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The Past is Present? 

By Robert Congdon II

The bridge was specifically designed to symbolize the common interests of black and white Richmond. Its creation signified dramatic progress in race relations. It was eulogized at the dedication in September 1985 as representing "an epochal turn in the road from the past to the future." It exists no more. Monuments to the past are worshiped in this city, but this symbolic monument to race relations was destroyed. The emptiness is a haunting monument to social failure.

Sugarcoat it any way you wish, but no one, not tourist, conventioneer, suburbanite, worker or resident, visits downtown Richmond without thinking about race. Richmond and race are synonymous. The only visual representation of a commitment to drastically needed racial cooperation was destroyed by self-proclaimed leaders, none of whom have the progressive vision of the leaders who created the bridge in a very strained and racially divisive time.

To a Richmonder, the 6th Street Bridge was a daily reminder of the downtown's financial failure. In reality, the bridge stood as a monument to social accomplishment. It was the result of a spirited cooperation between a known black political activist — Henry Marsh; a white business executive — T. Justin Moore Jr; and the Richmond Renaissance. The bridge was deliberately designed as a symbolic link joining both races in the common pursuit of downtown success.

The bridge connected the two sides of the black and white racial dividing line of Broad Street. Its presence was a visual reminder of the city's commitment to bridging the gap of historic racial inequalities and the hopes for successful evolution for the downtown. Does its destruction announce the termination of those mutual goals?

Here, in Richmond, the descendants of slaves and slaveholders, and a wealthy upper-class gentry make decisions based on what each of them wants Richmond to be — not on what it could be or should be. Richmond could have continued to stumble along this divided path had it maintained its isolationist attitudes. But Richmond consciously decided to attract outsiders, to open its borders and actually encourage visitors from the outside world.

The city and its surrounding counties have purposely pooled their resources to create a juiced-up convention center. This unprecedented cooperation hopes to attract financially successful gatherings to the Greater Richmond area. The city, in anticipation of these hoped-for new visitors, is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on yet another planned redevelopment of Broad Street. To me, as an outsider, this money is being thrown at another quick fix, overhyped solution ignoring the primary cause of the downtown's continued failure. Deny it we may, but racial polarization is still the root cause of the problems haunting the city. It is a historic character flaw that keeps Richmond from becoming a poster child for successful downtown redevelopment.

Here's the reality: The convention center is open for business. Common sense tells us Richmond gets one chance to make a good impression. Yet it has been publicly admitted that convention organizers have decided not to come to Richmond because of the forlorn appearance of Broad Street — not just the buildings, but the human tragedy seen there daily. No matter how much positive spin you put on it, the convention center will never book a monthly stream of profitable gatherings without addressing the deep-seated, ingrained racial issues controlling the city.

Until the root causes of the racial and social problems in Richmond are publicly recognized and addressed, no amount of posturing or money will solve the downtown's financial situation. Unless the underlying current of racial hatred and mistrust, camouflaged as it is by a proper Virginia graciousness, is overcome by a deliberate, meaningful public commitment to racial solutions, downtown Richmond will remain a financial wasteland, albeit with an expensive new look. "Without meaningful change both visually and in attitude, no matter how much money is thrown at the downtown, it will continue to fail."

The bridge was the reality-based monument to that commitment of hoped-for co-operation by the races. To the visitor arriving in Richmond that bridge was the symbolic gateway to the city. It announced like Ken Burns' haunting soundtrack, "So this is Richmond, so this is Richmond." The bridge proclaimed your arrival in a city desperately attempting to link a divisive past to a hopeful future. As the Edmund Pettis Bridge is to civil rights, so should have the 6th Street Bridge stood as the monument to the end of Jim Crow and the starting gate on a path to American equality.

Richmond will regret the day it destroyed the bridge. It was the sole representation linking the divisive past and the unprogressive present with hopes for the future. Richmond has a separated white and black soul, but the bridge represented a united soul. We blew up the only real symbol to hope for curing the daily, never-ending issue confronting this city — racial divisiveness. Taking it down represents failure — a united failure that Richmond's black and white politicians, bureaucrats, planners and citizens can at long last share with everlasting equality. S



Robert Congdon II is an older-building renovator, home inspector and former host of WRVA's Home Improvement Show.



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

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