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The University That Ate Richmond
By Christopher Sloce
DISCLAIMER: The writer of this piece wants to make very certain that no one takes this essay as a political as a well-oiled, statistics-minded argument against Wal-Mart. I am not an economics major and have no interest in political journalism. All I can speak to is the personal love of tacos and egg-headed diversions into a Michel De Certeau essay I like quite a bit. It’s more of a break-up song with a case.
Last week my alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU to the world at large), announced they were putting a Wal-Mart on campus. The Wal-Mart will be a To Go convenience store, 4,000 square feet large compared to the mammoth Wal-Mart Supercenter you may be picture. Small or not, Richmonders and even VCU alumni no longer living in Richmond were incensed, myself included. Death knells rang, obituaries were drafted, and all I could think about was the Little Mexico restaurant that used to sit across from Empire, a bar best known for its music.
If you never had the joy of eating at Little Mexico on Laurel Street, here’s what you missed: There were bars with window seating and a glass lunch counter next to a well-stocked tequila bar I never saw a bartender or a drinker populating. The bar tops were glass, with pictures slid underneath. The lighting was low and the place was clean.
But the lunch counter mattered the most because underneath, there were heaps of barbacoa, carnitas, shredded beef, carne asada steak, chicken and potatoes. It’s the tacos that matter here.
Little Mexico sold three tacos for $7. That may sound like a rip-off, but that ignores two facts. One is that the tacos had the filling of your choice for all three tacos; it wasn’t an issue to get a carnitas, a beef, and a potato taco, or two of one and one of another. Choice in these matters is often rare. The other thing is, they were the best meal I had eaten up to that point in my life. The pork belly from Husk in Charleston I lucked into would have eventually trumped them, but the tacos were for every day and still win for efficiency. They got me through weekends, when the cafeteria food took a noticeable dip in quality; both a highlight and a consistency.
I took the tacos to go sometimes, but usually I ate them inside, in the lowlight ambience, where it felt like another universe entirely—something more fitting more in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye than Richmond.
Then someone said they wanted shriveled chicken tenders and mediocre breakfast foods, all in one Formica tiled way-station nightmare. Somebody turned the Little Mexico into a frozen yogurt joint that never opened. And that was the first sign.
At least now the food was university sanctioned and consistent, week or weekend.
Nightmare might seem like an exaggeration. After all, how does a street with Wal-Mart and bad fast food compare to a province where you might see a dog with your dead grandmother’s face?
Then I remember most of my dreams take place in sterile chain stores with white tile, boxes of pudding and people there for the same purpose as me, whose problems are the same, and don’t want to be there, just as much as me.
Most people’s dreams seem to take place in ruins or old houses or places they have an attachment to. I lived in a small town where I’d go to Wal-Mart with my family or go visit my then-girlfriend on lunch breaks; one where that same girlfriend went half on a Martin Scorsese boxset with me, one we never even had a custody battle over. I avoided Wal-Mart for six months after and only half because I didn’t want to see her. It makes sense I’d dream about it.
When I tell people about my dreams in supermarkets and department stores, they usually can’t relate. I’m glad they can’t.
My original conceptions of Richmond were a kind of dream. Somebody told me that college was where you went to find yourself and where I’d find myself fitting in, all the stuff that I dreamed about in high school. College was a place where bromides like “finding yourself” were minted currency and hall passes.
What I ended up finding was that I disliked a lot about VCU. Not Richmond—VCU. I found that a lot of the talk about aesthetics and film and art was all cover-up and canopy for an advanced vapidity that only comes with a certain level of intelligence. And in the worst cases, underneath all the talk about aesthetics was something caustic and awful and once you pierced through that chosen costume, you ended up marred and burnt.
Richmond, however, I usually kept out of that assessment. I never found it dirty or something deserving of saving, because a lot of times, saving is just a catch-all phrase for “change it so I like it."
So while I might not have found validation from my VCU peers, I found the place where I failed. I didn’t mind. It took me graduating to recognize I’d rather starve in Richmond than thrive at VCU. The memories of the people I loved all took place in the city itself, places like West Grace Street where the Wal-Mart will go. The books that saved or nourished me I bought at Velocity or Chop Suey. The best haircut of my life was on Main. Maybe those businesses I loved thrived because of the students, but when I watch a restaurant I love close because someone like me [college student or recent grad, white male 18-25] “loved” I-Hop so much he wanted one on campus, it turns my stomach a little bit.
And isn’t there something inherently ridiculous about me arguing against college students in a place when I was one only a few months ago? Just an attempt to bust out of an age bracket? All those times I bitched about it being so hard to get to Kroger (a fairly common complaint when I could have just grabbed a cab, but I didn't so that's why I ate Chipotle), do I have a right to even talk?
I doubt I was The X Factor, but I have to wonder.
Michel De Certeau wrote an essay called “Walking in the City," that clarified so many of the things I felt proud of in Richmond, where he argues for a “metaphorical city” made up of “the dispersion of stories” where “places are fragmentary and inward turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read…remaining in an enigmatic state, symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body.” Those small places contain fragments and histories, people you saw one night or conversations you had at those bars and restaurants. The Black Lizard pulps and the pea coat you bought at Exile. Those small places feel close to us, but belong to the community. Like Certeau’s city, they exist physically, as “places," but the community brings intimacy and their own text to each place.
And that’s why I get a little sick to my stomach when I realize the dominating vision of the place I called home for four years during the last three was full of construction sites and coming soon signs. What texts can those sites hold when they impede on what you really love? I’m not even arguing never building anything ever. There is always going to be construction work and there will always be Wal-Marts. That’s what we’ve cast ourselves into. It’s just the slow beginning of a process where suddenly everyone dreams in the exact same place, where everyone’s metaphorical city is exactly the same. The readable city becomes the same book for every city.
And with the money I paid for those construction projects, I just wish I could have helped write something that wasn’t so damn boring to read.
#Real #VCU #Walmart #Corporations #RVA #Richmond #SouthernCities #Gentrification #CampusTakeOver
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