January 18, 2020
This internet thing really is remarkable. With a few clicks I was recently able to bring up an old series of essays by various writers (people like Walker Percy, one of my all time favorites) that appeared in Esquire magazine in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The essays were entitled “Why I Live Where I Live” and featured the writers ruminating about why they had chosen to live in the particular places they lived at the moment.
That got me thinking about why I live where I live, which is Richmond, Virginia.
I wasn’t born in Richmond and never spent much time here until the late 1980s. That is when I met and married W., who is a Richmond native.
I won’t go into the whole social demographic of Richmond. Suffice it to say that the city was once ruled by a clique of “old” families with names like Cabell, Montague, Antrim, Rawls, and Claiborne. Many of these names adorn the dormitories and academic buildings of the University of Virginia, where I went to school (or “skew” as it is pronounced here).
Richmond, however, was never a typical Southern city. For one thing, it is absolutely abuzz with commercial activity. I-64 meets I-95 here and the city – two hours from the Hampton Roads shipping hub — is a major distribution center. It was the home of Big Tobacco and is headquarters to many large corporations. Virginia Commonwealth University is the biggest employer in town. There is a lot of corporate money available to fund museums, concert spaces and lecture series. It’s not exactly cosmopolitan, but it is relatively sophisticated, and people are always ready to try new things.
Then there’s the Fan. In the middle of the city, “fanning” out from the State Capitol building, is an amazing collection of row houses, apartment buildings and post-Civil War mansions, stretching for miles. To my view, it is the best (and best-preserved) historic district in the country — bigger than Brooklyn Heights or Beacon Hill, less touristy than Charleston.
The James River runs through the city. It is clean and beautiful, thronged in the summertime with kayaks and small boats. Walking trails wind for miles on both sides of the James. There is a lot of golf, and there are interesting birds in profusion. There is bicycle trail that extends from downtown Richmond all the way to Williamsburg, about 55 miles away. There are beaches two hours away and mountains about an hour and a half in the other direction. And Washington, DC is about 100 miles up the road.
Richmond also has an active tattooed hipster scene, good local bands, many fine restaurants, more than two dozen local breweries, a great art museum in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and a thriving theater community.
Of course, there are downsides. It’s hot and muggy all summer. There is crime (much less than there used to be) and the city school system is terrible, which deters peoples’ children (and grandchildren) from moving here. The suburban schools are excellent, though, and there are good private schools for those who can afford them.
We moved here almost ten years ago and we both agree it was a very smart thing to do. We miss certain aspects of New York — good pizza, good independent films — but we travel there often enough to satisfy our cravings. Other than that, Richmond has what we need.