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24 Reasons to Love Richmond

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2Because at press time, no member of this City Council had been charged, arrested or indicted for any crime.

3
Because our Confederates aren't relegated to the attic ...
The past is always present. We can't escape it. On a cold and rainy day, for instance, as we're mindlessly driving to the dentist or grocery store, we confront an honor guard, draped in wool, standing at strict attention at Gen. Robert E. Lee's statue on Monument Avenue.

We have so much history that much of it lies buried in the city's substrata. Most people don't get worked up until someone suggests a roadway, a baseball stadium or a suburban development that would destroy the space. We have so much history we can get away with building houses atop 145-year-old Civil War earthworks in Varina or even consider moving a national historic landmark from its site.

And even though our mayor is in the history books, Doug Wilder's face is on news most evenings.

We can't escape the past.

4
... and no one can blame Presidents Park on us.

5
Because unlike Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, we can get to work — and get out of town.

6
Because the corporate rednecks at NASCAR can put their Hall of Fame where the Sun Don't Shine. We'd rather spend our Saturday nights with a six-pack at Southside Speedway.

7
Because individuality still matters.
OK, I have to confess. I've had a copy of a photograph of Pam Reynolds thumbtacked inside my cubicle at work for going on nine months now. When I put it up, I chose a blue tack to pick up on the periwinkle in her oversized earrings, which were really a bold move that particular night (a MoMA reception), since the rest of the outfit was in creams, poinsettia reds and olive greens.

Around her neck she is wearing a stack of pearls six strands high.

She is also wearing what could be a man's wristwatch.

Why do we love Pam? Because she is her own brand. She happens to share her married name with a certain plastic wrap close to all of our hearts, and I guess that adds to it, the kitchen-drawer familiarity paired with a glossy daydream closet full of one-offs and the occasional Valentino (turquoise, netted, worn at Mayor Wilder's inaugural ball), but that's not what I mean.

Pam's not just her own brand; she defines her own genre. People who've hardly met her can identify certain things as so Pam Reynolds. Mostly those things are blond bobs, but still. She has made certain fashion decisions her own.

And she's the perfect local celebrity. She's well-liked by museum boards and waitresses alike for graciously donating time and money and adding a touch of genuine glamour wherever she goes. Rare, but not rarified, she's remarkable for being someone with a dignified public life.

8
Because we're just way too complex to be summed up in three or four words.
Richmond has endured a multitude of attempts to coin a catchy, marketable slogan, including the vague "One City, Our City" and the insipid "Easy to Love." Last fall, Paul Goldman, the mayor's senior policy adviser, declared Richmond needed something new. He suggested "Gateway to the New South" and asked city residents what they thought.

Of course, people had opinions. Let people know we're a destination, not just a portal, they said. Include the city's history, but make it clear we're not stuck in the past. Emphasize the urban feel, but include the small-town sense of community.

"So how do you get all that?" Goldman asks.
Perhaps:
"Richmond: The Big Little City in the Heart of Old Virginny
Where We Love the Civil War but Don't Hate Yankees Anymore,
So Come on Down, Walk Around (Forget Jamestown)
The Jefferson Hotel!"

9
Because you may have 1.8 million square feet worth of fancy shopping, but sometimes just a few blocks will do.

10
Because even a small pond has big fish.
Depending on your mood, you can order a wood-grilled fillet of Barramundi (above), flown in live thrice-weekly from Australia, at chef Matthew Tlusty's Carytown fish grill Limani, or a fried fish boat with sauteed green peppers and onions in a signature sauce with cornbread (below), as featured on FoodNation with Bobby Flay, at Croaker's Spot downtown.

11
Because we've got mad street cred.
If you ever stop to consider the circumstances under which our little city has popped up on the national or international stage, you might be warier of telling outsiders where you're from. Look at what leaks out, what nuggets of River City life find their way onto the wires of the Associated Press and the like:

Our politicians pledge to castrate our criminals and criminalize underwear. We'll riot for iBooks, we'll scream about history from Robert E. Lee to Arthur R. Ashe. And then the rains come: Hurricane Isabel proves that God hates trees, then Tropical Storm Gaston proves that God hates those cobblestones in the Bottom. Snipers target Ashland, judges target Blackberries, and a VCU fire darkens the sky. And all those uncastrated criminals help secure us a spot as the fifth most dangerous city in the nation. It was enough to make Sinatra swoon onstage here in 1994.

What must readers think when they see the "Richmond, Va." dateline? Sometimes we look like crazy people because of what we do. Sometimes we look crazy just because of where we live. And the worse the news, the farther it travels. Australians probably think Richmond is New Gomorrah.

If America were a boy band, Richmond would be the "bad boy," with a pencil-thin goatee and four gold earrings (in one ear!). And girls love the bad boy. Just pray they never find out about our love of art, architecture and long brunches. That would blow our rep.

12
Because Henry Hager
proves you can grow up in Richmond, in one of its toniest neighborhoods, attend one of its most prestigious private schools, parlay your family's social and political connections into a "job" on Capitol Hill and still somehow manage to hook the president's daughter and — after a solid year's courtship — hold on tight. Really, what were the chances?

13
Because whether it was used to dry tobacco or churn out cookies, any old building can become a condo.
Encouraged by generous tax breaks, Richmond developers have wholeheartedly embraced the concept of adaptive reuse — that is, turning old buildings into something new. Most of the time, this means hip condominiums or apartments. The trend shows no signs of waning, and now there's a home with a history to match any personality:

Indulge your inner child:
The forthcoming FFV cookie factory condos.



Throw crazy parties:
The Dooley-Madison condos, recently a home for the mentally ill.

Summon spectral apparitions:
The apartments at Pohlig Box Factory, once a Civil War hospital.

Make a warm and cozy home:
The Southern Stove Works condominiums.

Start a bun in the oven:
The Nolde Bakery Condominiums.

Become a power player:
Riverside on the James, next to the old power plant.

Satisfy your dramatic bent:
The Todd Lofts at Hermitage, a former ham factory.

Smoke if you got 'em:
The River Lofts at Tobacco Row.

Convince girls to come up and see your place (milk it for all it's worth):
The bottle apartments at the Richmond Dairy.

14
Because of our mayor's vocabular sagaciousness.
Word of the Day:
Usage: As in Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's response to a citizen in his "Ask the Mayor" feature on Richmond.com:

"The city has found it to be difficult to maneuver citizens around fireworks fall zones and other potentially hazardous fire areas. Therefore, it behooved us to limit displays to areas that could support formicating crowds. The fireworks displays currently provided can be seen from many different parts of the city."

forúmiúcaúting (for' m ka ting) 1. To crawl like ants. Source: The Oxford English Dictionary.

(And to think, we were getting ready for the best Fourth of July party ever.)

15
Because we still say ma'am.
Perhaps the best indication of our proclivity for niceties can be seen during public exchanges between City Council and Mayor L. Douglas Wilder. After all, the two are privately at each other's throats — the one saying the other never listens, the other saying the one doesn't understand — yet with a few tiny exceptions, you'd hardly know it.

"Oh, Ms. Jackson," the mayor might say, "No matter that you're questioning my authority to shut you out and dismiss you, your new hairstyle is so sophisticated and simply fetching!" Councilwoman Jackie Jackson, for her part, might respond: "Why thank you, sir, you go right ahead and marshal your largesse any way you see fit, and feel free to R.S.V.P. to Council at your leisure."

To be sure, in certain situations small talk is priceless, if not altogether welcome. Does it skew reality? Sure. But that's what you get when you're living a dream.

16
Because we had bluegrass long before it was cool.
And we'll have it long after. The high lonesome sound has roots in Virginia's mountains; the oldest fiddlers' convention still takes place in Galax; and today Richmond gets regular visits from bluegrass pioneer Dr. Ralph Stanley.

The fast-paced string music has made its mark on Richmond, and you can't go far without hearing its influence or descendants. Get in on a pickin' party every Sunday at Cary Street Café, or see a touring act at Ashland Coffee and Tea, like the stellar Old School Freight Train March 10. For local bluegrass, catch traditionalists The Slack Family at their monthly Shenanigans gig, or see how down 'n' dirty it can get with Special Ed & the Shortbus at Blue Mountain Coffee Feb. 17.

17
Because we see potential in everything. Hate that slum? Just wait.
They can't replace the metal windows of Scott's Addition warehouses fast enough. Springhill is the first historic neighborhood in South Richmond. What were once considered modest — if not downright lowly — districts are fashionable. Richmond never knew an old and decrepit neighborhood it didn't like. Just ask residents of Church Hill, Jackson Ward, Oregon Hill, Union Hill or Carver come May, when property taxes are due. There's gold in the old hills of Richmond.

18
Because everyone over 30 has a friend who once made out with Dave Matthews in an alley behind a club.
If you're of an artistic temperament, it's fairly easy to get social with like-minded individuals (and if you're not careful, get a social disease). Richmond's a good place for artists to get their start, whether musician, painter, or poet/juggler/choreographer/belly-dancer. It's pretty cheap and pretty close to, for example, the East Coast ("Where Stuff Happens"). And laid-back! The accomplished and successful often look no different from the rabble who hope to barnacle themselves onto fame.

Any minute now, one of those hard-working artists will find themselves illuminated by the warm embrace of success, and leave in a white suit (like Tom Wolfe), in a helicopter (like Patricia Cornwell), or stoned (like D'Angelo). And we have some powerful engines into which we're feeding the raw fuel of talent: VCU's School of Art, the Richmond Ballet, anyplace that serves PBR for a dollar.

So cavort, thou aesthetes! There are art walks on Broad Street every first Friday of the month, on Main Street every second Friday, in Manchester every fourth. See verbalists in action at the Just! Poetry Slams. Watch local ideas on the screen with filmmaking groups like Project Resolution or Yellow House. Meet Lamb of God front-man Randy Blythe at Commercial Taphouse for a pint or the city's finest actor, Doug Wilder, at a City Council meeting! They're all out there ready to put this city on a pedestal and sculpt it out of marshmallows.

The next time you indulge in a little frottage with that unwashed, arty gal or paint-encrusted youth, you could be unwittingly cavorting with greatness in the making. Try to make a good impression.

19
Because we have all of the tobacco with 95 percent less guilt.
Yeah, we know better. We do it anyway. You won't catch us hiding in alleys, trying to conceal our glowing butts. No sir, we smoke right out in the open, in bars and restaurants and even at a few McDonald's, despite some legislators' continual attempts at a ban. Students smoke. Old folks smoke. Even medical students and nurses smoke, right there at VCU Medical Center's main gate.

Just a few blocks away, Philip Morris USA is spending $300 million on its new research center at the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park. And its subsidiary Chrysalis Technologies Inc. has given $11 million to a team at Virginia Commonwealth University that, according to the L.A. Times, may be working on an aerosol device that delivers medicine to the lungs — a technology originally developed to deliver nicotine without smoking. See? These guys aren't so bad after all.

20
Because our artists don't starve.
Sure, you can wait tables anywhere to support your painting habit, but here it's not likely you'll be drained before getting your first break.

Budding artists can find rents as low as $500 in the lower Fan and at least 50-some galleries, coffee shops, stores and spaces to show their work. So chances are good they'll get on the wall somewhere. (Your waiter tonight could have painted what's hanging above your meal tomorrow. Check out the walls of Dogwood, Limani, Millie's, Capitol Coffee, River City Cellars, Chop Suey Books, even Nesbit Salon.)

That art-friendly atmosphere is why many graduates of Virginia Commonwealth University's stellar art school stick around. And the low cost of studio space and the ease of getting materials to them seem to be the top reasons they come back. (Imagine hauling sculpture materials up a six-story walk-up in Brooklyn.) Plus, if the Fan-Jackson Ward-Oregon Hill ever get too expensive, we have studio options in Manchester, Fulton Hill — and even a Plan B: 30 minutes southeast in Petersburg.

21
Because old-school, no-showboating, hard-playing basketball still exists.
Kobe scores 81 and the NBA continues to deteriorate into a ball-hogging, with attitude worthy of a rap video, but the most feared defender in the game is the blue-collar Ben Wallace, a former star at Virginia Union University who plays for the Detroit Pistons.

It's no coincidence. The Virginia Union Panthers are No. 1. They were national champs a year ago, and last week they were once again ranked the country's top team in Division II basketball.

VCU's Jeff Capel and University of Richmond's coach of the moment may get more ink and television time, but we'll take Union's Panthers any day. Coach Dave Robbins consistently trots out a no-name, unselfish team that puts defense first. There is no gloating or celebrating after dunks. Their shirts are always tucked in. And they play their games in a tiny gymnasium in a building that was given to VUU by the Belgian government and was transported from the World's Fair in New York to Richmond in 1941.

Old-school basketball still reigns supreme in Richmond. They don't play VCU and UR during the regular season, but they did pop Capel's Rams in the mouth in a November exhibition game, 83-78. Kobe doesn't want any part of the Panthers.

22
Because Richmond is a place where prodigal sons — and daughters — can return.
Let's call it the boomerang effect. We throw people out and they spiral back. Mostly they've fallen from grace (broken the law), paid their penance (done time) and embraced Richmond as a land of second chances (happened home). Our prodigal progeny include but are not limited to: a former mayor and minister (Leonidas Young), his top aide (Joel Harris), a commonwealth's attorney (Joe Morrissey), and a successful developer (H. Louis Salomonsky). Today, the aide and the attorney have ties elsewhere (Asia and Australia, respectively), and having found futures in far-flung places, they haven't let go of Richmond altogether. You might even spot them on the sidewalk some day.

The big house (prison) currently holds two gliders (former City Council members Sa'ad El-Amin and Gwendolyn C. Hedgepeth) whose return paths are tentative (El-Amin says he's bound for Atlanta upon his release this year; Hedgepeth, who gets out next year, has ties to the area).

You can be forgiven here. And perhaps there's nothing like twisting in the air for a while to remind you of the comforts of home.

23
Because our Poe is better than their Poe.
Just because Edgar Allen Poe died in Baltimore, those Baltimorons act like they own the guy. We can't blame them, he's a total catch: Even 157 years after his death, he remains the star quarterback of American letters, arguably responsible for the invention of the detective story, the pioneering of the science-fiction story, and as Chris Semtner of Richmond's Poe Museum puts it, "He's probably America's first internationally influential writer." Poe's ideas were big overseas before we'd even abolished slavery. In 1999, Prague spent three months celebrating his birthday with a big old Poe-Down.

There's a Poe museum in Baltimore, a house in Philadelphia and a cottage in the Bronx. The University of Virginia has preserved his dorm room on campus, minus the dirty socks and Madonna posters (she's been around for a while). He's spent time in all of these places, and every city wants to go steady with him.

But Richmond gets to wear his letter jacket. Our Poe Museum is four buildings rather than Baltimore's one (and our main building is the oldest stone building in the city, besides). What's more, he lived here for 13 years, started his editorial career with The Southern Literary Messenger here and married his beloved cousin Virginia here. And, Prague, we've got the largest public collection of Poestuff, including manuscripts, letters, personal items, furniture and paintings. His legacy likes us best, too.

This is the writer Semtner calls "America's Shakespeare." And if you think he's so 19th century, consider this: Rocky McRambo himself, Sylvester Stallone, is working on a movie about Poe's life. So yeah, he's still totally hot. And he's all ours. So back off, Bronx.

24
Because we know how to say goodbye.
The age-worn monuments of Hollywood Cemetery recall a time when death was far more intimate a friend, when families too often tearfully surrendered their infants and maidens and young men. The epitaphs carved under angels, obelisks and lambs speak of love and faith and hope for the hereafter.

Some are lighthearted: "Gone Shopping" and, a few steps away, "Gone Fishing." And the famous "She always said her feet were killing her but nobody believed her."

Some are solemn. On the tomb of a 15-year-old Boy Scout who died after tirelessly aiding victims of the 1918 flu epidemic: "Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends."

And some are simply beautiful: "We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night." S





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