City Portrait: Richmond, Virginia
A new current is rising in the Old South
Number one was ready to start school. Number three was in the oven. It was time for my wife, Jessica, and me to leave Manhattan. However, after a decade there, Big Apple center-of-the-universe psychosis had set its hook. “Leaving New York, never easy,” as the R.E.M. song goes. For sure, though, if we had to go, it was going to be to the sun-kissed, family-first South. Dallas, her hometown? Nah, not for this Redskins fan. Chapel Hill? Charlottesville? Beautiful people, great libraries, trending locavore. Either would require a downshift, but maybe.
And then my mother dangled her bait. She offered to sell us the family house—in Richmond. We spit out the apple.
Our move begged the big question, of course: Can you go home again? I didn’t know.
While to some it’s just the whiff of tobacco on I-95, I well knew that Richmond, the state capital and home to three universities, with its tree-lined streets of Federal and Victorian architecture, was a substantial town with great potential. Lying on the fall line of the James River in central Virginia, it’s a scenic place and ideally situated: an hour from the mountains, and two from both Washington, D.C., and the beach. It had a robust, if complex, history and significant cultural assets. Yet, as a high city of the Old South, it had a reputation for being stodgy and mired in the past.
On an old Indian trail blazed with three notches in the West End section of town, my childhood home was built as a summerhouse in 1917—right about the time the world’s first large-scale electric streetcar system extended out to the campus of what is now the University of Richmond—by a wealthy family living in the city proper. Just up the hill from the university, it was built of hand-slung stucco over steel mesh, with a forty-foot-long double screened porch down the side, the one below for sitting and supping, the one above for sleeping in pre-air-conditioning comfort on hot summer nights.
Across the street sat the old plantation house that once farmed all the land in the area. It had a patch in the wall where a Union cannonball had pierced it. Like Richmond, as a boy growing up here, I settled into an obsession with the Civil War. How could you not? Trenches form our neighborhoods. The ghost sites of battles, hospitals, and war prisons surround us. The Confederate pantheon in bronze—Lee, Jackson, Jeff Davis—lines the center parkway of grand Monument Avenue, leading downtown to the White House of the Confederacy. At St. Christopher’s, the prep school I attended, which is currently celebrating its centennial, the Lower School literary society, in which all students participated, had two sides: You were either a “Lee” or a “Jackson.”