I’ve wanted to write this post for a very long time.
Certainly, I’ve wanted to write it since I left Lynchburg, but I also wanted to write it while I lived there, because many of these things were apparent to me even then.
But I didn’t. For a variety of reasons:
When I owned a business there, I didn’t want to alienate my customers.
Even after I moved, I didn’t want to offend the many friends I have who still live there.
Also, I didn’t want to be viewed as spitting in the face of a city that was so formative (for better or worse) in shaping who I am today, because I like who I am.
Yet, I lived there roughly from 1998 until 2013, so I’d like to think fifteen years is enough time to have formed a solid and well-rounded opinion of the place. And now that I’ve been away from it for about a year, I’d like to think I’ve had enough time to round out some of the rough edges in my thinking that were probably more about me than anything else.
I’m willing to believe there are many reasons one might want to live in Lynchburg. I say that sincerely. But the list that follows doesn’t contain any of them.
In addition to thinking to myself at least once weekly that I’m glad I live in where I do now, I must at least that often think to myself, “I’m so glad I don’t live in Lynchburg.”
Here are 10 reasons why.
1. “It’s a great place to raise kids.”
This is the sine qua non of Lynchburg lovers far and away. It’s a phrase found on the lips of almost anyone reasoning with a colleague or friend who is considering a move there.
But of course, the accuracy of this claim all depends on what you’d like your kids to be raised around.
When I asked myself what kind of environment I wanted my children to be raised in, I came up with the following:
- Walkability: Whenever someone used to ask me how long it took to get from one point in Lynchburg to another, I used to joke, “It’s 20 minutes to anywhere, and you can’t walk.” This is true, and it’s at least partially due to the topography. Lynchburg is known as “The Hill City,” and you just can’t get anywhere without having to go over the river, through the woods, and up some stinking hill. Even when two points aren’t that far apart in terms of a straight line, there is no straight line between them. Lynchburg is a city that would benefit immensely from a local, metropolitan rail system that connects its various business centers, but there’s nothing like that in the works that I ever heard of. Every time I brought it up with locals in conversation they looked at me like I was from outer space.
- Cultural Diversity: Lynchburg possesses some cursory sense of racial diversity, being comprised of 63% Caucasian residents, 29.3% African American, 3% Hispanic or Latino, 2.5% Asian, and less than one percent of other races (as of the 2010 census). That more or less jibes with who you’re likely to see walking down the street at any given time. But there is no true cultural diversity at large to speak of, at least not any that’s celebrated. Lynchburg is a place I experienced as being indifferent to diversity at best, and threatened by it at worst, instead tending to prize homogeny.
- Excellence: See “Okay for Lynchburg” below
- True charity: I’m a Midwesterner at the heart, I’ll confess. I grew up in an area where you knew where you stood with someone based on how they treated you in-person. This is not to say that Midwesterners are openly hostile, per se, but they certainly aren’t false – what you see is what you get. But in Lynchburg, and in the South at large, I didn’t always have that sense.
So, Lynchburg might be a great place to raise kids, but probably not if you hold any of the above in high regard.
2. “It’s got a great downtown!”
As a former Lynchburg business owner, I chose deliberately to locate in Lynchburg’s downtown. As a former manufacturing and textile center, it has some great-looking old buildings that are just dying for someone to renovate. While there was a great deal of “talk” about re-building downtown, when I left in 2013, it just wasn’t happening, though I’m sure many would be willing to go on record stating the opposite.
The truth is that while many people were willing to “get” downtown, the city struggled to offer them any reason to “stay.” A few of my friends are helping to change that reality (Abe Loper’s White Hart and Hailey Pavao’s Pastiche at Main, for example). The main thing downtown Lynchburg needed to help form a true walkable community was a grocery store, and apparently that too is a problem that’s been rectified with the advent of Grassroots Local Market.
But still, there is no way to truly grow downtown Lynchburg if everyone keeps ducking their heads in the sand and saying it’s better than it is. There are many businesses there, but in terms of a true downtown experience, it’s wanting by a large margin, particularly in terms of nightlife. When I lived there, my wife and I made an absolute promise to ourselves to escape to neighboring Roanoke and Charlottesville at least once a month to experience real downtown living – we weren’t alone.
At least one reason why there is so little nightlife in downtown Lynchburg (and Lynchburg and Virginia as a whole) is because of the antiquated “food to alcohol ratio” rule that even in its current form is little more than an altered form of Prohibition. At current, “food sales and nonalcoholic beverage sales have to be 45 percent of the total of food plus mixed beverages sales.” In other words, if you sell $10,000/week in food and mixed beverages, you also have to sell $4500/week over and above that amount in food and non-alcoholic beverages. Because, you know, selling booze is bad.
It’s hard to get a nightlife (one thing downtown is sorely missing) when you’ve got to be sure they’re shoveling down the food as well, and Lynchburg certainly doesn’t need any help in that arena.
3. “Okay for Lynchburg”
Some of the above new businesses being rather large exceptions, one of the most frustrating aspects of being a patron to the various and sundry businesses in Lynchburg what was I came to refer to as “the Lynchburg disease.” During my time there, three of four businesses had great ideas, even novel ones. But it was like they got about half of the way into their idea and said, “Eh, this is good enough.”
I’m talking about things like swanky logos and furniture for cafes but ambience stifled by fluorescent lighting and wood paneled walls. Or innovative and unique restaurants with kitchens stocked by Sysco Foods, the third-largest non-oil based company in the US, and the generic food wholesaler that supplies chain restaurants with “25-pound bags of rice, half-gallons of salsa, boxes of plastic gloves, beer mugs, dish-washing detergent, not to mention 1,900 different fresh and frozen chicken products.”
As a business owner, I suspect the interruption in fully executing ideas was likely driven by the proverbial bottom line. But in a town where new businesses opened and shut their doors before anyone even knew they existed, it just doesn’t add up.
When I made this criticism while living in Lynchburg, well-meaning folks used to tell me, “Well, that place is okay…for Lynchburg.” But as long as Lynchburg holds itself to a standard of excellence that’s sub-par when contrasted with the cities it hopes to lure young professionals away from, it’s not gonna work.
4. Dirty is the new cool
Listen, Lynchburg hipsters – dirty is not the new cool. I’m all for expressing yourself, but seriously, you can only overcome body odor with patchouli so much, and it won’t hurt you to trim your beard and/or mane now and again. There were more than a few joints at which I was somewhat averse to being a patron for fear I’d find a 12-inch long hair in my food.
And personal hygiene aside, this issue sometimes extended to the businesses themselves. Without naming names, there were a few places I stayed away from literally because they were just plain dirty. Not like “gross” dirty with cock-roaches and so forth. More like big fat dust-bunnies staring at me from window sills and various and sundry faux antiques. These weren’t the kind of dust bunnies that got there overnight either.
Even (and perhaps more so) here in St. Louis where we’ve relocated, hipsterdom abounds. Scarce is there an evening out with friends where I’m not surrounded by handlebar mustaches, chest length beards, and horn-rimmed glasses. This much is true of Lynchburg as well, and it is perhaps a sign of youthfulness more than anything else. You might even say it’s a good thing. So the problem isn’t hipsters, it’s just plain old cleanliness. Lynchburg can do better than this.
5. Generic Hell
Around 2009, a friend of mine from Nashville was driving through Virginia en route to see his sister in Richmond. We decided he should stop in Lynchburg for a visit. He was well-equipped with GPS, so we didn’t feel any particular need to give him directions beyond an address to plug in.
When he got into Lynchburg, he accidentally got off at the wrong exit. He called and was genuinely frantic.
“What is this place?!!” he said. “It’s like – ”
He paused, searching for the right words.
“It’s like generic hell down here!!!”
He was referring, of course, to the sprawling nightmare Lynchburgers know as Wards Road, complete with massive signs, a ridiculous amount of traffic, and every big box store you never wanted to see alongside fast food and chain restaurants galore.
When I came to Lynchburg, most of Wards Road was still green. I’m no tree-hugger and I’m all for progress, but I often remarked how little Lynchburg seemed improved by the massive developments there.
Consider by contrast National Geographic’s happiest place in the US – San Luis Obispo, California.
“They made the decision as a city, rather than making the city optimal for commerce, to make it optimal for quality of life. It used to be a forest of signs. Signs beget more signs. They instead limited the size of signs and put the resources into aesthetics. They outlawed fast-food drive-throughs so you don’t have idling cars polluting the air, it’s harder for people to eat fast food. They were the first place in the world to outlaw smoking in bars and restaurants, so as a result you have about the lowest rate of smoking in the country. You can stand any place in San Luis Obispo, a city of about a quarter of a million people, and look around and see green. They have zoned it such that there’s no building beyond a certain point, so everybody has access to green space, which we know lowers stress levels, and has access to recreation.”
Kinda makes you think, don’t it?
6. The drivers. Oh…my…gosh…the drivers.
Even Lynchburgers joke about how poor Lynchburg drivers are. My two favorite Lynchburg driver moves are as follows. See if you can relate:
The “U-Turns are Unacceptable” Maneuver
I’m driving in the left hand lane. The person in front of me is also driving in the left hand lane, but apparently realizes that he/she needs to be in the right hand turn lane which is coming up very quickly. So quickly, as a matter of fact, there is no way he/she will actually be able to get over in time to make the turn. Conventional thinking in any other city would be to say, “Well, it looks like I missed the turn. I’ll have to drive up a bit and then make a u-turn to circle back around.” Instead, in Lynchburg, said driver turns on the right-turn signal, applies the brake and stops in the middle of the road, waiting for a driver to let them in. I (and all of the traffic behind me) screech to a halt, either resulting in a pile-up or averting it by a far too narrow margin. Lord help you if you honk in dismay.
The “I’m Just Being Courteous” Maneuver
Perhaps related to the above, this one is brought on by some of that good, ol’ Southern hospitality I mentioned earlier. Whenever another driver makes an egregious driving mistake at the peril of everyone around (and behind) them, other drivers are more than happy to accommodate by making their own egregious errors, thereby making everyone around (and behind) them equally at risk for a massive auto collision. This is also known as the “Me and the driver behind me are already pulled out into oncoming traffic and have the right of way but I have decided to allow other cars to go ahead of me” maneuver.
Suffice it to say that now, when I much more infrequently see someone committing one of these traffic violations, I’ll often poke my wife and say, “Look – they’re pulling a Lynchburg.”
7. Liberty vs. Lynchburg
If you live in Lynchburg very long and are remotely in touch with local politics, you’ll discover very quickly that there is ongoing antagonism between Liberty University and the the city. Sure, many folks will downplay this, but it’s really there, in everything from banter among business-owners about the “Liberty kids” to decision making in City Council.
The general thrust of the argument is that Liberty often forgets it resides in “Lynchburg” not “Libertyburg,” and on the opposite side that many city folks neglect to realize (much less operationalize) that a massive portion of the commerce and growth in Lynchburg, including the development of new businesses and the provision of a segment of the workforce, is all but entirely a result of Liberty’s presence. And it can get really ugly on both sides.
However, this isn’t to say that there aren’t some voices in the mix that are trying to work on this, and I’m proud to say I know many on both sides of the coin who genuinely want a peaceable co-existence.
But man, does this debate get old.
8. Mexican Food
I’m relatively certain I must have some genuine Mexican blood in my family line, but my father’s work on plotting our family tree (which dates all the way back to the 1800’s) hasn’t revealed this to be true. I am convinced I could eat Mexican food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner 5 of 7 days a week. Even if it was really crappy.
In Lynchburg, it is. (I did really enjoy La Tacqueria, however, as an exception.)
Most of what passes for Mexican food in Lynchburg is in fact “Tex-Mex.” This is a fact my wife, who hails from San Diego, California, reminded me on countless occasions while aghast at what was passing for a fish taco.
But, Lynchburg is no real exception there – most of the US’s Mexican restaurants are no different. So, Tex-Mex is fine for me, so long as you use the right ingredients.
I hate to bring this up again, but I saw more than one of Lynchburg’s Mexican joints with a Sysco Foods truck backed up to the kitchen door. This is fine, if you want your Mexican food to have the same re-heated taste as Applebee’s (Lynchburg has two), The Olive Garden, O’Charley’s, TGIFriday’s, etc. I don’t.
I can’t count how many times, against my own better judgment, I ate at a Lynchburg Mexican restaurant only to leave feeling like I had a sack of wet rags in my stomach.
9. “The Mason-Dixon Line”
I have no trouble with the recognition of history in our midst by way of landmarks and monuments and so forth. But my time in Lynchburg, and indeed, throughout most of Virginia, was permeated with people talking about the Civil War like it happened the day before yesterday. This is true to the extent that phrases like “south of the Mason-Dixon Line” are tossed around as regular expressions of geographical orientation.
I understand that this is as much a cultural reality as anything else, and that folks from Lynchburg and surrounding parts aren’t at fault, per se, for invoking this kind of language.
But at worst, one could argue that this not so much a celebration of history as it is a fixation, and one that is experienced as a pining away for yesteryear – a yesteryear when atrocities were committed against people of color no less.
Friends and I would often remark at what a breath of fresh air it was to drive northward (to D.C., for example) where people seemed to have a more present-day conception of their relationships to geography and one another.
10. Christian Culture
My largest struggle while living in Lynchburg, and perhaps, the only one of these that I take very seriously, was undoubtedly with what has come to be termed as “Christian culture.” It is termed thusly in an effort to avoid conflating it with a related, but entirely different (and often at odds) phenomenon – Christianity itself. This reality has been adeptly parodied by a massively popular internet site, “Stuff Christian Culture Likes.”
In Lynchburg, much of what is passed off as Christianity is actually an expression of culture, impacted largely by political conservatism and nationalism. As a card-carrying Christian, I always felt sad when I experienced people confusing one for the other. Ironically, Christian culture usually impedes the work of Christ rather than exemplifying it.
So, there’s my list.
If you live in Lynchburg, and love it, don’t hate me! I hope you could laugh at at least a few of these.
I don’t mean to poke fun mean-spiritedly or to cause injury. I’m just talking about my experience. And again, I met so many people in Lynchburg that changed my life I would be remiss not to mention it a second time.
Besides, I wasn’t a native Lynchburger, much less a native Southerner, so I’m willing to believe that at some level I’ll never fully get how things were during my time there.
I think I’m okay with that. Maybe even proud.
And for now, I’m very happy not to live there.Click Here to Get New Posts Via Email Author’s Note (4/23/14): Many of Lynchburg’s finest citizens have responded below, either loving or hating this blog (and me). If you’d like to get a good sense of the local color, please have a read. Author’s Note (4/23/14): Ryan George, a Lynchburger, wrote a great follow-up to this piece rebutting what I’ve said here. He took the liberty of self-promoting it in the comment box below, but I figured, why not feature it? Click here to read it! Final Author’s Note: Comments on this post have now been closed as it seems just about everything there is to say on this subject (for and against) has been said. Thanks to all who participated in a lively discussion, and thank you all for reading!