Up in Richmond last evening I enjoyed talking to a couple people with the kind of mindset you really only find in the South--conservative libertarian, committed to the outdoors, and yet also socially conscious supporters of urban renewal in the so-called progressive stripe. That is, committed social activists who are also engaged with a full range of understanding of social and economic complexities and not simply armed with certainties. Displaying the kind of social commitment minus self righteousness which is a good model for others to adopt but which is depressingly rare in the "progressive" community and totally absent in the faux-populist reactionary of the Sarah Palin-supporting type mouthing meaningless platitudes about the virtues of the common man. To be truthful, the political spectrum fails in the face of the urban problems in American and especially in the South, so endemic and so intense in Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk, and Portsmouth, to name a few communities.

I have been meaning to do a photo essay of empty lots in the city center of Norfolk, just to document it and also to give others a sense of what it is like. What does it mean for a city of limited space to have so many empty lots, often most of entire blocks? It means collapse.

Here was a couple who actually give a hoot about regular people and demonstrated the commitment by doing the insane and moving into the most socially and economically blighted area of Richmond--Church Hill. Yes, it is one of the most historic and architecturally important areas of the city, but that hasn't prevented it from becoming a dangerous slum. There are something like 3000 abandoned properties in Richmond and 2500 or so in Church Hill. It isn't especially hard or impressive to be "progressive" when you are already surrounded by other educated, bicycle riding, compost-making, avocado-eating, community-building, arts-supporting types. It is a hell of a lot harder in the middle of a violent, drug-smeared ghetto where the social fabric is nil and the interest in repairing it (and the political will and money to do so) is totally nonexistent. I wouldn't want to deal with it myself, truth be told, but am impressed that others have the fortitude and commitment to do it.

It helps that beautiful 110 year old houses can be had there for $18,000. True, that is $17,800 more than you can get houses for in Detroit, but the weather is better down here. Detroit is essentially the more extreme version of Church Hill.

It is hard to fathom what a wasteland big swaths of Richmond are, especially contrasted with the very vibrant, well maintained, and very appealing rest of the city. Just outside of the main nice parts of the city are neighborhoods as devastated as anywhere in the country. It has a third world feel, this sharp division between development and collapse. Also third world is the popular acceptance attitude of this level of inequality and social catastrophe. The divide is especially stark when you include Richmond's sprawling, cookie-cutter suburbs with every chain store and restaurant and neighborhoods of generic Mcmansions on cul de sacs. This is a pattern repeated cancer-like across the US, of course, but made especially egregious in Richmond (and Chesapeake and Virginia beach) since it is happening right now when people should know better -- do know better-- but don't give a shit.

Anyway, all of this is just to quote a line this man had which captured his mindset perfectly. He said, "I like cities because I like farms." If you support the countryside and the maintenance of open spaces and natural areas, you need to support urban renewal and we all need to face the realities that much of urban America outside of the expensive disneyfied cities is in a state of crisis that truly cannot afford to be ignored if we wish to arrest our descent as a society and a nation.


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