I have a bit of a bone to pick today. I’m irritated with the way my little City continues to make it hard for Richmonders to have a good time, be out-of-the-box creative, exist peacefully and have respect for the authorities – authorities who I’d like to believe set out with good intentions but seem to get lost somewhere in the process. Richmond is a great place for many reasons. For example, right now, we have the most stunning display of cherry blossoms along our historical Monument Avenue and side streets, along the route for the Monument Avenue 10K Race, which has been dubbed one of USA Today’s Best Races. The race draws over 40,000 participants from Richmond and beyond.
The City is historically important, artistically diverse, a haven for foodies, and has great value for property considering the proximity to Washington, DC. Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) was the only museum/gallery to host the Picasso’s on the East Coast last spring – one of only three U.S. stops. We are now home to an NCAA finals qualifying basketball team, two years in a row, which has begun attracting the attention of many new types of students to our VCU. We’re also hosting the UCI World Road Cycling Championship in 2015. So much good stuff, people! So much!
But many of the things people hear about our town, over and over, do not make us proud, as residents. Just recently, I’m sure you all heard about (or saw on SNL…ugh) the ridiculous ultrasound bill that has made our government, which is housed in Richmond, a laughing stock and drawn protestors from all over the place. I realize this is a major state and national issue, but it took place here in Richmond and local authorities handled things in a distressing way. More than 30 people were arrested for sitting on the Capitol steps. I’m sure there are two sides to every story, but the stories of peaceful events turning ugly when the authorities get involved are growing and growing around these parts.
I’m not much for public protest, personally – I both agree and disagree with a lot of the Occupy movement, but I definitely didn’t agree with the press being arrested for photographing from public space. I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about how confused they are by much of the City involvement in the comings and goings of residents. There were police in actual riot gear waiting outside our basketball stadium when VCU beat Kansas in the NCAA’s last year. Seriously? This is not to say I dislike the police. I’m actually a big fan. I’m thrilled that police patrol my neighborhood since there have been a lot of break-ins nearby. I know a few really great local police officers. And last year, the man who gave me my first ticket since I was 17 was exceptionally nice and apologetic, but let’s face it: I was way speeding in a residential area! I deserved it!
Let me get back to the point. I understand a lot of the odd policies the police must enforce come from above, sometimes way above. The folks we see on the ground are merely the enforcers of regulation they are not in charge of changing and/or creating. My beef is with the top. And my beef today is this ridiculous headline I read on my neighborhood blog: Woman Ticketed for Daughter Using Chalk on Belle Isle. What? $300 fine? What? Banned from all City parks? What?! Chalk, people! Chalk! If you’re not familiar with chalk, it’s formed of natural sources, biodegradable and generally seen as a unobtrusive. My husband and I even have friends with kids who have managed to skirt the issue of their kids coloring on the walls by painting a huge wall with chalk board paint and encouraging artistic freedom without sacrificing permanent home aesthetics.
So what’s wrong with this story? If no permanent damage is done, is it graffiti? My thinking is no. We’ve had at least two rains since this incident meaning the chalk, I’m sure, is long gone. For the non-local readers, Belle Isle is a City park surrounded by the James River, with a shoreline of wide flat rocks and lots of wooded trails, popular for bikers, picnickers and sunbathers – very family friendly. And evidently, chalk-free. What are authorities afraid of? That this is going to encourage the child to get into spray paint and paint pens later? What if we have a budding Shepard Fairey, Christo or Andy Goldsworthy on our hands? Wouldn’t Richmond be proud of that? I would hate to be the one that stifled that creative spark.
And let’s not forget that Richmond has had great success with publicly sanctioned chalk-related events. Last year we had Chalk Up the Town and the year before, in my neighborhood they held a Chalk-a-Thon to support a local Waldorf school. Fun times were had! Beautiful art was created. Beyond chalk, the Knitorious MEG has been yarn-bombing the area very near the site of the Chalk Incident and no one is running out to tear that down. It’s pretty and unique and not harming anyone. We have embraced it, in a way. Some of us even get excited to spot a new yarn project.
I’d like to see Richmond grow to be a bit less strict about freedom of speech and expression. Non-harmful creativity should be embraced and we should be ashamed of putting the fear of public art into the next generation.