City Portrait

City Portrait: Richmond, Virginia

A new current is rising in the Old South

Photo: Patricia Lyons

Row houses line the historic Fan district.

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.”

Photo: Patricia Lyons

A view of the city across the James River.

In the past, Richmond had a way of spinning off its creative talent. A former Richmond writer friend of mine now living in Connecticut has a theory about the former Richmond writer Tom Wolfe, who grew up here. Wolfe, he says, is the toast of the literary world in New York City, but all he ever really wanted to do was make it in West End Richmond.

There may be a grain of truth to this. It’s not easy for any newcomer (i.e., someone whose great-grandparents weren’t raised here) to get a firm grip on the place. And might there not be some deep reason that the preeminent social observer of our time seems obsessed by white suits and social status? In any event, Wolfe is in good company. Edgar Allan Poe, Tom Robbins, and Patricia Cornwell all took to their heels too. (And what of this fixation with death and horror?)

Nevertheless, Jessica and I took the plunge. There may be something in the water here. We’re now raising our four daughters in the same house that I grew up in with my four sisters. In this history-obsessed town, it all seems right.

The answer to the question posed above—Can you go home again?—crystallized for me on a fall Friday night in 2003, six years after we moved here, during the James River Writers Conference, a three-day lit fest that attracts the likes of Edward P. Jones, Jeannette Walls, and David Simon to the Library of Virginia downtown. After the day’s sessions, a bunch of us yakked it up over catfish, grits, and bourbon at Comfort, a hip down-home Southern joint in the midst of the urban campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. We then headed out onto the streets to First Fridays, the monthly art gallery schlep, which is a scene. VCU’s top-ranked art department brings it. Art lovers were spilling out of gallery doors with glasses of wine in their hands and smiles on their faces. After jostling for glimpses of the dernier cri, we headed out to a MacArthur Avenue honky-tonk on the North Side, where we danced to the fusion bluegrass of the legendary (sadly, recently departed) Page Wilson and his band, Reckless Abandon. By the end of the show, my friend Jim, a New York City editor, was onstage with the band, jamming on the harmonica. I’ll never forget the look of amazement he had given me earlier, when he exclaimed, “Wow, this is Richmond?”

Well, yes, this is Richmond. And it has only gotten better since.

In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the city is on the verge of a new cultural heyday. The only place I’ve seen transformed faster was NYC after Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor and swept all the squeegee guys off the streets.

In 2010, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which houses a top collection of postwar works (Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Frankenthaler, Warhol), opened a new wing and sculpture garden, including the sleek restaurant Amuse, home of a sublime Sunday brunch. Downtown, you can hear the Richmond Symphony or the Virginia Opera at the newly renovated 1,800-seat Carpenter Theatre, or Elvis Costello, Wilco, or the homegrown Carbon Leaf at the National, another recently restored historic theater. But my favorite music scene of all is the annual Richmond Folk Festival, where, in the soft hues of fall, nigh on 200,000 people boogie to world roots music beside the James River at Tredegar Iron Works.

While Richmond has sprawled to the west, it has largely preserved its historic neighborhoods, including the architecturally stunning Fan, one of the largest clusters of turn-of-the-century row houses in the country, and Carytown, a funky no-big-box shopping district with the classic Byrd Theatre, where on Saturday nights the $1.99 movie is preceded by a rousing sing-along accompanied by a Mighty Wurlitzer organ.

Photo: Patricia Lyons

Thomas Jefferson in marble watches over the Jefferson Hotel’s columned lobby.

Chef Walter Bundy’s recent redo of the Jefferson Hotel’s restaurant Lemaire earned national kudos. And Dale Reitzer had to move the city’s best restaurant, Acacia, into a serene fringe space to handle the throngs. On the street, a Little Vietnam, as well as hugely popular Greek, Lebanese, Asian, Indian, and Armenian food festivals, gives me hope for the city’s expanding gastro-cred. This diversity reflects an improved, if by no means perfect, racial harmony. Statues of Arthur Ashe, Bill Robinson (Mr. Bojangles), and Abraham Lincoln now adorn parts of town.

For such an unassuming city, Richmond often does things larger than life, both good and bad. It didn’t just secede from the nation, it became the capital of the Confederacy. It wasn’t just pro-slavery, it was a center of the slave trade. It doesn’t just make smokes, it’s the home of Phillip Morris. Prior to the Civil War, the slave Henry “Box” Brown wanted to leave the city so badly he had himself crated up and shipped to Philly. About 150 years later, Doug Wilder returned to his hometown and became the first elected African-American governor of any state. He liked it enough to later serve as the mayor.

Patrick Henry gave his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech here. Thomas Jefferson designed the capitol. John Marshall lived nearby. The Jackson Ward neighborhood—where Duke, Lady Ella, and Nat King Cole once laid down the groove—was known as the Harlem of the South. The first surgical oncology university division in the nation was founded here. And in March not one but two Richmond hoops teams—Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams and Chris Mooney’s Richmond Spiders—crashed the NCAA Sweet 16. Who knows what could be next?