9 Days; 4 Cities; 1200 Miles and No BackUp Plan

Part 1: Richmond and Baltimore

Nine whirlwind days; four cities; 1,200 miles by air and road  And no back up plan.   Just got back from a fabulous visit to what may soon be my new home, Richmond, Virginia and I’ve fallen totally and completely in love with the idea of living there.  Only hitch – I’m still waiting for my US work visa to come through.  And I don’t have a back up plan if that doesn’t happen.  Crushed won’t begin to describe it.  This trip was a way of getting a feel for what it would be like to actually be living in Virginia, so I not only spent time working and touring neighbourhoods and properties with a real estate agent, I also took the time to catch up with friends in that part of the world. Did my best to stop thinking like someone passing through on business and more like this is what my life might be like if I lived here.  Well damn it, that worked too well, now I can’t imagine what I’m going to do if the US government turns me down.  Could I move myself all the way across the continent and into a new country and a completely different culture?  Leave my home, family and friends behind and start to build a new life for myself? Absolutely.  I am up for this adventure.

Richmond is not one of those gracious, antebellum Southern cities like Atlanta;  “gritty” is one of the words I’d use to describe it.  It also has some fabulous, historic neighbourhoods, but it’s seen hard times.  It’s one of the oldest cities in North America, first claimed  by the English in 1607.  The Christopher Newport Cross was erected to commemorate the date on the exact spot in what is now downtown Richmond.  It took about 200 years for a settlement to start to grow, but Richmond has been there ever since.  That’s old.


Richmond has suffered economically and seen its downtown core boarded up and empty. The middle class fled to planned communities in suburbs like Short Pump. The 2008 recession was hard on it.  But the downtown is going through a major revitalization, people are coming back to live there, industrial and commercial neighbourhoods are being turned into arts districts with warehouse lofts. And the beautiful old mansions and row homes in historic residential areas like Church Hill and Carytown are being bought up for a song and renovated to create diverse, interesting communities and the people who live in them are passionate about living there. The real estate agent tried really hard to sell me on the benefits of moving into a planned community of “brownstones” and apartments in Glen Allen, but that sort of pre-fabricated lifestyle is just not me. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t find a lot in common, or friends among, the folks that live there.

West Broad

I adored Church Hill, but fell completely in love with Carytown. It reminds of the Main Street/Commercial Drive areas of my current hometown, Vancouver. Families, single people, art galleries, coffee shops, bakeries, music venues and restaurants all crowded in together in untidy and unplanned glory along Main St and Cary St.

cary shops

And the surrounding streets are all filled with fabulous, historic row homes, some gorgeously renovated, others still dilapidated and in need of some TLC. But the streets are busy with tradesmen’s vans and there are houses in various stages of renovation all over. I can see me living in a row home in Carytown.  Maybe not right away, but soon.

cary row

It’s probably biting off a bit much right away;  I hope to lease an industrial loft in Shockoe Bottom for a few months, until I understand the real estate market in Richmond. What I learned is that buying is cheaper than renting; so many people were financially devastated in the 2008 recession and many of them can’t get back into the housing market. So rent prices are high compared to what it costs to buy. $150,000 buys you a lot of home in Virginia. A lot.

I saw a lot of rentals, but my favourite is what was the former smoking warehouse of the American Tobacco Company.  The original site.

american tobacco company


ATC lofts

It has been turned into industrial lofts and the architects have done a fantastic job of retaining those features, including the brick walls, old heart pine flooring, huge exposed beams and the original “Lucky Brand” smoking stack of the warehouse. Best of all, it has a rooftop deck with a pool that has fabulous views of downtown Richmond, Church Hill and Shockoe Bottom.

ATC roof deck

It’s a three block walk to the farmer’s market and two blocks to the train station (should I want to head north for a weekend in DC or Baltimore). And surrounded by an active street life and arts community. Perfect!

shockoe market shockoe
One of Richmond’s stellar virtues is its location in the US Southeast and direct access to the main north/south artery, the 95 freeway.

Richmond Baltimore

I decided I should test the theory of how easy it would be to go to Washington, DC or Baltimore for the weekend, so I headed up 95 on Saturday afternoon to visit with friends in Baltimore and take in my very first major league baseball game.  I got to see the Orioles play at Camden Yards, an amazing ball park. Answer to the question = it’s ridiculously easy. Two hours of fast freeway driving put me right in Baltimore. The traffic on the beltway around DC got a bit dicey, but really no big thing. I got a huge kick out driving right past the Quantico Marine Base (having seen it in about a zillion movies and TV shows) and I can’t wait to go exploring in DC itself. I could spend a lot of weekends just at the Smithsonian.

Camden Yards

We walked down to Camden Yards, stopping at pubs along with way to visit with people I hadn’t seen in a while and they all made me so welcome. After the game I just had to have the cold smoked, fried chicken at Blue Grass and the a drop in at the local on the way home. Americans are a warm and welcoming bunch of people. We Canadians could learn a few things about gracious hospitality from them. It was a long and fabulous evening. Sunday afternoon was an easy drive back to Richmond. Theory proven, done and done. This I could live with!

I also went to Lexington, KY and Atlanta, GA on this trip – Part II coming soon.  But now it’s just a waiting game.  My home in Vancouver is listed for sale, open houses start this week.  I had planned to sell, downsize and move to a different neighbourhood anyway, this just got me really motivated.  And if the work visa doesn’t come through . . . well . . .on to Plan B.  Not really sure what that is . . .I can only hope and believe and enjoy the adventure.  And wherever I end up, I will always have a couch (and maybe even a spare room!) for my friends to come visit me.  Don’t think of it as losing a friend, think of it as having a whole new part of the world to come visit.  There will be a lounger on the roof deck by the pool for all of y’all!!

Was lucky enough to catch Billy Bragg at the old Neptune Theatre in the university district of Seattle a few weeks ago.   What a fabulous old theatre.

Mark Lanegan Jeff Feilder - Neptune Theater - Opening Night

I’ve  loved Billy’s work for so long, I was expecting a great show but this just knocked me over.   Here’s Swallow My Pride from Tooth And Nail.


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