On Creative Complacency and Competence in Cities

Since the late ‘80s, Richmond has been billed as a creative and innovative East Coast mecca without the glitz, glamour, and unnecessarily bright lights of its neighboring cities along I-95. Along with such self-proclaimed glory, the recent influx of news and comparative pieces have largely, and potentially prematurely, hailed Richmond as one of the top 20 or top 10 best cities in America for Millennials or to live in period. Prompting a change to the moniker of “RVA”, and with it, attempting to bury its troubled past. But as is true whenever makeup is needed, there’s clearly something we feel we need to hide.

New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Miami; all characterized by bustling industries of all sorts, diverse populations and opportunity for a vast majority, if not all, of residents of these mainstay, wanderlust-inducing cities along I-95. Yet these metropolises would be hard-pressed to find a need to advertise themselves as imminently innovative havens for persons of any and all backgrounds, rather, their reputation has preceded them thanks in no small part to their higher costs of living, fury of competition, and ability to harbor environments requiring continuing education of the street, creative, and institutional variety to ensure survival. Simply put, because they’re more about it than they are about talking about it. While all, save for Miami, experience a full-range of seasons with peculiarly longer and depressing winters, Richmond and her citizens seem to be the only locality lacking access to the memo about the necessity of lighting a fire under the asses of the masses and the boiler rooms of progressive action to begin churning in the name of change and betterment. Complacency at its finest, it should become the duty of Richmonders to set aside their romanticized lifestyles nestled in the beauties of virtually every neighborhood within the city to make sure that the onslaught of gentrification; past, present, and future, works in the interest of everyone who contribute to the uniquely Progressive Southern culture that has come to be the haven of “RVA.”

The Triangle, as it has been so affectionately referred to during my travels across the United States, is composed of the upstart cities of Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; and Richmond, Virginia. The three sharing transplants looking to move on from cities they’ve spent entire lives in, but always remembering where home is. Once sleepy towns brewing with potential, Austin and Portland have realized their potential by investing in the livelihoods of their citizens (save running Uber and Lyft out of town in Austin for objecting to be subjected to fingerprinting and more extensive background checks for drivers) specifically in the business sector, but in the creative scenes (spanning advertising/design, food, drink, entertainment, sights, outdoors, and more) as well. What a novel concept it must be to have actual Mexican and Thai chefs making your Mexican and Thai food, I start to think.

The delicate crafting of such identities for ATX and PDX left to the multitudes of visionaries daring enough to think they can craft something specifically belonging to their cities, but big enough to interest the rest of the world. Rallying cries can be heard from further out West, “Keep Austin Weird” and “Rose” and “Rip City” getting louder the more people of varying degrees of different that find value and solace within their area codes. Austin’s timely surging, as a one-time small town capital with small music festivals and a skyline devoid of too many skyscrapers (indulge me as I recall what it looked like in the latest Spy Kids film) is a model for building sustainable excellence — embracing and collaborating around different cultures creates a sense of normalcy; common culture. While aiming to one day offer this, Richmond’s food deserts, less than walkable city as a whole, and ethnic cuisines prepared by Caucasians, among other things, leave the mind wandering just how much better could this place actually be than we say it already is?

We can do better, and if we hope to ever live up to the standards of a truly bubble-bursting town — we have to.

One of my favorite testaments to the needs of diversity and larger sense of community in the past few months has been that of Brewer’s Cafe in Manchester. Brewer’s, a small coffee shop in a historic reclamation project part of town is the brainchild of Ajay Brewer. Brewer left his six-figure salary in New York City for happiness and community when his two-year old son Parker, who is also an integral part of the family business, was only two months old. Since then, Brewer’s Cafe has housed some of the most intellectually stimulating, inspiring, and community building conversations amongst Manchester’s predominantly Black residents and its new denizens brought in by way of gentrification alike. Unlike other hole in the wall spots, there’s an unspoken ease into the warm throes of belonging. Uninhibited by busyness, Ajay has selectively hired from across all identities and welcomes all (literally speaking to everyone who comes in) to create the forefront of a family in what was once a forgotten part of Richmond. Bolstering ideas, Ajay speaks freely on assisting and collaborating with any and all who seek to bring up the city or Manchester, specifically.

Collaboration should be our collective goal, not something we have to beg for.

In essence, the racially-rotating in occupancy predominance hole in the wall is proving that we don’t need more hipster coffee purveyance or staff that looks like they belong in Thrasher to be great or worthwhile, but do require that each person here comes with a vision and the will to work with others to not only accomplish their own but bring others’ to fruition as well. Oh, and a certain understanding that when you do come into Brewer’s, you’re going to be making conversation with a few new people.

Disproportionately so, the creative industries driving and suggesting appropriate change within Richmond seem to be run by, if not dominated by White males in positions of power save city officials such as Mayor Stoney and those within City Hall. Accordingly so, at a closer glance, the 44%-49% split between Whites and African-Americans respectively, tells a very similarly chilling tale of inequality and lack of adequate representation. One of the largest homegrown companies in the area, recently expanding its offices to six new cities to house some 700+ employees, can also boast about its low levels of diversity specifically within its own Richmond office. Another hometown hero with 500+ employees has followed a similar model, but can at minimum speak to the wonders of incorporating a POC into a leadership role that he manages very well. Even in the infancy stages of the business cycle, startups springing up to place their stake in the ground avoid the need to acknowledge diversity as do their incubators. One, operating from the Short Pump-Glen Allen border operates with 25 employees on Richmond soil (another 20 or so overseas) of which only 2 are POCs. Another, and the reason I returned to my hometown from Austin, to this day employs none after the departure of myself (Employee #1) and a former Head of Marketing (Employee #2).

How can we hope to reach new heights if the perspectives and experiences are all similar or even worse — the same?

Creative organizations are aplenty and founded by a certain type of people to be rooted in servicing a specific type of people by giving microphones and praises to a certain type of people have failed us in our need to be immersed into the unknown and the dissimilar. Instead, we are subjected to the same messages of the same experiences that merely a handful of us can identify with. Forcing ourselves think “wow, I would have most certainly been killed by police if I had done this.” There’s something wrong with the logic and understanding of your audiences as a whole when Black History Month’s event is book-ended by two Black speakers, the most popular and highly attended events of said organization’s existence, but during the actual month a white woman is chosen to speak freely about her “struggles” of leaving her high-paying job to set out on her own and organize offices and homes.

In reality, we claim a wildly diverse population similar to that of the 35,000 students of all backgrounds and talents at Virginia Commonwealth University when in all actuality the University of Richmond’s population is radically more descriptive.

But then again, how could we ever hope to spread messages of acceptance and inclusion when we refuse to educate and eliminate the Confederate Flaggers while also loving that the most beautiful street in the city houses memorials to Confederate war generals, a Confederate president, and pro-slavery figures? Our argument often moving towards the fact that we must “acknowledge our history”, which is fine, but why do we need 20 foot tall statues that glorify it as well? A friend of mine had a great idea recently to store them in a museum, where they belong. We refuse to adopt the very simplistic notion that we, the former capital of the confederacy with all our building on top of slave memorials and destruction of booming black populaces in favor of interstates — just our history in general, have to demolish or at least acknowledge the shackles holding us back instead of attempting to run our race with them. Just because you don’t speak on a handicap doesn’t mean that others don’t notice that it’s not there.

The upsetting and disappointing parts lay in the logic that wherever else I go, this type of creative and change industry pigeonholing probably wouldn’t be a thing — neither would holding onto a very dark past. Forward-thinking, acceptance, embracing, and upward progress do exist, they just don’t reside here year-round.

When these notions do decide to return home, however, all the wonderful things they’re responsible for aren’t all that widely publicized. But instead, as is the MO of all things Richmond, they find their work is best done in relative secrecy.

Conclusively, I don’t believe that Richmond is racist, just very stagnant, complacent, and committed to believing that we have reached our creative capacity with the preconceived notions and beliefs we‘ve gotten to comfortable in. Here, I highlighted and deleted two personal anecdotes about firsthand experiences of racism in favor of this sentence, because they’re unimportant at this junction in the road. What’s important is that I believe Richmond and Richmonders alike are reluctant to realize the first steps to actualizing these beliefs about ourselves and our city begin with acknowledging our current state of being so that we can begin being the metropolis we’ve said we were since before I was even a twinkle in my father’s eye. It won’t be easy, it won’t happen overnight, and it certainly won’t happen quietly. But I can assure you, against all else that when it does, we will be that much better for it.