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OPINION: History Is Thriving in Richmond


If you've lived here long enough, you've probably heard this joke: "How many Richmonders does it take to change a light bulb? Five. One to do it and four to say how they liked the old one better.

I've lived in Richmond for six years. I've always loved the place, which I first visited about 15 years ago. After returning last year after a seven-year absence, I see progress: Scott's Addition is booming. The city is installing 21st century bus service. Murals, restaurants and breweries are popping up everywhere.

Richmond is a historic city. It always will be. Progress comes with a figurative and literal price tag. Since Richmond is historic, people often argue about how best to preserve its history. These arguments can be exhausting. I'm tired of knee-jerk reactions to issues of historic preservation. I've never shopped at Publix, but I'm sure a new one in Carytown will improve upon an abandoned Martin's. When it comes to progress and preservation, Richmonders are not faced with an either-or. They will always have to make hard choices when it comes to deciding what history to preserve and what must go. Richmond's economy is doing well, while it simultaneously is expanding its museums and building more monuments. Here, history is thriving.

Facts are objective truths. History — made up of facts but written by flawed human beings — is interpretative and always changing. The act of telling history is loaded with subjectivity, dissension and politics. One person's heritage is another person's hate. Very often in Richmond, a well-publicized change to the city's landscape is accompanied by reactionary rhetoric. Whether critics are on the right or left, they tend to argue based on looking back to a supposed golden age that existed more in their minds than reality. I am wary of sanitized, corporate landscapes. But I also see growth as a way to better our schools, support infrastructure, and keep crime and poverty low. We can best preserve history by helping the areas that support it.

History, as is true of religion, politics, economics, marriage or country, is a big thing. It is, in itself, neither good nor bad. It's what you make of it. It is an amalgamation of all the people, places and institutions wrapped up within it. When we think of a historic time or place, we can never get back there with absolute certainty or authenticity. Battlefields have changed constantly since the men at Chancellorsville or Cold Harbor left the field. Much of those fields has been preserved. Much has been lost. But history must always make some concession to progress. It is, in fact, dependent on progress.

At Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County, where I work, we are tasked with maintaining a structure that is roughly 280 years old. The surrounding area has changed surprisingly little. Trees and nature abound. But the house's remote location presents challenges for maintaining good phone lines and internet access and attracting visitors to an overwhelmingly rural area. The visitor experience at Stratford, and places like it, often depends on bringing in more of the modern world. People want good history as well as fast Wi-Fi, air conditioned rooms, dining and mobile tours.

Richmond is a city, not a museum. It functions as place that can best feed, clothe and shelter its residents. It also must provide jobs, housing, quality schools and good roads. A place that fails at providing such things is useless. Richmond has been extremely fortunate. Things have improved quite a bit from April 1865, when Confederates chose to burn much of the city — and its historic buildings — rather than let it fall into Yankee hands. Today, Richmond has the advantage of debating matters of historic preservation in a city that has not seen any recent floods, wars, hurricanes, major fires or earthquakes. Protests at the Lee statue on Monument have so far been well policed and peaceful.

The history of Richmond continues to impress me. I can hardly walk through Church Hill without almost literally tripping over a historic marker. In Carytown, we have one of the few remaining movie palaces. A few weeks ago, I went to the Byrd, where I used a debit card to pay $8 for a new movie. Bob Gulledge didn't play that night, but it was unmistakably the Byrd I love. Sure I miss the old $2 ticket price. I also enjoyed watching a recent film in a new seat.

Too often, arguments over history are based on a refusal to compromise. As Abraham Lincoln warned his countrymen before the Civil War, rejecting compromise would mean events would become "all one thing or all the other." To return to that old Richmond joke: Changing a lightbulb isn't always easy. But new ones are stronger, brighter and last longer. They also let you see the history better. S

Colin Woodward is the editor of the Lee Family Digital Archive at Stratford Hall. He is the author of "Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War" and is host of the Amerikan Rambler history podcast. 

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.