When I was getting settled in RVA back in the early 1980s, things looked a lot different. I’ve often wished I could hop back in time and into my Renault Alliance – it was considered sporty back then, by some – and drive around the city, just to marvel at how things have changed.
Our skyline along the James these days can be breathtaking, but back then, it was missing some of what makes it so impressive. There were no gleaming white high-rises of the James Center, no towers of Riverfront Plaza. The shiny, glass-sided Dominion tower wasn't even a gleam in an architect’s eye.
There were no cool condo buildings or funky street art along the Canal Walk – mostly, I think, because there was no Canal Walk. I don’t remember there being much in the way of fun along the James downtown, certainly no T-Pot or Belle Isle pedestrian bridges, which have been amazing additions. And the natural beauty of our once-neglected river is a marvel in itself. The first time I got a look at it from high in what is now the Bank of America building, I remember being stunned at how nature and city had merged so beautifully.
The suburbs were awash in the traditional shopping malls that marked landscapes in the '70s. Regency Square was so packed at Christmastime that you literally had to follow departing shoppers out to their cars in order to find a parking spot. This being RVA, those shoppers regularly cooperated by signaling that their car was nearby. With the demise of malls and the general struggles of retail, Regency is now being remade into an “urban mixed-use” area, which has great potential.
I bought my wife’s engagement ring at Azalea Mall, now a parking lot with an uncertain future. Cloverleaf, too, has been converted into a multiuse area that includes a Krispy Kreme, which is never a bad thing.
When I got out of college in the '80s, no one was really rushing to live in the city. We were told it was both uncool and dangerous: Why do that in a town with so many hip suburban apartment complexes? Today, young people are buying their first homes in town, older folks are downsizing there, and fun neighborhoods all over Richmond proper are worth checking out.
Maymont has a Nature Center now. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden opened to the public in 1987. We have impressive museums to help us better understand the Civil War, Virginia history and the Holocaust, plus some of the best that the arts world has to offer. We have college basketball and football programs with rich traditions.
If all that sounds a little too glowing, let me be the first to admit that we ain’t perfect here in RVA. Far from it, actually, like everywhere you find humans living together. This year's shocking arrival of COVID-19 in late winter and our summer of protests have underscored some of our problems.
Issues that accompany gentrification have come along with those great city neighborhoods. Many of us still seem to struggle with the idea of living and working alongside people who look, think and act differently than we do.
Seems to me that all this is part of our ongoing attempts to figure out life in the 2020s, and it’s happening all over. There’s a lot, though, that’s still pretty great about being in Richmond, and I hope that will never change.
We’ve got many of the appealing things about living in or near a city, but we haven’t lost our neighborly, often small-town feel. We’ve got whitewater raft trips running through downtown on an amazing and accessible river – who else can say that? We’ve got restaurants that we hope, one day soon, will again bowl over out-of-town guests. We've got great universities.
Cathy and I have raised three kids here, and although they’ve moved on to find their adult lives in other states (and even one other country), all three have some kind of RVA artwork on the walls of their homes today. They’ll always carry a piece of Richmond with them, wherever they are.
We all will.
Tom Allen is editor of the Virginia Journal of Education. He can be reached at Tomed1@hotmail.com.