitting on our back patio enjoying those cool spring afternoons in Tyler while I’m who-knows-where doing who-knows-what. I think about my three older brothers who are all living in this golden triangle as well and I wonder if we will ever manage to live near each other again.

I wonder if I will ever get to move home and whether it will still be home when I get there.

When you’re in a relationship with someone that’s in a similar situation, you also realize that at some point one of you will have to bend for the other. That’s the compound reality of this golden triangle: both of you can never have all three at the same time. And since both people in relationships today have educations and aspirations, it takes a lot of energy to make it all line up. Often people choose to go their separate ways, some struggle through the long-distance life, and others manage to work it out in the same place. Even when it does work out, it can be a gauntlet of long-term planning and flexibility.

That brings me back to my trip to Charlottesville. I’m currently sitting at a coffee shop with four friends I’ve met since moving out to Virginia. Between the two couples and myself, we represent five home states: Tennessee, Ohio, Maine, Virginia and Texas. We are all living in the reality of the triangle:

I am from Tyler, TX and my girlfriend is from Medford, NJ and Sanibel, FL. We both currently live in Richmond, but our families are scattered from Florida to California. My friend, Max, who is originally from Portland, ME, currently works and lives in D.C. where he met his girlfriend, Shannon, a native Tennesseean (who also moved around growing up), in D.C. just before she moved to Charlottesville for law school at UVA. Max is currently applying to law schools around the mid-Atlantic region and hopes to end up somewhat close by. Margo, another friend from college, is currently living in her hometown of Cincinnati and hoping to start medical school in the fall. She got into the University of Cincinnati program but is trying her darndest to get into a med school in Virginia so she can live near her boyfriend, Joe. Joe, a native of Richmond (the only native Virginian in the group), is currently in the UVA post-bac program so that that he can apply for med schools this summer and start a year from now in the fall. If Margo starts the program in Cincinnati, he will likely move to Cincinnati to work while he does his best to get into the same program or, if he only gets into a program in Virginia, she may try and transfer after her first two years.

It’s no wonder some are calling us the most stressed-out generation.

Max made the comment last night that we are living in an era of “progressive instability” as young adults in Twenty-First-Century America.

“Dramatic instability,” he added.

Since the best opportunities are no longer nearby, we find ourselves settling into LDRs (long-distance relationships) while we find jobs or attend grad school. Even if you don’t want to go to grad school, you’ve most likely thought about it. Max made the comment that the economy expects us to have graduate educations, but doesn’t facilitate the experience. Also, with MBA programs like UVA’s Darden that charge $76,000 a year for in-state tuition, our generation is making history in the way of personal debt.

With the sluggish economy, vertical mobility is synonymous with geographic mobility and cross-country job searches are the norm. This was once the time of life when people began to build stability, moved home, and started a new chapter of life. Some of my friends have managed to work that out, but many of us genuinely didn’t know it was an option. We, the mobile, have followed the allure of big cities and fresh lives.

No longer a time for building community, the twenties have become a very dynamic stage of life. One misstep and you’ll be roadkill in this “Great Recession” that sees unemployment as a mark of personal failure: you can’t get a job if you don’t have experience and you can’t get experience if you don’t have a job. Of course, it can work out, but it’s a little terrifying at the same time. And we are all living in this reality from day to day. Every once in a while I think about all of this and I take a very deep breath. It’s just too much to consider it all at the same time.

In a decade, I hope I look back and laugh at the golden triangle of growing up. I hope we will have a chance to tell stories and swap war wounds on the other side. I hope we all keep our sanity in the process and I hope we remember what matters most. What makes people happy today is what made people happy thousands of years ago: close relationships, good work, and unconditional love.

In the world of the golden triangle, it’s simply a question of where.