The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Interview: Christina Talks Richmond, Race and the Southern Life

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Christina Mastroianni lived on the East Coast for many years, but now she lives with her husband and children in Richmond, VA. I spoke with her about her experiences in this Southern city—a juxtaposition of beauty, history, and inequality—as well as her thoughts on a way forward that educates children equally and lifts up neighborhoods no matter who lives in them. 

Q: What’s it like to live in Richmond, VA?

A: Richmond is a beautiful city. It’s steeped in enormous amounts of history, some of which is painful. […] But I think they’re doing great things to be very frank and honest about what happened here and how it fits into our history as a nation and as a whole.

In terms of livability, the taxes are low, the cost of living is fairly low. The river, which cuts right through the city is just spectacularly beautiful and used by everyone. We swim in the river. We watch the eagles and hawks there. You can access it anywhere. It’s such a gem.

Before I moved here, I had this perception of [Richmond] being a city just lost in time. You know how people joke about how in some parts of the south, people still haven’t accepted the fact that they lost the war? Well, that’s not true here.

The one unfortunate part about Richmond is that in the ‘60s the city essentially placed all of the public housing developments in two main parts of the city, completely isolating folks from the downtown. The public transportation is abysmal; it’s not accessible, it’s not convenient. It makes it very hard for folks to get to jobs.

Recent census data shows the disparity in terms of income and race in the city. The east end of the city is where most of the people of color live. It’s the poorest part of Richmond. The western side of the city is the wealthiest and has the largest percentage of whites. We live on the east side. It’s beautiful; the east end is the historic district. But just north of us, the houses are crumbling and people are seriously poverty stricken. Our schools on the east end are horrendous compared to other parts of the city. There’s some real institutional barriers to success. Those are compounded by the fact that folks are isolated.

The east end is also one of the largest urban food deserts in the US.

Q: Is anything being done to address the food desert situation?

A: There’s some really cool stuff happening on the east end. Our councilwoman has been working with the health system, Bon Secours, and another nonprofit called Tricycle Gardens. They have established these refrigerators in many of the corner stores that sell subsidized fresh vegetables and fruit. Bon Secours also provides seed grants for businesses to start up on the east end […] We now have this blossoming commercial corridor on the east end.

Q: Do you think Richmond is a typical Southern city?

A: I recently heard on NPR that southern cities are the fastest growing in the nation. There is such a huge influx of folks from the northeast that Richmond is really creating its own identity. I don’t think that it’s a typical southern city. We have incredibly rich culture and art and music and dance in Richmond that I don’t think is typical of a southern city. But then you look at places like Atlanta and Charlotte and they too are creating their own identities. Its not until you go to the lower-tier cities that you see that old-guard, lost in the past, serious racial tension.

Q: How does Richmond compare to your previous home, Philadelphia, PA?

A: I lived in Philly for 20 years. First of all, the city of Richmond is 200,000 people. The city of Philadelphia is 1.2 million, so Philly was massive. There were parts of the city that I didn’t even know how to get to. There’s much more ethnic diversity in Philadelphia. You’d walk down the street and see Cambodians and Africans and Hispanics and Eastern Europeans. In Richmond, it’s pretty much just black and white. The ethnic diversity is, surprisingly, in the suburbs.

The other difference—it’s kind of hard to put your finger on—there was a frankness and gruffness to the people in Philadelphia. They were honest to a fault, which I loved. Some people took it to be mean or rude, but to me it was just a refreshing, frank honesty. Down here [in Richmond], there’s much more of a dance that goes on. You can’t appear to be too pushy or aggressive. You have to take that time to talk to people about their family and the weather and what’s going on. It’s almost like a courting ritual. In a way, I kind of like it because you kind of get to know people, but it’s definitely different.

Every time we go back to Philadelphia, we notice the tension. It’s dirty. The traffic is out of control. There’s very little trash in Richmond and you don’t feel like you’re being closed in on. But you don’t really realize that until you leave.

Q: Living with a biracial family, what is your experience of diversity and/or racism in Richmond?

A: We have not experienced any outright aggression. There has been some raising of the eyebrows, the second glances. You walk by some people and their mouths are open. There are definitely less biracial couples than there were in Philadelphia, but we’re seeing more and more of them. We’re definitely not the only ones.

I think the thing that we noticed more here than we did in Philadelphia—and it might just be where we lived—is the resentment around socioeconomic differences. I think that had to do with the school [my kids] were going to previously. Some enormously large percentage of students in the school system in Richmond are at or below the poverty level and predominantly black. There are two or three schools on the west end where predominately white, upper middle class families really wanted to turn the public school into the local school. They invested money and resources and enrolled their kids. They now have resources that schools on the east end couldn’t even dream of having. They are all predominantly white. Meanwhile, there were some teachers and parents at my kids’ old school that felt like “What are you doing here? This isn’t your place.” My kids were seen as the rich kids, even though we’re far from that.

Now they’re at this independent school that’s 99% white, and while they’re among their peer group in terms of academic interests and grade level performance, they’re definitely not the rich kids any more. It’s a little bittersweet to have to make that choice. The school district has got to deal with this. They’ve got to find a way to convince middle class families to invest in school. All the research shows that kids succeed in diverse socioeconomic environments.

Thanks to Christina for sharing her thoughts on Richmond, VA!

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