Cool Richmond: Two Hours from the Beach… and One Minute from Itself

Kayaking on the James in the heart of downtown Richmond. (Photo credit: Outdoor magazine.)

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.

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  1. The whitewater in the James in Richmond is significant and plenty for most paddlers though it’s not Class 5 unless the River is in flood and then it’s exceptionally dangerous for all except experts.

    I’ve been to the urban whitewater venues out west – and by the way, there is one in Charlotte and Richmond is a worthy competitor.

    Where Richmond falls down in the competition is biking and ped. The western venues have paddling, biking, ped, climbing, and more and places like Boise and Bend, Or and Durango, Co, Butte, Mont are all meccas for the young and those places attract high tech companies.

    1. You’re right about the biking… but we’re working on it!

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    “WE’RE working on it? What, exactly, are YOU doing?

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Richmond should do what it can to capitalize on what natural beauty it has. It will never be Boulder, Boise or Bend. It will never be Hawaii. Richmond has a limited bit of natural beauty around that river. Now – do what San Francisco has done … integrate the city with the water. Do what Austin has done – build a music / party / bar area in the city (open until 4 am). Do what Baltimore has done – make a sports complex part of the attraction. Do what Cambridge, MA has done – tear down or renovate the warehouses and idle tinfoil factories. Tackle mass transportation in an intelligent way.

    Kayaks and meat pies are interesting but insufficient. Richmonders need to start taking some risks. And … sorry, Jimbo … government is going to have to be a substantial part of any revitalization. It won’t just “bubble up” because some magazine likes your river.

    1. Of course government will have to be part of the solution. Unfortunately, the City of Richmond’s top-down, real estate-driven initiatives in the past were debacles. The city squandered a lot of money it could have invested more profitably elsewhere.

      One of the best things the city did was to invest in cleaning up the Canal, something that only the public sector could do. Fortunately, the city was smart enough to leave re-development to the private sector. It’s taken a long time, but it’s working out really well.

  4. I think a couple of shout-outs are called for.
    1. Environmentalists/EPA. Since 1970 the environmental movement has saved many rivers from pollution and has made them swimmable. Without government intervention, the James would be dead. Remember Hopewell! [Perhaps someday the decline of the Chesapeake Bay can be reversed.]
    2. Access. I’ve always been impressed by how accessible the river is to young adults. This may have an historical basis as the James has always been a means of publich transport. But it is great that all the riverfront isn’t owned by rich old people – the “get off my yards” types. Not true for many other resources – beaches, lakes, rivers are being “privatized.”

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Actually Don has a good point.

    Richmond really hasn’t done much at all to take advantage of the James River’s excitement and beauty. Most of the islands are undeveloped and quite rough. By contrast, Norfolk has done much more to make a vista of its waterfront.
    One of the problems is a decades’ long lack of planning. Chicago, where I lived for a couple of years, has a spectacular lakefront and park system taking full advantage of it. It was planned that way a century ago. At that time, Richmond was far more focused on building a grand memorial boulevard away from the river for its dead Confederate leaders.
    Today, Richmond has done a limited amount with its waterfront and has some notable disasters such as Canalwalk. The riverfront folk festival has been a smashing success but even there you can’t quite see the James and its rapids.
    I did read the Outside article and found a few things odd about it. It blames “tobacco plantations” for pollution when I don’t believe there really were any upriver of Richmond. Also, tobacco fields aren’t all that polluting. Hopewell and its chemical plants, notably Allied Chemical, are a far different story. A problem is that from the fall line at I-95 west, the river is spectacular. From I-95 South it is an unimpressive tiny river. I recently had lunch at a new restaurant at Rockett’s Landing and looked out at the unimpressive pale green of the lower James and watched as a culvert poured out a a gush of dingy water.
    While the Outside article is good news, it seems that Brother Bacon is singing the city’s praises a little bit too loudly. I still don’t know if there is any significant plan or development that will take the waterfront to new levels. One decent tract near the river could have been developed for a ballpark, but, showing where the power really lies in Richmond, it was given instead to MeadWestvaco, a paper and packaging firm relocating from Connecticut. There, MWV built a corporate headquarters building so ugly that one critic said it seemed it had crash-landed.
    When it comes to the riverfront, the problem is that the interests served first are those of the Corporate Class, not the Creative Class. Just building a couple of high rises for upper income folks or law and lobbying firms doesn’t do much. So far, Richmond hasn’t.

  6. re: ” blames “tobacco plantations” for pollution ” .. oops.. looks like some clueless young person wrote the copy….

    The Kepone is DOWNSTREAM from Richmond by the way.

    The James runs from west of the Blue Ridge to Hampton Roads. It gets to be quite a big river east of Richmond.

    All rivers in VA – roughly up and down I-95 have fall lines and rapids including the Potomac which has some rather large ones at Great Falls near DJ. Richmond and Va has nothing quite so spectacular.

    Rivers are neat places for me. I’ve spent most of my life paddling them when I wasn’t sitting on my ass collecting govt largess.

    I won’t say I’ve paddled ALL the rivers in Va but quite a few of them – and most, not in urban settings like the James through Richmond.

    The big thing in paddling now days with young people is not canoes but kayaks and is called “destination” paddling where instead of paddling a 5-10 mile section of river – they go to a spot where they can “play”, “work out”, etc and the James from the Pony Pasture or Reedy Creek to the Manchester Bridge is the prime destination.

    Don’t try it unless you are experienced. Take a raft trip instead.

  7. re: ” notable disasters such as Canalwalk. ”

    I’ve walked it..and thought it was an improvement over the former industrial junk… but why is it a disaster?

    1. I would agree with Larry on this. There has been a lot of development along the Canal. Now the biggest gap — the old Reynolds property — is under development. I would call it one of Richmond’s greatest successes, with the caveat that it has been a long time in coming.

  8. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Every time I go by Canalwalk, it is an empty, claustrophobic, concrete bore. You might thing it was going to be the C&O Canal in Georgetown but anything but!

    One of Richmond’s greatest successes? Nonsense.

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