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OPINION: Richmond, Erased

What kind of city do you want to leave for your descendants?



An old friend who grew up here with me recently asked, "How did our Richmond become RVA?" I couldn't provide a long-term answer, but right now it seems to be "one tear down at a time."

For 16 years my wife and I lived in a type of house called midcentury modest near Willow Lawn. At first our neighbors were World War II veterans with Buick sedans. Theirs was a generation not to act grandiose after helping to save the world from a new Dark Age. No one said "thank you for your service," because that was all so far away and forgotten. It was reward enough to raise a family, mow the lawn neatly, then fade away comfortably.

When I visited friends who had pioneered the neighborhood with us, we stood in their front yards to see what happened across the street. Where a well-kept rancher once stood, the entire lot had been scraped bare so a huge new house could be built. Gone were the carefully tended vegetable garden, the Japanese maple, the flower beds, every physical reminder of a delightful Cuban woman with whom I had traded seeds and spoken Spanish, an exile of Fidel Castro's revolution. Erased.

In a few weeks, the replacement for her house and, indeed, her life, arose on a quarter-acre lot. It listed for nearly $850,000, most of its first floor a bespoke, open-plan kitchen for people who probably won't cook. When I'd moved to the neighborhood, I could have purchased that entire side of the street for less than a million dollars.

Such money talks, but I'm not listening. A few months ago, when I received an offer to purchase a rental house I renovated myself — all so an out-of-town investor could tear it down — I told the Realtor to go right to hell. This is the devastation described by friends in Atlanta and New York, and I have seen it even in London, where buildings the Luftwaffe missed in the '40s get razed to build posh blocks of flats. Here in Richmond I hoped that the speculators would never find us, yet they have.

We have a proposed tear down along the 800 block of West Cary Street to build a gargantuan residential complex that fits the neighborhood as well as Trump Tower. We have the possible destruction of a city block in Carytown to make way for a Publix the size of a Cylon Basestar, all the better to match what my from-here pals call Battlestar Krogerlactica.

Beyond the certainty of another disappointment in building so much ugly high-density or McMansion housing, what do we lose aside from old homes or farmland at the fringes of our bloating metropolis? Architecture embodies history, and when we rip it down we lose our sense of what this place was and who lived here before us — what British writer Robert MacFarlane calls "landscape amnesia" sets in.

For instance, no one really knows if the old toll house at Cary and Nansemond streets, currently home to Carytown Burgers & Fries, is the original structure that predated the Civil War. But if Publix flattens it, even the memory of that story will vanish. Who can recall Blue Shingles? Tantilla Gardens is only a name to me now. Maybe your parents used to dance there. Maybe you were even conceived after a hot night there.

We seem not to have learned from the last financial disaster that American civilization premises its future not simply on growth, but a certain kind: cancer.

Carcinogenic capitalism continues until the tissue hosting it cannot support its hunger then it metastasizes. We see this along Broad Street and the old turnpikes of Jefferson Davis and Midlothian: half-occupied strip malls, car lots that once sold new vehicles now turned over to used cars or check-cashing shops peddling usury, shells of big-box stores hollow, as mega-box stores appear farther out. As you drive from the center of town, newer construction repeats the process, some of it tawdry attempts at urbanism that should fool no self-respecting millennial.

Where might this all end? Not in bulldozed and tacky sprawl from Williamsburg to Charlottesville, perhaps, but in something nearly as awful: a place with no continuity, a landscape remade to fit the needs of short-term profits and shorter-term fads.

In Ireland in 2011, I saw sheep grazing in never-occupied housing estates, and the city of Limerick prepared to demolish a newly built, but never occupied, mall. City planners wanted to turn it back to farmland. But the Irish are not us: One of them admitted to me, "Aw, Jesus! We were rich for so short a time it hardly mattered. Now we Irish are poor again. Nothing new about that." Come the next recession or, perhaps, a longer-term collapse of an unsustainable system, will we be half as wise as the Irish?

Look up from your phone and at our city for a moment. What sort of place do you want to leave for your descendants, as you watch the stock market gyrate and the nation's so-called leaders spasm-tweet, pad their bank accounts and throw tantrums in public? S

Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.

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