We all know cities have personalities, and they aren’t determined by the feng shui of street layout or the cut of their architectural jibs. A city becomes alive by the brewing together of its residents and history with the spice of its smells and attitudes — and how it treats people, whether they’re spending a day or a lifetime within.
Paris wears a hat no matter the weather. New Orleans calls you “Baby” and has bourbon on her breath, but you don’t mind because she sneaks you sweets. Tokyo in his dark suit mostly ignores you because he has insomnia. Los Angeles has an eating disorder, duh. She’s like Beijing and Mumbai: No time for cuddling, but, sigh, come on in anyway.
When it comes to personality, Richmond is a bit of a pretender. Her closet is a mess with the outfits. Look — I’m a naturalist! I have muddy boots. Now I am edgy — I wear designer clothes with a T-shirt designed by an art student. Look — a Redskins jersey! I’m into sports. … I think. She’s swell for restaurant recommendations and knows all the great bands, but sometimes she just goes to bed at 8 on a Friday and leaves you with nothing to do. She’s weird like that.
Unless you’ve been hiding in twin-set suburbs and airport hotels, you can’t help but meet the character of a city. When you get to know it a little better you learn that cities also have a developmental age. This is the city’s relational style — its strength, as well as its yearning.
Take Brooklyn. At 28, the world is its oyster. With no kids and plenty of discretionary income, Brooklyn fails to understand why everyone doesn’t read Sartre and Malcolm X over kimchi before going to a hip-hop show on a Wednesday. This is the time in Brooklyn’s life to be high on creativity, yet low on empathy.
Detroit, at 84, wants just one week when it doesn’t have to wear his funeral suit. The Motor City talks a bit too much about his bowels and the good old days. Detroit is the uncle you can tell about that unfortunate arrest because he doesn’t judge. After all, he’s been there.
Richmonders see a bit of themselves in caricatures. There are parts of us that care more for surface appearance than depth, even heavily retouched surface. There are hip zones where you better have a well-informed opinion on something artsy or go elsewhere for your organic bruschetta. In the city limits if you can’t parallel park, we will mock you mercilessly like middle-schoolers in a lunchroom.
We have gangly, awkward teenage local governments asking each other, “I know you are, but what am I,” taking selfies with athletes, and not great with money. (What teenagers spend their allowances on schools?) We are notorious for being stuck in another century — but are we old fuddy duddies, or toddlers insisting on reliable routine? Perhaps our race problem isn’t entrenched in centuries of injustice so much as no one’s offered a solution that doesn’t sound like time out.
We aren’t going to agree on the River City’s developmental age because we live here. We have our frustrations and comfort zones. The city, like all cities, honestly, is growing and stagnating constantly according to the struggle between greed, hope, good intentions poorly executed, and the reality of diverse, multigenerational, community life.
But it’s true that certain traits can take hold in a community and shine forth. My hope for the new year is for Richmond to be known globally as an 8-year-old. In developmental weaknesses, small children are prone to being scared or impetuous. Adults range from smug to cynical. Meanwhile, 8-year-olds have all the ingredients for a perfect city, and in December, Richmond sort of pulls this off.
The 8-year-old city loves magic, longs to suspend disbelief, and hopes for the best for every person. We started with Inlight as Monroe Park became a fantasy landscape and then Lewis Ginter transformed into a mythical cycling fest. Neighborhoods dream big with playfulness of adorned front yards, melodious concerts, bazaars and tree lightings. During a holiday parade I heard the John Marshall drum line from half a mile away and watched as all generations started to dance. We do this season well.
Eight-year-olds are full of mischief and December has Krampus revelers, Santa bar crawls, and repaving of a hyper city street during a major holiday. Wreaths and mistletoe show up briefly on private parts of solemn statues while independent radio plays some of the strangest holiday music you’ve never heard and drag queens perform in holiday regalia. An 8-year-old finds this incredibly funny and rolls around on the floor giggling with no ill spirit at all.
Most of all, 8-year-olds are expectant. I want to live in a city waking each morning with great expectations — a hopeful city. A city that honors its elders, gasps at its newborns, creates with abandon, nurtures with its parents, and takes equal justice for all as the norm. I want to live in a city that smells flowers, pets dogs’ heads, exuberantly makes up adjectives like nature-ious and wonderific all the while humming a little song and drawing its next big dream on the back of its hand.
We don’t need the excuse of December to be like this, do we? New Orleans is Mardi Gras all year long. Can’t we be expectant December? OK, maybe I couldn’t stand Richmond to be like this without end. Eight-year-olds also throw tantrums, lose their teeth, and give all their money away. And I do enjoy our collective menopausal August groan. But winter has been rough lately — can we at least stay fun-loving and hopeful through January? You bring the mischief. I’ll bring the giggles. S
Alane Miles is an ordained minister, freelance teacher, writer, and grief and bereavement counselor.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.