i have a black-and-gold tattoo of a VCU ram on my ass. it's the mark that distinguishes me, like the hood ornament on a mercedes benz or the "manager's special" sticker on a pack of expired meat.
when i think back on my life, i recognize what a deep and lasting effect the institution we called virginia commonwealth university had on me during my formative years. besides drinking excessively and breaking desk chairs, i also came away with a solid education in medieval literature and history -- knowledge without any practical application in today's fast-paced, global service economy, but which i dug the shit out of regardless. it also launched me into a career in the newspaper business, which proved to be almost as obsolete as the medieval scribes laboring over their manuscripts.
while the university administration dreamed of one day ascending to the pretensions of ivy elites, VCU during the 1970s was still an oasis of learning retaining a small-town feel that belied it location in the center of the city. classes were held both in 1950s-style utilitarian academic buildings as well as a motley assortment of other spaces that had accrued to the university's real estate holdings over the decades. these included the magnificent brownstone, turn-of-the-century mansions along franklin street -- some of which, at the time, were actually accessible to students!
as with most everything else in american civic life, by the time ronald reagan came into the presidency the days of the VCU i knew and loved were numbered. education became a commodity as government support was curtailed and gradually replaced by a symbiotic relationship with big business. whereas once upon a time, a working-class schmuck like yours truly could attend a decent public university without going deeply into debt, higher education became yet another victim of privatization, while preparing society's next generation of leaders was a monetized and turned into an investment opportunity.
while the school has always fielded a basketball team, like everything else about the institution, it seems to have been built by the numbers. VCU never really spawned traditions so much as it manufactured them. the basketball program has been as much a part of building a megalithic education machine as are the parking decks that obliterate the landscape, and the sprawling dormitory-retail complexes built by quasi-university, corporate consortiums.
during the real estate boom of the 2000s, a series of gargantuan academic buildings transformed the downtown area in a way not seen for 100 years -- until the institution has come to virtually dominate the city center, drawing around it development and investment that dwarfs anything else going on. in effect, it seems that richmond city proper would've imploded were it not for the economic stimulus that VCU brought.
last spring i spent an afternoon visiting campus on what was the 30th anniversary of my graduation. a campus that used to encompass just a few blocks surrounding the 900 block of west franklin street has been utterly transformed -- and even more since then, with entire blocks of the old grace street strip being converted to ever more parking decks. it is the most monstrous, disgusting evisceration of a city landscape imaginable.
i may wander down there with my camera to witness the chaos that's sure to ensue, regardless of what the outcome is of tomorrow's semi-final game. the previous win, in the quarterfinals, brought out masses of black-and-gold clad kids, the post-911 generation, all whipped into a frenzy manufactured and merchandised by the owners and financiers of a dream we're all pushed into believing.
whether "we" win it all or not, the institution, the city and the investors will be the ones who come out smelling sweetly from all the sweat and exertion on the basketball court. because at places like virginia corporate university, what really counts is market share, return on investment and fat bonuses for management.