by James A. Bacon
The denizens of River City are ecstatic about Outside magazine’s designation of Richmond as the “Best River Town in America.” The recognition is very cool, considering the competition. Better than Ashville, N.C., and Durango, Colo., cities known for their connection to the great outdoors? Yessss! (Fist pump!)
Cynics might observe that the selection was based partially upon votes tabulated on the magazine’s Facebook page, which makes it less an objective indicator of the region’s outdoor recreational attributes than the effectiveness with which Richmond’s civic boosters launched a get-out-the-vote drive. (Boosters did make a concerted effort to win the recognition; even Governor Bob McDonnell weighed in.) Yet it says something significant that Richmonders felt strongly enough to make the effort. Richmonders see their region– and want it to be seen by others — as a great place to live.
Philip Morris USA may be headquartered here, but we’re not Tobacco Town anymore. We may have statues of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, but we don’t define ourselves by the Civil War anymore. The James River is the perfect symbol for the new Richmond that is arising.
Most large cities are located on a river. But how many have rivers like the James where people can engage in hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing, rafting, inner tubing, crewing, open-water swimming, sun-bathing on rocks and, according to Jon Billman who profiled the city for Outdoor (this was a surprise to me), snorkeling — right in the center of the city? As Billman quoted Matt Perry, a partner in Riverside Outfitters:
“People say living in Richmond is good because it’s two hours from everything”—the mountains, the ocean, Washington, D.C. “That’s cool, but it’s also one minute from itself.”
That’s right, the James River has become a major attraction to Richmonders — and it’s especially appealing to young, educated professionals who like to stay physically active. I spoke this morning to Jay Peluso, a Rhode Island native who attended the University of Richmond law school, settled in Richmond and now runs Peluso Open Swim on the James. In addition to a series of one-mile swimming competitions upstream from the city, he is organizing a five-mile swim, To the Bridge and Back, this October, which he aspires to build into an event as popular as the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim.
“I think people are starting to find the river again,” said Peluso. “They’re not just throwing out a fishing line or sitting on the rocks.” They’re kayaking, hiking and swimming. “Not many cities have a viable, accessible river where pollution is low. [The river] is our greatest asset.”
As more people use the river recreationally, political support will build to clean it and protect it. The cleaner it gets, the greater the number of people who will use it for healthy outdoor activity. The James River is a key to transforming Richmond from one of the fattest cities in the country to one of the healthiest. Six hundred acres of urban wilderness along the James River is literally unique — one of a kind — in the United States. No other city has anything like it. It is a natural treasure.