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Why is Richmond underrated? I can think of a few reasons, most of them having to do with stupidity, incompetence or greed. 

Underrated?

Recently Richmond received an unexpected honor from Utne Reader magazine, a digest of progressive and alternative news sources. Who would have guessed that the former capital of the Confederacy would be recognized by a progressive (dare I say the L-word?) magazine?

The cover banner was: " The 10 Most Underrated Towns in America," and Richmond was No.9 on the list. It makes me wonder why we might be underrated in the first place.

I love Richmond. The eight years I've lived here have flown by, and I've felt at home every moment. Richmond is the perfect size for a city: large enough to offer a solid menu of culture and entertainment, yet small enough that we regularly run into our friends at Ukrop's or the local coffee shop. VCU injects a little diversity and creativity, and most recently has led the way in city renewal with its impressive expansion program. Richmond is a great place to live.

My favorite part of Richmond has always been the James River. This ancient and historic presence has lured me to walk its shores, swim in its currents and meditate on what matters most. For a metropolitan area, Richmond has an amazing variety of parks and trails to explore.

If the woods are not your pleasure, perhaps the skyline might please you; the steel Federal Reserve tower looming next to the plantation-style edifice of Ethyl Corp. make for a spectacular contrast, especially as the sun is setting.

So, with all this (and much more) to offer, why is Richmond underrated? I can think of a few reasons that might have something to do with it, most of them having to do with stupidity, incompetence or greed. Since I'm a lover of parks, the first thing that comes to mind (as an example of stupidity) is the " NO DOGS ALLOWED" signs in our parks. I'm sorry, but that's one of the dumbest things I've ever heard. What is a park for if not to let your faithful canine companion run ecstatically in open fields and woods? Where is the crime in that?

What I want to know is: How much did these signs cost and what did it cost to put them up? We all know who paid for it. Some may argue vehemently about the great horror of stepping in dog poop, but somehow I don't think that warrants the signs. What about that carpet of goose poop around the ponds in Byrd Park? What's next? "NO GEESE ALLOWED"?

OK, so maybe that's not a very serious issue, but it does, in my view, demonstrate poor judgment. Perhaps a better example of this would be the abandoned Vepco plant on Belle Isle. If you haven't ventured there, you should. You'll find the walk invigorating, the view from the footbridge spectacular and the ruins fascinating. When I first started exploring Belle Isle, there were huge murals and creative graffiti all over the abandoned Vepco building. Some of the artwork was interesting, and it was always fun to see what the latest offering was.

Apparently this dangerous subversion of Richmond's social order could not be tolerated, so for the past few years the city (with your tax dollars) has been painting over any and all graffiti with hundreds (possibly thousands) of gallons of gray paint. If that's not stupid, I don't know what is. It's an abandoned building, not a private residence; it hardly merits such fanatical attention. Since I have enjoyed the graffiti in the past, I check the building regularly for new artwork.

I've watched this idiotic battle against harmless self-expression for a few years now and wondered at the brains behind the decision. What kind of a priority is this? Wouldn't the money be better spent on cleaning up litter on the island or maintaining a first-aid station?

Outsiders are not likely to know about our silly signs and pointless painting parties. What they are more likely to hear about, however, is incompetence in city government. Could it be that the revitalization of our downtown is retarded by a labyrinth of rules, hurdles and taxes that have been the bane of individuals who try to improve their property in Richmond? Or maybe it's the less-than-sunny service we get at City Hall.

And let's not forget the joys of parking downtown! How many of us have found our car marked by the bright green droppings of those ever-circling parking buzzards?

I don't know about you, but if I need to make any official contact with city government, I have to be very persistent. Phones ring unanswered, answering machines remain too full to receive messages (a good tactic), and e-mail addresses don't exist or are never checked; the people whose job it is to serve us must be pursued with dedication. After months of phone calls, I was finally able to get the city to fill and pave a hole they dug for gas repairs. I guess pave is a generous term. The mess of blacktop they dropped on the street and ran over a few times is a sorry but accurate testimony to the quality of city services. Is this what I get for the increase in my property taxes?

You get my point. I need not mention how frequently some city councilman or other is in the news for corruption, law breaking, greed and other unmentionables. Those folks don't return their calls either.

I imagine that Richmond might be underrated when we gain national notoriety for the smokescreens our city politicians use to distract us from their shady dealings. Although the Utne article praised us for the community-based rescue of the Randolph neighborhood, they didn't notice embattled Oregon Hill. This historic, working-class neighborhood will soon be eaten up by the cancer of greedy developers and corporate politicians who dismiss the needs of the local community. This is yet another reason to underrate Richmond: if you're not a Richmond "insider" you haven't got a chance.

After all this, you might think I hate Richmond, but that's not true. I love Richmond, but I think we need to wake up and work for a real renaissance. We've still got the vestiges of a small-town mentality where stupidity, incompetence and greed are overlooked in the name of " civility" or for fear of petty reprisal — certainly we can do better than this. Can't we?



Lee Carleton teaches English at VCU and is a free-lance writer.

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