What brought you to Chesterfield? I moved here with my family in 1992. Like many others, we moved here because of the high reputation of Chesterfield schools and then never left. We seem to have been correct in our assessment of the school system, as both our daughters were lateraccepted to and graduated from good Virginia colleges. But now the kids are grown, and the normal response to that is to take stock.
Among our acquaintances in the local area are a couple of families who have moved out of Chesterfield and into Richmond. They told me that they moved there in order to be closer to cultural attractions, entertainment, restaurants and workplaces. I can understand their choice, as we do enjoy the many attractions of Richmond. Chesterfield does lack some of these. On the other hand, we do have some fine public parks in Dutch Gap, Pocahontas and Point of Rocks and a good library system. The creation of the Chester Village Green also grants us the ability to have public events at a recognizable location, and Grilling on the Green and the farmer’s market do attract a following. But in some ways, our community has a deeper appeal for those raising and educating children than it does for the young. Twenty-somethings relish urban living because there is more going on then migrate to the slower and safer option of suburbia. Some find later that suburban life feels too slow again. But property in Richmond can be expensive.
Which brings us to money. The Chesterfield way of life began after World War II with the idea of making the American Dream affordable. Sprawling developments extending west and south from Richmond were a consequence of young couples seeking space and fresh air through the use of the automobile after the trolleys died. When I think of our community, I think of the concept of “cheapness” as a two edged sword. We desire affordability and convenience and hope for excellence—but excellence on the cheap. We are proud of our schools, but resent being asked to pay the taxes that made our schools desirable. We want our teachers to stay, so we plan to give them a raise. But we plan to fund that raise by cutting the custodial staff in the school system off the payroll, in effect to outsource those tasks.
This will supposedly save some money to devote to the classroom instruction—as if everything valuable in our schools happens in the classrooms. For my part, I think that pinching pennies is not the way to achieve excellence in our schools, which I support strongly even though our girls have aged out. This behavior in our public school district seems to be driven by an obsession with low taxes, so that politicians who fight for higher funding tend to have short careers. But when my mind turns to a time when I will be elderly, less distant than I would like, I think of the lack of sidewalks in our neighborhood. When the day comes that I can no longer drive, of course there will still be taxis to get me to a store. But I do not look forward to that isolation. As mentioned in last week’s article, “Will Chesterfield become more bike friendly,” retrofitting an area for sidewalks or bike trails can generate resentments and lawsuits.
Sometimes perceptions linger past their shelf date. Unlike 1946, the air in Chesterfield is not much cleaner than the air in Richmond today, but perceptions remain of Chesterfield as fresh and wholesome. In a recent conversation, a resident of another locality asked me about the schools and neighborhoods of Chesterfield—are they still as good as folks say? I said yes, but mental reservations lingered as I visualized car accidents and domestic violence. I think of the ten-foot-long Confederate battle flag I drive by on my way to Kroger or Martin’s – is that not another example of living in the past? It has been 150 years since that failed experiment. It is also not 1946 anymore in Chesterfield. Surely, the “white flight” component to the early days of the suburban boom is no longer a factor in our choices.
We are only granted one life to live, and the grass often looks greener on the other side of the hill—but when you get there it may not be. Sometimes the sense of belonging in a community is not a matter of roads or houses or parks or entertainment, but rather about friends. There are people in Chesterfield who we know and enjoy, and those people do exert a sort of gravitational force. One final factor is the amount of participation we have in our community. When we participate in our community—socially, politically and culturally—not only does our community benefit, but we also foster a sense of belonging in ourselves that gives our lives greater meaning.
Rick Gray is on a month-long sabbatical.