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Trusting Ourselves 

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Style Weekly's 25th anniversary is a good time to recall what was happening in Richmond back in 1982 and what has happened since. What lessons can we learn from a retrospective of the last quarter-century?

In the early 1980s, metropolitan Richmond was getting larger and more attractive to major out-of-town businesses. The city was still the largest jurisdiction in the area, thanks largely to the sudden infusion of 50,000 people in 1970, when Richmond annexed 23 square miles from Chesterfield County. The effects of that annexation, however, plus the enormous controversy over cross-town busing as a remedy for the city's segregated schools, led to a 13 percent loss of the city's population between 1970 and 1980.

Nevertheless, when Style was born, the city's population exceeded that of both Chesterfield and Henrico counties. Chesterfield's population stood at only 141,000, as compared with its current population of almost 300,000.

Roughly the same time Style debuted, the city became landlocked. Changes in state law enabled Chesterfield and Henrico to acquire permanent immunity from annexation. Together with city-county separation, the city was on its own.

Richmond also slowly began adjusting to new political realities. The once-bitter racial conflict between the white corporate elite and the majority black City Council began to mute. A biracial alliance had emerged that focused on downtown. By the time the alliance became known as "Richmond Renaissance," however, the word renaissance had become a cliché in cities across the country. (Trendsetting was not Richmond's forte.)

Richmond Renaissance focused on downtown. Something had to be done to restore energy there because suburban shopping malls were diverting shoppers to the suburbs. The solution was a new project to inject energy back into the old retail core.

Richmond boosters have long loved projects. Projects constructed the expressways, built the Coliseum, erected new office buildings and opened a new hotel. These projects were spread out over time, but collectively they were all part of a single plan, a plan that was identified, in a burst of creativity, as "Project I."

Sixth Street Marketplace was the project for reinventing downtown. Festival marketplaces were then the fad du jour for cities experiencing downtown decline. Given Richmond's lack of self-confidence and fear of doing something that other cities had never done, it was only natural that the city scouted other places with troubled downtowns and then duplicated what had worked elsewhere. The idea was simple: If something worked in Boston or Baltimore, then it would work here.

The problem was that Richmond was not Boston or Baltimore. As the developers later learned, much to their consternation, Richmond -- how do you put it? — was Richmond. Copycat planning didn't solve the problem. The Marketplace was a weak reed in the midst of powerful centrifugal forces that flung shopping, jobs and subdivisions out to the newest suburbs. Consequently, when Richmond built it, they didn't come. The solution itself became a problem. The Marketplace sucked up subsidies faster than it sold kites and pizza. And not long after the opening of Richmond's own "Boston Galleria," the city's two retail anchors, Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads, closed.

That Renaissance developed the Marketplace meant there was little role for citizens, except, of course, to shop, eat and clap at the right moments when the governor, mayor, members of the General Assembly and City Council, and business executives opened the Marketplace in September 1985. Boosters touted the project as a genuine renaissance in downtown Richmond and symbol of the city's rebirth. The rhetoric in Oz that day would have made the Wizard proud.

Much changed: Routes 295 and 288 opened; city neighborhoods revitalized; biotechnology emerged; Virginia Commonwealth University expanded; Shockoe rocked; the canal was restored; Innsbrook developed; West Creek beckoned; Short Pump exploded.

The counties today burst with newcomers. In Richmond, sizeable numbers of younger professionals and empty-nesters move downtown, to the Slip and along the river. The new arrivals have slowed the city's decline, but haven't stopped it. The city continues to lose families with school-age children largely because of public schools.

Politically, the greatest change occurred when the city replaced its council-manager system of government with a strong-mayor system. Richmond celebrated its new leadership. Richmonders eagerly anticipated that the new mayor, elected by 80 percent of the voters, would launch bold initiatives to address Richmond's, and the region's, most intractable problems. They assumed the new leader would rally the community, forge consensus and work with City Council, the School Board and the business community.

Unfortunately, what may have been the most promising opportunity in modern Richmond history may now be lost and replaced by a time of disillusionment. Unprecedented conflict and gratuitous power plays have crushed expectations.

Amidst these changes are realities that remained fixed and unchangeable — the most unfortunate of which is the concentration of poverty. Another constant is the independent city and autonomous county. There remains the inclination to equate revitalization with brick and mortar, and progress with projects. We still defer to outside experts, not trusting the intelligence and creativity of our citizens.

But there are constants that give nobility to this place. Richmonders are good and decent people. They care for each other. They respond to human need. They serve, they build, they teach, they heal.

Richmond remains a beautiful city. Its magnificent river stills flows one generation to another. It still inspires awe and reverence. Its wondrous parks beckon people of all ages. Its magnificent old sanctuaries, cobblestone streets, blood-stained battlefields, and its many stories of tragedy, heroism and freedom all define a city unlike any other. Its melding of difference, its celebration of art and its manifold dimensions of human creativity, its reverence for tradition yet its restlessness and desire to break free, all of these make Richmond a special place with more human talent per capita than any other place in the world.

We need not look to what others have done. It's time for us to see what we can do. S



John Moeser is professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at VCU, and visiting fellow, Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, University of Richmond.

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



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