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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A City, A Suburb, A Community

This is in response to last week’s brilliantly written cover story in Style Weekly on architecture, urban planning and renewal

What Richmond needs is a new definition of what is the city, what is a suburb and what it means to be a community. Should we let political boundaries, no matter how arbitrary or illogically drawn, determine how we define ourselves. There’s something in all of us that can be played to simply by drawing a line somewhere, anywhere. Think back on elementary school when sides were picked. Suddenly it was “us” against “them”. You can draw a line within any group of people and even if they are ethnically and socially indistinguishable from each other, they will start to self identify and compete. Unfortunately while we are still stuck in elementary school thinking, the game is being played by grownups and the consequences are being paid by all of us.

Before moving to Richmond, I never heard of the Dillon rule. I used to think it had something to do with Marshal Dillon, Doc and Kitty. While esoteric and vague, it strangles how cities grow and develop in Virginia. Virginia cities are orphans and wards of the state, cut off from the counties they have been carved out of. I oppose unnecessary duplication of effort, but there are ways different layers government can work together that help build communities rather than just defining them. In non Dillon rule states, cities are part of the counties they reside in. If a city grows, the county grows along with it. The city and the county have a common interest in coordinating the economic and development strategies. Florida has a system of overlapping governments that offers a solution for one of Richmond’s most stubborn problems, its school system. In Florida’s model all of Richmond north of the river would be part of the Henrico Public School system and south of the James would belong to Chesterfield. There would no longer be a tax that punishes families who move to the city by sending their children to substandard and sometimes dangerous schools. The Richmond Public School system, with all its controversies and impossible burdens, would simply not exist. City and suburbs would share alike in the two award winning and successful school systems. Just think of the steam that would take out of local politics.

Reform of the school system is just one of Richmond’s pressing problems. Urban sprawl, described accurately by weathermen as ground clutter, has been driven by economic opportunity, cheap fuel and a subsidized transportation system. It has developed and sense of inevitability which is barely challenge by the stewards of county government. They have no direct economic interest in the development of neighboring cities and the quickest surest way to increase the tax base is to encourage outward growth at the cost or rural residents and older established communities and their residents. It becomes a vicious circle consuming farmland and scenic countryside in return dubious benefits new malls, franchised businesses, traffic and schools that must be built and paid for. In the mean time those who can, escape further and farther from the city, bringing new life and prosperity to outlying communities in Goochland and New Kent, but also the threat of being swallowed whole by a creeping suburban blob. Our growth is being guided by shortsighted commissioners, interstate highways and real estate developers.

The third major hurdle that Richmond must overcome is crime, especially violent crime. Nothing sends shockwaves of fear and paranoia through the community like a quadruple murder of a model new urban family. To my knowledge, the Harvey family home remains empty to this day, standing as a haunted reminder of urban homesteading gone bad. The murder of the Harvey family was a stake in the heart of the new urbanist dream. The fact that this was a horrible aberration allows us to believe that this won’t happen to us, that and denial. Violent crime is far too common and will remain that way till we address the collapse of the urban black family, but that is beyond the scope of this topic. We can and must get a handle on crime, reduce and manage it till we get the courage and consensus to address its root causes.

In summary we face three challenges.
1. The reform or elimination of the Richmond Public School system
2. Greater regional cooperation and government reform.
3. A strong focus on law enforcement and neighborhood safety.

New buildings and architecture enhance the urban economy and experience, but addressing the problems underlying modern urban life will allow the natural forces that are rebuilding this city a house, a block and a neighborhood at a time, to flourish and continue. I do have one or two items on my personal wish list, first of which is a signature ballpark located in Shockoe Bottom or Mayo Island. There’s just nothing to love about a new ballpark in its current location except the freeway access. To me, baseball should be a little inconvenient. It should cause us to step out of our routine and into another world. If not, then why even bother. A new ballpark would bring the focus of Richmond back to where it should be, downtown. 500,000 new visitors just can’t be a bad thing. Summer nights spent gazing out at the James River under the lights of Richmond are the stuff dreams are made of. It could bring critical mass to an area that’s just begging to be discovered. The benefits to the whole area would be immense.

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