PART I - Charlottesville And Albemarle County
PART II - Strengths and weaknesses
Rejoice in the opinions you agree with;
curse the rest.
Last tweaked 02/08/2013
Charlottesville, Virginia, may be what American cities would be if they had a choice.
It's an island of civilized awareness at the top of the South. People fed up with a declining world find living in Charlottesville the best revenge.
Charlottesville is a romantic city in ways different from the magnolia and Spanish moss romance of the deep South. That's historical romance. Charlottesville is for today's romantics - part nostalgia, part restless innovation.
There's no secret to understanding the Southeast. From 1861 to 1865 many of the region's best and brightest were killed believing they were freedom fighters in the war for Southern independence.
With their land devastated and their economy crippled, the able and ambitious left to seek life's rewards in the North and West, creating a devastating brain drain that lasted 100 years.
Later jim crow enveloped the region, rendering the non-white South insufferable to all but the servile, so the able and ambitious African-Americans left.
What of those who remained?
For the true Southerner there's no such thing as the past. Each Southerner is a living part of Dixie history. Southern heritage is one very long day. The Northern Invasion happened just after breakfast. It's now later that day.
Not that we don't have a lot of sticky visitors who thought they were passing through, spent the night, and never left. Some of them are wonderful. Spent their lives here, served as mayors and legislators, even our governor. But when they die, a dixie undertaker might call to ask what state they called home so he can ship the body.
Jefferson imported artisans from Europe to build his structures, and faculty to staff his university. Many of their descendants are still here, and some artisans still practice the family trade.
Thanks to the University and an enlightened post-WW II president named Colgate Darden, by the 1950s the brain drain here was in reverse even as the rest of the South was still leaking.
To this fertile ground Charlottesville attracted and nurtured exotic growths that seldom transplant successfully. For example, the useless off-spring of America's industrial midwest rich settled in the county farmlands around our city.
It is those - our Jefferson implants and wide-ranging transplants - that make Charlottesville and Albemarle County a delicious mini-civilization. Forbes Magazinre in September, 2011, ranked the area No. 13 on a list of the top 20 US areas for millionaires.
America's inherited rich are not equal. Many who controlled the industries dwelled in rust belt states. Their most able sons lived nearby. What of the daughters and the less able sons, rich, educated, but not welcome in corporate board rooms? What of the impotent victims of generation-skipping trusts?
Many settled in Albemarle County. He and she ride to the hounds, insatiably drink, feel endlessly sorry for themselves, and embrace a culture dominated by the horse. It's the grandest thing that can happen to an area.
Why? Think chain stores and national corporations.
Chain stores, national businesses, provide a wonderful addition to the variety and range of shopping in any town. And they provide jobs and local advertising revenue.
The downside is that after the local bills are paid, they ship the profits out of state to the home office. The chains suck up local money and spend it expanding elsewhere, along the way distributing some to the founders and investors. This is money snatched out of the home town that generated it.
But there's an upside to that downside. Those who reap those profits often spend them where they live, and a lopsided number live here. So national business is not all outflow to us. Most of our wealthy didn't take it from us; they took it from other people and brought it here.
One example: newspaper magnate John Knight married into the horsey set here, yet without even including the Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers, the owners of more than 125 other US daily papers lived in Albemarle County in recent years.
We've been able to rely on this imported wealth for local investment, political and charitable contributions, entertainment, social life, etc. In fact Forbes ranks the area as No.3 of the top 10 US areas for charitable giving. Some is discussed below.
Attracted by mint juleps served in monogrammed silver, celebs have been drifting in for generations. Writers, actors, painters, and all manner of the accomplished came to this land of congeniality. Those who left pretense behind found a welcome.
Aside from passionate southerners, few today care about history. Mentioning celebs like local product S. S. Van Dine, the seminal detective story writer who fled to New York to create Philo Vance (and never came back,) or Southern intellectual James Branch Cabell who succeeded in New York without severing Southern ties, or composers Randall Thompson and John Powell, won't bestir you.
Still, mention should be made of former local color Oskar JWF Hansen, a noted 20th century sculptor and a monumental character. Those who met Hansen never forgot. He lived the full lives of three men and then some. Millions see his great sculptures at Hoover Dam, Washington, and Yorktown. Here's a brief, borrowed, bio which could grow if I have time to scan pictures of his works and add more details.
Current celeb memories perhaps begin with William Faulkner who came here in retirement to ride-to-hound.
Faulkner's grandsons are here, or were. They founded the first local brew pub. It was down the street from where the area's most unusual restaurant was located, John Tuck's legendary Gaslight. Restaurants define local ambience and are defined by it. The Gaslight couldn't have been what it was anywhere else. If you were ever there, this history will bring back memories.
An icon of the 60s, Richard Farina, wrote his book "Been down so long it looks like up to me" in a house on University circle a few doors from where "Anastasia" would live later in the decade. He and Carolyn Hester, the sweetest of folk singers, lived here in 1960-61. Later Dick traded her in for Joan Baez's sister, Mimi. Dick played the bit part of Dr. McGuire in the Thomas Wolfe bioplay "Look Homeward, Angel" with the Virginia Players. While she was here, Hester recorded her name title album, perhaps her best.
Writer Rita Mae Brown came here as Martina Navratilova's companion. The tennis star moved on (athletes tend to) but Rita stayed to ride-to-hound, telling us, as everyone before her had, "If the world were a logical place, men would ride side-saddle."
John Grisham and John Casey write their novels here. Grisham is a generous civic benefactor and active Democrat. Former poet laureate Rita Dove writes her poems here and often lends her presence to projects. The late Mary Lee Settle's wonderful books were penned here for years. Grand Master short story writer Peter Taylor bought Faulkner's house and ended his teaching and writing career here, trying to teach his craft to scores of us.
When Ian Fleming died, his estate chose someone to continue writing James Bond novels. The guy instantly moved here. When someone was commissioned to write a sequel to Gone With The Wind, it was someone here, Alexandra Ripley. (Did anyone read "Scarlett?")
The great New York Herald Tribune TV critic John Crosby retired here. He defined forever the problems facing a TV critic when John said in 1955: "He is forced to be literate about the illiterate, witty about the witless and coherent about the incoherent."
Sports celeb Howie Long calls this home, as do Mr. and Mrs. Jack Fisk (Sissy Spacek) and WKRP's Venus Flytrap, Tim Reid. Sissy is a model of civic involvement, gracefully lending her support where appropriate.
Caveat: if you recognize a famous face on the street or in the supermarket do not ask for an autograph. Ever. Mind your own business. We know that is improbable for an American but here, you had better if you want to have friends.
For as long she could stand Sam Shepard pinching every waitress, Jessica Lange lived here with him. Alan Alda had a place nearby.
When John Kluge's broadcast properties were sold to make the Fox network, John brought his 7 billion here and the area ramped up to resemble Palm Springs East. Grand parties, celeb helicopters, heights of vacuity Faulkner never imagined until he read F. Scott Fitzgerald.
With no ostentation whatever, billionaire mensch Edgar Bronfman moved in to be near family and raise bison. Very different style. Kluge favored a Volvo limo and had two of them; Bronfman drove beat-up wheels, around here at least. Both have been wonderfully generous to the University.
Multi-multi-millionaire widows move here for the company. The Cities Service widow lives and invests here, as does the Schenley widow. There's an heiress to downtown Palm Beach with a husband named Merlin.
When all her glitter turned to dross, the leading claimant to be Anastasia, Anna Anderson, moved here to live out her days. She had a childhood friend already here, the son of the Czar's court physician, Gleb Bodkin, who had proclaimed himself the bishop of the Church of Aphrodite. Anna caught a husband here, local historian Jack Manahan.
A grand duchess who lived the Cinderella story in reverse deserves a page to herself and we give her one here. (We were friends, so these include personal memories.)
The Dave is in Charlottesville but musicians thrived here long before Dave Matthews. All manner of noted musicians, classical, folk, pop, bluegrass, came and set a spell. It's often the University that attracts them. Folklorist Paul Clayton broke new ground by getting a Masters degree at the University collecting Appalachian folk music.
During the dance band era the University was a mecca for big names playing at the three dance weekends: Openings, Mid-Winters, and Easters. The oldest and grandest of them, Easters, brought in major entertainment beginning in 1915. 50 years later I published the list of the first half-century of Easters entertainment.
This picture shows Dave Matthews in an early stage appearance with Cosmology, playing a benefit for the local Tandem School.
Dave was raised a Quaker. By coincidence Tandem affiliated with the Society of Friends a few years later to become Tandem Friends School.
Dave's first groups were collaborations with the noted jazz trumpeter John D'Earth and were named Chameleon and Cosmology. The Dave Matthews Band came after this Cosmology photo in May 1990.
Cropped from the picture due to size were D'Earth and his wife, singer Dawn Thompson.
Dave's band has a charitable trust, the Bama Works, which is funding wonderful things in town.
One of New York's legendary socialites defied the transplant norm. Felicia Warburg Rogan is one of a dozen locals listed in the New York Social Register. A lady of the first order, she kindled re-birth of the Virginia wine industry developed by Jefferson and destroyed by prohibition. If her neighbors were sots they should at least drink Virginia wine.
Years passed. The winery's been sold and is under new management. Last I saw it was making grape juice.
The third and last of Felicia's three trophy husbands, John Rogan, (before John was an RCA Sarnoff and a son of FDR) founded this area's outstanding hostelry. John Rogan's Boar's Head Inn is one of the most accessible first class inns in the country. A little-known story about it turned up mysteriously. Can one believe this?
Virginia wine? Noted art collector Joe Hirshhorn came to town to buy some David Breeden sculptures in 1981, stayed for a small, private wine tasting at the Boar's Head Inn, and died the next day. Really. I was at the next table.
But that was 1981. Some local wines are better now. There are a few Virginia whites climbing the stairs toward good French wines, though they lack the refinement found in any B&G imported white at half the price.
Our reds? Think of the revolting "Blood of the Bulls" wines of the Balkans, raspy acid clawing its way down your throat. The skill of blending red wine takes generations, and a soil not at all like our rich Davidson soils in Virginia.
But Oh! La! La! our boasts and prices. The marketing concept is that few Americans can tell good wine from bad, so Virginia vintners spin a perception of quality through premium prices and grandiose claims. Socialite Patricia ex-Kluge Moses carried this to the extreme. She began wine production by pricing her first effort at $495 a bottle! It was vin tres ordinaire that few bought, aside from Bill and Hillary for Chelsea's wedding.
In 2010 this 900 acres estate and gold-plated winery went to foreclosure. At auction the cases of wine sold for a few bucks to hotels and restaurants. Everyone who wanted to had a chance to try it. And there will be more of it, but under a new name. Destiny turned to central casting for the perfect hype-meister to buy it out of foreclosure: Donald Trump. Praise the lord.
Doing just that down the road was white robed Sri Swami Satchidananda and his Integral Yoga ashram. He gave the area a contemporary mystic appeal to today's poor little rich with nothing to do. Celebs and non-celebs living a life they don't understand. They have it well but are unable to leave well enough alone. They built him
The swami understood all, and smiled. Before he died in 2002 he observed of his Woodstock generation flock: "They are all searching for the necklace that's around their necks. Eventually they'll look in the mirror and see it." That theme was interestingly executed in this painting by localite Virginia Canfield in 1981, now hanging in my living room. Look for the necklace.
When he needed R&R from the patients, the swami slipped away to work on an old Caddie, trying not to get the white robe dirty.
Back when there was a USSR and a geography hit list, we were slated for annihilation in WW III because of a US Army spy lab in town. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev ended that crap. In 1993 he confessed he was a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson and celebrated Jefferson's 250th birthday here. We Russians wept with joy that day.
Maybe Gorby ended the cold war to protect Monticello?
Before deciding this is a great place to live or retire, remember that Virginia is in the bible belt. Progressive steps are seldom taken, and when they are they are often thwarted by retarded ones.
Virginia has executed more people than any other state. Even more than Texas. The Death Penalty Information Center in DC counted 1,389 executions here between 1608 and 2004.
Virginia has the most draconian anti gay laws in the country, newly passed.
Our three branches of state government cause us to be ranked last in the nation for fairness to consumers and fairness to labor. It doesn't matter who controls the legislature: conservative Democrats for 100+ years or conservative Republicans now, both are anti-consumer, anti-labor.
We are one of only two states that approved the grossly anti-consumer UCITA - the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act that's so awful even a business-dominated Republican Congress decried it. It's UCITA that has allowed software licenses to get wildly, cruelly one-sided. It's so bad that other states passed laws to specifically exempt their citizens from Virginia laws.
The Virginia State Bar is a model of consumer indifference. Lawyers can go right on practicing no matter how they treat clients. In 2004 this record of one lawyer came to light: (a) mishandled a real estate transaction in 1986, (b) deposited a clients funds in his own account in 1990, (c) abandoned a client on his trial day in 1992, and (d) repeatedly violated rules against harassment and intimidation in 1996.
Yet the Virginia Bar saw no cause to punish him or alert the public. Only after he beat his brother with a baseball bat did the bar act. He won't be allowed to practice law until he's released from prison.
Virginia has the oldest continuous legislature in the new world and acts like it. The common rule of legislative committees: "You will treat your chairman as a deity - or be ignored" began in this state long before Congress adopted it. This puts an interesting spin on the state's 1776 motto, Sic Semper Tyrannis - Thus Always to Tyrants.
In the legislature, "Sic" means "Reverence."
There is an unofficial maxim Virginia taught other states. "No man's life or property are safe so long as the legislature is in session." Why? Influence peddling.
Our law makers are 140 amateurs. We elect "citizen legislators" who sit in session only a couple of months a year. In 2004 (it's more now) lobbyists spent $13.6 million to influence those 140 people. That's almost 100,000 head turning dollars per member.
The state's largest consumer group spent zero that year on lobbying.
And Oh does it show.
* Virginia has done away with usury limits on business and investment loans. Consumer loans have outrageously high interest caps that are out-lawed as loansharking in most states (and condemned in the Bible, curiously enough, if hypocrisy interests you.)
* Virginia lets service providers like hospitals require patients to waive the homestead exemption as a condition of getting medical care. Sickness or injury can mean you lose your home to an exorbitant hospital bill.
* When such bills wipe you out and you take bankruptcy, Virginia limits your sheltered net worth to $5,000, one of the lowest in the country. That means if your possessions and the equity in your home total more than $5,000, you can't keep your home.
$5,000. At the other extreme, in Florida and Texas you're allowed to shelter several million in net worth. Sane states are in between. Virginians prefer heartlessness to ostentation.
Virginia legislators are nearly all affluent men from the provider side of the economy, or lawyers who represent business. The few not are more dependent than the rest on benefactors. In Virginia, no one can afford to be a populist, though some make a pretense of it, promising, as my old friend Henry did, to "Keep the big boys honest."
The bitter truth about representative democracy is that populists have no friends in the room when committee assignments are made, bills are voted on, or district lines are drawn. So they're ignorable.
The Roberts Court decision that corporate checkbooks can exercise unlimited power to help or harm politicians ("Citizens United") was insurance. Helping or harming politicians was already under control. The Roberts Court was keeping the big boys ahead of the game, lest the Internet upset the balance. The power of Move-On to raise money for Obama was a heads-up.
As a bible belt state, Virginia culture is dominated by Christianity for dummies, better known as fundamentalism. National right wing reactionary powerhouses Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were Virginia boys.
Their influence shows. In 2006 the State Senate refused to allow local governments to voluntarily supplement the salaries of underpaid public defenders. Localities can only supplement the salaries of prosecutors. Do you understand that? Our Christian culture opposes an even playing field in criminal courts.
How can the Senate tell localities what to do? Because Virginia is under the "Dillon Rule" which says local government can do nothing without specific permission from the state legislature. That repression came from the jim crow era.
It's worth noting, though no one does, that the only jim crow laws that changed in Virginia were changed by the US Congress, the US Department of Justice, and the courts, not the Virginia legislature.
Which brings us to Charlottesville, where the saying "art begins where common sense leaves off" isn't just limited to art.
In 1982 Charlottesville made a startling decision to grow no larger than it was. It land-locked itself forever within its modest 10.846 mile limits by selling its power of annexation to the surrounding county. The sale is absolute and irreversible so long as the county shares its tax revenue with the city, which it does.
The writer, a consent engineer then living in southern Albemarle, was hired to sell this Revenue Sharing plan to skeptical county voters who had to approve it. Facing an approval rating of only 23% in a poll a few months before the vote, we formed SAFE (Stop Annexation Forever) and asked local artist Charles Peale to create
the Annexation Monster
By voting day he was a familiar face and voters understood what was at stake. Revenue sharing meant immunity from annexation, and it won by 63%, a landslide. As a result, between 1983 and 2012 the county has given the city $161 million.
The truism that expenses rise to exceed income happened almost immediately. But more importantly, the city discovered the perils as well as the joys of no growth.
On the plus side, the city postponed the rendezvous with destiny that uncontrolled reproduction will exact on us all. The city's population growth ended. Charlottesville had approx. 40,100 inhabitants in 1990 and 40,099 inhabitants in 2000. (Since then it officially lost population through census finagling.)
All the area growth, and it's been substantial, was in urban and rural areas outside the city. Albemarle County's population surged ahead of the city to 84,186, more than double Charlottesville's.
Cities in Virginia are totally independent of counties. Virginia is unique that way. Counties can't tax city residents; cities can't tax county residents. They stand or fall on their own. Without annexation to grow, the only way now for Charlottesville to expand rather than stagnate or shrink is to crunch what is already here.
We are already here.
This creates attitudes that are powerful, deeply rooted, and will outlast you.
Because it can no longer expand, Charlottesville no longer has an economically balanced population. With no power to annex suburban middle class sub-divisions, the percentage of children in Charlottesville public schools eligible for free or reduced-price lunches has soared and is currently over 54%. Albemarle County is under 20%. (By comparison, Washington DC, America's foot in the 3d world, has a 75% rate.)
The economic curve here is skewed. Families familiar with the area who can afford a choice of city or county tend to choose the county, for good cause. City real estate taxes are 38% higher than county taxes. For my home, being on the city side of the line costs an extra $1500 in tax.
Thanks to growing property values, taxes were growing much faster than inflation since the turn of the century. Inflation averaged 2.5% a year while property taxes rose an average of 8.4%, a total tax rate increase of 58.81% in seven years.
Wages rose approximately 4% in that period, Social Security almost nothing. Fixed income retirees without ample pensions are in jeopardy here.
Then the Wall Street 5th column sabotaged the national economy and property values plumetted. Like every other local government, Charlottesville found itself with less realty value to tax, and less income.
In order to grow the tax base the city is selling its last remaining downtown parking lots to builders, to the delight of a zillion shopping malls who offer convenient free parking while the city charges for its garages. Doesn't seem to matter as it once did. Astounding city management has made the downtown pedestrian mall hugely successful.
The city is using powerful economic tools to increase the number of businesses downtown. Amazingly, we are poised to get three new downtown hotels and attendant stores. It's an economic miracle you'll be reading of soon in the national press.
On the other hand, we shrink the available development space with a policy of "heritage extremism." This means old buildings cannot be replaced but must remain essentially as is in appearance, and be maintained.
It's far more than "preservation." As practiced here it goes miles beyond architectural or historic heritage. It's a worship of obsolescence.
The policy as defined in law makes sense. But as we do it, it shows what happens when government is in the grip of cultural elitism. We get the tyranny of the dilettante.
Which looks like this. Any structure built before the birth of the person talking about it is a priori a historic landmark which must be preserved. It may not be torn down and replaced with a useful structure.
No definable architectural or historic importance need be shown. The code requirement to justify preservation is self-fulfilling. Protection of obsolescence is unstopable.
This applies to worthless, condemned, long abandoned shacks that are boarded up, rotting, and termite-infested; decrepit old storefronts, even accessory sheds.
They once demanded the preservation of an adandoned, rotting hen house of no importance because it was old and someone in power said it was "quaint." That was his word to prevent the creation of student housing in the heart of the university area desperate for housing, and zoned for housing.
Georgia O'Keefe once lived on the street, so her name was brought in to confuse the issue.
Plans for repair, maintenance, and interior modernization of structures must be approved down to the smallest detail by a Board of Architectural Review (BAR) who will determine what will be done, and how, and [an example from the minutes of the Feb. 2002 meeting] whether the wood you have chosen for your Fellini's Restaurant door may or may not be painted, and what color, and which brand of paint.
All aspects - except co$t to the owner or the owner's rights - are ragged on at length until all the egos are pumped. Since the inception of the BAR, its appointments have gone to extremists and control freaks at the urging of cultural elitists.
Not without cause, BAR is said to mean building architects' revenue.
If the owner of a vacant, decrepit, useless, hulk fails to weatherize it, the city can have it done and place a lien on the property.
Much of the city that was built prior to 1930 was declared "historic" and the owners stripped of property rights. When one buys property within a control area, he does not get the bundle of rights that define property ownership elsewhere, like beyond the city line.
Albemarle County declines all such controls, preferring to encourage historic preservation through the incentive of real estate tax breaks. Outside of the ubiquitous urban commercial sprawl that provides its tax base, Albemarle has been successful at preservation in the opinion of all but extremists.
These draconian city controls are not for the purpose of making things attractive. Often they have the opposite result, preserving ugly, inconsequential buildings or city blocks.
Gutsy developers with common sense have been known to bulldoze worthless structures in the night, accepting fines and the wrath of city hall in order to erect vitally needed new buildings over the obstinacy of Luddites practicing pernicious preservation.
The city is bounded by two small rivers and ignores them. They are all but invisible and there's no waterfront, aside from a footpath. City voices occasionally rise to lecture the county on what to do on its side of the water.
That footpath was a fully adequate graveled nature trail until the city paved it. They actually paved a nature trail. Then they painted a white line down the middle.
Why? The newspaper quoted the jackass responsible: "It became apparent with bikes, walkers, and dogs off leash that we need to provide people with some direction to stay to the right." He cited "several incidents in which loose dogs toppled bikers."
The white line is to tell unleashed dogs which side to stay on.
You read it earlier: sometimes government begins where common sense leaves off.
One of the steps seriously contemplated in recent years was revoking city status, giving up the charter, and reverting to a town. Given our provincialism it wasn't a bad idea. We elect down home folks to city council chosen by their attitude, not a track recerd of management. In fact, management or business background usually results in a failure to win party nomination. The city runs well only because we use the city manager form, hiring professionals to run the place.
So of course some are talking of dumping that and going to the strong mayor system. "Replace the pro with Bozo." That was a plank in the 2009 GOP platform. It's no surprise they can't field a credible candidate for local office.
Aside from transportation the pros do ok. Transportation is in a class of its own. This is a hard city to move cars through, and anti-vehicle Luddites in and out of government want it even worse.
Charlottesville is one of the few small cities to make getting around difficult intentionally. The government doesn't like private vehicles and goes out of its way to inconvenience drivers. They treat the city like a resort island reached only by bridges.
Alas, other than having a couple of nifty jitneys running bus routes, we're not an island. But witness these gambits:
* "The name without a road." A vitally-needed commuter road, the Meadowcreek Parkway, has been on the drawing board for 38 YEARS with money to build it. It's been stalled all this time by one obstructionist city council after another that imposes new requirements when the old ones are met. They're promising to build the city's part by 2014 or so, if they must.
In 2011 the county finished constructing it's portion of the road, but city Luddites continue to smother the city with obstructionism including foolish law suits.
Without that parkway, the existing road linking the populous part of the county to downtown is a 4-lane road dwindling to a narrow 2-lane residential city street intentionally encroached by obstacles installed by the city.
Obstacles? The city built a matrix of random concrete abutments reaching into the street. Motorists strike them constantly. It was widely predicted this would cause accidents. It does.
At night the concrete obstructions come up as a sudden surprise. On a rainy night they are invisible even when you know they're there. Within months the concrete was covered with rubber scraped from tires.
The official response to complaints: "People will strike the curbs." One councilor spoke honestly about his mindset, telling the press: "The obstructions are designed to disturb drivers and be an inconvenience."
Concrete obstructions block the sidestreets, requiring fire engines and school buses to use the entire oncoming lane to make a turn. The same is true of buses when they try to re-enter traffic after a stop. A preposterous debacle.
The police chief reported the obstructions have not reduced speeding, only forced speeders into the oncoming lane. Constant radar patrols cost money but are no help. The obstructions make a head-on collision more likely, and expose taxpayers to costly liability.
There is talk of adding obstructions to other arteries. The official justification: "Pedestrians like it." F the motorist is a mantra in this city.
* Throughout the city there are random 4-way stop signs every few blocks. The stated purpose is "traffic calming." The result: thousands of gallons of gasoline wasted on skewed priorities.
* Traffic lights may be timed to disrupt rather than smooth the flow. And there are plenty. When federal grant money arrives, new lights propagate like bamboo after a spring rain.
* If the car count at the busiest hour, "rush" hour, justifies a traffic light under federal uniform traffic control guidelines, that light will run 24 hours a day. Blinking caution during low traffic hours, the sensible option, is rejected.
* A short downtown cul de sac capable of holding three cars has a 28-second green light, while on the edge of town a choked up turning lane at a highly congested intersection has a 6-second green light that inevitably leaves cars stacked up waiting to turn. The folks in charge know about these. They want them that way.
* The county installed cameras to impose fines on people who think lights are there to improve traffic flow. The city will surely follow. (Tip: under Virginia law, notices of fines delivered by mail are unenforcible and can be ignored.)
* There were, and in some minds still are, plans to convert the busiest downtown intersection, and one that actually works, into a traffic roundabout, a move estimated that at rush hour would triple the congestion and delays.
They did put traffic circles in some residential areas, perhaps to prove that bad policy creates bad examples.
One is a classic how-not-to-do-it. It's an over-size traffic circle in the middle of a residential intersection so big that a moving van can't negotiate the turn. No bus can. What was reasonable was something half the size. And they allow parking, so of course a transpo Luddite leaves something parked in the narrowest place all day and night.
Elsewhere in town parts of intersections are blocked off to allow barely room for 2 cars to pass. Trucks? Buses? Fire engines? Forget it. 21st century cronyism: city hall hears only pedestrians.
After suffering five decades of this insult to good management, Charlottesville is now involved in a 3-phase, $2 million system to coordinate the city's traffic lights. Not only coordinate them, micromanage them. How do you micromanage a traffic light? Perhaps holding it green a few extra seconds to allow a bus to get through, keeping traffic flowing and the bus on schedule.
If it's set-up properly and if it's allowed to work, and if people in the control room pay attention, this impressive program could correct some of our transportation deficiencies.
But don't expect a big improvement until we have one-track-mind robots to rely on rather than easily distracted humans.
Recently I spent 18 minutes waiting for a green light while one emergency service vehicle followed a few minutes after by other EMS vehicle followed a few minutes after by a third EMS vehicle each reset the traffic light back to step one. A major intersection light could not run its cycle.
EMS traffic controlling devices do not HAVE to default to cancelling the cycle and returning to step one. They sell intelligent ones that turn the light green for the emergency vehicle, then return the light to where it was in the cycle, which keeps traffic flowing. But where traffic is concerned, Charlottesville's destiny is one bad choice after another.
* At a high traffic exit from a bypass, a two-lane ramp is limited to one lane. The other lane serves a private residence as his driveway access. At 4 PM on a weekday it can take 20 minutes to travel 200 yards up that ramp. A traffic light and use of both lanes would eliminate the problem. They know.
Every government has its quirks. Ours is transportation Luddites.
Bicycle lanes abound. Why? Luddites tell us, "Roads cause cars. If you build roads, cars come. If you build bicycle lanes, bicycles come." So they built bike lanes, but bicycles did not come. They didn't build roads but cars came anyway. They learned nothing from this.
Bike lanes are 100% unused at night, 100% unused in the snow, 99% unused in the rain, and 98% unused in the sunshine. Luddite response: escalate the war on cars.
Their concept, and they are serious about this, holds that everyone, young and old, is capable of biking, can do it at all times day and night, in any climate and weather, and bike transport is all anyone needs.
They believe biking to work or to shop is an all-weather choice for locals and visitors. They believe mother can take her kiddies on a bike and come back from the supermarket with 5 bags of groceries in the snow in perfect safety.
Blow that absurd smoke aside and discover we have old-fashioned cronyism with new age cronies: bike-riding counselors with ties to the Luddite bike population.
It turns out that new age cronyism is no better than traditional cronyism. Their hand is in our wallet to fund their special interest, bicycle theft. Bike theft around town is a leading crime and a huge annoyance they hoped to control with taxpayer bikes.
The concept was simple, simple and stupid. Our solons bought the concept that gangs of thieves will stop stealing expensive bikes from private owners and selling them for big money if they can legally take worthless free bikes. Got that? So we got the "borrow bike" program which placed yellow public-use bikes downtown and at the university.
Alas, the needy fellow steals a yellow and within three weeks every yellow bike disappeared or was vandalized. Wonky supporters called the program a great success. "You can't steal borrow bikes because no one owns them," they explained in their appeal for tax funds to buy more bikes.
Please let it be the drugs.
* Changes from the top down are almost assured to happen. From the bottom up change is another matter. If a resident needs to call attention to a neighborhood problem, he's supposed to work through layers of red tape involving Neighborhood Associations ("Step One: Create a Neighborhood Association") before the problem can be heard.
The red tape came to us in 2000 after 240 years of small town government accessibility. "Cities are doing this now," we're told when staff and councillors come back from collegial city management conventions where the mantra is "Professionals don't listen, they tell." Tyranny by mantra.
* To begin the new millennium city council proposed doubling the fee for overtime parking, citing an outsider's study recommending it. They always hire outsiders when they propose something like that. No one who lives here would suggest it. Merchants were unitied in begging them not to, explaining, as the same study showed, that downtown lacked parking for shoppers.
Councilors cavalierly dismissed them with the suggestion of building a third parking garage one day.
A month later when a vote to increase the overtime parking fee came up, council abandoned plans to double the fee and instead tripled it. The biking councilman who pushed that through suggested shoppers should park a quarter mile from downtown in the city's highest crime neighborhood where personal safety is at risk from gangs.
These are concepts for big, sprawling cities, not postage stamps. They are means to create "affordable housing" which capitalism (greed under cover) doesn't provide. "New urbanism" is jargon for something nasty: knocking down housing values by removing the amenities that make it desirable. "Connectivity" is the weapon.
Change a one-entrance subdivision to multiple entrances, converting quiet, low traffic, residential streets into shortcuts for through traffic. "Calmed" traffic, to be sure, with obstructions to plague drivers and block service vehicles.
Specifically, the plan called for access to the local interstate highway through one of the city's quietest one entrance subdivisions, bringing down property values to "affordable housing."
That subdivision included a city councilor's home. The proposal died a quick death.
Hizzoner The Mayor helped the idea along. That particular mayor is retired now but he was a sketch.
When in office, he led groups of bicycle riders down Main Street at rush hour to block traffic, in what he called a "show of civic camaraderie." (I didn't make that up.)
Hizzoner's solution to one of the legendary cross town bottlenecks was to propose a highrise in the middle of it, either dead-ending the streets or pretending they aren't there. The project would have overwhelmed a low key commercial-residential neighborhood.
Hizzoner is an architect to whom only the edifice matters. Unintended consequences are beyond his notice. But ah! the public money he sent to out-of-town planners for projects we could never build. Was he fishing with public money for a personal career move? Looked that way to some.
The council shelved Project Bottleneck. Without Hizzoner's hand on the money tap, it died.
The controlling Democratic Party, my party, has totally dominated local government since the late 1960s, and deserves to. There was a surprise in 2002 when a personable Republican with a ponytail pulled more votes than a Democrat in a city council race. That seldom happens. The losing Dem was a loose cannon preservation extremist.
Republican Party leadership here is embarrassing. Two recent council candidates were a convicted felon and a newcomer to the city. Nice people, but unorthodox backgrounds are not the same as qualifications.
Such antics undermine party unity, and contribute to city precincts voting overwhelmingly against Republicans year after year. We are one of Virginia's two reliable Democratic islands.
For longer than anyone remembers, Charlottesville and Albemarle have been gerrymandered into redneck rural congressional districts to make sure our influence is annulled. We rule Charlottesville but we lose every congressional election by a landslide. Then finally in 2008 Republican mis-management was too much for even this district, and a Democratic challenger pulled a handful more votes than the GOP incumbent.
So for one term we had a Democrat in Congress, one far too progressive to be appreciated by rural yahoos. They voted him out at the first opportunity despite (or because of) a last minute rally that brought President Obama to town.
Presidents always come to Mr. Jefferson's village, even Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Bush the First who held his Education Summit at UVa. It's tradition. FDR secretly weekended at an Albemarle estate, Kenwood, for years; Clinton began his inauguration trip to the White House from Monticello.
Losers campaigned here, too. William Jennings Bryan's outlandish, reactionary ideas mesmerized Southerners. Alabama segregationist George Wallace campaigned here to succeed President Kennedy, hoping the country would turn from the vineyard to the barnyard.
If the city's independents tire again of one-party rule, as happened in the 1960s, or see substance to the scornful "Socialist Republic of Charlottesville" in a year when Republicans field credible candidates, we could see the city briefly return to GOP control. While I hate to see my party lose, there are reasons we could.
* Despite this being home to the state university and its School of Education, our city public schools barely reach state averages in a state where most schools don't reach national averages. Across the country, Virginia ranks 37th in public education.
Poor local performance is not for lack of money. We tripled per-pupil expenditures since the early 90s with marginal performance improvement.
According to the daily paper, for black students, out of 132 school divisions in the state, Charlottesville ranks #129, third from the bottom in English and math. In science, says the paper, city black students rank last in the state, #132.
Are we doing something wrong?
The same source says that in 2006 Charlottesville High students taking the SATs scored 51 points better than the national average in reading, 18 points better in math and 76 points better in writing. So programs for the college-bound are proving themselves.
In 2005 the city schools moved to mainstreaming, distracting the regular classes with kids needing special attention. They replaced the more effective education with something cheaper and, for now, politically correct.
Supposedly fed up with the school board, which in Virginia, alone among the 50 states, has always been appointed rather than elected, Charlottesville revolted in November, 2005, and voted overwhelmingly, despite opposition by the Democrats, to change to an elected board when the legislature allowed the option.
In its first election (2006) the winning candidates under the new system were the same people who would have been appointed under the old.
Albemarle county schools have better reputations, which influences which side of the county line young families concerned about education choose to live. Good private schools thrive here, with new ones emerging every few years.
* We have the usual utility taxes every city does, plus a whopping 15% tax on TV cable. Half is named "Utility Tax" and half is named "Franchise Fee." Both are on the bill. Regressive taxes remain inviolate despite large budget surpluses in good years.
* Budget surpluses are to spend. City Council once actually appealed for public suggestions how to squander a half-million dollar surplus.
This was their response to the suggestion not to.
The 2006 surplus was serious money, a whopping $9.9 million. Then a year later the surplus was $6.7 million. Since 2000 we've been stripped of more than $20 million in taxes not required for the budget. Despite that surplus, when there's a major power outage we lose our water supply because the pumps have no back-up generators.
Stand-by power is amazingly cheap, but government has more important concerns. Charlottesville once spent $20,000 to bring its city hall Christmas tree from California.
Remember the city's Revenue Sharing agreement with the surrounding county? The sharing formula rests on how much each side taxes its citizens. Charlottesville always taxes more to stay on the getting side of the deal instead of the giving.
By over-taxing us $6.7 million too much that year, the following year the city collected from the county a whopping $13.6 million under the formula.
Revenue Sharing created an imperative for city council to over-tax us. That's a secret. Now you know. So far it's been worth $161 Albemarle millions to the city.
* Some is wasted. Whether due to empire building or whatever, taxes fund two separate city planning staffs, yet every potential action requires costly outside consultants with commonly less expertise than is found on staff or at the local university. Why? No local official will put his name on a proposal that might prove unpopular.
Psychology has names for these things. There is the Interloper Effect - the power of third party consulting to pass as objective and without motive. Of course that's only because we citizens don't know what biases the consultant is known for in the industry. That's for the inner circle who chose them to know.
To pick a current example, dam and reservoir studies produce findings that a particular consultant is known for. Want a different result? Pick a consultant with a different bias.
Then there's Consultation Paradox, the belief that solutions proposed by people on your staff are less likely to receive support than those from paid outsiders.
* Frugality? The word is met with haughty derision. It bruises local pride. We spend with the big boys. Nobless oblige: an obligation to over-tax carries an obligation to over-spend.
That helps the constitutional offices - Treasurer, Commissioner of Revenue, etc. - to be well run and professional. This is not your grandparent's South.
* Through a series of retreats and charettes, city government crafted a mission statement based on assumptions reflecting one political party's social mandate. You'll find it on the Charlottesville website. It's a great mission for those of us who accept the assumptions.
Good ole boy secrets. Some can be shared:
* For decades we were charged inflated prices for concrete products. Cinderblock and concrete delivery for construction cost substantially more in Charlottesville than elsewhere. This monopoly made the McNeely family hugely wealthy.
* Due to greed and copy-cat price fixing, motor fuel and heating oil almost always cost more in Charlottesville than elsewhere. This doesn't happen in other isolated Virginia cities like Lynchburg or Waynesboro where price gouging could go on as easily as here, but doesn't. Are the people involved of lower moral character?
Living costs rank among the highest in Virginia, yet local wages are low. The place is wall-to-wall with people selling their services on the cheap because they have to.
Despite the area having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the entire world, you're out of luck if you're over 60. Age discrimination for good jobs here is near-total. No one wants elder workers, as local writer Barbara Ehrenreich learned doing research for her 2006 book on employment, "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream." (It's even worse now.)
If you're over 60 and need income you'll have to start a business or take a menial job.
Low wages mean truly competent builders, electricians, plumbers, etc. are scarce. Many good technicians commute two hours away to prosperous Northern Virginia for double the income.
In addition to uneven workmanship there are colossal blunders. For example in 2001 workers in a neighboring community (Lake Monticello) actually crossed-connected the community water and sewer systems.
Not to say this is a city with a mountain of rules to follow. Well ... it does due to the elitists, but the basics are not unusual.
SPECIFIC DESIGN CRITERIA FOR CHARLOTTESVILLE
Aside from some common electronics and a Best Buy "Geek Squad," there is no authorized warranty repair facility for a consumer product within 40 miles.
The range of retail and wholesale items available locally, never much, has been shrinking for 20 years, though a new mid-scale shopping center will reverse that. Internet shopping, catalog shopping, or road trips are essential to find anything above the commonplace.
A USA Today report was no surprise when it showed Charlottesville tied for 3rd in having the most catalog-loving shoppers in the entire world. The only cities ahead of us are Juneau and Fairbanks in Alaska. (Charlottesville tied Anchorage.)
Due to decades of inaction and ignored planning, when a drought hit the area in 2002 the water supply red-lined and water was restricted. After restrictions were lifted the cost for water was up 100% and continues to rise. But the worst is still to come. Bad planning and doubts of leadership competency surround controversial upheavals in water infrastructure.
We pay four times as much for water as they pay in Northern Virginian, and our increases have only begun.
We have financially strong state-of-the-art Internet providers equaling the best in the world. High tech thrives here, with a massive local infrastructure. We had more than a fair share of dot.com successes and one stupendous failure, Value America.
Our monopoly land-line telephone company changes hands every few years, and like every all-copper telco, they name drop "fiber optics" but they are all hat, no cattle.
As everywhere else, we have numerous cell phone companies hawking sneaky service plans to fleece the unwary. The challenge is to find the least bad deal. It's one they never tell us about.
Every community is made up of people who make things happen, people who watch things happen, and people bewildered by what happened. We have publications to serve them all.
The local Daily Progress serves the first two groups, after a fashion. Founded in 1892, it passed out of local ownership in 1971. First it went to the Worrell Group, a chain mostly of rural weeklies who did well by it. They sold out to Media General, a Republican chain based in Richmond, VA, owned by a conservative southern clique with an abominable history fulminating racism.
In 2012 Media General sold its newspaper properties including the Progress to Berkshire Hathaway. A remarkable future awaits.
The Prog's first black reporter was hired around 1968, the time the first black was elected to city council. He had the newspaper's backing.
As the paper keeps shrinking in page size and type size, it shrinks in importance. As a Media General one-sided Republican paper in Democrat territory, it's been an anachronism.
On the positive side, it has local reporters fluent in correct English and in their trade, which wasn't always the case. And it has excellent local columnists, a Progress tradition since the 1950s.
The paper is willing to send sports reporters across state lines to follow the Univ. of VA's major sports teams. So far as is known, the only news reporter ever paid to cross the state line on assignment covered the 1967 Vietnam War protest "March on the Pentagon." It provided front page coverage of UVa students and faculty at the Mall in DC.
The Progress editorial page has had a bumpy life since day one. It's the only department in deeply experienced hands. Leaving the editorial page editor alone has been a problem that is probably over. Time will tell.
Virginia's flagship paper is the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a conservative southern institution available for home delivery, as are the Washington Post and the NYTimes.
The papers all have web sites due for meaningful change.
Until Berkshire Hathaway came along, the Prog, like other dailies, was doomed. In 2008 they gave up having a printing press to share a corporate one elsewhere in the state. That same year they sold their headquarters building. In 2009 they cut staff from a 5-day week to 4 days to save labor costs. The Prog earned a profit in 2009.
On the positive side, they blazed a new trail by joining forces with a local news-gathering group, Charlottesville Tomorrow, that covers and reports local government meetings. Beat coverage had been declining, and is now stabilized and improved. The successful partnership received national attention in Columbia Journalism Review and elsewhere.
The Prog is far from the only paper covering news here. There are close to a dozen monthlies and weeklies published in Charlottesville. The oldest weekly still publishing, C-ville, is what we expect to find among alternative weeklies: a voice partial to feminists with attitudes toward other feminists. They combine that with worship of the proletariat.
The newer Hook achieves more professionalism by aiming for it, while still appealing to an alternative audience. (Hookville is a college nickname for Charlottesville.) The Hook is the area's only source of investigative reporting on a regular basis, and is a consistent winner of meaningful annual awards.
Both weeklies rely on advocacy journalism, coddling spontaneous, unexamined bias of reporters and eschewing balance. The Hook is currently king of the hill thanks to the best editor and a talented, skilled staff.
Both weeklies compete to publish bad cartoonists.
Both weeklies offer in-depth coverage of important local issues that often get superficial treatment in the daily and way less on TV and radio.
As expected in a town of distinguished writers, articles written for the weeklies are often superb.
Both weeklies celebrate saloon society (and decaf society) and compete at micro-coverage of arts, music, and nightlife. In a civilization where 50 years glorifying trash has done away with standards, the Hook and Cville serve as community diaries reflecting not what's good, just what's in.
Coffee shops and restaurants have multiple copies of a dozen papers for your reading pleasure. We have a ghastly number of restaurants and coffee shops, over 400. There's also a large number of new book stores and used book stores, possibly the highest number per capita in the South.
In mid-2006 craigslist opened a full-featured Charlottesville site at http://charlottesville.craigslist.org/ .
There are 30 radio stations that claim (or hype) we are in their primary or secondary coverage area. Only one, WINA//WQMZ, has a local news department, though another with the same ownership, WCHV, might be sharing it. The large number of stations formerly owned by Clear Channel were sold for half their cost and I quit keeping up with who owns radio.
Media chains ship their profits out of town, so local ownership is better.
The eight AM stations are devoted to airhead chatter and preach-for-the-gold. Most of the 22 FM stations are juke boxes for the help.
Non-commercial radio is a slightly different story. The University has WTJU-FM devoted to locally produced jazz, pop, classical, and niche programming that's often amazing. But I'm prejudiced; I helped start the station in the late 1950s and was its first chief announcer. It began as all classical; now it has very little.
At least three places on the dial bring in National Public Radio (NPR) and another carries programming from Public Radio International (PRI.)
Back when these stations played classical music all day, NPR told us this area had the nation's highest per capita NPR listenership. Since then much of the music has been replaced by prattle, so that's probably no longer accurate.
The city has four network TV stations. NBC (here) and PBS (by repeater) had the area to themselves for half a century, then CBS and ABC muscled in in 2005. Fox was available over the air from Richmond and is also local. Several stations have repeaters here. All the networks are available over the air for free or at extra cost on cable and satellites.
There are also undisclosed HDTV broadcasts to discover if you have a roof antenna and the right equipment.
TV here has the usual humdrum newscast common to every TV station in America. All the stations use the identical format. If the FCC passed a rule that all TV newscasts had to use the same format and look alike, nothing would have to change.
Small market TV can be sluggish at news gathering so to fill the time slot, they discuss the weather in exhaustive detail at least twice in every half-hour news broadcast. It's bizarre.
In 2007 our TV cable company (Adelphia) was bought out of receivership by Comcast. They have a contract until 2013, at which time the city will pay a beltway "franchise consultant" big bucks to make a new contract no better than the old. C'est la vie.
DirectTV and DishNet satellites are at an elevation of around 23 degrees, not ideal in hilly terrain but available to nearly everyone. Cloud cover matters about 6 hours a month.
There are ample movie theaters here, some of them multiplex. They are all too loud and too cold except Vinegar Hill, the downtown art house for foreigns and classics, and the Fork Union Drive-In. Fork Union is a trip.
Another trip is the IMAX theatre 90 minutes away at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond.
Charlottesville's upper middle school and high school have a higher percentage of students participating in serious music programs than almost anywhere in the land, and they win gold medals. The emphasis on excellence in music is a tradition here. It's nearly everyplace you look.
Through the University's various concert programs the leading world-class musicians play here, often when on their way up.
The amount of live theatre and awesome talent is staggering. The quality is often amazing. Not infrequently the best scripts of the year are locally written. Seldom is there a weekend without two or three live theatre productions to choose from.
Live entertainment enthusiasm is so broad that a 1930s Paramount film palace in the heart of downtown was restored from the foundation to the dome to become a non-profit performing arts center. In 2004 Tony Bennett did the dedication concert. A few blocks away is another performing arts center. It is adjacent to a third performing arts center. Those are distinct from the downtown mall amphitheater two blocks away where headliner acts play for "Fridays After Five," a weekly summer block party for the community.
At the other end of the mall is a combined ice park and concert venue.
None of these is named "Performing Arts Center." That name was reserved for a fourth one at the city high school renamed for MLK.
That's not all. In addition, the university has three concert venues, or four depending on who's counting. Only the UVa football stadium has the capacity (60,435) for immensely popular attractions like Dave Matthews and U2. The new John Paul Jones basketball arena can hold 16,000 and won a national award for the best new US concert venue to open in 2006.
Don't expect bargains just because this is the stix; stix tics cost bucks. When only money talks, you are what you charge.
The local Piedmont Virginia Community College makes a respectable cultural splash in all major areas.
Theatrical road companies use the Paramount and the JPJ.
While these theaters are available for anything requiring a stage, the area also has a half-dozen community theaters for adults and children, and our public and private schools regularly put on plays including musicals. On Valentine's Day, 2009, a dinner theater opened 20 miles from town. All tickets were to be 78 bucks including tip. Such things come and go.
Visual art has a ways to go. What was created here to hang on a wall tended to be bland, dull, derivative, but the turn of the century injected creative vigor. Now it's not rare for someone exciting to come along. What is becoming rare is an art gallery able to stay open during hard times.
Richmond's Virginia Art Museum an hour away has a spectacular collection of modern and impressionist art and Faberge eggs, and hosts major international exhibits. There are also treasures to be seen at the UVa art gallery, formerly run by the architecture school. A change in management resulted in special exhibits which elevated the UVa gallery to the must-see list.
Perhaps the visual art's highest pinnacle here was the part-time art critic for the daily paper, Ruth Latter. She was a national treasure for at least four decades. As noted earlier, this is a writer's town and there are plenty of major award winners.
The public library is first-rate. Its excellent, well-organized web site can be translated into any of 8 languages at the push of a button.
Sculpture has always had a special role here. The community indulged in outstanding over-size equestrian statues eons ago and has an enviable collection. In this era, Biscuit Run Studios was the world center for modern creations in soapstone and has subordinate studios for other media.
The local program "Art in Place" spreads huge sculptures, mostly metal, throughout the community. Winners of a national yearly competition place their statuary on highway medians, at the roadside edge of parks, and other visible areas for several months. Occasionally the city buys one for our permanent outdoor collection. In my neighborhood we had
Thomas Givens' Whale Tail, a permanent exhibit that was destroyed by two huge snowfalls followed by a microblast windstorm. In its place, Givens provided this, visible from my home.
With such wide exposure, "What the hell is that?" commonly gives way to endearing familiarity. In addition substantial taxes are committed to attractive floral plantings along the roadsides.
Maintaining refinement is not a losing battle here. It's not even hard to do. Some who are fed up with our declining world find living in Charlottesville the best revenge.
Music, theatre, art, and a colorful downtown mall temper one's exasperation. An island for romantics.
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