The sun is low on Monument Avenue, a blood red globe on the hazy horizon. Jefferson Davis’ outstretched hand cups the light, grasping for immortality. Behind him is a semicircle of Doric columns, 11 representing the Confederate states and 2 representing the states that had delegations in the Confederate Congress. Around him, rows of trees stretch as far as the eye can see, and cars, joggers, and baby strollers head every which way.
A Migos song hums through the hot, sticky air.
Above Davis, a woman holds a torch aloft, Vindicatrix written on the massive column below her billowing robes.
Monument Avenue is a charmed road, an old road, a road that captures the high ideals of urban America at its peak for roughly 2 breathtaking miles in Richmond, Virginia. There aren’t any skyscrapers or high-rises. No, rather, it’s mansion after mansion, opulent apartment after opulent apartment, grand church after grand church. All on tiny lots, a sweeping panorama of architectural styles by Richmond’s top architects, from Gothic Revival and Georgian Revival to Spanish Revival and Greek Revival. Each, seemingly, with its own meticulously maintained medieval pleasure garden.
What a place.
It’s ordered, stable, and classically inspired, hallmarks of the City Beautiful Movement that swept the nation after 1893’s World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. With grand monuments to Confederate war heroes designed by famous European architects and a wide grassy median dreamed up by an Ivy League civil engineer, Monument Avenue proudly lives up to both parts of its name.
It was better than Commonwealth Avenue. Better than Euclid Avenue. Better than Delaware Avenue.
Built up in the early 20th century as an extension of Richmond, Monument Avenue appeared at a time when the city was at ease with its legacy, with the Civil War framed as valiant but doomed fight for states’ rights. Residents of Monument Avenue included executives and socialites, lawyers and philanthropists. They took frequent vacations, hosted balls and galas, had black maids and black servants and black nannies to raise the kids. Life spilled out of the houses in the cool evenings and into the leisurely street.
If you were in the right social caste, life was good. Damn good. “Monument Avenue was magical for all of us,” Roberta Bryan Bocock writes in Monument Avenue Memories, a book of childhood recollections from various people on what is was like to grow up on Monument Avenue.
It was in that context that Richmond saw fit to cast the memories of J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury in bronze, smack dab in the middle of the city’s most fashionable avenue.
Of course, that gilded world didn’t – couldn’t – last forever. By the ’50s and ’60s, Monument Avenue had changed. As whites moved out to the suburbs as part of the mass urban exodus known as white flight, the neighborhood diversified. Renters moved in. Blacks moved in. In the mid-90s, a monument to Arthur Ashe was unveiled to the public. Ashe, an African-American tennis superstar and Richmond native, had died tragically from AIDS in 1993. The community wanted to honor his legacy in the grandest form possible, so they chose Monument Avenue.
The new monument was, to say the least, controversial. One local recently told me he thought it was “tacky”, that it looked like the emaciated Ashe was “beating kids with his tennis racket.” Others object that it isn’t Civil War-themed, that it doesn’t commemorate the heroism of a long dead soldier or commander.
And hey, I get it. Still, I think it was vital to the city’s healing process and Richmond’s evolving identity. Monument Avenue has gentrified. The street is, again, a dramatic showpiece for Richmond. The surrounding neighborhoods are host to overpriced restaurants, expensive boutique markets, and $10 mixed drinks.
Today’s Monument Avenue can’t help but reflect the intervening decades. We should celebrate that.