Reflections on Richmond and Madison, Sabbatical Update 2

The first stop on my sabbatical was Richmond, VA. I chose it because I had to be in Richmond for a conference from October 24-31. and because I was interested in learning more about the ministry and vision of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church which, like my own church, is located opposite the State Capitol. I had visited Richmond around 25 years ago and as I’ve pointed out to several people here, both Richmond and I have changed a great deal over that period of time.

In a second post, I will focus more narrowly on my experience and conversations at St.Paul’s. Here, I’d like to offer some first impressions as I walked the city. The second will focus on how Richmond and St. Paul’s are addressing the history of slavery, the Confederacy, and the Lost Cause. The third will look specifically in St. Paul’s ministry in the city.

It’s interesting to compare Madison, WI and Richmond, VA. They are both state capitals and they have roughly the same population (Madison is around 240,000; Richmond roughly 220,000) but the comparisons end there. Richmond’s metro area is roughly twice the size of Madison’s (1.2 million to 600000) and the city of Richmond has a majority minority population with African-Americans making up around 51% of the population (compared to Madison’s 7.3%0.

Walking around Richmond, I was struck by the deep divisions and boundaries that fragment the city. There are important geographical ones like the James River. More important perhaps are the man-made ones, especially the railroads and interstates that divide the city now and once destroyed neighborhoods and communities. The downtown is dominated by the state capitol, other state office buildings and highrise office buildings that most often serve as headquarters for banks and other service industries. Richmond is a commuter city, more than 100,000 people come into the downtown to work from Monday to Friday and when they leave, the downtown shuts down except for a few pockets of restaurants and entertainment. As I walked the half-mile from my hotel to church services on a beautiful Sunday morning, I encountered no more than a half-dozen people on the sidewalks.

Just west of downtown is Virginia Commonwealth University which is making inroads east into the traditionally African-American neighborhood of Jackson Ward. It’s remarkable that one side of Broad St has a number of high-end galleries, boutiques, and hotels and VCU has undertaken major construction on two blocks. On the opposite side of Broad Street `(apparently the southern border of the Jackson Ward) are boarded up storefronts, hookah parlors and pawn shops.

I ate at Mama J’s (soul food) on N. First St. I had the best fried catfish I’ve ever tasted, macaroni and cheese that was as good as my own, and a divine slice of hummingbird cake. I ate at the bar. To my left was a white guy in his thirties, like me, reading from an apple device. To my right sat several African-American men. The clientele was mixed although most of the take out orders were picked up by were well-dressed African Americans who seemed to be picking up large orders of food for parties or dinners at home.

After leaving Mama J’s and walking back to Broad Street, I noticed a barbershop on the corner. It was packed. There were probably 6 or 8 chairs all of them full; and patrons filled all of seating spaces in the waiting area; others were standing around, and even the sidewalk had groups of men standing around and talking. Some old neighborhood institutions seem to be surviving and even thriving.

In reading about Richmond, it’s clear that there’s considerable discussion in the city around gentrification. There are signs of it on the north side of Broad St; but even more in the areas of Shockoe Bottom and Church Hill. What is most striking to me is the sheer amount of real estate that is underused and seems derelict. One wonders what cultural and economic change would be necessary for all of those buildings and vacant land to be occupied and utilized. Richmond saw a significant decline in population, largely driven by white flight from 1970-2000. In 1970, its population was almost 250000; by 2000 it had fallen to 197,000.

I’d be fascinated to hear from urban planners about what sort of a future they envision for Richmond. Clearly, if they were able to attract more residents to the city, they might be able to revitalize more of the housing and commercial stock. But to attract more downtown residents would require enormous investment in institutions like the schools and transportation. In our current political climate, would that even be possible? The Library of Virginia has an online exhibition called “Mapping Inequality” that uses maps to show the changing demographic patterns in Richmond over the last two centuries.

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