Sarvay, whose new business, Floricane, offers consulting for local nonprofits and community organizations, says that this can-do attitude is the defining quality of ?Richmond’s younger generation: “Instead of asking for a seat at the table, they’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re making our own table.’ ” In the world of artisan food alone, Sarvay counts three dozen bakeries, butcher shops and cheese shops operating in town.
Of course, if bearded butchers and the rest of the alternative crowd are not your thing, there is a richer Richmond. The recently renovated Lemaire bar and restaurant at the landmark Jefferson Hotel offers a gilded? ambience for cocktails (the perfect complement to the ornate afternoon tea served in the hotel’s lobby). And though the ticket prices at the renovated Byrd Theatre start at just $1.99 (that’s not a misprint — it’s that cheap), the classic, grand interior will make you feel like a Rockefeller. At Richmond CenterStage, a performing-arts complex built around the recently reopened Carpenter Theatre in the historic African-American Jackson Ward district, traveling and resident symphonies, ballet companies and opera troupes bring highbrow to the city.
One of the more distinct charms of Richmond’s city center is its scale: Historic neighborhoods like Carytown and the Fan District are distinctly walkable in the way that 18th- and 19th-century districts are. But if you want to see it all in one go, there’s nothing quite like a very modern approach to sightseeing: the Segway tour. Sure, you might look like Paul Blart in Mall Cop, which will dilute some of that cool you were cultivating in the bars and clubs on Main Street. You might also, as one of our tour members did, take a spill on a crowded street corner for more than a few amused locals. But no matter: Segways are fun. And with their maximum speed of 13 miles per hour (we were allowed to use an old hydroelectric plant along one of Richmond’s many canals as a speedway to test this out), riding one is a great way to get a huge gulp of history in one morning.
Our first stop was at the Tredegar Iron Works, a colossal campus that was the site of the industrial center of the Confederacy (remember that part in Gone With the Wind where Rhett Butler says, “There’s not a cannon factory in the whole South”? Actually, there was: Tredegar). These days, Tredegar is the site of two museums about the war: the National Park Service’s Richmond National Battlefield Park headquarters and the American Civil War Center.
The Park Service’s museum is squarely focused on the battles for Richmond, the longest-serving capital of the Confederacy. It is, among the optimism and youthful energy of today’s Richmond, a sober reminder that Richmond was contested with more blood than nearly any other city in the country. The biggest charge Robert E. Lee ever led was just outside town, as 55,000 Confederate soldiers pushed the Union army back from Gaines’ Mill in the early stages of the war. Later, Union troops tightened the grip on the rebel capital, resulting in the nearby battle of Cold Harbor, which was famously described as “not war, but murder.” When the town of Petersburg, the key to Richmond’s rail lines, finally fell, it set off the chain of calamity that ended with downtown Richmond being burned to the ground by retreating Confederate forces and looters.
The story of the broader war is told, with an important innovation, at the adjacent American Civil War Center. Instead of retelling history in the standard gray-vs.-blue dialectic, the museum — whose president, Christy Coleman, is one of the pre-eminent African-American museum directors in the nation — simultaneously shows the war, its causes and its aftermath from three perspectives: Northern, Southern and African-American. It’s an engaging prism for looking at our shared history, and a necessarily comprehensive window into this year’s sesquicentennial commemorations.
Once I stepped back off the Segway (be careful — it leaves you with sea legs for a few moments) at the Segway tour headquarters in the Capital District, I stopped by one more coffee shop before leaving town. It was, like the rest of Richmond, comfortable and welcoming. It’s the kind of hospitality that makes one think about coming back not for a weekend but for a lifetime. Maybe I could buy one of those Greek Revival row homes in the Fan District and open a coffee shop. Or maybe a tattoo parlor. If I do, I know exactly what I’ll call the shop: Fist City.