Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

A Guide To Richmond, VA, By a Guy Who Lived There from '93 to '97

Thanks to the college basketball championships, in which both Richmond, Virginia-based teams (Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond) performed admirably, we had cause to ponder, "Not sure why people are so into Richmond, Virginia." That's a reasonable question! Richmond is a mostly busted-ass city on the banks of the James River that's played host to such luminaries as George Allen, and also George Allen's wife—what's her name, the one who married George Allen. It's best known as the capital of the Confederacy, and, as many of the old-school Richmondites—by which I mean the "racist" ones—will probably tell you, that's basically where the city peaked.

But I attended Virginia Commonwealth University for just as long as was humanly necessary, and I have to say, I have a fondness for Richmond that just won't quit. So I thought I'd share some fun facts about a place I lived while I was getting an MFA that I pretty much don't really use anymore!

Richmond loves them some confederate heroes! And they celebrate them all on a road called Monument Avenue. There, you'll find all the greats: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis. Also, there is some guy named Matthew Fontaine Maury whose importance is a mystery to me. He did something with sextants, I think?

Also, Arthur Ashe! Arthur Ashe was a tennis playing hero of Richmond who won three Grand Slam titles, which was more Grand Slams than the entire Confederate Army put together! But when it came time to put his statue on Monument Avenue, man… people really freaked out! A lot of people didn't want Ashe on the Avenue because they looked him up and saw that he was a black dude. The whole tennis part threw them for a while, but they sussed it out eventually. And so: racism. But a lot of otherwise nicer people didn't want his statue on the street because they didn't want Ashe associated with a bunch of Civil War losers. Whatever! That's where they put the statue, so everyone loses!

To be honest with you, have you seen the statue? It kind of looks like Ashe is about to cold whoop some kids upside the head with some books and/or his tennis racket. I always thought it looked weird, anyway, but I never said much about it, because my wife was friends with some people who were friends with the sculptor, so you never knew who you were going to be in the room with at any given time that you were at a party and felt the urge to just start straight up making fun of the statue.

There are some appreciable differences between the student bodies of Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond. VCU students fell into several categories: heroin users, meth users, people with multiple tattoos, people with multiple piercings, people with multiple piercings that you didn't realize were there until you were in the middle of having sex with them and discovered that you had all this shrapnel to navigate around, and also some people who weren't in the art school. By contrast, students from the University of Richmond were basically "like UVa. students, only dumb."

The Ku Klux Klan's number was in the White Pages! Is that normal? I never noticed it in the White Pages of any other place I've lived. And I haven't checked any White Pages since. It was more like one night I was like, "Damn, I bet the Klan's phone number is in this town's phone book or something," and lo, there it was! It was just an answering machine, though. (A thoroughly racist answering machine.) Me and Justice, my coworker at the record store, would call and leave messages that graphically depicted us in the middle of some "hardcore miscegenation."

There are no left turns in Richmond. Or, at least there were a surprising amount of streets in our neighborhood where they were disallowed.

Also, all the prostitutes that you were likely to encounter around VCU were cross-dressers. There were no exceptions to this.

Both of those facts (the left turns, the crossdressers) were immortalized in a song called "No Left Turns In Richmond" by my friends' band, but you probably never heard that song because their other song was named "I Shot Michael Jordan's Dad (And I'm Glad)" and people just weren't into that. Too soon.

We sometimes hung out with this dude named Ivo whose brother was in Bio Ritmo. Talking to him was just like talking to someone who had committed himself to doing a lifelong, "Saturday Night Live"-style John Travolta imitation. But he was cool, though. I'm pretty sure he sold one of my friends a gun.

Someone once approached me about possibly "fiancee swapping." Except it was this middle-aged grad student who was grey and sweaty and who didn't have a fiancee, or a girlfriend even, for that matter, to swap. Not that I would have done it if he had, he was gross! And get this: he pitched this idea to me at the Carpenter Center during the intermission of Kiss Of The Spider Woman. I mean, of all the places!

VCU now plays basketball at a place called the Siegel Center. It wasn't there when I was a student. But it's two blocks from my old apartment, in a neighborhood that VCU long coveted and finally overtook. Gone now is the terrible strip club down the street from me, the decent comic book store and the converted movie theatre where I saw the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion leap around to the light of a single maddening strobe.

My friends Jessica and Sarah lived in a haunted house on Grove Avenue. For realsies! This poltergeist was all up in their shit, constantly!

My wife got fired from the Body Shop while we lived in Richmond. The Body Shop! What do you have to do to get fired from the Body Shop? (The story of how my wife got fired from the Body Shop is really not that interesting actually.)

Here's an interesting story. One night, while I was up working on my thesis, I started hearing this strange, repeated noise out my window, coming from the back alley. I went down the back stairs and outside, and the noise became more clear: it sounded like someone yelling some loud gibberish, followed by this epically confident laughter, like, "Garbhlegharg bafulliblah. [pause] HEH. HEH. HEH." Over and over again. I walked out into the alley, seeking to identify the source of the noise. I discovered that it was emanating from the fifth floor of the retirement home that backed onto the alley shared by my apartment. Upstairs, there was some old codger in a grey t-shirt, with the window open, just yelling out into the night, some drunken blather punctuated by this cocksure HEH-HEH-HEHs. People all up and down the street were howling at this guy to shut the hell up already, it was after two in the morning and people were sleeping, etc. But he didn't give a shit. Those catcalls just fueled him further. And so he stood at his window, pulling on a bottle, howling his nonsense into the night, and letting everyone on the block know that tonight, he just DID NOT GIVE A FUCK. For one night, he was going to forget the life that passed him by, that had brought him to this ramshackle retirement home, and just give the world outside his window a piece of his goddamn mind until someone finally busted down the door and stopped him. I stood out there in the alley for a few minutes more, craning my neck to get a better view of the gaunt figure in the window, raining down indecipherable epithets upon my poor, broken-down Southern town. In a world of perfect honesty, that guy would have a statue on Monument Avenue.

Jason Linkins' life was saved by some truly great ER doctors and nurses at the Medical College of Virginia, and he wishes them the best.

Photo from Flickr by rvaphotodude.

42 Comments / Post A Comment

hman (#53)

GWAR doesn't exist in my version of Richmond either!

I forgot about GWAR, but, okay, my wife worked with a woman who was dating someone in GWAR, at the Body Shop. (This did not factor in to her getting fired.)

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

This is the greatest thing I have ever heard in my entire life.

bluesuedeshoes (#8,610)

Oh man! I was possibly at that same Jon Spencer Blues Explosion show! And one of my high school friends used to play D&D with one of the guys from GWAR (this was in the suburbs near Chester, VA). And I think everyone in Richmond is 1 degree of separation from someone in Bio Ritmo.

Things that are so great about Richmond: drinking in Hollywood Cemetary, drinking on the rocks in the James off of Belle Isle, eating at Mama Zu!

Jack Walker (#10,776)

VCU class of '85 here. I've been away a long time I can't be sure what it's like anymore. Some of Jason's recollections of Richmond were true in 1985. For instance the tranny hookers at the public library and the Grace St Gate, the heron users (although these folks weren't students), UofR being dumb-ass preps, general howling at the moon by crazies. And of course the overwhelming sadness over losing the war of northern aggression.

There were some other interesting things like local character Dirt Woman. He was a 300 lbs cross dresser similar to Divine but much less divine. There was a very good club scene for awhile. Many punk and hardcore bands played — often for free in Shafer Court. Lime-ades were a particular pleasure on hot days.

We lived on Monument Ave for years. We called it losers row. Civil war reenactors would often parade down that cobblestoned avenue.

In general there was a very weird vibe. The energy was negative. I can't say there were ghosts, that's a little far-fetched but the city was bombed and burned down in the 1860's. I don't think it ever got over it. Racism was awful. There was a high incidence of pepping tom-ism. There was a serial rapist called the black ninja, there were institutionalized folks on day release walking to the Daily Planet and there was always some f'ed up hillybilly on Jack and crank.

On the good side Xeni from boing boing is from Richmond. Her old man taught painting at VCU.

bluesuedeshoes (#8,610)

Dirt Woman was still around until I left RVA in 2003 (I was there 1992-2003). She used to sell flowers in front of Mama Zu in Oregon Hill.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Last time I was in Richmond on business, a very nice lady at the Hertz counter greeted me, then shrugged at the rental agreement and said, "I'm beat, darlin. . .whicha these cars you want?" She handed me the key rack. "Go see if you can figure out the one we cleaned today."

I selected a Taurus. It was tough, because there were at least 20 in the garage. Taurus was as high-end as they went. Apparently the Prestige Collection at Richmond International is the car with the functional lighter.

"Bring it back when you're damn good and ready," she said, waving me into the night.

barnhouse (#1,326)

This is SO GOOD and I want to know more about the POLTERGEISTS.

Bittersweet (#765)

Yes, please! Also, growing up in NoVA I knew a number of kids who went to VCU and about an equal number who went to URichmond, and Jason's characterization of them is absolutely correct.

Itisnobigdeal (#3,290)

What about Vito's or Belle Isle? Those are worth mentioning.

alorsenfants (#139)

I don't know — every time I meet people from Richmond, I tell them I don't get it, and ask them what do they do for fun?

And they say: "We come to Charlottesville."

My own take: Richmond is Syracuse with magnolias…

bluesuedeshoes (#8,610)

sorry, but those people who go to charlottesville for fun? what is wrong with them?

alicegroznyi (#10,780)

i love that this in on the awl. i grew up in richmond and have so much richmond love, especially since i don't live there anymore. but it has things! belle isle and bears at maymont that got tragically killed… i really don't know why i love it so much but i dooo.

LuxLotus (#10,781)

Ha, that's great- I know Ivo.

Aatom (#74)

I went to school in Fredericksburg, VA, which is right in between DC and Richmond.

We went to DC.

Matt (#26)

Goddammit I just logged in to comment, "Now do Fredericksburg."

Aatom (#74)


EmilyK (#10,783)

seconded! I also went to good ol' Mary Wash and it was always DC for the clubs. Don't forget the Stonewall Jackson shrine between Fburg and Richmond…

Crantastical (#4,127)

I too went to Mary Washington, 1997-2001. I wonder if Merriman's is still on Caroline St? Best name for a gay bar ever…I drank many a cosmo there BEFORE it was cool.

HomoLaw (#10,796)

Holy crap, I actually just signed up for one reason: to say I never thought my hometown gay bar would be on the Awl! (Merriman's does not, I believe, exist anymore….)

And for those of us who grew up in the 'Burg, it was ALWAYS to DC, never to Richmond (or Charlottesville – shudder).

"You can go farther south than Richmond, but you can't get farther south than Richmond."

275560998@twitter (#249,020)

Not true. I grew up in Richmond. I always thought I lived in the South … until I went to Ole Miss for grad school. Yikes!


I lived in Richmond during that time frame, on Grove street as well. Among the highlights of '96: The police finding a body stuffed in a garbage can in back of the apartment across the street from me, a neighborhood crackhead crashing a party at my apartment the day after being curbed, and last but not least, the drug dealer next door having his Isuzu Amigo set on fire directly in front of our apartment, which unfortunately failed to burn our place to the ground. We lived about a block away from the statue of Mathew Fontaine Maury, who from what I understand was the "father of modern oceanography". I am also pretty sure he founded the amphibious unit of the KKK.

alicegroznyi (#10,780)

also maury is mapmaker of the seas, i think! its that round globe statue right?

Haha Statue funny, racists for real!

Mr. B (#10,093)

I can't believe you didn't mention the Edgar Allen Poe museum!

Oh, you know, the thing about the Poe Museum is that I went to UVa. for my bachelors degree and that school was Poe-crazy! They like, preserved his room and had a plexiglass door and people would come around and stare at a recreation of his bed and his chest of drawers and GAH: so boring. So by the time I got to Richmond, I was totally over Poe, until the singer by the same name came along. She was awesome.

My wife offers some further clarification: her Body Shop coworker was MARRIED to a member of GWAR, she says, and he was in Ministry before that, and I mean, just try to get your head around something like that. Also, she thinks that it was my friend's upstairs neighbor with the nipple piercings who sold my friend the gun, not Ivo. So: noted.

Finally, a friend of mine who lived there at the time reminds me: "Didn't being slightly disappointed in WU-TANG FOREVER consume part of your life back then?" I mean, sure. But I like to think that wasn't limited to people from Richmond.

Couple of items. I finished high school in Richmond (Chesterfield County actually) in 1989 and college near-by at Hampden-Sydney in 1993. If you were there then, you forgot to mention the best part: The Flood Zone. There were so many great acts there. We used to go see Fighting Gravity there and Dave Matthews every Wednesday before he broke. Those were simply amazing shows. Whenever Dave plays a stadium show now, I just think of 300 people in the Flood Zone stomping through "Tripping Billies."

Bonus Richmond fact: My last name is Maury. Matthew Fontaine Maury is my great-great-great-great-great grand uncle (my line came from his brother). Yes, he was a great oceanographer and created natuical maps that are still used to this day. That whole going with the Confederacy thing sullied his legacy, which is a part of why he isn't better known. He is also burried at Hollywood Cemetary (which is where my grandparents and mother are buried as well).

Vicky (#7,168)

If Matthew Fontaine Maury was on a stamp I would actually mail things.

(I mean his cartographic achievements, I am only now hearing about the Confederacy part, that part sucks)

dweeb (#437)

You're as Richmond as Style Weekly.

Are you typing this as you protest in front of a Martins, by walking customers' groceries to their cars?

How you could write about Richmond and not write about Ukrop's is beyond me.

Ukrop's is really in my mind the only redeeming factor about Richmond.

buzzorhowl (#992)

Ukrops is gone as of earlier this year. They sold to a grocery store company called Martin's. Martin's sells beer and is open on Sundays.

alorsenfants (#139)

Man, you mostly New York readers of The Awl seem to have walked into a trap — people in Virginia may be as obsessed with where they come from, or where they are now, as you guys?

Well it's a mess too.

But Charlottesville does dust Richmond… not even a discussion.

tim@twitter (#10,793)

Our Great Commonwealth: compelling in its disappointments!

Can you BELIEVE the politics, they are literally INSANE

zoom (#10,138)

Everything I know (or knew…) about Richmond I learned from Avail records. The fact that Jason Linkins and the worlds happiest hardcore band taught me all I need to know about what is apparently the strangest city in the world is going to be a point of pride for a long time.

Richmond's least hidden treasure: Edo's Squid. Stop in to eat at the bar during any drive between the SE and NE.

getagripchip (#10,798)

Was the haunted house on the 1400 block of Grove? i had a friend who dated a guy there. They both swear that they were laying side by side one night while they heard a whisper. He asked, "what did you say, dear?" And they both heard a women's breathy voice sing "I was just saying how warm your body feels." I dont' think they had any reason to lie. i've lived in Richmond for over a decade and at least two of my ten homes I've rented have had poltergeisty signs. Also… this recap of Richmond back in the day is definitely still applicable for Richmond in the 2000s (VCU Class of 2003). Go Rams! The tranny prosties are more likely found in front of the Broad St. Bank of America. My favorite is Gay Face… a man who has been taking his hormonal cross over slowly. One breast at a time. Dirt Woman is still around. Enough time has passed that he can resell you his calender from 1994 with the date whited out and changed to 2011. Happy shopping.

dweeb (#437)

Or would the haunted house be on the 3000 block of Grove by any chance?

Tho' since you're a VCU student, the 1400 block would be more likely.

tom jeter@twitter (#10,832)

This guy has an MFA? In writing?

Katester (#2,937)

I join the others on this post that thought they might never see the day that Richmond is featured on The Awl. I went to UR undergrad (class of 2003) and got my MBA from VCU. How's that for a contrast. And I work for Altria (aka Philip Morris)…so I guess I'm pretty Richmond-y by this point. However, I'm a self-loathing Richmonder. I'm not from here orginially, and I'm always thinking about leaving. I agree that it has a totally weird vibe that is makes it hard to see yourself here long-term. Also, the dating scene is awful.

That being said, I live in The Fan (2700 block of Floyd) which makes life here better. And I agree with the Mamma Zu/Edos reco. For a small town, there are some great local restaurants and bars. Buddy's will always have a place in my heart…

A Guide To Richmond, Virginia, by someone who is from there and actually likes the place
J.C. Wilmore | April 5, 2011

The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament has been very kind to my hometown Richmond, Virginia this year. Two teams based in Richmond, Virginia made it to the so-called Sweet 16. This achievement had some people, tongue-in-cheek I am sure—calling Richmond, Virginia "Basketball Town, USA" and other such funny names that celebrated and satirized our sudden elevation. Richmond suddenly found itself the center of attention, the target of articles like Jason Linkins' "A Guide To Richmond, VA, By a Guy Who Lived There from '93 to '97."

I'm from Richmond, Virginia and I attended Virginia Commonwealth University. Indeed, I finished up my MA in Writing and Rhetoric in 1993, just as Mr. Linkins was beginning work on his MFA. I couldn't help noting some inaccuracies in Mr. Linkins' piece, and I could not resist trying to correct some of the more egregious ones.

Richmond, Virginia is the center of a growing metropolitan area in central Virginia. Mr. Linkins referred to Richmond as a "mostly busted-ass city on the banks of the James River," and refers to "old-school" residents of Richmond as "Richmondites," which is pretty much a confession that he doesn't know what he is talking about.

For starters, old-school Richmonders refer to themselves as, well, "Richmonders." Calling a Richmonder a "Richmondite" makes about as much sense as calling a New Yorker a "New Yorkite." If I showed up in Manhattan and began referring to you good people as "New Yorkites" you'd think I was an idiot, so you can imagine what most Richmonders would think of Mr. Linkins. Let me try and address some of the distortions from Mr. Linkins' article in order to give you a better picture of the city of Richmond, Virginia.

Mr. Linkins mocks Richmond's Monument Avenue with an exclamation: "Richmond loves them some confederate[sic] heroes!" Aside from his failure to captalize the word "Confederate," this sentence contains at least one other error: it states Richmond's attitude towards the late Southern Confederacy in the present tense when it should be in the past tense. Richmond "loved" the Southern Confederacy. The statues of Confederate heroes that Linkins refers to were erected between 1890 and 1929 when living veterans of the American Civil War were not so uncommon and Southerners who knew and remembered these men wanted to celebrate their lives.

Contemporary Virginians have largely come around to recognize that the American Civil War was waged by Southerners to preserve slavery and, as such, isn't really something to celebrate or "love." But Monument Avenue is generally recognized to be one of the most beautiful streets in the United States, and the statues are part of that. No, we haven't gotten around to tearing down the statues—statues are expensive you know—but most Richmonders look on them as ironic artifacts from another time. Mr. Linkins—showing up sixty-four years after the last Confederate statue was erected on Monument Avenue—clearly wasn't privy to the joke. Matthew Fontaine Maury wasn't even much of a Confederate: his statue celebrates his role as an explorer, the "Pathfinder of the Seas." It was intended for Washington, D.C. but was rejected and ended up on Richmond's Monument Avenue because Maury had left the U.S. Navy and cast his fortunes with the Confederacy. Only real Richmonders who have lived in Richmond for most of their lives know that sort of thing.

The fact that the most recent statue on Monument Avenue is that of Arthur Ashe points to the great distance traveled by Richmond and Richmonders in the sixty-six years between the last Confederate statue erected on Monument Avenue and the placement of the Arthur Ashe Monument seems to have escaped Mr. Linkins. The fact that Mr. Linkins seems to think that Arthur Ashe was just a tennis player just points to the issue of his ignorance of Richmond and Richmonders, because as Richmonders go, Arthur Ashe was a great man. Yes, he was a tennis star, but Ashe used his tennis celebrity to promote civil rights, education, philanthropy, and AIDS awareness.

Ashe died before his time at the age of 50 when he contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion during open heart surgery. He faced his impending death with incredible courage and after his death he lay in state at the Virginia Governor's Mansion. The last person to be given that particular honor was Lieutenant General "Stonewall" Jackson of the Confederate Army in 1863. If you want to understand Richmond and Richmonders, you have to be able to understand the journey from Stonewall Jackson to Arthur Ashe. You have to understand how our ideal of heroism evolved from a soldier of the Confederacy who died of wounds received in battle to a man of peace, an athlete who enriched his community and then faced his own untimely death with courage. That's Richmond.

But to be honest, it isn't the best executed statue in Richmond—on that score at least Linkins is correct.

The difference between the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University. Mr. Linkins provides a litany of negative descriptions of Virginia Commonwealth University students, mostly based on which drugs the students allegedly indulge in. He then categorizes students of the University of Richmond as being like UVA students, only dumber. In doing so, Mr. Linkins once again misses the central distinction, the really critical differences in the things he tries, but fails, to describe.

The real and most significant difference between the two schools is that the University of Richmond is a private school for people from outside of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University is a public school for the people of central Virginia. Locals like to make the following distinction: the University of Richmond is a university IN Richmond while Virginia Commonwealth University is the university FOR Richmond. The real story, which Mr. Linkins completely missed, is that while the preppie private school was eliminated from the Sweet 16 it was the scruffy "townie" school that fought its way to the Final 4.

Mr. Linkins made much of the fact that there are Ku Klux Klan members in Virginia, that most of Richmond's streetwalkers are transvestites, that we have a lot of one-way streets, and that man New Yorkers illegally obtain guns in Virginia. I suspect I wouldn't have to look too hard to find hate groups in any city. Prostitution isn't that common here in Virginia—is it a big deal in New York? Are all the streets in New York two-way? It does suck about the guns—we really shouldn't be selling them to New Yorkers.

Mr. Linkins finishes his story with an anecdote about an old drunken derelict keeping him awake at night by screaming drunken gibberish. Really? So if I walk down the streets of New York City I'm not going to encounter a few drunks spouting gibberish? I've been to New York City: it's a wonderful place, but it has its fair share of derelicts. Trying to smear Richmond on the basis of that one derelict is neither fair nor accurate.

Let me wrap this response up by telling you a few things about Richmond that might surprise you. First of all, let me just say that Richmond really is a deeply flawed, but beautiful city. We have many serious problems that we are still working on. We have come a long way on the question of race, but we still have a long, long way to travel on that road. This coming weekend we are celebrating new historical markers in Shockoe Bottom that mark key sites in Virginia's—and America's—slave history. It is a metaphor in many ways: Monument Avenue is the old establishment, beautiful but fading, recognized for the false image it presents, while down in Shockoe Bottom we are just beginning the process of excavating Lumpkin's Slave Jail and the Old Slave Burial Grounds. Richmond is poised to begin digging into its history.

But there's so much more to Richmond than its history. There's the lifestyle. I've lived in other cities; major cities like San Diego and Dallas. The thing that sets Richmond's lifestyle apart is its focus on weekend festivals. Name any major league sport there is (baseball, football, hockey, soccer, women's basketball, arena football) and Dallas, Texas has a franchise. Not Richmond. Richmond contents itself with a AA minor league baseball team: the Flying Squirrels. But we more than fill the space left by a lack of sporting events with festivals devoted to music, food, and drink. From the middle of March when we celebrate St. Patrick's Day with several events, right down until our many Christmas holiday events, we (over)compensate for our lack of sports teams by having big festivals devoted to various causes every weekend.

The fact that Mr. Linkins failed to mention a day at the park at Maymont Park, holiday shopping in Carytown, catching a movie at the Byrd Theatre, laying out by the James River on Belle Isle, going to Friday Cheers on Brown's Island, the Watermelon Festival, the Easter Parade on Monument Avenue, grocery shopping at Ukrops, or any of a hundred other typical Richmond things to do, call into question his fitness for describing the good or the bad of Richmond. If you are really interested in what makes Richmond special, then it's much better for you to ask a Richmonder.

I worked with your wife at The Body Shop, was married to a member of GWAR and was fired from that very Body Shop as well. Who's your wife? I think I remember, but want to make sure.
We left Richmond in '98, this story brought back some memories for sure.

Post a Comment