Richmond transplants reflect on the city they now call home. 

Welcome to Pleasantville

The old joke goes something like this: An elderly gentleman has died in Richmond. Born in Raleigh, N.C., he has spent all but the first few years of his long and productive life here.

He has been raised and educated in Richmond. He has married a local woman and they, too, have raised their children here. He has succeeded in his profession and been active in local civic and charity affairs.

Therefore his Richmond obituary reads: "North Carolina Man Dies Here." The wisecrack doesn't have quite the kick it used to have, say, 10 years ago, when by way of introduction, provincial Richmonders routinely exchanged their mothers' maiden names and fathers' jobs before their own occupations and interests. But the joke makes a still-sharp point: Richmond is more a big town than a small city, so you're either a from-here or a come-here - and always will be.

Still sharp, but with time and recent arrivals, losing its edge - and maybe missing the point. While newcomers continue to say they are most impressed by Richmond's native reserve - pleasant, but remote and never entirely embracing - after a few years, even many transplants arrive at the conclusion that the problem is not that Richmond has not changed enough. It's that the rest of the world has changed too much.

The world may be coming around. One could argue that while Richmond is less important - politically, culturally, commercially - than it has ever been, it is more appealing. In 1997, Fortune called Richmond one of the 10 most-improved cities for business. In 1998, Money named the city the best place to live among medium-sized Southern cities. Last year, Expansion Management, a magazine for companies looking to open new offices, ranked Richmond third out of the nation's "50 hottest cities." This year BestJobsUSA.com and Employment Review called ours one of the 20 "Best Places to Live and Work in America."

Say, what? Richmond, the 64th largest city in the United States, one of the top 20 in anything besides Civil War monuments?

You don't have to convince Greg Wingfield. As president of the Greater Richmond Partnership, an economic development group, Wingfield's job is to sell the area's economic assets and quality of life to businesses thinking of relocating, expanding or opening new facilities.

"I think we are blessed with a good balance [of firms and industries] in the region," he says. And while some of Richmond's Fortune 500s and large local banks have been acquired by out-of-town companies, overall there has been steady growth, particularly in technology, marketing and other services: "People don't necessarily have to go to New York for that big ad promotion, or elsewhere to seek advancement in other careers."

Wingfield himself was born in St. Louis and came to VCU for graduate school in 1972. With lots of preexisting family ties in the area, he stayed until 1987, when Forward Hampton Roads, the Tidewater area's economic development agency, lured him east. In 1994, he came back to form the Greater Richmond Partnership.

He plans to stay, although the headhunters' offers each month or so can be tempting. "I grapple with that same thing. I think, 'Yeah, for a few dollars more, that might be nice.'" But when he weighs all the pros and cons: "It's not really worth it."

That's because Wingfield, married and the father of two teens, finds Richmond's sense of roots refreshing. He found Norfolk and Virginia Beach "a very transient area. You don't form as many of the friendships and relationships that are as long-lasting." He's also keen on Richmond's history and cultural assets. "It's a nice blend between commerce and arts and culture," he says.

But isn't Richmond a conquered capital, a victim of history, a stick in the mud of the past? Hasn't the world passed us by?

"People say Richmond has kind of fallen behind and been passed by Charlotte, Atlanta, etc.," Wingfield says. "I don't necessarily agree with that, and in some ways, it's not necessarily bad. We've been able to keep our character intact — our heart and our soul. We're not introspective, but I think we glory in the history that we have."

Well, some of us, anyway. City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin, another non native resident, calls such past-happy thinking "historical schizophrenia."

"Richmond is a city built on secrets and lies," he says. "There is an unwillingness to deal with those secrets and lies, and people prance around them."

[image-1](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)"It's so easy to live here," says Fort Rucker, Ala. native Gina Burgin. "It's so pleasant."; Living in New York proved that the Johannas—Sharon, David and 8-year-old Zoe—could live anywhere. They chose Richmond. "Now we're embedded," David says.What are they? Race relations, El-Amin says, and "an unrealistic love of the Confederacy and what it stands for. Until that's resolved, Richmond can never step on the stage and be a player."

Which is a shame, he feels, given the city's assets. El-Amin rattles off the city's location at the juncture of two major interstates, its international airport, its deepwater terminal, its railroad and trucking hubs: "I would describe it as a city that has a tremendous amount of potential but has not figured out a way to capitalize on it."

So what's he doing here? El-Amin's first wife was from Richmond; they met and married in law school, then moved here in 1969. "I decided that I didn't want to go back to practice law in New York, where I was from," he says. "Richmond looked like a pretty good town." And there seemed to be opportunities for a young black attorney: "I think if there were 10 African-American lawyers here, that was a lot. It was a wide-open field."

Of course, El-Amin, who was tossed in a Navy stockade and thrown out of Howard University for his political protests, "didn't realize how conservative the town was. And that the African-Americans were so conservative."

For other black residents, though, race relations are a nonissue. "I just never bought into the whole thing," says Gina Burgin, a commercial real-estate attorney. "We're living in the present, hopefully, and not in the past. … People are involved in their families and enjoying life."

That's easy to do in Richmond, says Burgin, a native of Fort Rucker, Ala., who moved here in 1994 from Washington. Now her husband's brother and sister-in-law have moved here "and love it." Other relatives "now have kids and they're looking, too."

"It's so easy to live here," she says. "It's so pleasant."

Even El-Amin agrees, and says the city has grown on him. "No place is perfect, and Richmond is probably as good as it can be, with all of its warts," he says. "Like a lot of people say, it's a good place to have a family and raise a family, except for its very large problems with public education. From atmosphere and ambience, it's a nice city; clean."

And of course we're prettier than most. Just ask a couple who spent months driving across America and back to find the perfect city.

In 1979 David and Sharon Johannas packed up their lives in Canada and headed south. They were going to start the new decade in a new place — a place not of fate's choosing, but theirs. David, an architect, and Sharon, a designer, got in the car and drove, looking for their dream town.

Looks mattered, and Richmond was an instant hit: "Coming here was such an adjustment, just visually," says Shannon. "Seeing all the history and architecture - it's such a beautiful city and it's a nice-size city."

David agrees. "Some places ingratiate some people. They're good for people," the Connecticut native says. "But frankly, at the time I thought the city was a little bigger than it was."

They gave it a star on their mental map, and drove on. Boulder, Colo., was a contender, but eventually it came down to Richmond and Newport Beach, Calif.

L.A.'s brown haze of pollution sent them packing, David says. "We saw that dark sky coming down the coast, and we just looked at each other and said, 'Let's go.'"

Arriving back in Richmond, he was seduced by the ambience: "It was a foggy, misty evening as we drove along Monument Avenue, with all the lights on," he recalls. "The character of the place really took a hold of me."

They moved in New Year's Eve 1979. But by 1987, the Johannases thought they were ready for something else. They moved to Manhattan. "When you live in New York, you're in the center of the world's marketplace. You see people trying and experimenting, especially in the arts, that I don't think you get the exposure to here."

Five years was enough exposure. In 1992, they were back in Richmond, missing the pace and the people and the look of the place. "Now we're embedded," he says. "We've got three generations living here now," meaning their 8-year-old daughter and David's mother, who lives next door on Park Avenue.

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