The Beaten Path 

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Every few years, we dust off our master plan for the city. We raise the sash and flop the pages in open air, loosening the pressed clover that foretold the fortune of an earlier day. Then we burrow in and mine words to save, to build on or to bury. Words meant to measure us against disorder, and yet words of disorder too, fixed in their own time of pride and prejudice. We do this because we are compelled to find meaning in the crooked paths of our past, because we dare to question those that lie ahead, and because no matter how burdened we are by circumstance, we cannot shake the dream of a better place.

Richmond is an old city, nearly mythic, with song-lines that run deep into the braided channel of the James River. Her western roots date to 1607, when an exploring party from Jamestown chanced onto her banks. In 1645 she was fortified as a frontier defense against the wilds that encroached west of the falls. In 1737 she was platted into a town and then, five years later, incorporated into one. A twin by birth, Richmond's sister city, known as Sydney, idled on paper until she was engulfed by Richmond's emerging suburban neighborhoods.

A scant 259 people called Richmond home in 1742, but by 1900 she was the most densely populated city in the South. Her fortune rode with the Potomac path that connected northern cities with the deeper south, and with the canals and railroads that crisscrossed the Piedmont. By the middle of the 19th century, Richmond was the commercial hub of the nation. She boasted seven flour mills -- including the two largest in the country — 50 tobacco factories and the first bituminous coalfields to be mined in North America. Her flour exports to South America produced mounds of coffee in return, piled so high as to make Richmond the nation's largest coffee port.

And with this dose of caffeine, Richmond surged to renown in all corners — most foundries, biggest fertilizer company, best blotting paper and, lest we forget, most beloved meat juice (an artifact surely forgotten had it not been the creation of Mann Satterwhite Valentine Jr., founder of the Valentine History Museum). Richmond's mercantile success propelled her past Baltimore for a Federal Reserve Bank in 1914, and from there to all manner of commercial fortune.

But Richmond suffered infamy, too — the shock of war, the burdens of racial division and the many evils that lurked in the shadows of Richmond's segregated society. Around the turn of the 20th century, Richmond had one of the highest death rates in the country, excessive by general population and even more extreme by race because of inequalities in health care. "A clean, healthy city" became the mantra for the city's success and persisted for decades.

Perhaps because of its early industrialization, Richmond was a bellwether for public open space. In 1851, the city began acquiring and setting aside parks in earnest — first Monroe, Marshall and Gambles Hill in 1851, then Byrd in 1874, and later Chimborazo, Riverside, Taylor Hill, Battery, Bryan, Carter Jones and Forest Hill. As the city's planners would later reflect, the increasing complexity of Richmond society inspired both increased time and need for leisure, for respite from the noise of the day.

Although Richmond's first streets were platted in 1737, its first zoning ordinance did not emerge until 1927. And its first master plan did not surface until 1946. Imagine 209 years of caprice before the first organized effort against it. Imagine all of the crooked paths laid bare by history. And imagine the mad genius of introducing this first master plan with a poem, a parable about man following blindly in the footsteps of a calf, from generation to generation, bearing down into the beaten, zigzagging course left by precedent and, before that, a wayward calf.

A moral lesson this might teach

Were I ordained and called to preach;

For men are prone to go it blind

Along the calf-paths of the mind,

And work away from sun to sun

To do what other men have done.

They follow in the beaten track,

And out and in, and forth and back,

And still their devious course pursue,

To keep the path that others do.

But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,

Who saw the first primeval calf.

Ah, many things this tale might teach —

But I am not ordained to preach.

(Excerpted from The Calf-Path by Sam Walter Foss)

The 1946 plan was in equal measure inspired and damned. It offered a vision of a green utopia, with neighborhood parks in walking distance of every urban dwelling at a "desirable ratio" of 1 acre per 100 residents, and with all parks interconnected by a system of "pleasure" drives. But it also accepted the tortured lines and perceptions of segregation. May the book mites yet have their way with these smudges of history?

In recent years, Richmond has returned to the river as a kind of "wet Central Park." And yet even this return was presaged by earlier planners. In 1967 the city issued a plan for conservation, recreation and beautification of the river by 1975. This plan acknowledged the significance of the river to our history, growth and sustenance, calling it a "diamond in the rough" and a "form-giving element" for the future of our city. The plan revolved around a theory of "studied naturalness," in which we would correct the mistakes of both nature and man.

So now we come at last to our own chapter and our own words. We are just now flipping the pages of a new master plan for the city. It offers a vision that is nearly too good to be true, rich in both idea and idiom. It does not exist, but it could, and the raw hope in it is what draws us to the table, or should. You see, the plan, like all plans, is forever doomed to the shelf. But the planners — you and me and the colorblind children of our city — are the living, breathing song-lines of that old dream of an even better place. S

Brooks Smith is an environmental lawyer at Hunton & Williams and a WCVE commentator presenting a series called "Rediscovering Richmond."

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



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