Richmond, Virginia (September 2007-September 2009)

I move to Richmond VA in September 2007 after living for over 20 years in Florida – the longest time I have ever lived in one place in my life.

In no time at all, I start learning of the joys and sorrows of this magnificently historic city.

First, I regretfully report the urban design blunders I have observed.

One-Way Streets. Never in my life, in all of the cities I have visited, have I seen as many one-way streets as I see in Richmond. It is both astonishing and disastrous. Initially installed to quickly and cheaply add capacity and speed to downtown streets, one-way streets are now being converted back to two-way operation by cities across the nation. Why? Because one-way streets tend to deliver quite a large number of problems. Most importantly, one-way streets induce high levels of inattentive, reckless, impatient, speeding travel behavior by motorists. Such misbehaving travel manners causes a number of residences and smaller businesses to abandon the street. Pedestrians become more scarce because the street is now so hostile and unsafe. By losing residences and shops, one-way streets often see property values plummet and typically become vacant “no-man’s-lands” that encourage further declines in pedestrian activity because the walk becomes so unrewarding. One-way streets also create inconvenience problems for bicyclists and motorists, because they significantly increase the need to backtrack or travel longer distances than would be necessary on two-way streets. In particular, one-ways are an enormous headache for out-of-towners, who often are surprised by a street being one-way, and end up getting lost or frustrated. Compounding the problem is that many of Richmond’s downtown streets have too many travel lanes, which also induces speeding and hostile, car-only travel. The one-way streets must incrementally be converted back to two-way operation if this City expects to restore healthy conditions for residential, retail and pedestrian life in its downtown. Coupled with this, streets with more than three lanes must incrementally be put on a “road diet” so that travel lanes and turn lanes are removed.

Off-Street Surface Parking. Walking in downtown Richmond, one quickly notices that off-street parking lots are seemingly everywhere. Much of the downtown seems more like a lunar landscape than a city. There seems, in other words, to be plenty of affordable housing for cars in Richmond. But there is no “there there.” It is apparent that in the past, at least, local government and local businesses decided that abundant off-street parking is essential for downtown health. Nothing could be further from the truth. For downtowns to successfully compete with the suburbs, it must leverage its strengths. Those strengths center on compact, walkable, activated, rewarding streets. Ruinously, off-street parking destroys this leverage for a downtown. It creates gap-toothed dead zones and interrupts the fabric created by active, interesting buildings. Surface parking creates unsafe places that take away from the “sense of enclosure” which provides comfort for pedestrians. To be healthy, a downtown needs to benefit from “agglomeration economies” (a compact concentration of retail, office, jobs, residences and civic buildings). Surface parking diffuses this needed grouping, and thereby deadens and sickens a downtown. In downtowns, the pedestrian is the design imperative. Nothing undercuts the needs of the downtown pedestrian more than surface parking. Most or all off-street parking, particularly the parking fronting streets and buildings and intersections, needs to be incrementally replaced by active, proud buildings.

 Beltway Interstates. Downtown Richmond is surrounded by a monster beltway of interstate highways. As is the case for nearly all beltways around cities, the Richmond beltway has significantly contributed to the draining of retail, office, residential and civic energy from its downtown. Gigantic, hugely expensive downtown overpasses in Richmond are emblematic of The Car is King syndrome killing cities throughout the nation. In particular, the overpasses passing over the historic train station is a perfect symbol of how the City has let the car overtake the train. Overpasses, like surface parking, are powerful creators of downtown dead zones. Like beltways, overpasses suck energy out of a downtown. Over time, the beltways and overpasses need to be removed and converted back to more livable surface boulevards and streets as a way to restore more of the former traditional glory of Richmond.

Cobblestone Streets. Richmond is sitting on top of a priceless goldmine, whether it knows it or not. A great many of the streets in its older, historic neighborhoods have been paved over. Asphalt now hides underlying cobblestone and brick on numerous streets. Uncovering these streets, as has been done in Orlando FL, would add immeasurably to the romantic, human-scaled charm of these neighborhoods, and result in a significant increase in property values. In addition, doing so would make neighborhoods substantially safer and more livable as the brick and cobblestone would reduce car speeds. While the initial cost is high, on-going maintenance costs for brick and cobblestone are lower than for asphalt streets.

There are reasons to love Richmond.

Historic, Traditional Walkability. Richmond is a city exceptionally rich in history. Monument Avenue, regularly rated one of the best boulevards in the nation, is graced with an incredible number of magnificent, awe-inspiring monuments of many of the great people in its past. Everywhere I look, there is a plaque informing us of a monumental historic event that “occurred at this site.” In particular, the historic, traditional Museum District and Fan District rowhouse neighborhoods to the west of downtown retain their delightful charm.

James River. The James River is a wonderful, fun-filled asset that Richmond is justly proud of. Indeed, the location of the James means that Richmond has the only downtown in North America which has a whitewater river passing through it. Several Class II, III and IV rapids are found along Richmond sections of the James, which provides wild-eyed enjoyment for whitewater enthusiasts, and there are countless bicycle and hiking trails, islands and parks along both sides of the James in Richmond.

Not having ever sampled the James on my (inappropriate) sit-on-top kayak before, I am eager to check it out. I put in at a very nicely appointed put-in point (complete with a very nice wooden stair slide for kayaks and canoes) at the Huguenot Flatwater area, and proceed upstream on a rather wide river channel. Due to a long drought, the water is unusually clear and quite shallow. I soon notice that there are a lot less fish in the James than the spring-fed Florida rivers I am used to paddling. And the drought means that my kayak is often scrapping over large boulders. Nevertheless, due to satisfactory lines I select, I manage to paddle up to the Bosher’s Dam, where a 10-foot waterfall gushes over the dam wall. I then paddle downstream to the “Z” dam near Williams Island. Here, a portage trail is provided to allow canoeists and kayakers to get past the dam. Downstream of the dam, I again find extremely shallow water which my kayak scrapes and strains over as I try to negotiate around and over the flattened boulders jutting out of the river. I then approach a series of Class II and III rapids. With zero experience in whitewater kayaking, in a kayak that is designed for surf and flatwater, and completely inappropriate for whitewater, I am now faced with a choice: Do I recklessly attempt to navigate some of these rapids, despite my boat, my inexperience, and my complete lack of knowledge of what is ahead of me? I very tentatively approach a rapid that seems relatively tame. Do I dare? No, it is too crazy. I turn back upstream. But my thoughts return to the potential exhilarating sensation of shooting the rapid. Do I dare? No, I turn back again — particularly because the rapids are lined with people enjoying themselves in the sun, and it would be utterly humiliating for a novice Florida flatwater kayaker like me to be unceremoniously dumped like a unskilled moron into the water.

But the temptation is just too powerful. On my third approach, I throw caution to the wind and forcefully dig in my paddle, purposefully yet still a bit unnerved, heading for what may be my doom.

Miraculously, my Necky kayak nimbly zips through the rapid. Not to brag, but I believe I (falsely) created the impression to those fearsome on-lookers that I was an old pro at this as I guided my way through with deft paddling. Piece of cake…

Whitewater Kayak Clinic. Eager to sample the adrenalin rush of whitewater kayaking, I sign up for a two-day whitewater kayaking beginner class offered through Chesterfield County. We arrive on our first day at Dutch Gap, with the city power plant looming above us (the plant emits cooling tower water into the James at this location, which means we are to learn our new whitewater skills in 95-degree bathwater).

We fit ourselves into our borrowed boats. I smugly bring along my own whitewater kayak. But then learn I am too big to fit into a boat I’ve never used before. I post it for sale later that night…

Learning skills on the first day was enormously helpful and confidence-building. I successfully learn how to “wet exit” (a skill that enables one, thankfully, to safely be inverted in a whitewater situation without needing to roll back to upright position). I also learn the “T-Rescue,” which enables one to be uprighted by a rescue kayak without filling your kayak with water.

I must admit, however, that sitting upside down underwater while inside a kayak cockpit is somewhat disconcerting as one must whack the sides of the kayak to signal inversion, then sweep ones hands back and forth on the sides of the kayak to feel for a rescue boat. Fortunately, as a certified diver, the exercise is reasonably tolerable.

On this first day, we also learn whitewater paddle strokes, how to read a river and find a proper line, a rescue rope toss and retrieve, paddle signals, and staying upright. Overall, an enjoyable day with enjoyable, non-whiner classmates (one of whom had the entertaining habit of always doing a 360 degree turn when paddling through rapids). We also break up into teams and play the “dead fish” game, which has us tossing a wet sponge to teammates in an effort to score goals (the “goals” consist of paddles on the shore).

Our second day is to be on the James River rapids themselves. We have been taught quite a bit on our first day. My poor memory therefore has lots to remember, and I’m well aware of the sometimes treacherous nature of the James River rapids. That night, I must admit, I feel a fair amount of anxiety as I think about the likelihood of being tossed and submerged in churning rapids. Will I be rescued? Will I remember all of my skills? Will I make a fool out of myself? My night is mostly spent tossing and turning in bed. Little of the night consists of sleep.

We are given some “dry land” instruction out on the river rocks. We must negotiate eddies. And rapids. And kayak quite a ways. In a boat that refuses to hold a straight line (whitewater kayaks are designed to turn on a dime, which means they are nearly impossible to paddle in a straight line without some determined, skilled effort).

The group of eight of us successfully paddle to eddies and through rapids and over small waterfalls. One guy in our group consistently ends up, unintentionally, as our “probe” (the kayaker who leads the way for the others).

In the rapids, I learn to surf waves. Observing others before me, I am struck by what looks like an impossible feat: remaining stationary while pointing the kayak upstream in the middle of strongly rushing waves. I give it a try with an instructor, and somehow manage to “rudder” my paddle for a few brief seconds of triumphant surfing. Back for my second try, I quickly get the knack of it and find myself gleefully surfing for a few minutes. “I could do this all day,” I say as I return to our nearby eddy.

Near the end, our instructor informs us that paddling into the “wave train” in front of us can be wild and tricky. As a sensation seeker, I cannot resist. I paddle headlong into the train. Within seconds, my kayak flips me upside down (“it is not IF you will flip in a whitewater kayak, it is WHEN”). As a rookie, I quickly decide I’m not going to wait on a rescue, so I foolishly perform a wet exit to get out. As I emerge, I am told that the “T-Rescue” was there to save me. Next time, I won’t make this mistake again, as the process of getting to shore, emptying water out of the kayak, and getting back into the boat is an inconvenience.

At the end of this second day, we are a group of eight happy new whitewater kayakers who are better skilled and have somehow survived the mighty James. I believe we are all eager to return. I’ve already marked the dates on my calendar for future trips…

Carytown. For an urbanist such as myself, “Carytown” is a real treat. Carytown is a vibrant, pedestrian-filled shopping street found along Cary Street on the south side of the Museum District. The street is packed with interesting, diverse shops and restaurants. Carytown seems to be teeming with people day and night. On East Cary Street in Shokoe Slip downtown, Cary Street is a romantic, charming, historic cobblestone street. With shops pulled up to the sidewalk, the relatively narrow Cary Street in this part of the city is a real treat. The only downside to an otherwise fabulous scene is that Cary Street is one-way, which creates high levels of speeding traffic in the Museum and Fan districts, and a street that is unsafe for bicyclists and unpleasant for the many pedestrians. Carytown, therefore, is wonderful IN SPITE OF the one-way Cary Street.

Restaurants and Festivals. One of the most noteworthy benefits I have had the pleasure of experiencing in Richmond is the dizzying number of festivals and other outdoor events. Each weekend, there seems to be four or five Seafood Festivals, Folk Festivals, Ethnic Festivals, Sporting Festivals, etc. in town. I have also immensely enjoyed the unusually large number of quality restaurants in Richmond. Among my favorites:

  •  Mama Zu’s.
  •  Legends Brewpub.
  •  Kuba Kuba.
  •  Europa.
  •  Penny Lane.
  •  Perlys Diner.
  •  Can Can.
  •  Semsi.
  •  27.
  •  Hill Café.
  •  Havanna.
  •  Hardshell.
  •  Captain Buzzies Café.
  •  Bin 22 wine bar.
  •  Capital Ale House.

Hanover Avenue Halloween

I am “initiated” into the Hanover Avenue Halloween debauchery here in Richmond. It is an annual spectacle.

WOW.

I was a virgin with this festive event until the night of October 31, 2007. Never in my wildest dreams did I suspect that “Hanover Avenue Halloween” would be so…crazy. It is a bizarre circus of madness and fun.

In the days before Halloween, I’d been noticing that there seemed to be an unusual number of houses putting up Halloween decorations, and concluding that Richmond residents are unusually obsessed about Halloween (more so than I had ever seen in a community in the past). But on Halloween night, my wife and I are invited to join some people to walk Hanover in the Fan District.

I am completely ASTONISHED!

It seems as if every single house for 5-6 blocks has spent MONTHS preparing all manner of crazy, impressive “spook” decorations to fill yards and house facades with lights, strobes, cobwebs, giant spiders, flying bats, nooses, gravestones, mutilated bodies, ghosts and goblins. My suspicion is that neighbors, over the years, have become competitive. It seems like they are all trying to out-do each other, and I loved their trying to do so!

Maureen and I, dressed as “Mo Ho” and “Pimp Dom” to be suitable for the “House of Ill Repute” theme party we attend prior to Hanover, keep turning to each other saying: “This is unbelievable!” as we walk Hanover on this especially spooky night.

It seems that most all of the “serious” Halloween-ers in Richmond go to this event on Hanover. The streets and sidewalks are jammed with trick-or-treaters, and people in bizarre, clever costumes. Happily, it has become such a festive, crowded event that the City finds it necessary to close off the streets to traffic to allow the partying Draculas and Witches to safely go wild in the middle of the streets. Streets criss-crossed with ghosts, spooks and spiders hanging from sidewalk to sidewalk.

A good number of homes have Halloween plays and dramas being acted out in their front yards and porches. My favorite on this night is a Batman theme complete with loud Batman music, a mock Bat-mobile and Bat-motorcycle and characters dressed to play their roles as Joker, Boy Wonder, etc. Also ghoulishly good is a guy with a noose around his neck who is somehow swinging back and forth as if he really IS hanging.

My hat is off to the pumpkin carving I see in Richmond. Several of the Jack-o-Lanterns must take months of painstaking carving to have been created, given the incredibly intricate patterns on display.

I had thought I had been to some wild parades and street festivals and holiday-decorating events in the past. But this event put them all to shame. One has to see and experience this event to believe it. Mardi Gras has nothing on this.

We have so much fun on this Halloween night that we vow to attend every year in the future. I hope this tradition continues indefinitely…

We need to start planning our costumes and decorations NOW, so that we are not shamed by our neighbors next year…

Cary Street New Year’s Eve

Our rowhouse apartment is a few blocks from Carytown.

On New Years Eve, December 31, 2007, Cary Street is closed to car traffic for 8 or 9 blocks. By 11 pm, the street is packed with people. It is, by far, the biggest crowd I had ever been a part of for New Year’s Eve. Revelers squeeze in like sardines from curb to curb from Byrd Theatre to the big-city brasserie named Can Can.

The Byrd Theatre — built in 1928 — is a magnificent historic theatre that is impressively ornate inside. There is a balcony and theater boxes overlooking the auditorium below. On Saturday evenings, a Wurlitzer organ, which once accompanied silent movies, is played. The organ player and his Wurlitzer slowly makes an appearance as a riser lifts him up from below stage level. The audience can sing along to the songs played—the words are displayed on the screen. The staff dresses in 1920s clothing. Second-run movies are shown here daily. Admission is $1.99.

As Jim Kunstler once said when he sat inside such a theatre a few years ago, it is a tragic indictment that our contemporary society is completely incapable of creating such a building today.

Civic pride, as a result, withers. Our buildings and communities are no longer much worth caring about because such places are nearly extinct.

As you can see from the photo, the Richmond New Year’s Eve spectacle on this night stretches for a number of blocks. As a point of reference, I am about one block down the street in what is a 20,000-person sea of crazed humanity.

It is a chilly night. I am ready to go home at about 10 pm because I am so uncomfortable (20 years in FL does that to a person). Fortunately, our place is only 4 blocks from Cary so I just walk home, put on some fleece and gloves, and walk back (ground zero for the celebration is a 5-minute walk from our place).

As I stand facing the live entertainment stage, I find I barely have room to breath, and occasionally feel my feet lifted off the street as the crush of bodies surges back and forth. A fair number of fights break out — inevitable when you have people trying to push their way through a sardine crowd to get somewhere, and are inadvertently elbowing folks. I watch with a mixture of amusement and trepidation as police “platoons” periodically try to quickly squeeze through the jam to reach a fistfight.

A few moments before midnight, the stage emcee shouts out the remaining few seconds of 2007. As the clock strikes twelve, the 20,000 erupt in a delirious, joyful celebration that 2008 has arrived.

Do yourself a favor and check out Richmond on either Halloween or New Year’s.

Go to this link for a slide show of more and better photos I shot or otherwise gathered while living in Richmond. When the link takes you to Picasa, select “slideshow” for the best view: https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/RichmondOct2007Dec2009?authuser=0&feat=directlink

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Categories: 2001-2010, Miscellaneous, Virginia | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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