Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chester Envy

Yesterday, I drove the 20 minutes north to Chester to a friend's shop. The friend was one of the first people I met in Petersburg and helped me immensely in establishing a foothold on the slippery slope of small business ownership and in setting up my shop in Petersburg. Little did I know that, three months after my grand opening, she'd move on to the greener pastures of suburbia. I felt betrayed. WHAT?!? You're leaving? But you just opened (in the space I pined away over for my store, no less)! And the arrival of an independent bookstore surely signals the beginning of a major renaissance. Here I come to save the day!
But as I drove on non-potholed streets past eclectic shopping centers and newish, fully accredited schools, I started to understand why she moved away from a downtown that is surely, this time, like so many times before, on the verge of being something special. In fact, I may have developed the slightest case of Chester Envy. Restaurants, shops, schools, houses neatly arranged with, get this, ample parking designated for them! No psychiatric deficients manning the front doors like it's their job. I was not approached for a cigarette or bus money, I was not asked for an odd job, nor was I verbally assaulted for being married to The Doc (all regular occurrences on any given day in the 'Burg). Although I didn't know exactly where I was going, I felt safe. The growing sense of envy was not helped in the slightest when I pulled into her parking lot. Pristeen black asphalt, new building, fresh paint, workable public infrastructure and, best of all, a community dedicated to sensible development. In short, all the things Petersburg does not have.
That set me wondering why people like me make Petersburg our home. Why do we keep believing and pouring our blood, sweat and tears toward what we hope will be the town's eventual triumph? Are we hard-luck cases ourselves? Do we want to be the proverbial big fish in the small pond? Do we want to be the only game in town? Is it easier to have the safety net of being able to blame our personal failures on a city that's failing? Maybe, maybe not. It's hard not to hope for good things for this city. We see so much potential for a phoenix rising from the ashes of the past. It's hard not to root for the underdog. This city has certainly had its share of adversity. It's hard not to get caught up in a sense of the excitement of possibility, especially given our country's recent path. So we choose to live and work here and, on some level, to cast our fortunes in with those of the city. But it's also really hard to keep being positive when there seems to be no comprehensive plan to "get there from here," and seemingly no sense of urgency about developing one. Seeing a town that's already there makes it that much more obvious.


Chuck said...

...they also have collapsing buildings in that general vicinity too - so be careful what you wish for.

I agree with a lot of what you said. It was a little telling when the folks across the street moved. Judy was talking to us about how the city had changed. Her husband grew up here as did his father I believe and she was saying that the 'Burg is great for younger people looking for a nice house at a good price or budding artists, etc. but, she said no one with school age children wants to stay. (THAT explains why Trick or Treat was so lackluster!)

I mean I didn't realize it until the other day but Shannon and April are having to start their 5 year plan now for moving out of the city. They have said they cannot afford to send Ayden to private school and they certainly aren't going to send him to some unaccredited inner city school.

Friends we had in Richmond ended up moving out to the far west end so their kids would be able to go to Henrico schools instead of Richmond City - can't blame them.

Seems kind of cyclical. As young couple you live in the hip, urban areas; then as you get older and have children you retreat to the burbs; finally you become empty nesters who move back to an urban area to be in the center of activity. (Eh at least that is what some RTD story said about older people moving back into Richmond (the Bottom, Canal Walk, and all that cool development along the river).


Kristy said...

I agree, but we're not talking about New York City, for God's sake! We're really talking about a small town that has largely managed to saddle ITSELF with inner city problems. I think it's part of the problem, too--this notion that we can shrug, point to Richmond or Baltimore as being "not much better." Where is it written that all urban areas (and I'm not willing to concede that Petersburg even is one) have to have high crime and unemployment rates, abysmal schools and crumbling infrastructure? I think the problems here are fixable; I just think it's going to take a pretty fundamental shift in government's focus. Clarity of vision, hard calls, and patience: I don't know that we have any of these things yet, but we're going to need them all to get there from here.

Anonymous said...

hi kristy, thanks for writing as i learn more about the townfolks from you. i feel like rapunzel in my building coz my husband says it's not so safe to walk around town. now i understand why. it is a shame because i think petersburg is beautiful. it reminds me of manchester, uk and also kansas.

in most studies, civil society and their grass roots movements are the most effective way to turn society around. it is not enough to rely on government alone. i am not sure what opportunities are available in a small town like petersburg. i rack my brains for possible jobs, too. i am also trying to understand the dynamics of economic worth, what with the fast-changing economy, credit crunch, real estate and market bubbles bursting.

this town may be poor, but the people are surviving and continue to survive. the few people i have met seem happy and cheerful, or maybe they are just as easily curiously smiling back at me.

but i believe you have a purpose here and seeing the world has changed your eyes. you must have learned many good things that can be applied home. perhaps you can start a project that will help benefit people? maybe a partnership with VSU? or the various churches?

i am sure the town has many youth or volunteers who would like to do something positive, too. id be happy to volunteer too, but i feel i am an outsider right now.