Why Can’t Richmond Be Charleston?

I took a pleasant spring break trip last week, but my love-hate relationship with Richmond came roaring back to life. That gnawing emotion came back when my wife and I traveled to the Low Country of South Carolina and spent a rainy night in charming Charleston. When I left, I asked myself the usual question — why can’t Richmond ever get it together?

I’ve been visiting Charleston off and on since the 1970s and have stayed at a number of hotels. This time it was Elliott House with our own brick entrance just a little North of Broad. Dinner was a cheap, oyster-stuffed happy hour at a local bar and the next morning, we did the usual rounds of the market, some art galleries and the Battery where the elegant homes run vertically to tap every sea breeze and some have special supports to avoid the same kind of damage wrought by an 1886 earthquake.

As we drove off, I kept wondering why Richmond, which has arguably more history and is a bigger deal as a city, comes nowhere close to its Southern cousin as a glamorous tourist destination. True, Richmond doesn’t have the dramatic setting between two wide, tidal rivers or the mild, subtropical climate where the sticky sweet perfume scent of gardenias wafts everywhere.

But Richmond surely has the history from Patrick Henry to the antebellum South to the War. The conflict may have started at Charleston but it was run from Richmond. Architecture is different, with Charleston having more Latin influences but Richmond’s no slouch given Church Hill’s Federalist townhouses, the stately mansions on Monument and the Victorian porches in the Fan, not to mention Jefferson’s magnificent state capitol.

So why does Richmond give me the blahs? Why is its downtown so lackluster? Where are the tourists when its not Race Week at RIR or Folk Festival time? How come Broad Street still looks like Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and Schockoe area has never reached its cobble stoned potential? After all, Richmond is a lot closer to major population centers and, unlike Charleston, is right next to the major north-south interstate.

From what I know of Charleston, which isn’t that much, the city wasn’t all that big a deal until the 1970s. It was pretty much a Navy town with strip joints and lots of earmarks from Mendel Rivers, its military-crazed overseer in Congress.

A lot of what is Charleston today is the brainchild of long time mayor Joseph P. Riley who started unlocking the city’s tourism potential when he arranged for the unusual if not unlikely Spoleto Festival back in the late 1970s. This celebration of the arts modeled after one in an Italian town immediately drew tourists — so many, in fact, that Riley urged city residents to rent out rooms in their homes because there weren’t enough hotels. Thus was born a booming Bed & Breakfast industry.

Charlestonians managed to remake and renovate their town’s various charms. They didn’t want to turn into a tourist trap where nobody lived like Williamsburg or an out-of-control party town like New Orleans. Charleston, despite its small population of about 126,000, remains one of the top five travel spots in the U.S. and from all appearances from our pedestrian tour, it is thriving.

Why can’t Richmond? A lot of reasons, I guess. One is that we just don’t have a Riley who is competent enough and has enough staying power to get things done. Doug Wilder had the potential, but ruined it by perpetual squabbling. The white and black city leadership never can get it together. Despite their lip service, the whites actually moved out to Innsbrook years ago. The Broad Street revival hasn’t happened yet and one wonders if a few new court buildings will be worth driving miles to see on a Friday night. True, First Friday is a hit, but it has limited appeal pretty much to teenagers like my daughters.

The rich African-American culture just steps away in Jackson Ward was ruined back in the 1950s when white leaders dug a superhighway right through the neighborhood, moving thousands of black residents each month in the process. Eugene Trani, the empire builder and outgoing president of VCU who got his usual fawning treatment from the Times-Disgrace Sunday, hasn’t helped matters by throwing up lots of ugly, bland, boring college buildings from Oregon Hill to MCV.

Even Norfolk, once a Navy town hell hole of unspeakable ugliness, has remade its downtown to take advantage of its watery venue, albeit the effort is now showing its age.

So why can’t Richmond be Charleston? I just don’t have a good answer.

Peter Galuszka

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15 responses to “Why Can’t Richmond Be Charleston?”

  1. Heck, Richmond isn’t even as charming as a place like Louisville, which doesn’t have the Southern history of Charleston and Richmond. But what Louisville has are dedicated, and hardworking city backers (both elected and non elected) who love their city and who get up every morning thinking of ways to make it better.

    The Waterfront park which Louisville has on the Ohio River is stunning, simply stunning. And the city is squeaky clean and relatively safe.

    It seems as if Richmond lacks the civic pride of other cities….People aren’t as worked up about promoting the place and making it somewhere people would love to visit. It all comes down to a lack of enthusiasm in my view. City leaders and the community have to want to make it happen.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    I like Charleston, too, Peter, but the last time I was there it looked pretty run down. Like Baltimore, as soon as you get away from the revitalized center,the rest was vacant storefronts and scary characters on the street.


  3. travelblog Avatar

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  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Maybe I caught Charleston on a good day, but yes, I gather there’s a good crime rate beyond downtown. Been to Savannah which is supposed to be its bad brother and it seemed more down in the mouth.
    Irene, I used to cover the Louisville area when I worked for a business magazine and always found the people delightful. Their mayor has done a great deal to make use of the Riverfront. You also seem to get an all-inclusive Southern graciousness that seems to be lacking in snootier Richmond.

    Peter Galuszka

  5. Larry G Avatar

    Well.. we spent a week in the Low Country also – on the Edisto River and we did not see a single scary-looking street person nor guys with banjos in the woods…. though once the weather warms up.. we understand it could be correctly called “snake-infested”.

    Just for giggles and grins, we swung by Myrtle Beach on the way home.

    Talk about culture shock!

    In terms of a generator of economic benefits – I wonder how a place like Myrtle Beach compares to a place like Charleston?

    I’m betting the former generates substantial economic benefits for South Carolina….but I admit to being ignorant about Charleston’s contribution.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    “we did not see a single scary-looking street person “

    I think you need to have streets for that.

    Although, I once got flashed on the Edisto river by a speedboat towing to naked female water skiers.


  7. Anonymous Avatar


    RE; Carolina Moon

    How come this stuff never happens to me?

    Peter Galuszka

  8. Citizen Tom Avatar
    Citizen Tom

    Vision in city government is, I suppose, a nice thing, but private investment drives urban improvement and renewal. What are investors looking for? Profit.

    What does a city like Richmond have to do attract the kind of investment needed to make it a good place to go to have a good time? Well, the main thing the city government has to do is establish itself as competent. The city government needs to keep the crime rate low, run the schools well, keep traffic moving, and that sort of thing. In other words, Richmond needs to become the sort of place where citizens can become stable, a place to feel safe, a place where one wants to become comfortable.

    What happens once people decide to stay in a place? They form associations with it, and they also form associations with the other people who live there. That is, they form communities.

    Communities exist where people achieve a shared vision. With luck and hard effort, that vision can become a reality. And then politicians can take the credit.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    Well said, Tom.


  10. Groveton Avatar

    Well, there are statistics, damn statistics and then there’s this…


    Demographics by zip code in South Carolina. Now, I know zip codes are nearlly worthless for urban planning but the data is just kept that way.

    Here are two Charleston zip codes I picked at random (1999 data):

    29492 – Per capita income:

    White alone – $31,748
    African American alone – $10,951

    29455 – Per capita income:

    White alone – $30,244
    African American alone – $12,604

    I haven’t found the same statistics for Richmond but the differences in the two zip codes I just randomly picked in Charleston are pretty staggering.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    Nationally, whites made per capita $23,900 and Blacks $14,437 acording to stats I saw.
    Your figures show a bigger disparity between white and blck income in Charleston but the trend shows whites make more than blacks.
    So what is your pint exactly? That whites make more than blacks? I am sure you could show that for every city that has a high tourist attraction rate.

    Peter Galuszka

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    Richmond has a looong way to go to get on the same level as Charleston for several reasons, many of which can’t be controlled by local governments…..

    1)Climate – (although in mid-summer Charleston isn’t exactly what I would call comfortable). However, it’s climate supports a tourist industry 24/7/365.

    2)Access to Beaches – Charleston is close to them Richmond is not.

    3)Golf – The entire SC Low Country is world famous as a golfing destination….what is Richmond world famous for?

    4)History – When you visit Charleston you really do feel like you are stepping back in time in certain places….not the case for Richmond – at least not to a period folks like to remember.

    A lot of Charleston’s success is due to the fact that it has a lot of different things to do as opposed to just one or two main attractions. This creates a lot of synergy that just isn’t there when you focus on one or two “big” ideas.

    Richmond certainly has a lot to offer but at the same time you need to learn to walk before you can run if you want to attract tourists.

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    Be careful what you wish for, you could become Orlando, or Cape Cod or Foxwoods.

    Orlando doesn’t have any beaches, does it? and the clmate’s not that great, either, except in winter.

    What ever happened to HistoryLand anyway? Oh, that’s right: we got Haymarket instead.


  14. Groveton Avatar

    My point was in response to comments that pointed out the big differences between one part of Charleston and anotger. quaint bed and breakfasts here, a mugger’s paradise around the corner. Te racially based income bias I saw in the stats explain some of that feeling. Black poeple making 1/3 of what their white neighbors make are liable to be frustrated. I certainly would be. And sometimes frustration turns into crime.

    So, as you practice the ago old Virginia pass time of self flagellation I wonder if the grass really is greener on the other ised of the fence. Charleston is a lot of fun to visit. And Richmond is a great place to live. Maybe that’s just the way we should leave it instead of turning a nice weekend into a self-hating Richmond bash. I don’t even like Richmond and I am sticking up for her. I must be a born and bred Virginian!

  15. Actually, Richmond is in the humid subtropical climate zone. Spanish Moss doesnt start til somewhere around Virginia Beach, however. Richmond is more exciting than Charleston, but the people and culture are similar.

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