The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, April 26, 2009

My Journey Into Richmond

-- And What I Found There

Part II

“I have thought it wise to live for the future and not the dead past. While cherishing honorable memory of its glories, I have thought that we should look to the future for life, power and prosperity…”

William Mahone, Readjuster and ornery cuss, 1882

Just a different set of problems…

Come now, and walk alongside an obstreperous travel writer who is researching an extensive feature about Richmond – a different version than the one with which you are familiar.

He—like you—has never been to the Richmond described here-- but he’s applied himself to studying the story, and he receives able guidance by indulgent, patient and hospitable residents.

In this Richmond, people are no less venal and slothful, nor more gracious and industrious, as they are in the city around you now.

They just have a different set of problems.

The subjects of conversations in its boisterous bars and busy cafés are textured by a history quite altered from the one recorded in Virginius Dabney’s book.

Nobody could blame you, though, if you’d like to move there.

The story thus far:
Philip Gotz. a well-known travel writer for print and online media, is taking one of his five-day "What I Found There" excursions to Richmond, Va. He was met upon his arrival at the Admiral Richard E. Byrd International Airport by Tia Chulangong. a representative of the city's tourism office.


2. To Main Street Station…

Their queue was short and Tia followed by Gotz slid their cards into a chirruping reader, then boarded the crowded train. A few electric chimes bing-bonged and a pleasant woman’s voice said, “This is the Byrd Airport Express to Main Street Station and Richmond center.”

Gotz noted that among the moving, LED advert placards advertising jobs and attractions that Ken Burnsian pictures depicted one mustached, bespectacled Julian Sprague, and images of streetcars from the past decades. Scrolling words-and-pictures screens placed at the ceiling showed the time, temperature (a pleasant 72 degrees), minutes to Main Street (10 and counting…), but also announced the “Richmond Metropolitan Authority: 120 Years And Still Rollin’.”

Tia urged him not to sit yet but follow her to the observation level. Gotz pushed in his baggage handle to carry it up the 10 tread spiral stair. At its foot, Tia thought better of ascending first, and said, “After you.”

Gotz chortled. “You’re just not going to cut me any slack are you?”

“So, tell me about that elevator in Seattle?”

The writer set his mouth in a line, said nothing, and went up the stairs though midway up he stopped to inform her, “You know, that story is at least six years old by now, and I was a different man, then.”

Tia, holding the silver stair rail said, “How so?”

He raised his brows for comic effect. “Well. I was six years younger with better knees.”

A few passengers at the bottom of the stairs gazed toward them expecting movement. Gotz waved at them and continued. As he came to the clear canopy observation deck the train bolted out of the airport’s tunnel into the bright day that shined through the bubble top. The train’s chock-itty-duh-duh-duh as it rushed forward provided a sense of exhilaration. Passengers pointed and took pictures of the countryside streaking past.

Tia said by way of preface, “ I hope you won’t mind, but I can talk your ear off about Richmond.”

“What I’m here for,” he said as he twisted his backpack around, unzipped it, and pulled out Jessamine Venable’s lauded history, The Girl in The Picture, about the civil upheaval in Richmond and Virginia surrounding the 1888 state constitutional convention. A bookmark indicated he was halfway in, and dog-eared pages gave the appearance of study.

“You’re scheduled to meet Dr. Venable on Monday --?” she frowned at her own palm-held device. “Yes, Monday at 2 p.m.”

“And to meet your low expectations of me, I’m going to ask you some rude and personal questions.”

“Oh, rude
and personal. My favorites.”

“How is it that you’re in Richmond?”

“I’m native. Born and raised.”



“I wouldn’t have thought.”

“Why is that?”

“You’re baiting me,” Gotz said, half-smiling.

“These are your rude and personal questions.”

“OK. Fine. You’re not from Anglo-Saxon stock.”

“Not directly, no. My father,” she touched her clavicle, and a necklace pendant inscribed with symbols, “ was studying international policy at Ginter University, he’s from Thailand, and my mother, she’s African American, was a dance major.”

“How long ago was this?”

“Mr. Gotz.”

“Phil. I’m trying not to ask how old you are.”

“Good, because a Southern woman wouldn’t say.”

“I was trying not to be rude or personal. But -- You’re all of, what, 19?”

She laughed. “A bit more than that, Mr. Gotz. And that’s as far as you’re getting – Not something, I’m guessing, you’re used to.”

“Ouch,” he touched his ribs and squinted as if lanced. “But I probably have socks older than you. I think I’m even wearing them,” and he pulled up his trouser legs in a well-practiced move.

“Thought so.”

Tia twisted her mouth into a reluctant and indulgent smile and shook her head.
He resembled a rather befuddled professor, in his tweedy jacket, khakis, and tassel loafers.

The writer said, “Speaking of statements, these pictures and the screen down there, the 120 years. What’s that about?”

“Ah, well, 2008 is he 120th year of electric-powered transit in Richmond, which has the oldest in the world, Julian Sprague — he’s right there,” she motioned to a bespectacled man, his combed over white hair and drooping mustaches, “flipped the switch for the first time on a trolley car train in 1888.”

“Hold up. You said trolley car. Isn’t a streetcar and a trolley the same?”

“Um, there’s a technical difference. Richmond had horse-drawn streetcars. He invented the troller that hooked the car to an overhead wire.”

“Ah — so trolley.”

“Happened right here, on Church Hill. We’ll see the spot. The city owned the service and didn’t sell to outsiders, so we’ve maintained the system -- But I need to tell you about this,” she raised a hand to indicate the outside. “We’re passing through some, uh, controversy right now.”

Gotz glanced to either side.


“We call this The Woods.”

“How Lord of the Rings.”

“It’s a part of a circle of forest, fields and farms that goes around Richmond, actually, most of Virginia’s major cities and many smaller towns have a version of this, but ours is the oldest and biggest.”


“Forests, fields and streams. The Greater Richmond Commission, what it was called back then, set it up about 1890. Basically designed as a buffer to prevent what we’d now call sprawl.”

Gotz nodded and the passing woodlands shimmered on his glasses.

“Humph. So that’s smart and years ahead of everybody. Richmond was Green before there was the political color,” he raised the book. “So elsewhere, Dr. Venable talks about how Teddy Roosevelt came here and admired what was happening.”

“’Their love of nature in her many parts,’’’ yes. But it’s a big topic right now in Richmond, which is has now more than three million people in the metro. One of the issues is that due to very strict zoning, high rise buildings can’t go up in the old central city.”

“And how did that happen?"

"Well, around 1890, Richmond adopted the nation's first historic preservation and historic district creation regulations. And one of the zoning laws was that no building within six blocks of Capitol Hill could rise taller than the building, or hide it from view."

"Thomas Jefferson's Temple of Democracy," Gotz said, then peered over his glasses, adding, "Even though Virginia was built upon a slave economy."

Tia raised a brow. "We never said we were perfect."

Gotz laughed. "Virginians are always saying they did it first, better and prettier."

"Most times, we have."

"And thus, no high rises."

“Not downtown, anyway, or the older and historic neighborhoods. Like I say, we call the parklands around the city The Woods but few years ago a developer got famous by describing them as “a noose of weeds and vines.”


“Everybody has an opinion. You’ll hear them.
Buh-lieve me.”

“What’s your opinion?”

Tia eyed his recorder, then laughed, forming the dimples. “We should find a solution through discussion.”

Gotz grunted. “You oughtta go into politics.”

“Maybe,” she raised a brow. “One day.”

The train rolled free of the forest into open sky and the city spread over undulant hills. The cars curved toward the Beaux Arts tower of Main Street Station. Tia explained the view.

“To the left is Richmond’s cradle, the Shockoe Valley,” and upon Richmond’s eastern hills clustered a proliferation of brick and wood frame houses and buildings of considerable vintage.

“Above it is Church Hill, there at St. John’s Patrick Henry gave his “Give me liberty or death,” speech."

A span crossing above the tracks and bridging the hills loomed large on iron legs with cross-hatched struts. "Ahead of us is the Marshall Street Viaduct that goes between the hills. It's 2800 feet long and 95 feet high and spans 17 railroad tracks. To the right, Court End and downtown."

Gotz observed another tight agglomeration of varied buildings, some quite contemporary, and one massive ziggurat rising above it all. He asked Tia about it.

“That’s MCV, the Medical College of Viriginia, it’s —“

A black shadow flew across the passengers as the train slid between the viaduct's iron legs and an amplified non-automated and jovial voice interrupted her.

“Oh, this is Captain Trice,” and she raised a hushing finger to her lips.

“G’evenin’ ladies and gentleman, from around the world and from around here, this is your engineer Cap’n Trice speaking. We
arr-ruh on our final approach to the grand and wonderful Main Street Station, where you can connect to every other train, tram, streetcar, bus, taxi you need, ever’ thing but the boat, and that’s just three blocks away.

From Main Street Station you can catch the Medical College of Vuh-
gin-ya East Campus Express a-a-a-nd the Ginter University South Express, the Downtown Access train, the Richmond Circle and the Manchester and Glen Allen locals. This train proceeds to Broad Street Station.

If you’re visitin’ with us here in Richmond today, we have a welcome center and traveler’s hostel in the old Railroad YMCA next door, and if you’re waitin’ on Amtrak, there’s restaurants and lounges in the station. Cap’n Trice thanks you for taking the Richmond Metropolitan System today, because it’s been 120 years, and we’re still rollin’, --

Tia mouthed along with him: “—and I know, ‘cuz I’ve been here for every single one of’em.”

The tourists chuckled even as he began repeating some of his narration in serviceable Spanish. The soft exhalation of the slowing train began and the station’s shed eclipsed the car’s dome. The train slid along the outside track. From here it would roll out and yaw west.

Cap’n Trice announced, “
Maaaayn Street Station, Richmond, Vuh-gin-ya, North America, Western Hemisphere, Earth. You have arrived. Please, exit to the left. And please, mind the gap.”

They stood and Gotz said, “I want to meet this guy. Anybody who enjoys his job that much I need to speak to.”

“If you’re serious I can arrange it,” she said, at the spiral stair, and this time going first.

“I am-- I am serious. Maybe, what? Squeeze him in before I go—“

“I’ll work it out,” Tia said.

“I know you will.”

Note on the images: I happened upon this photograph on the Hattie and Bruce Travel blog. This is the Oslo, Norway, airport train to the city. Richmond could run an airport train from Richmond International to Main Street Station; the track is there, and various plans have called for one. But, still, it hasn't manifested into our reality. The Marshall Street Viaduct straddling Shockoe Valley is an early 20th century post card from the Virginia Commonwealth University Library Special Collections & Archive online exhibit "Rarely Seen Richmond." The MCV West Hospital wasn't yet built, but the massive roofs of the Main Street Station train shed is visible at left.

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At 8:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

greeting from your million eyed audience ..

At 9:28 AM, Blogger HEK said...

Greetings, Anon. Thanks for reading.


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