A local student writing a research paper recently asked me a series of questions about my life here, including “why did you stay in Richmond?”
It’s a good question that I’ve been asked many times over the years. It’s a question I come back to periodically as I evaluate what I want in life and where I want to be. It’s a question I’ve watched friends and coworkers wrestle with. It’s a question that speaks to all who think about the future of this community.
I came to Richmond to attend Earlham College, and originally had no intention of sticking around any longer than necessary to complete my degree. The Earlham of that time did not do a good job of highlighting the city’s treasures for new students arriving on campus; many students and even some faculty spoke of it with disdain, a surrounding environment to be tolerated and endured instead of appreciated or enjoyed. As graduation day approached my peers and close friends made preparations to move; very few would even consider the possibility of staying in Richmond. The momentum all around me was to launch oneself away from this place.
But for most of my senior year I had chosen to live off campus, in a rental house on South 4th street in the historic Old Richmond district. It was the perfect distance between campus, where I had a few classes to finish, and the downtown area, where the offices of my startup technology company were located. I could walk to both, and on those walks I began to see a different community than the one I’d only occasionally dropped in to for the previous three years. I began to see a community that was more than the stereotypes passed around the campus community: A place that used to be. A manufacturing hub that hadn’t caught up to globalization. Rednecks and racists. Boring and flat. Nothing to do. Nothing to see here.
Instead I found a vibrant downtown business district where, walking down the sidewalk any given day I could see the familiar faces of hard-working, friendly people who loved their storefronts and shops and banks and offices. I came to appreciate the convenience of stepping away from too much time at my computer for a quick haircut, a milkshake, a few minutes reading in the sun on a bench, a witty chat with a passerby. And then I looked up and saw the beautiful buildings around me, some loved and some waiting for love, all with stories to tell and personalities to uncover.
Instead I found a lush landscape of fields, streams, trails, woods and winding roads that invited me to explore inward and outward. I got caught in glorious thunderstorms and lightning that crackled for miles around me. I swam through lakes and ponds that washed off the sweat of summer, enjoying the laughter of friends as we forgot any troubles of the day. I biked for miles and miles, thinking and smiling and taking in the beauty around me while watching for aggressive dogs or bad drivers. I gardened and then eventually lived for a while on a friend’s farm where I helped tend the property, care for the animals and harvest the crops. I finally understood why someone would choose this land.
Instead I found new pockets of people that quickly broke the “town or gown” dichotomy I’d been living with. I had lunch with bankers and lawyers. I went to happy hour with reporters and photographers. I caught a baseball game with the staff from local not-for-profits. I attended meetings with people from city and county government. I went to plays and concerts and musicals with people who give more to the local arts than any other cause. I talked with people who loved Richmond deeply but who rarely set foot on Earlham’s campus. And when I shared my ideas about little ways Richmond might be a better place, I was encouraged and supported. “You should talk to so-and-so about that, I bet they’d love to help.” “Have you thought about being on our board of directors?” I found a place where I could make a difference.
Earlham continued to be a force of gravity in my life. I attended speakers and cultural events there. I wandered through its familiar campus and charming buildings, extending my education in ways there hadn’t been time for while a student. It seems a week didn’t go by that I didn’t meet someone in town who had some kind of connection to the college; a graduate returned after a long time away, a retired professor, a former staff member. I saw the way the Earlham ecosystem extended far beyond 40 West and College Avenue, contributing time and money and people and thoughtful contemplation to so many systems and organizations in the area. I saw the way Earlham prepared its students to do important, amazing things in the world. I saw what Earlham modeled for the wider Richmond community in its institutional decision-making and consensus-building, and I saw the way it treated its own community with care and sincerity. I appreciated the significance of an Earlham education more than ever.
My business partner and I followed the happenings of Silicon Valley and the growing tech scene in New York City. We knew that moving our company to a place where others were building similar businesses would create energy and connection and motion that could propel us forward. But we also knew there would be a cost. Cost of living differences, yes, but also a different kind of strain on our vitality as we navigated traffic, egos, complexity and upheaval. For the first few years we checked in with each other occasionally about if and when it was time to move. Eventually we bought houses, formed new relationships and planted roots, and the question faded away into the background. We’d chosen Richmond one personal milestone at a time.
There was certainly some sacrifice in this choice. There were people who invited me to other places and opportunities, recruiters who spoke of jobs I still sometimes daydream about. There were friendships and relationships that would only have been viable had I left town. There were political movements, alternate career paths and personal callings that only existed and thrived outside of Richmond, Indiana.
But I decided to stay in Richmond one day at a time. And then one week at a time. And then one year at a time.
I decided to stay in Richmond because it felt more like home to me than any other place I’d lived or known.
People decide to stay in Richmond for different reasons, and those reasons shift around or even go away. Some people decide to leave, and that’s okay too. Some people come back when they never would have imagined that to be possible. Some people don’t have the luxury of contemplating the question.
Why do you stay where you are?