The other weekend I met a woman who’s lived in my neighborhood for 40 years. We discovered we’d both grown up in the same blue-collar corner of Baltimore.
“So nice to meet another Northerner,” she said.
I replied with that hoary truism: “No matter how long we’re here, that’s what we’ll be.”
But you know what? I feel like a Richmonder now. It just took me 10 years to be able to say it.
1. Discovery. I moved to Richmond just after Sept. 11, 2001, to work for Style Weekly. I was warned that the Fan smelled like cat urine and the Boulevard was inhabited by druggies. I was told that if you scraped your knee while wading in the James River, you had to pour rubbing alcohol over it right quick before your wound could fester and turn green.
Fortunately, I ignored all of this. I set out to discover Richmond.
I found Maymont by accident when I was walking in Byrd Park. I couldn’t believe a place so beautiful was free. I partied on the rooftop of a Franklin Street speakeasy. I squeezed through a slashed fence to explore the railroad tracks, my only companion my landlady’s cringing Doberman. (Yeah, I know that was dumb.)
I met a young artist in the dark, smoky hubbub of Sticky Rice. He asked me to dinner. I said no. Later, he changed my mind.
2. Attachment. In year two, I left. Half left. I wanted to work for a big daily, so I moved to Norfolk to work for Style’s sister paper, The Virginian-Pilot. But I found Ghent to be a thin imitation of the Fan. Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, with their acres of vinyl siding, felt like nowhere and anywhere.
I never really left Richmond. I returned every weekend to see my artist in his polygonal apartment on Monument Avenue.
After a year and a half, I moved back for real. We got married in Maymont’s Italian Gardens. Richmond was a fine place, I decided.
3. Denial. In year five, the city’s charm wore thin. I felt like everyone was talking about the same projects over and over, things that never would happen: a new stadium, a new jail, a new downtown.
Short Pump galled me. Carytown bored me. Driving past the West Broad Street Red Lobster for the 800th time, I despaired.
I started saying things like, “Yes, we still live in Richmond.” And, “No, I don’t think we’ll be here too much longer.” And, “Well, we’ll probably move to Portland. Maybe Austin.”
The problem was, no other city felt like home.
4. Acceptance. In year nine I interviewed the Rev. Chris Barras, who chose the motto, “Love beyond reason,” for the service-oriented church he founded, Area 10 Faith Community. What it means, he explained to me, is this: “You love a place not because it’s lovable. You love it until it’s lovable.”
I realized it was time to choose: Claim the city as my own, or leave it.
So I’m claiming it. I claim its tangled history. I claim its eccentrics and ne’er-do-wells, its aristocrats and elected officials. They are wonderfully weird. But unlike Austin, Richmond does not advertise the fact.
I claim its neighborhoods: Fulton, demolished and yet fiercely loved. Oregon Hill, where anything goes. Bellevue, cute as a button. The Fan, where wealth and squalor share alleys. Church Hill, where my someday house stands.
All of it is mine now.
5. Rediscovery. Richmond will never be Portland, Ore., or Seattle or New Orleans or New York. It is small, and it is hidebound. We don’t have speedy buses, let alone light rail. We think we invented Pabst Blue Ribbon, but more than half of city residents don’t even recycle. Nevertheless, I feel that in the last decade the city has come into its own.
Over Labor Day weekend, we took my parents for late-afternoon drinks at the Boathouse at Rocketts Landing. We sat on the patio in the slanting sun and watched two massive cranes try to raise the sunken restaurant boat Mallory.
“We would never do anything like this,” my mother said with delight.
We never used to have anything like this, I thought.
After all these years, Richmond has begun to surprise me. S