City of Splendor: It's Richmond's Scars That Make It Beautiful 

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Scott Elmquist

A city’s pearls are its broken-down spots — its crumbling palaces, burned-out former glories, and chipped-paint behemoths.

Show me a city with a bunch of half-crooked porches and bat-ridden attics and there’s a city of beauty, full of history and faces. But show me a city full of moisture barrier, box stores and fresh asphalt and there are the makings of a tumbleweed wasteland.

As a resident, you want a city rich with old places and faces because these are the cities that inspire nostalgia. With nostalgia comes loyalty, with loyalty comes roots, with roots come a sense of place and memory. For some reason the memories of being chased by a bat through a house whose wiring put off a putrid odor any time you used the microwave stick with people more than that shiny duplex with the tennis court. Trust me here.

I’m not saying we should let Richmond crumble to the ground or that there should not be new building. In fact, I’m not speaking from an urban planning perspective at all. This comes from a counseling perspective, from having spent more than 20 years cracking the shells of Richmond residents to try to get to their existential dilemmas.

In talking with thousands of Richmonders about life and death, love and crisis, dreams and hope, I have found that the easiest ways to get them to open up is, go figure, to reminisce about flooded basements and shotgun hallways smelling of apple fritters.

Yep, it’s not about God, politics or race. What unites the masses of Richmond is the thought of a stained glass window above the kitchen sink, a wooden back porch with some rocking chairs, and a precious Richmond cottage that a family member lived in but was tragically demolished in 1953 and would be absolutely perfect to live in right now.

Let me explain. I talk to people about the big fear: death. These are tricky conversations. Many of the people with whom I speak are dying, or recently had a loved one die. It’s not a good time, but we have to talk about it. So, the way I figure it, we can get at death easiest by talking about the other side of the coin: life.

And life, in spite of what most think, is not solely about your work, your sports team, your religion and your pet. Most of our life story can be told by our map. Where did we go? Where did we love? I get people to start talking by telling their Richmond love stories — which are inevitably messy.

I recently met a man about whom I had been warned. He was considered a tough case and I was sent to “deal with” him — code words for figure out if he needs anything. Within five minutes we were talking about his childhood in Highland Park, the high ceilings of the homes there, and his John Marshall High School diploma from before my parents were born. He shared his favorite places to eat lunch back when he was working 45 years ago. I shared my thoughts on barbecue. Yeah, we got to his religious beliefs, his mourning the death of his wife, and his comfort with his own death, and then we went right back to Highland Park and how it really is looking nice these days. Pretty much without Highland Park, I never would have gotten a peep out of him, and yes, he acknowledged that some pain medication might help.

Another cold case I cracked by taking in the local paper and reading an article about how the city has basically let everyone know that the mowing ain’t getting done — deal with it. I had visited this tough cookie for four months with zero results. Prayer had no effect. One time I brought him a doughnut from a popular chain — nothing. I watched countless episodes of endless iterations of “Law and CSI with Bones” with him. Nothing. But 300 words on the city telling us to kiss their overworked butts? Magic.

People don’t talk about the latest menu at chain restaurants with passion like they do the recipe of this city’s various unpredictable limeades. Most don’t recall for decades the well-planned layout of a cul-de-sac like they do the capillary intricacies of Church Hill. Potholes are blight, but I’ve found that they also cause residents and their neighbors to do some ingenious do-it-yourself repair jobs to their streets, cars and bikes. And these are the stories people chuckle over when they’re dying. We like puzzles and hurdles. We like discovering treasure.

Believe it or not, no one I meet on their deathbed wishes they’d lived on Monument Avenue. No one regrets not buying into that new development halfway to Powhatan. The wistful look people get in their eyes and the stories of the city they love are always about some leaning, cracked-window, wheezing manor that they wish they could have bought. An old dance hall they wanted to bring back. A mélange of music from our long-gone movie houses, the sight of those crazy pigeons on Broad Street back in the day, and the particular smell of a muffin at a little diner that used to be off Jeff Davis Highway.

Just as with our bodies and lives, sometimes the scars and bumps of our city are what make it most beautifully ours. S

Identifying details about patients have been changed to protect their privacy.

Alane Miles is an ordained minister, freelance teacher, writer, and grief and bereavement counselor.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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