Edited. Original photo by Taber Andrew Bain.
What is Richmond’s identity?
Is it tobacco? The Lucky Strike smokestack looms over the Richmond horizon from old Libby Hill. Forgotten tobacco factories dot the town. Altria Group, owner of Philp Morris, is based in the city.
Is it the Civil War? Richmond was the capitol of the Confederacy. It was home to some of the most notorious prison camps, immortalized in autobiographical books. Lincoln walked its streets and propped his feet up on Jefferson Davis’ desk. Monuments to valiant Confederate soldiers and generals dot the streets.
Could it even be Edgar Allan Poe? The legendary author grew up in Richmond. His first real job as a writer was at the Southern Literary Messenger, based in the city. He’d return throughout his life, and now there’s an entire museum dedicated to his legacy in the city’s oldest extant building.
The simplest answer is Richmond is a city of history. That’s its brand, its trademark. Though a huge chunk of the old city was unintentionally burned when retreating Confederates set the industrial district ablaze, it’s still a remarkable document of our past. Neighborhoods like Court End stretch back to the city’s earliest days, built around Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia State Capitol building. St. John’s Church, were Patrick Henry declared, “Give me liberty, or give me death!,” is still the centerpiece of Church Hill. The Gilded Age and “Roaring Twenties”, too, are amply represented, all against the backdrop of a very modern skyline.
If asked to pick one place in Richmond that exemplifies its rich history best, my reply? Belle Isle. Crumbling stones of old factories. The chaotic, symphonic currents of the James River rapids. Trees. People, and ghosts of the past, everywhere. Smack dab in the middle of urban Richmond, it’s an oasis. Mysterious, dark, romantic. And no cars.
Native Americans once plied its shores. Mussels and shad abounded. In the colonial period, a small farming community tilled the land, and locals gambled at the racetrack. That gave way to industry, and during the Civil War, a crude prison where thousands of Union soldiers starved in makeshift tents. After the war, industry for a time resumed, only to whither over the course of the twentieth century. Now it’s a park, a welcomed retreat from the hustle of the city, surrounded by the river on both sides.
The main attraction are the wide, smooth, time-worn boulders that jut out from the river along the shore. On a hot, muggy afternoon, it’s like watching a bad episode of MTV’s Spring Break. Girls in bikinis and guys in swimming trunks soak up the sun on blankets, drinking beer or liquor from red plastic cups. Some look for a deep spot in the river – the depth constantly changes – and dive in. Stay long enough and you’ll see it all: girls screaming about Snapchat fiascos; guys taking selfies with catfish; blunts and bonfires.
It kinda makes you wish you’d misspent your youth in Richmond.
Away from the teenage bacchanalia, a sheer cliff overlooks a placid pond. Birdsong echoes off ancient brick walls of a former steel mill. Mountain bikers and kayakers travel the hills and falls. Listen closely and you can hear the shouts – of Indians, soldiers, or teenagers, I can’t say.
Belle Isle is a magical island in a timeless city. It’s a treasure trove that’s never exhausted, with a lil’ somethin’ for everyone.
Edited. Original photo by Taber Edward Bain.