- Nia Alexander
What's Richmond Like?
What You’ll Find in This Post:
Transportation norms in Richmond
Access to things like WiFi, plumbing, and electricity
Commentary on safety in Richmond
My experience with diversity
What kind of clothes you can wear
What Richmonders are like
Main Street Station, built in 1901
In every blog collection I have a couple posts about things like transportation, money, dress, weather, safety, or just the general vibe a city has. It all depends on what experiences stick out to me in any given country or city, the kinds of things that would have been nice to know about before arriving. With this Richmond collection I decided to combine all those miscellaneous-yet-important tidbits into one post. So, how about we start with one of the basics?
View of Main Street Station from the highway
In every country I’ve been to thus far, transportation has been very, very different. Cars, motorbikes, metros, pedestrians, mules, cabs, dirt roads, stretches of highway—I never quite know what to expect—and part of the reason for that is because I spent two decades experiencing Richmond transportation norms almost exclusively.
Richmond, like much of the U.S., really likes its gridded traffic systems
Generally speaking, transportation in Richmond is slow. I don’t mean that in a bad way; it’s just that compared to the motorbikes zipping down alleyways and the Toyota Landcruisers speeding through roundabouts I’ve experience abroad, Richmond traffic is chill. It is definitely a car-oriented city and, as weird as it is to highlight this, everyone follows the traffic rules. Cars keep a respectable distance away from other cars, very few people speed, everyone turns their blinker on when switching lanes, people’s brake & headlights are never broken, horns are rarely honked—and when they are it is often a polite beep beep—and you will never see a child without a car seat or a big group of people stuffed inside a car they clearly cannot fit safely in.
A bike sculpture in Lakeside Towne Center
I feel a lot of these habits have to do with Richmond’s overall atmosphere—it’s a laid back, relatively small city in the south—but it is also true that these kinds of traffic habits are very American. Compared to other countries, the U.S. is very strict about rules—for better and worse—and our driving behaviors are just an extension of that. We don’t always get it right, though. Downtown Richmond—a very bike-friendly and bus-heavy part of town—will always have cars driving in bike and bus lanes and I still laugh at the confusion that ensued when Richmond got what seemed to be only its second roundabout and drivers didn’t quite know what to do.
Richmond Pulse bus
When it comes to public transport, there are a lot of bus routes that go all around Richmond until you get to the predominantly white, suburban neighborhoods to the west. The bus system is really good, but I’ll be honest with you, I don’t fully understand how the ticket system works. Richmond buses don’t have any manner of central “scan card” system like the public transport I’ve experienced in Greece, Turkey, and Qatar. Instead, the buses use paper tickets, tickets that just confuse the heck out of me because the variety of ticket options all seem really similar. About two years ago, though, Richmond initiated the Pulse, a bus line that runs from Rockett’s Landing to Willow Lawn . . . essentially from the James River, through downtown Richmond & VCU, pass the Science Museum, and ending at a mall. It is incredible and was really a life saver when I was finishing up my degree.
A cobblestone road peeking through an asphalt street
What else can I say about Richmond? There is no metro system, there is sometimes a trolley during Christmastime, there’s really only bumper-to-bumper traffic when there is an accident on the highway, there aren’t many toll booths, skateboarding around VCU is the norm, there are a lot of one-way streets, watch out for potholes, taxis are a rare sight, pedestrians always have the right of way (a courtesy not present in any of the other counties I’ve been to), we still have cobblestone streets in some areas, and one of our highways is said to be haunted by the ghosts of Indigenous Americans.
At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on a rainy day. It is not uncommon for it to be sunny and raining simultaneously.
I feel like any Richmonder who sees this sub-header will immediately sigh, shake their head, roll their eyes, or just laugh out loud. Richmond weather is often unpredictable, so I fully understand how somewhat laughable it is that I would attempt to capture it in semi-permanent internet words.
How about we organize it by season?
Winter officially starts in December, but it doesn’t get cold until February, except for when it gets cold in January and sometimes December. Sometimes it snows like powdered sugar and sometimes the sky shoots out shards of hail and sleet and angry snow, the kind that looks soft until it touches your face and you suddenly feel the sharp sting of a dozen icy bees. Sometimes we believe the snow will come around 5pm, only for it to come around 11am and create a mad scramble to get kids home back home from school. Other times we think it is going to snow, and sometimes that certainty leads us to cancel school for the whole week, only for it to not snow until the very end of said week, forcing us to then miss another week of school and leading to the cancellation of midterms.
That was a memorable senior year.
But I digress.
Spring starts in, what, March? April? To be honest, it’s a toss up either way. Sometimes it snows in April. Sometimes it’s hot in March. I wouldn’t say April is particular showery, and I wouldn’t say May is particular flowery, but I can say that every other pod, bush, and tree will coat the whole city green with pollen. Seriously, go look up photographs; pollen in Richmond is thick, layering cars in a fine green powder and washing down the streets in yellow ripples when the rain comes.
Flower bush along the sidewalk
Summer is humid, humid enough to make your hair frizz up like a Troll, but not humid enough to make it feel like your lungs feel are breathing soup. The hottest it gets is the low 100’s F, and that only happens for maybe two weeks total, usually in late July/early August. Most of my memories of rainstorms are from the summer, the kinds of tropical storms that aren’t terrifying, but are strong enough to discourage one from leaving the house. Hurricane season officially starts in late summer; Richmond doesn’t get a lot of hurricanes, but we have definitely been hit with some memorable ones. I have vague memories of Hurricane Isabel, a Category 5 hurricane that did a lot of damage, and I have a clear memory of Hurricane Gaston because I got into a minor car accident. We also had one earthquake, which technically isn’t “weather” per say, but it happened; it was the first earthquake to have happened there in decades. But on the bright side, the summer also brings lightning bugs, incredibly clear night skies, and in June you’ll smell the scent of honeysuckle in every neighborhood.
I feel like autumn is a real doozy, perhaps the most temperamental of all seasons. Not only is it a continuation of hurricane season, but it is also a mixed bag of wind, rain, chills, heat, the occasional tornado, and mosquitoes (which actually come out in the summer, but the fact they have the audacity to keep biting people come September really grinds my gears). One week we can feature drastic temperature changes, which often gets a lot of people sick (either because they weren’t wearing the right clothes or, if you’re like me, are sensitive to changes in barometric pressure). I also have my worst allergies in the autumn because apparently the invisible autumn pollen ravages my body more than any of spring’s yellow sneeze dust. However, even with the season essentially being a spinning wheel of surprises, one thing you can count on is that every Fall will bring orange, red, and yellow trees. Autumn in Richmond is one of the few things I would say really does look like those romanticized movie scenes of autumn in America.
A sunflower at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Where do I begin? The quick answer is that Richmond is a very diverse city, especially downtown. The city is overall very tolerant of different genders, sexual orientations, and ethnic backgrounds. My more experienced statement is that much of Richmond’s diversity is spread out into segregated neighborhoods, like much of the U.S. I had the privilege of spending undergrad downtown where I got to meet a lot of different kinds of people, but my life experiences otherwise have proven that the rest of Richmond is simply not like that. However, that is a layered topic that I do not feel like getting into right now, so I will leave it here for now. But you know what I will also leave you with? A fun fact!
A lot of the places in Richmond—counties, rivers, neighborhoods—are an interesting combination of Indigenous American names and English terminology. Things like “James River” and “Henrico County” (derived from a Latinized “Henricus”) are side by side with words like “Rappahannock River” and “Chickahominy YMCA.”
I feel the need to mention this because accessibility to things like WiFi has always been a little different in every country I’ve been to. Well, I am relieved to say that Richmond is very tech friendly. Most locations have WiFi and there are often outlets around to charge your phone if need be.
Food, plumbing, and electricity
Fountain in downtown Richmond
Overall, water, plumbing, electricity, and food are all really stable and safe in Richmond. Electricity only goes down if there are high winds or if a car rams into a circuit box, but either of those things happen rarely, and when they do happen the electricity is back within a few hours, or sometimes minutes. Plumbing is also really good in most places and even the places that have meh plumbing are still fine, though perhaps a little slow probably because they’re in an old building. When it comes to drinking water from the tap, it is safe 99% of the time and that remaining 1% is wholly based in the seemingly random poisoned tap water headlines that pop up around the country every year. I feel food also follows a similar theme in the sense that overall, the food is very safe, but the U.S. is also known to issue salmonella recalls every so often (on anything from spinach to peanut butter). There was also that time where there was Hepatitis A was in the strawberry smoothies.
You can wear whatever you want. Fishnets & booty shorts? Do it. Rainbow hijab? Do it. Cotton candy mohawk? Weed shirt and nose ring? Combat boots and a beat face? Box braids and a sleek suit? Sure! Why not? On paper and generally speaking, the U.S. is fine with any and all kinds of self-expression as an extension of the whole “freedom of speech” thing. I will say, though, that code switching & assimilation by minorities is in full effect; as diverse as the U.S. is, it is unlikely to see many people wearing any specific cultural clothing while out & about. The U.S. also seems to be uncomfortable with the idea of not being to see people’s faces, so sorry to any niqabi travelers I have out there. In fact, when it comes to modest dress overall, it seems like the U.S. can be a bit judgmental toward people who don’t want to show skin (and by “people” I mean “women”). This may not be an issue for a tourist, but as a local who has always preferred long skirts and full coverage swimsuits, I have received a surprising amount of criticism.
From high school through undergrad, there was always construction going on. Maybe it’s one of the things that binds Richmonders together: Our communal fascination with the way our city is evolving.
Even with the criticisms I’ve mentioned, I can still say with confidence that the people in Richmond are friendly. Uber drivers will spark up conversations, people say “hello” when you make eye contact, and I can’t say I’ve ever had a prickly experience with any waiters, receptionists, or even casual strangers. People seem always willing to give directions or take photos of you if you ask.
I will say, though, that it’s not uncommon to run into people asking for money in Richmond, especially downtown. Some claim to be homeless and others, often teenagers, ask for money to feed their younger sibling or catch the bus to work. The truth is that sometimes it is hard to tell if these people are lying to you or not, and part of me believes I shouldn’t immediately assume they could be lying, but my understanding of the situation is always skewed because I’ve met so many people asking strangers for money in a way that is clearly a con. I will never forget the guy who always told the same story of falling asleep in the park the night before his interview and getting his clothes stolen. Or the man whose eyes jumped straight to my purse the moment I gestured my hand to say “no.” Or the lady who tried to just walk into our dorm apartment complex as though she lived there. Or that non-student who was masturbating in an empty VCU classroom. Or that guy who grabbed my hand while I was walking down the street and asked me on a date after I lied about my name and where I was going.
Ah, and speaking of strangers accosting women, catcalling is a thing in Richmond. It doesn’t happen often—and it’s never happened to me—but I have seen it happen in broad daylight while a woman was in a group. There was also that bizarre point in 2016/2017 where there seemed to be a new sexual assault or harassment on the VCU campus every week, and that’s just the ones that were reported and/or deemed reportable by the campus police.
I’m sure at this point I have probably made Richmonders sound kind of scary, but really, it is much more likely you will run into kind and beautiful personalities than dangerous blokes.
A business that was selling dog accessories during the Watermelon Festival
There are not many strays in Richmond, but the few that I have seen over the years have always been dogs. These dogs were always just . . . dogs. Not Cujo’s or angry chihuahuas, just dogs that look relatively healthy and probably had just wandered off. On the off chance you do see one, though, please don’t talk to it; it looks clean and friendly, but you don’t know that dog and people engaging with stray animals just drives my nerves up, so if nothing else, do it for me. There are animal shelters you can call just to report a stray animal and they will handle it from there.
That said, Richmond is a very dog friendly town. We’ve also got deer, squirrels, racoons, salamanders, tortoises, groundhogs, snakes, and our state bird is bright red with a mohawk. I am not much of a nature person, but I can appreciate the variety Richmond offers.
Short answer, it’s illegal. Whatever it is, it’s illegal.
Real answer, you can find it. Whatever it is, you can find it.
Complicated answer, Virginia recently decriminalized simple marijuana possession. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I do know that it is significant. I think that eventually Virginia will legalize marijuana, but that is its own conversation.
Happy & simple answer, some of what is unquestionably legal is CBD oil and medical marijuana.
Prostitution is illegal, but like most illegal things in the U.S. you don’t have to look too far to find it. Jeff Davis Highway is known to be a popular spot for this, as well as a few neighborhoods in Southside. I know if you’re not from Richmond you don’t know where these places are, but just know that when you plan your tourist trip these areas have hookers come nightfall.
Richmond is in America, and America is a mess, so it is really safe?
The American flag
As a Black woman in the U.S., I feel as though I have a much different understanding of safety compared to other American demographics. That in mind, I would describe Richmond as “safe enough.” I don’t know what the official statistics are, but I do know what my experience was like I felt safe enough. Was it safe for me to listen to music while walking? Yes, but I always left one earbud out. Did I carry a purse? When things couldn’t fit in my zipped pockets, yes, but it was always a small bag that I kept inside my coat. Did I walk home alone at night after work? Yes, but I always carried a stun gun. Did I ever use the stun gun? Was I ever followed? Ever mugged? No. Essentially, I was prepared for situations that I knew could reasonably happen, but they never happened to me.
Empty Richmond street at night
Also, like in every city there are some neighborhoods that you probably should steer clear of at night. In the case of Richmond, it’s not because their inhabitants are predatory, but because you may get caught in some crossfire that has nothing to do with you. I distinctly remember two murders occurring on the street behind my apartment and I am pretty sure I have heard gunshots in the distance throughout my life . . . there are only but so many times over the course of two decades that your parents can convince you someone’s car is backfiring in the middle of the night. It is also possible to see civilians with guns. I will never forget readying to go down the dairy aisle in a hippie dippie supermarket only to freeze when I saw a white man with a woman, a toddler, and a handgun as he compared milks.
Gun violence is something that the U.S. has been grappling with for a long time now, but it doesn’t even feel like the most immediate concern anymore. Between COVID-19 and police brutality this past year, the U.S. overall just feels like a big yikes when it comes to safety. When I originally outlined this post over a year ago, I responded, “A nightmare? No.” when asking myself “Is the U.S. a nightmare?” However, in the time I have been away from my country, having only observed it through a series of screens, I don’t know if I can give you the same answer as I would have a year ago. The United States I grew up in definitely had its problems, but it wasn’t the bizarre dystopian Black Mirror episode that it apparently is right now.
Virginia stationary, t-shirts, mugs, and a bundle of cotton
So where does Richmond fit into all this? Does Richmond reflect any of what we’ve seen from the U.S. this past year? Well, kind of. Like many cities across the U.S., Richmond has been home to a series of Black Lives Matter protests, some of which turned violent. I saw a hole in the window of my old apartment, the burnt carcass of the bus I used to ride, shattered windows of the restaurant where I’d pick up dinner after work, things looted from the store I used to pass on my way to art class . . . Richmonders were in pain like a lot of us right now. And many of the actions of the Richmond police in response to this pain has just highlighted the problem even more.
However, Richmond’s protests over the past few months have been more often peaceful than they have been chaotic. And even before all the shit seemed to simultaneously hit every fan at 100mph, protests in Richmond were not violent, although they could get a little nerve-wracking. Men with rifles and Confederate flags standing outside the capitol building. Nazis arrested before they could get to Richmond to join that protest. Or even when Trump got elected and I watched as a swarm of VCU students walked all the way to the highway, blocking traffic and—supposedly—getting tear gassed.
A graffiti covered building in downtown Richmond
But is this what one should expect as a tourist in Richmond? No, probably not. However, I can’t tell you exactly what to expect because the Richmond I have known for the past twenty years will undeniably be different once “all of this” is “over.”