A Newcomer’s Lament ‘At the end of the day, it has to be about the entire city’

February 7, 2016

Source: Tina Griego | Richmond Magazine

Melissa Davis and her husband, Dwayne Taylor, moved to Richmond from Washington, D.C., 14 months ago. She’s 37, works in marketing and her job is flexible enough that she can work from home. He’s 44, works in information technology and every weekday morning, he catches a 4:55 a.m. shuttle to his job in the District of Columbia.

They moved here because they wanted to buy a home, and the Washington market has skyrocketed out of the price range of most mortals. Taylor’s mom has lived in Richmond for about 15 years, and Davis’ parents have lived in southern Chesterfield County almost 20.

The couple bought a house in the Fan, and decided that their investment in this city should consist of more than what they pay in taxes. So, they began to attend meetings. A lot of meetings.

“The [Richmond Times-Dispatch’s] Public Square #61 on the Future of Richmond, Richmond Speaks about Lumpkin’s Jail, 2nd District council meetings, public meetings on the Boulevard plan and D.C.-to-Richmond high-speed rail, community meetings on the Maggie Walker statue — the list goes on and on,” Davis wrote in an emailed letter to the editor, sent to Richmond magazine and two other publications.

It’s her email that prompts my call to her. The letter seethes with frustration.

“What we keep hearing is that Richmond wants to attract millennials,” she wrote. “What we keep hearing is that Richmond wants to be inclusive. What we keep hearing is that Richmond wants to do things differently. Well, do you really? My husband and I keep going to these meetings where white baby boomers, who are lifetime Richmonders, talk in code about how they really don’t want things to change.

“The legacy of a pioneering African-American woman may literally be overshadowed by a tree. Redevelopment of a brand new urban community along the Boulevard is in danger from  ... minor league baseball. The first Richmond-Henrico public transportation option may well grind to a halt over lost parking spaces.”

When we meet, Davis says, “I get that there is opposition to some projects, but these things have been in the works for years, and all of a sudden the town gets to almost-there, and there is all this uproar. Why didn’t the due diligence get done in the beginning to avoid all this hoopla, or why didn’t people voice their opinions way back when, versus trying to derail the process now?”

You might agree. You might not. That’s not really the point here.

Davis is capturing the zeitgeist of a city. The frustration with leadership or lack thereof, the questions about its future and upon whose backs that future will be built, the desire to change a culture of incrementalism without moving so fast as to lose that which makes Richmond Richmond — and not Charlotte or Louisville or Atlanta. She captures the mood of a community in transition, growing in population and national repute. In spite of splintered political leadership and its seeming inability to be both visionary and capable of taking care of the nuts-and-bolts. In spite of its poverty, its schools, its divisions of race and class.

“Richmond is a cusper,” she tells me. “It’s up-and-coming. I feel like the city is starting to unearth its treasures and really see what it can be about … There is so much potential here. And so much division. And things move so slow.”

This is a newcomer’s lament. But it is not solely a newcomer’s lament. It could only come from someone who sees the city’s promise. It is the lament of those upon whom Richmond has worked its magic, who have fallen under the spell of cobblestone streets burnished by moonlight, who have walked along the banks of the James and marveled that they are still in the city, who have supped food sublime and been welcomed by strangers to a community table, and who have wandered through Shockoe Bottom or Church Hill or Jackson Ward, connected by place to this country’s greatest moments and to its most shameful. It is the lament of those who know the resilience and potential of its people and thus have a sense of what the city risks squandering if it cannot move boldly into its future.

Richmond is a city that can seep beneath the skin, like it or not, and when I read her letter I think: This is what it is to at once lay claim to a city and to be claimed by it.

“Some people are looking at new residents coming in and change coming and it’s understandable they would be a little afraid of that,” Taylor says, joining our conversation. “But changes are coming whether you like it or not. So we have to see if we can bridge this divide together.”

Davis had never written a letter to the editor before, she says, and decided to do so only after attending meeting after meeting and running into the same fault lines of race and age, and jurisdictional divisiveness. “I can’t wait for the day when it doesn’t matter whether you’re from Richmond or Henrico because what we are talking about is for the good of the whole.

“That’s really my frustration. At the end of the day, it has to be about the entire city and that’s where I think people are tripping each other up,” Davis says. “Manchester redevelopment impacts me even though I don’t live in Manchester.  The quality of public schools impacts me even though I don’t have kids. It affects my property values, which is selfish, but that impacts our tax base and whether we can get our potholes filled and our streets cleared of snow. It is about bridging the divide and not just the black-and-white divide, not just the rich-and-poor divide, but age and neighborhood and perspective and transplants and natives. It has to be about the entire city.”

And with that, she leaves, off to another meeting on Richmond’s future, a newcomer deepening her claim to the city.