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first person: Just Visiting

Richmond introduces itself.


It was something about the displays that lighted when you pounded on the buttons (except for those that had been pounded one too many times).

To me, visitors' centers were outposts of civilization in wild forests and vast battlefields. They were friendly forts stocked with gift-shop treasures like astronaut ice cream and fake, brown-stained Confederate currency. Sometimes, they were even better than the thing you were supposed to visit. My clearest memory of Mount Rushmore is watching a documentary about its carving in the visitors' center, while outside, the four presidents' stone faces were entirely obscured by a fog so thick that not even one noble nose protruded.

The Richmond visitors' center on Robin Hood Road was stop No. 1 on my first solo visit to the city, a year and a half ago. I rolled down the ramp onto Boulevard with a smashed hood, a punctured tire and no road map, wishing I knew something, anything about the city where I was about to apply for a job.

Then I saw a metal sign of hope: "Visitors' Center." I followed the arrow to the small wood-sided station, parked and walked out into the sweltering heat.

I liked the look of the place. The center was shabby, but inviting. The behemoth black locomotive and rail cars outside the center were comforting somehow — they reminded me of family trips to railroad museums in Baltimore and Norfolk, when we would illicitly clamber on engines and peer through smudged windows into the velvet-seat world of travelers long ago.

Inside the small center I saw clusters of sweaty tourists, a welcome and metallic-tasting water fountain and a desk where kind gray-haired ladies gave advice in soft Virginia voices.

Having 40 minutes to kill, I perused brochures touting Monument Avenue, the Museum of the Confederacy, the James River, the Valentine Museum. OK, I thought. Now I know something about Richmond. The ladies behind the desk watched, a bit perplexed, inquiring at intervals if I needed any assistance.

I asked one to help me make sure I had the right directions to Style's offices in Scott's Addition. She dragged out a phone book and a map, and drew careful lines in black ink to where Style used to be, on Main Street. "I'm not sure that's right anymore," I ventured. This brought about a conference of everyone behind the desk, an entirely new inked route and plentiful reassurance that I would get there just fine.

Feeling somewhat comforted, I walked away with hands full of city maps, glossy brochures and a state road map printed with Gov. Gilmore's face. And I got there just fine.

The city and I have changed a lot since then. New roads exist where dashed lines are printed on my Gilmore map, which is now tearing at the seams from frequent consultations. I get lost less often now. And the visitors' center on Robin Hood Road has been cold and empty since March, when it moved downtown. The massive locomotive remains, but I've heard that it, too, will depart, to be installed at the Science Museum of Virginia sometime this year.

One recent Tuesday, for old times' sake, I decide to visit the new visitors' center. Following directions offered by a woman at the convention center, I stroll down Marshall Street. I make it halfway down the block before I see a construction worker ferociously shaking his head. I realize he's trying to convey that walking under cranes without a hardhat is a damn fool thing to do.

A second attempt by car is easier, as the center's planners thoughtfully included a 20-minute parking lane parallel to Third Street. I walk in through the glass doors into the airy hall. It smells new, like fresh carpet and varnished wood. And it is empty — unsurprising, on a chilly winter Tuesday.

I look over the racks holding hundreds of glossy brochures. Their covers shout vineyards and white-water, and battlefields and blossoms, a riot of colored landscapes utterly unlike the gray streets outside the window. I wander into the large gift shop, where the clerk sits reading a paperback thriller.

I browse the objects for sale — books of Civil War anecdotes and recipes, postcards, silver spoons, stuffed animals, dolls. Shirts embossed "Easy to Love" are on clearance. Ha, I think, remembering the hype around the logo's unveiling last year.

Another visitors' center staffer enters the shop. "We're doing a count," she says. "How many people have you had in here today?" The clerk thinks a moment. "Four," she says. That makes nine so far, the other woman replies.

I hope the visitors' center — along with the convention center and well, the whole downtown — draws the prophesied hordes of tourists come summer. I hope that ink-lined maps and sound advice are bestowed on thousands.

Now, the place is hushed, the carpet untrodden. It's a nice place to visit. But I wouldn't want to live there. S

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