I have a confession to make: Goochland may have my heart these days, but Richmond will forever be my first love. And, like with most first loves, the years spent apart have only served to elevate it in my mind, rounding off the sharp edges and leaving only the good memories of my time spent there.
I was born in Richmond in the late 1970s, and for as long as I have known the city it has been in flux—something is always being torn down or rebuilt, a new plan being rolled out, a curtain of scaffolding always going up or coming down.
To me, it has always been a city that teems with creativity and just the right mix of bustle and calm. It has all the energy and vitality of a larger place, but is still small enough to know in its entirety. In short, as someone I know once said, Richmond is a place you can get your arms around.
For a time after college at VCU, I had a job helping restore old buildings in Richmond’s storied Fan District. It may sound funny to some, but it became a singular joy to work around all that history, to run your hand along a banister carved by hand over a century ago or repair a tin ceiling that had been quietly hanging there since the days when horse-drawn carriages meandered down Monument Ave.
To this day, I still remark often that I have never come across a city as beautiful, as interesting or as multifaceted as Richmond. If city life is your thing, I have often told people, I defy you to find a better place to hang your hat.
Given all of this, I wasn’t sure how I would feel last Saturday evening, as I left home to make the 45-minute drive to Richmond for a family get-together. I hadn’t been back since before the protests, and wondered if it would seem a different place.
To love, of course, is to overlook flaws, but even so I suppose I have never been entirely blind to the city’s imperfections. As picturesque as the streets were where I grew up, those same streets eventually meandered down through areas where the legacy of past injustice hit like a smack in the face.
I remember as a young adult beginning to understand that there were some areas of the city where people I knew were afraid to go, and schools that some parents would sooner leave the city altogether than send their children.
There is not enough space in this newspaper to lay out all the arguments in support of social change, to discuss how the cycle of poverty perpetuates itself or how the undeniable injustices of the past haunt the lives of future generations. But I think everyone has a moment in their lives when the notion of inequality suddenly crystallizes for them, and this was mine: understanding that some people get to avoid living in dangerous neighborhoods with scant resources and failing schools and some people do not.
Pulling down monuments is not going to solve this. Vandalism is not the answer. But if a few weeks of unrest and discomfort serve to remind people that equality and justice are not just reserved for certain people but are the birthrights of every American, then it seems a worthwhile sacrifice to make.
That’s just my opinion of course. You may disagree.
I suppose I share all of this to say that I have loved the city long enough that I continue to do so even when it fails terribly, when it breaks my heart and reminds me that neither of us is perfect. We both have a lot of growing left to do.
In the end, my trip there last Saturday evening was both wonderful and wistful in the way that every reunion with an old love should be.
The monuments were defaced but the people were as I remembered them: all ages and races out on the boulevards, lounging together in the parks, walking dogs or just enjoying the early summer weather on patios and porches. There were restaurants coming back to life and the never-ending quest to find parking.
Yes, there were signs of unrest scattered around, but the spirit of the city was still the same: Stately but youthful. Still trying to get it right. Lovely. Messy. Vibrant. Enduring.