Tag Archives: 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.

The end of an era

Just about anyone who loves Richmond has heard a story about streetcars: Did you know Richmond invented streetcars? Did you know that Ginter Park was a streetcar suburb? Did you know they piled them up and burned them all in the 50s?

And so the stories go, a hint of nostalgia here and a tinge of sadness there.

If you don’t love cars and highways, odds are good that part of you longs for streetcars. You also might have loved Richmond in the early 1900s when the city was denser (16,000 residents per square mile), connected (more than 80 passenger trains arrived in Richmond daily) and dynamic (real estate values doubled on Grace St. in the 20s.) Yes, this was the time of crowded streets, industrial haze, and grand plans to make our cities beautiful. In many ways, streetcars have come to represent this era as a symbol of the public good and a physical commitment to the life of the city.

From 1888 to 1949, the streetcar reigned as the liberator of urban life. No more stench of horse manure! No more flies! No more walking for miles in the rain! Streetcars filled a need for transportation with incredible efficiency and in a matter of years became an integral part of this growing city. But just as streetcars have come to represent the dense, thriving city, their removal has become a symbol of mid-century American planning and desire for change. As streetcars were ascending to power, the wealthiest of Americans were already turning their attention to the unbounded freedom of the automobile. The military also took note during WWI and afterwards paraded trucks through cities across the entire nation. Compared to cars, streetcars were standing still. You know the rest of the story: highways, suburban sprawl, urban decay/destruction, new neighborhoods, new churches, new malls.

But that’s not really how I want this story to end. Rather than chase cars through the next 60 years of history, I want to remain in the moment that the streetcar era ended and the very memory of streetcars began to fade. The moment when the Richmond City Council passed ordinance No. 51-45 and decided to remove every last piece of streetcar infrastructure from Richmond’s “streets, alleys, bridges and public places therein.” When I found this page in the city council records, I was struck by the wording of the ordinance:

Everything removed

The process just seemed so easy and the change so vast. I pictured a huge eraser passing over the city, wiping away all of that clumsy streetcar infrastructure. The people of Richmond were changing, the city itself was changing, and transportation would never be the same. The streetcar, it seems, couldn’t leave fast enough.

For more artifacts from my research, check out my Archives page.