A century and a half after the start of the Civil War, Richmond, Va., still shows off its charm.Sitting at one of the oversize picnic tables at Buz and Ned’s Real BBQ in Richmond, Va., trying to negotiate a plate of Flintstones-size beef ribs, I ask my dining companion, John Sarvay, who used to write the influential Richmond blog Buttermilk & Molasses, a simple question: “So, why is Richmond called the Fist City?” The answer, in a nutshell, is that it isn’t. As much as it’s mentioned in online accounts of Richmond — some say the name sprang from Richmond’s vibrant punk-rock music scene decades ago — I’ve been having a hard time finding someone in today’s Richmond who has heard the nickname. Sarvay is no different. “Sorry,” he says, “this is the River City.” That would make sense. The lifeblood of the city is now and has always been the James River, which first brought one-armed Capt. Christopher Newport up from Jamestown in 1607 to plant a flag near Rocketts Landing (on the way, he thought, to El Dorado). The James has the only Class IV and Class V rapids in an urban environment in the country. But there are so many cities with great rivers. Paris has the Seine, Bangkok has the Chao Phraya, Brooklyn has the Gowanus. What makes Richmond truly unique is its resilience. That’s why I am going to stick with Fist City, even if I’m the only person who calls it that. Because to me, the term signifies something powerful, the pride and perseverance of a capital that was the site of Patrick Henry’s “liberty or death” speech, a town that has been destroyed by floodwaters and fire (both Benedict Arnold and retreating Confederate soldiers and looters torched it) and stood back up every time.
Richmond’s wartime past and recovery will be remembered in 2011 during the yearlong commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, but for visitors, the city’s cultural rebound is just as striking. Richmond’s recent battles have been with the kind of identity crises facing a lot of midsize U.S. cities. The challenges: How do you get people — visitors and residents alike — to come back to the city center? How do you build a thriving economy after flagship corporations (such as Circuit City) leave or fold? Richmond is answering those questions not with one answer but with a hundred little answers, a particularly beguiling mix of DIY entrepreneurial? spirit, historical pride and hipsterism.
Richmond’s mayor is excited about tattoos. In an op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Mayor Dwight Jones ended a robust defense of the city and its appeal with a point of pride that “we remain the third-most tattooed city in the nation!” Or, as my tour guide, Jeff Majer of Segway of Richmond (more on that later), put it, “People keep opening up tattoo parlors, but I’m surprised there’s any more bare skin left to be tattooed around here.”
What does all that ink have to do with Richmond’s charm? Quite a lot, actually. Richmond today feels, above all, like a young town, not afraid of a little self-expression. That was the epiphany I had at Ipanema Cafe at 11 p.m. (on a Sunday, no less). Anousheh Khalili, a native Virginian, was playing the keyboard and singing her original songs (think Nelly Furtado with a touch of Alanis Morissette) for several dozen enthusiastic fans. The kitchen was open late, which was a good thing, because Ipanema is all-?vegetarian and I needed some greens to balance out the barbecue carnage from the night before. So I had a Gouda sandwich and struck up a conversation with Shawn Stone, the guy at the bar next to me who, like nearly every man in the place, was friendly and at least a little bearded. (Richmond’s beard population must rival its tattoo population.) “You’re not going to find a lot of chain restaurants around here,” Stone says. “People like things a little different.”
Case in point: The beer I was ?drinking at Ipanema (and everywhere else) is a Richmond beer named Legend, brewed just across the James River from downtown. On warm spring and summer days, locals and visitors flock to the microbrewery’s deck overlooking the river and drink lagers, porter and barleywine.