Tag Archives: Visions


As I flew out of Richmond last week, I got a rare glimpse of the city at dusk:

River city

I just stared at that settlement on the banks of the James River and wondered what the next 400 years might bring. In the city of Richmond, there is the past, the present and the future. That makes us fortunate and it makes us complicated.

To move forward, we will have to make some sense of ourselves and our story.

In the past few months I’ve travelled all over the country: from Philadelphia to Dallas, to San Francisco. With each trip I’ve found new perspective on this current phase of the development of the city of Richmond. I’ve also found some clarity for myself and settled into four areas of focus for my writing:

1. Current events in context: If I ever write about current events, it will be to analyze and contextualize the story. I spent three years studying the debates in Richmond regarding the construction of the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike. That work left me particularly interested in economic development strategies and plans for improving the American city.

2. Drawings for the future: Like many of us, I’m constantly imagining new uses for old spaces and I’ve decided I’m finally going to get these on paper. I’m actually planning to draw them out. It will probably be pretty ugly at first, but I’m hoping to read a little on technique and improve over time.

3. The psychology of the city: I’ve been noticing for years that the city of Richmond has a certain personality. This personality comes out in furious debates as well as mundane daily life. Since college I’ve also entered the world of cognitive psychology, therapy, management, and organizational behavior. I’ve read books, met with academics, and watched every video I find. Insight from these fields will be my lens for understanding what’s going on in this crazy place.

4. The history of the history: There are so many stories being told about Richmond. I want to take those stories and study them to understand the different ways that we describe ourselves. I’m obsessed with historiography and excited to dive back into that field for a series of posts about the different ways we talk about our past. This is connected to the psychological perspective as well: how we talk about Richmond says a lot about how we think of ourselves.

I want a future for this city that is unique and authentic. I want Richmond to develop a maturity as a place that takes all of it’s qualities and integrates them into a coherent whole. As with personal development, this will require a lot of work. In a way, collective therapy. And all because we believe there is a best possible future for this city and that future must include a coherent, honest, and accepting understanding of the past and present.

As always, more to come.

Start at the Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have nothing to prove and everything to gain.

“When Everybody Has a Car”

On Monday Nov. 14 1965, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an article in the opinion section. It reads,

In the 1950s and 60s, members of the automobile hegemony often made grand statements. I’m amazed that even in 1965 this one sounded like a bad idea.

The Rose Park

Look at the image below. What do you see?

I see a rose.

The stem of the rose (S. Glenwood Blvd.) extends as a greenway belt from the bottom left corner toward the upper right. It curves along the stream in between the grass of the greenbelt. At the end of the stem, there is a parking lot in a shape that resembles a flower bud. It seems like a perfect fit for the Rose Capitol … especially considering it’s in The Rose District, my fictitious plan for the area of land around the Rose Garden Complex. The Rose Park would be the perfect way to say, “Welcome to Tyler, we like roses a lot.” Since we pretty much control the commercial rose industry in the USA … I’d say roses like us too.

The Rose Park is the perfect way to welcome visitors into this city that has been celebrating the rose industry for decades. As you drive into Tyler on Glenwood, the road is suddenly transformed into a tree-lined parkway with a creek running down the middle of it. Brick sidewalks run along this parkway as it wanders past the junk shops and the Cotton Belt Building. The sidewalks of this parkway then ends with a crosswalk across the intersection that has been rebuilt to accommodate a larger number of walkers and bikers. The bike/ped crossing leads across the intersection into the parking lot that has been transformed into a park of flowers. From the sky, the stem and rose form a clear picture of the city’s identity. From the road, drivers get a glimpse of the park and begin to feel like they have formally entered Tyler.

The Rose Park should be a part of a bigger network of trails and parks in the Rose District. These would all make this an area of the city that is accessible, functional and proud. In it’s current form, this is just a road and a parking lot. But in a few years it could be a purposeful use of space and an excellent entry to this city.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.

Connecting the Dots: Intro

Imagine if Tyler decided to take a few areas, increase their eminence, and connect them to each other. My latest concept, Connecting the Dots (C-T-D), outlines a long-term process of public and private investment that I’ll complete in the next three followup posts.

The basic idea is often called Transit-oriented development. It’s the idea that we need to begin considering land use and transportation as one unified city function. You see, for the past century or so we have built our cities without considering how people will travel  because access to a car was generally assumed. And, I might add, those without cars were not usually considered valuable (i.e. profitable). Cities have grown rapidly and died gradually with this sort of development because 1. The roads cost too much, 2. New developments make older ones obsolete, and 3. New developments often have difficulty maintaining lasting significance past their prime. This paradigm is the Gander Mountain, it’s the church my family goes to, it’s the Hollywood Tyler Rose theater, and it’s the majority of this city.

But it wasn’t always this way. There was a brief time in history somewhere between horses and cars that we travelled on fixed tracks. During this time, (often) private corporations ran street cars through a partnership with municipalities in order to provide transportation for locals or visitors when they entered the train station, “Welcome to Richmond.” Now, it seems that the main city function is to facilitate transportation through the building of roads rather than to provide transportation for the general public. “But,” you say, “Tyler has a bus system already.” Yes it’s true, but in this post I want to argue that the bus system has not succeeded in unifying our city. Besides, we don’t have many significant areas to visit. What we have is a lot of stores, schools, restaurants and other businesses scattered over 49.3 square miles of asphalt, concrete and St. Augustine grass. Where, I wonder, is Tyler in all of this?

C-T-D seeks to revisit that earlier era of development for a 21st Century application. I have decided to start macro with this first piece (perhaps a look at Tyler 10 years down the road) then followup with more micro concepts for each individual node that I’ve proposed: The Rose District, The Square (with my Urban Valley), and a New Node that I haven’t named yet (ideas?). Each of these locations will be connected to each other with complete streets. This will also provide an alternative to cars and increase their viability as destinations. Completing streets will finally reconnect our asphalt to our buildings after decades of disconnected drives. Also, a recent report promoted by Smart Growth America shows that sidewalks and bike lanes increase the economic vitality of a region. That means more jobs! Eventually, we would add light rail trains (or BRT) to these streets in a circuit in order to properly move citizens from one location to the next.

I personally prefer light rail (yes, in Tyler) because it makes such a statement of  commitment to a given space. Light rail is also not as stigmatized as busses. Besides, it’s just plain cool. Check out the loop (below) I’ve devised for the light rail and complete streets:

Of course, in order to connect the dots … we first need dots to connect. This process involves developing three high-density, mixed use, cool (this is not a joke), and interesting nodes. These nodes are special, they have names and unique characteristics and an eminence that draws people to visit.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.

P.S. I recently returned from a trip to Seattle and Portland and I brought back ideas, the book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School,  and a Leuchtturm1917 journal with dots instead of lines. Let the games begin.


C-T-D: The Rose District

This gallery contains 1 photos.

The other night I couldn’t sleep because I kept thinking about this one section of Tyler. The latest iteration of the city within my mind is a revision of a section of Tyler which can be accessed via Google maps … Continue reading


The City in my Mind

In her preface to The Sheltered Life, Ellen Glasgow describes the development of a character named Little Willie. She writes, “Far back in my childhood, before I had learned the letters of the alphabet, a character named Little Willie wandered into the … Continue reading

That Which is Built

When I was young, people taught me history from a book. This history was often a history of nations and political places (e.g. Texas, Germany, the South) and we usually discussed history as a distant idea with little relevance to our lives. I believe this omission is common practice, but in many ways it prevented me from fully appreciating the legacy of history and what Faulkner famously stated is “never dead … not even past.” Additionally, I’ve come to realize that the political history I was taught was difficult to interact with because politics themselves are abstract. I began to realize that the national history seems irrelevant because it seems to only indirectly relates to one’s personal life. I believe that we should rediscover the value in local, applied history that engages the mind on many different levels. Furthermore, I have realized that in studying the physical structures of a society one can develop a deeper understanding of the politics and power of the past.

This is my manifesto for studying that which is built.

Consider the legacy of segregation in America. While there has not been a law mandating segregation for decades, the reality of segregation today is difficult to deny. This legacy lives on in both the tangible structures and the intangible social divisions that locked themselves into the urban landscape years ago.

In my hometown, Jim Crow told black residents to live north of the railroad tracks and white residents of course lived to the south. This one simple policy, coupled with latent racism, has transformed my city into an oblong egg shape as more and more businesses and people move farther south. While they may claim they are moving towards new regions, they are also moving farther away from the historically black and historically poor northern region of the city. Implicit within this movement to the south is the stigmatization of those neighborhoods to the north and their residents. This stigmatization is no longer written in law, but it lingers in the streets named after MLK, the local HBCU Texas College, the Salvation Army and other similar signifiers of race and class. The power of stigma prevents many developers and individuals from imagining a profitable future for the spaces to the north of downtown Tyler. It’s a mental block, but it is directly informed by the physical environment.

This is because the built environment makes statements about the relative significance of a place. On the surface, buildings teach the observer about an area and the people who live there. On a deeper level, buildings teach the scholar about the society that has shaped that place and transformed it’s potential. Greg Dickinson further describes the way buildings “speak” to us in his article “Memories For Sale: Nostalgia and the Construction of Identity in Old Pasadena.” Dickinson writes, “Places are often constructed to make claims about a society. As time passes, these places become rhetorical artifacts that can maintain rhetorical and memorial significance. (Dickinson, 4). This rhetorical significance is powerful and shapes the way we experience places whether or not we are aware. There are many structures that obviously make claims about a society (e.g. Confederate monuments in Richmond) and others that are more subtle such as bike lanes and sidewalks for those who cannot afford to drive. There are also “absences” in many cities where significant places have been destroyed and memories have been lost (I will discuss memory places more at a later time).

As a student, I was not made fully aware of the rhetorical and historical nature of places until an independent study on the rhetoric of highway battles with Dr. Kevin Kuswa. As a spatial thinker, this lesson illuminated my view of the American city and activated my brain to think of history and society in three-dimensions. I believe that it is necessary to teach our students about the built environment because we will begin to realize how significant history is to our individual cities and lives. It helps to answer questions such as, “Why does everyone in my neighborhood look the same?” and “Why aren’t the roads in our neighborhood paved?” The city becomes the classroom and the students become active participants in both learning about the general history and more significantly about themselves and their place in society on a local and national level.

On Plans and the Future

On November 3, 1951, Robert LeRoy Shepherd wrote an opinion article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch titled “Freedom, Independence, Taxes and the Freeway.” I found this article 60 years after it was written and was struck by the candor of his voice and the content of his message: Plans for the future must respond to reality.

At the time it was written, the city was in the midst of a highway battle over the plans for the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (what is now a section of I-95). As was common practice at the time, Richmond politicians contracted large firms to develop plans for this expressway without significant input from the residents of the city. As a result, the thought of destroying the city for a highway divided citizens and outraged residents. Many conceded that the city fathers had already decided what would be best for Richmond, but fought to make their voices heard during the second public referendum of the highway plan.

Uncertainty filled the minds of Richmonders who were unsure whether their city would be completely transformed by this idea proffered by huge national planning firms and local politicians. The highway plan would result in the destruction of large sections of the city and would forever change the way people move throughout the region. On a more philosophical level, the plans for the highway also seemed to fundamentally question the legitimacy of the physical structure city. After 210 years of individuals shaping the built environment, an outside idea was being presented as more legitimate. At this moment of crisis in the battle for Richmond’s future, Shepherd wrote a philosophical piece that questioned the idea of a highway in Richmond and made a simple, yet compelling argument for democracy in the midst of the American highway era.

At this point in time, the Richmond Times-Dispatch was not new to articles and ads related to the expressway.  Leading up to the referendum on November there were dozens of references to the highway including political ads, cartoons, editorials, news articles, and opinion submissions. Many of these references simply recycled the same ideas and arguments for or against the highway plan. In these arguments it was too expensive or it was the ultimate solution to traffic, either not the will of the people or a well-developed plan vetted by studies and experts.

Amidst the banal arguments, Shepherd’s article called Richmonders to think critically about the process of planning a highway in the 50s. He was not enamored by the professional firms that planned the highway or their ideas for the future of Richmond. Instead, he writes, “Inflexible plans result in a fixation of mind. Steering them becomes an obsession kindred to a driver’s headlong dash above or over a freeway.” To Shepherd, politicians in Richmond were  trying to make the plan fit an unwilling populace. To Shepherd, the future was not so easy to predict.

While many framed the highways as American progress, Shepherd framed the highway plan as megalomania. He compares the politics to Alexander the Great, Caesar, Hitler, Hirohito, and the British Empire. The one thing in common was the concept of invasion and empire, but more philosophically the empires were imposed and forced on unprepared societies. The empires constantly developed their ability to transform the life of citizens in order to complete the assimilation of diverse societies. The highway was no exception. Plans for the city of Richmond were meticulously developed before being presented to the people of Richmond and expected to impress and amaze. The highway was an idea from the outside that was forced upon cities in America and unwilling to change or shift to fit the will of the people.

To Shepherd, these plans did not make sense in context because they weren’t democratic. “Taxes and plans?” writes Shepherd, “Yes.” In some instances it is wise to plan for the future and prepare for potential changes and developments, “But [while] some lead to the freedom of men, others lead to a fixation of mind and bondage just a binding as chains.” Today we are living the legacy of these plans and I believe we finally beginning to understand the captivity of which Shepherd spoke. While the highway seemed like an opportunity for growth, it has become a fundamental aspect of American life. What was once vehemently opposed has now become part of routine commutes and shopping trips.

Many people look at cities without any sort of historic lens or context, but a deeper understanding of the politics of a place will give us a better understanding of the place itself. As we continually struggle to recover our buried past we will likely find similar instances where democracy failed and voices were silenced. Uncovering these voices will further illuminate our nation’s past and present and allow us to begin to right our future.