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Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.


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Where Are You Coming From?

For our Spatial Analysis Series, we'd like to know where our participants (and followers) live relative to Monticello Road. Please complete this brief survey to let us know. We'll share aggregate answers in a later post.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Monticello Road Extended: Update


This project is about much more than transportation infrastructure.
Image courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.


I can finally announce officially that I’m doing an independent study and thesis for my Masters program at UVa about restoring pedestrian and bicycle connectivity from Charlottesville to Monticello (and potentially beyond). Andrew Mondschein will be my advisor. Our goal is to produce a master plan that provides background, lays out the issues and suggests ways forward.

The first phase/ semester will identify issues and stakeholders, map the various spatialities (such as current conditions, land tenure, proposed routes and jurisdictions) and begin to locate resources and funding. I hope to recruit some help during the second semester as we look deeper at the challenges and suggest possible solutions.

I’ve already started the first part. I’ve had some great conversations with a variety of stakeholders and I’ve learned a great deal. For example, it’s now clear to me that this is a regional endeavor and interjurisdictional cooperation will be essential. There are many ideas on the table and various priorities that, while not mutually exclusive, need to be considered in concert so their goals can merge harmoniously. That is why I’m looking deeply at the spatial issues early in the process.

There will be some challenges with respect to infrastructure (i.e. an interstate is blocking the way) but a successful project will bring diverse parties to the table for a coherent, inclusive vision before it puts pen to paper. Only after exploring needs around heritage, connectivity, development, health and wellness can we start crafting solutions.

I find Chris Gensic’s plan to extend Monticello Road compelling, but it’s not the only solution. In fact, it could be argued that it might be better to follow Route 20 (connecting with Piedmont Community College along the way) or the Rivanna River. Maybe Monticello’s not even the final destination—wouldn’t it be cool to extend through Highland, Morven and deep into Albemarle County? Smart people are already working on these and its time to do so in concert.

Even if we decide to settle on the 19th Century route of Monticello Road, it raises the question: "Which 19th Century road to Monticello?"
Image courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.


Similarly, this is an exciting time in which many are reexamining Thomas Jefferson’s legacy both locally and nationally. This project is about much more than a physical trail, but what do we mean when we talk about “reconnecting heritage?” What possibilities exist and what might that discovery process look like?

Not only will this project be profoundly beneficial to the community, it will be a powerful economic driver. That’s exciting but it’s reason for caution as well. This project is about equitable access to a World Heritage Site, but could it have the unintended result of eliminating nearby affordable housing? We’re not sure but we need to pay attention.

Those are just some of the issues and there’s clearly a lot to consider. I will not solve all of it (or maybe any of it) but I hope to create a conversation that coalesces a motivated a coalition to bring a compelling vision to reality.

I’ll keep you updated as the project moves forward.





Friday, June 17, 2016

Reconnecting Heritage: Restoring Pedestrian Access to Monticello

Charlottesville is quite unique in that it boasts one World Heritage Site that sits in two locations: Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village at the University of Virginia and his home at Monticello. The University is located in town and is well connected to the City’s streets and its life. Monticello is just a mile from the city but it’s nearly impossible to reach without a car.

I would like to design a strategic planning process to reconnect Charlottesville and Monticello for pedestrians and cyclists. Such a link will have tremendous economic, health and education benefits, which my plan will explore. It will also build an inclusive vision of heritage and be sensitive to the local environment and social fabric. This project will mobilize support and chart a just path forward.

A Partial Link
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation has already reached part way toward Charlottesville by creating the Saunders-Monticello Trail. This winding two-mile pathway is fully ADA accessible (while climbing a mountain!) and its beauty attracts tremendously diverse visitors (140,000 annually, per TJ Foundation). It is one of the region’s most successful pieces of landscape architecture and on a nice day, its parking lot is often overflowing. Although just past the edge of town, the trail head can only be reached by car, placing both the trail and Monticello out of reach for many. Completing this connection to Charlottesville would not be as difficult as it may seem. In fact, the trip was quite easy not long ago and it could be again soon.

Monticello Road Extended
Monticello Road is a historic street that begins in downtown Charlottesville and extends south until it is unceremoniously truncated by Interstate 64. Back in 2012, as I was working on my Monticello Road community arts project, I made a startling discovery.

Monticello Road continues, hidden, disused and covered with leaves, on the far side of the Interstate. It passes through a magnificent and highly unusual ecosystem surrounding an oxbow of Moore’s Creek trapped by the highway’s construction. The lost road continues past the UVA Foundation’s historic Blue Ridge Hospital, a stunning site in its own right that will eventually become a key part of the regional land use mix. The byway terminates at Michie Tavern, just yards from the Saunders Trail.

This road can and should be brought back into service as a recreational and ecological pathway that is safe and easily accessible for residents and tourists, young and old, athletic and para-ambulatory. This would create an unbroken pathway from the house and gardens of Monticello via Charlottesville’s Downtown Pedestrian Mall to the the University and beyond. Along the way there are abundant opportunities to discover and interpret a rich diverse historical, cultural and ecological patrimony, and to do so in a way that reflects a spectrum of experience.

The project does have some hurdles besides leaf litter on the historic right-of-way. A tunnel will be required under I-64 and a way to get across the Monticello Parkway. Chris Gensic, Charlottesville’s Trail Coordinator, and a champion of the project, has some innovative ideas that are viable and proven in nearby towns. The project would not be free, but the benefits are so enormous that a compelling plan will certainly mobilize support from citizens, government and the foundation and business communities.

Understanding—and Negotiating—the Past
While advocating for the connection, the project will also make the case that it be done in an inclusive way. My work in the community and at the University has taught me that a place is the sum of its physical characteristics and the lives— human and non-human, past and present—that abide there and they are not always easy to untangle.

This project needs to be seen in the broader context of the area’s complicated settlement patterns and the fraught relationship between Thomas Jefferson, his University and the people of Charlottesville. This interstitial zone, resonant with memories, even physical traces (such as a disused quarry) is an excellent opportunity for multi-voice testimony that reflects its dynamic and on-going story. The stunning and tranquil natural setting is highly amenable to contemplation and learning.

Preparing for the Future
The project will be tremendously beneficial but we know that well-intended projects can have unpleasant or even unjust consequences and we must anticipate and prevent those.

For example, the trailhead will sit between two neighborhoods that are sensitive to change: Belmont, which is historically working-class but is seeing tremendous turnover, and Carlton (also known as Hogwaller), which is one of the area’s most challenged communities. This project will certainly have powerful market effects and we cannot allow an otherwise beneficial project to cost people their homes or businesses.

Similarly, the land the trail will traverse is successful and biologically diverse in large part because it has been inaccessible for such a long time. It is mandatory that it be protected, while being available for its educational and restorative offerings.

My project will look closely at socio-economic and ecological impacts and seek creative urban and environmental strategies to assure that we do not create with one hand and destroy with the other. This is not just about cool infrastructure; it’s about making our community better for everyone.

An Inclusive Approach
That triple bottom line (social, economic and ecological) can only be obtained through a broad and inclusive partnership. On the most basic level, even though the route is short, it touches land controlled by Charlottesville, Albemarle County, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the UVA and Thomas Jefferson Foundations and two private land-owners. It is a three-dimensional web with many layers and very complicated.

Fortunately, I will not have to tackle the project alone. Monticello accessibility is already in the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan as a proposed “arterial trail corridor.” I have been in conversation with the City about this for some time and am currently interning in the responsible department. This is already penciled into their plans.

I’ve learned many things in my hours along Monticello Road and I can say with confidence that the community is strongly behind the project. I have been building a network of citizens, businesses, civic and religious institutions. I have good connections in the Public Schools, community groups related to fitness, ecology, arts and social justice and a verbal commitment from a significant local Arts and Design organization for institutional backing. The participatory aspect will not be lacking.

The most important resource I have, and the reason I am making this proposal now, is that as a Masters Candidate in the University’s Architecture School, I can also bring the University’s considerable resources, knowledge and design expertise to the problem. My Thesis will provide opportunities and the intellectual space to think this project through with all of its implications.

Conclusion
The students of Clark Elementary School, a Title I school, can see the mansion from their classroom windows yet they cannot get there easily. That needs to be corrected. It is not difficult to imagine a walking field trip in which children will learn their nation’s history, while absorbing local social and ecological context, getting fitter and breathing fresh air. They, like the city as a whole, deserve access to this tremendous resource from their doorstep. Not only will it make the city we have better, but it will help orient future opportunities for economic growth and natural escape squarely within the urban ring, the only real solution to sprawl.

This project will bring stakeholders together around a compelling vision to chart a direction for a profoundly beneficial new resource. One of my favorite things about the project is that although it will be new to us, it will follow a route that is very old. Thomas Jefferson, who could see the University from his porch, would have used a very similar path to get there. We must re-open it.

[Printable [pdf] version of this document]

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Moblizing by Moosifying


It was impossible to choose a best photo from this event but Ms Dogwood dunking the ex-mayor was typical. [more]

In case you ever needed another reason to go Moose’s Restaurant (and there were already plenty), they just did a super-cool fundraiser for the Shelter for Help in Emergency.

The fun unfolded in three parts. They kicked off on Friday (the 13th) with a doughnut eating contest. Saturday morning (the 14th) they had a block party that included music, dancing, a craft fair, a race car you could touch (and pose with) and—best of all—a dunk tank that was extremely busy. Saturday night was a concert at the Jefferson School. The fundraiser netted $3050 and lots of fun and community fellowship.

When I first visited Moose’s (then called Moore’s Creek) I was afraid to go inside 1) because they share a building with a gun shop and 2) because there were a million police cars parked outside. That seemed like a bad combination, but come to find out that the cruisers were there because it’s the best short-order restaurant in Charlottesville. They all stop there on their way into town or between shifts.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Where are the Pictures?



As part of my coursework in Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia, I am performing a series of GIS (Geographic Information System) analyses of the Monticello Road project. GIS provides empirical data to check (or underscore) what intuition tells us. This is the second of a three-part meta analysis. Previous: Vanishing Landscapes | To Come: Backer Distribution


I often receive process questions about the project, especially as pertains to what parts of the neighborhood I photograph and I how I define the boundaries of the Monticello Road study area.

I typically answer that I consciously limit the project to the street and directly-adjacent properties and I believe that the images will be distributed throughout the length of the street—though not evenly, perhaps clustered around my home or a few places where I spend sedentary time. These responses are logical but not empirical. GIS analysis lets us answer the question with data.

Through the life of the project, I have captured thousands of images, which would have been overwhelming. One of the features of photography is that it not particularly relevant if an image is made; what matters is which images are seen.

I have a subset of selects (numbering in the low hundreds) that are used in the book and the frequent slideshows I present. That provides a further curation because it reflects both a photographer’s view of what is visually interesting and an editor’s view of what says something about the place. I refined my selection one more time by eliminating multiple images all taken at the same time (different people at the same party, for example). Through this process, I reduced the sample to 94 images, a highly manageable number, but enough for a meaningful analysis of a linear mile-long space.

Monday, December 21, 2015

About that View...


Two photos from the same spot, taken three years apart. Left: "The Park, 2012." Right "Belmont Steps subdivision, 2015."

As part of my coursework in Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia, I am performing a series of GIS (Geographic Information System) analyses of the Monticello Road project. GIS provides empirical data to check (or underscore) what intuition tells us. This is the first of a three-part meta analysis. Next: Picture Distribution | To Come: Backer Distribution

Although it is not the main purpose, the Monticello Road project provides undeniable (and sometimes wrenching) evidence of the ways the neighborhood changes over time. The above pairing is especially jarring. We know that frequent low-dose exposure to Nature is beneficial to health and well-being. I suspect that the same can be said of Heritage as well so its loss is something we notice.

When one of my colleagues saw the above photo, he was surprised to hear that the Neighborhood Association did not oppose the subdivision. In fact, there was nothing for them to say about it because it was done by-right, meaning the land-owner did not need anyone's permission as long as they stayed within the zoning regulations, which they did. Additionally, we say all the time that we like in-fill development (instead of sprawl) and this is what it looks like.

So although this kind of change is inevitable and possibly beneficial, we should not pretend that there is no cost. We know there is, but it is not quantifiable, which is a real liability when we consider the pocket full of financial statistics a developer will present.

GIS allows quantitative viewshed analysis and I thought it would be interesting to look at the cumulative effect of building upon the the landscape and heritage vistas in the neighborhood.

For reference, I chose the peak of Mont Alto, so beautifully framed in the photo above left.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Broaden Public Access to Ragged Mountain


It's essential that we get more people--especially kids--into the woods. It's definitely possible to do so without harm--but it will require some work.
(Story|Line Photo: Preston Jackson)


Here's a brief I emailed to Charlottesville City Council about a proposal to open up the Ragged Mountain Natural Area to runners, cyclists and leashed dogs, which are currently prohibited. Council response follows in the comment section.

I had hoped to write you a proper brief about Ragged Mountain and even testify at the meeting tonight, but I have another commitment and won't be able to make it. I believe that if it will not interfere with drinking water quality, then allowable uses should be expanded. It needs to be a zone of active teaching and it is an opportunity and responsibility that must be shared with Albemarle County.

Key Issues (besides water quality, which I cannot address):

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Yard Dreams



Yard Dreams takes art out of the white box and into the streets—and yards—of Belmont. I will be one of fifteen 15 artists installing art in neighbors’ yards this for the weekend. The art will be on view 5 p.m. Friday to 5 p.m. Sunday, with a self-guided tour all weekend and a fun neighborhood potluck block party to celebrate the end of Summer on Saturday evening (3-9).

My piece, mending, tweaks two of my neighbors via perhaps the best-known poem in the American canon, Robert Frost’s Mending Wall. The two—both my friends—have a long list of grievances and have found that the best solution is not engage with one another at all. Sometimes that is the best idea, and it probably is in this case and a palisade fence now separates them.

Although the best-known phrase in the poem is “Good fences make good neighbors,” Frost clearly thinks otherwise and backs his claim by pointing out that Nature never allows a fence to stand for very long.

My piece, presented with the good-spirited cooperation of one of the neighbors in question, allows visitors to rearrange the words of that line to propose alternative approaches.

Interested in community engagement through the arts? This is what it looks like. Map, info at http://yarddreamspvcc.com/
Daily Progress Preview

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Unsorting America: an Encounter w Dr. Mindy Fullilove

Few issues are as vexing or worrisome as the accelerating process of social sorting that is un-knitting the American people. It’s everywhere—in our politics, school segregation (which has returned with a vengeance and in surprising ways) and in our settlement patterns, including otherwise progressive neighborhoods.

Its what I'm learning is a “wicked” problem—one that must be unraveled from many directions simultaneously while each effort affects the others. I was fortunate to hear Dr Mindy Thompson Fullilove speak on the issue, in which she laid the issue out in stark terms but also proposed a plausible path forward.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Taking New Ideas to the Old School


I hope to bring the planning community some news ways of seeing communities and the people who live there.

I’m really excited to announce what many people already know: I will be joining the Master of Urban and Environmental Studies program at the University of Virginia this fall. It’s a two-year program. Meantime I will work the next marathon in a limited capacity, while concentrating primarily on my studies.

While I am there, I plan to focus improving the front end of the planning process through community discovery (which so often falls woefully short) through the arts and bringing a focus on improvements in well-being, which includes a host of under-appreciated aspects such as access to heritage, spiritual exploration, fresh air and exercise, healthy foods, opportunities for expression and engagement with neighbors.

These are topics familiar to readers of this blog. So it’s really the perfect extension of the work I’m doing. I’m going deeper by learning more, by contributing to a wider discussion with unique perspectives I’ve gathered and—not insignificantly—obtaining an accreditation that will help realize some of the ideas we’ve discussed together here.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Visit to the Blue Ridge Sanitarium



There are many cool places on Monticello Road but this place might be the best. It's mothballed for now, until some truly compelling future use comes about.
In the days before Big Pharma, prescriptions for serious illness routinely called for maximum fresh air dosed out in rural settings. Instead of being connected to beeping machines that make it difficult to sleep with oxygen piped through hoses, patients in country sanitaria rested on screen porches surrounded by birdsong and pastoral views. The current state of the medical arts is moving in that direction but an authentic historical example of the old kind of facility still exists, in a mothballed state, right on the edge of Charlottesville.

The Blue Ridge Hospital occupies a large green triangle between Monticello, Piedmont Virginia Community College and the city’s southern border. The facility’s still-operable back gate opens to a beautiful valley portion of Monticello Road’s historic right of way and as we think about reopening that ghost road for recreation and heritage, the old sanitarium will be an inevitable ponder.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Garrett Street Mural is a Step Forward



The site chosen by the Tom Tom Founders Festival (the corner of Garrett and 6th Street in Charlottesville) for its City as Canvas mural project was already slated for a capstone expression in the Bridge PAI’s Play the City program. My initial reaction was to ask myself, “Doesn’t anyone talk to each other around here?” As I dug deeper and spent time with artist Mickael Broth and his project, I came to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter. We should just celebrate the mural, which is pretty cool and it's real.

The site was not just a blank wall—it’s at the heart of a major urban renewal project that effectively erased a neighborhood and replaced it with a new housing project, which is in its turn now the subject of intense speculation. Bitterness about the erasure of history cohabits the zone with nervous speculation about the future, along the historic 6th Street right-of-way and steps from multiple public housing complexes with many children. The location offered a tremendous opportunity for the community to work through some of its issues through the arts and make a strong statement with its own ideas about its specific dreams and desires. That’s an ambitious goal.

Meanwhile, the Tom Tom organizers saw an opportunity to make a mark of their own. They reached a private deal with the landowner (no public bodies needed to be consulted in this case) and they hired an artist from Richmond, essentially freezing out community discussion. The result would undoubtedly be livelier than the status quo, but perhaps a missed opportunity to have something more layered, in line with advanced contemporary thinking on public art.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Tom Tom Belmont Block Party Preview


I went deep on last year's Belmont Block Party, with a free pop-up photo booth and a three-part analysis of how the event came about, how it went and what I got out of it from a community-development perspective. This year I just plan to have fun.

The Tom Tom Festival Belmont Block Party, an all-day block party on Monticello Road, was one of the neighborhood highlights of last year. It's happening again this Sunday, April 19, 2015, and we're very excited. It starts in Downtown Belmont at 9 a.m. with a mandala touch-up. There will be music, crafts and a beer garden from noon to six. After that, a new addition, the Front Porch Concert series (Porchella) will spread music throughout the neighborhood.

I checked in with Carolyn Zelikow (Tom Tom's assistant director) about what to expect and here's what she had to say:

Monticello Road: This the second year for the Belmont Block Party. What successful elements are you repeating and what are you doing differently this year?

Carolyn: It's neighborhood run and focused, like last year. We felt like the party was distinguished by a great sense of community. We're shooting to repeat that and deepen those neighborhood ties by hosting an event called Porchella, where local residents can host acoustic concerts on their porches.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Update on Monticello Road Extended

Monticello Road continues hidden and abandoned on the other side of Interstate 64. There is a plan to bridge + tunnel to that right-of-way for safe pedestrian access from Charlottesville to Monticello.

Our friend Michaux, who is a Monticello Road resident and project participant, was the most recent of several people to ask me about the plan to extend Monticello Road to—ahem—Monticello, via multiuse trail.

Such a connection would be a game-changer for the City and the World Heritage Site with a rare grand slam of benefits: health+fitness, access an unusual ecosystem, both social and political history and non-auto connectivity. When I mentioned it to a planner friend the other day he said, “Oh, you won’t have to sell that idea—it’s obvious.”

It's something I've been monitoring and wondering what's up so I reached out to Chris Gensic, Charlottesville’s trail coordinator, who is the author of the idea and an effective champion. Here’s what he said:
We are working now with Monticello and Mr. Dulaney* to secure trail easements needed. Once those are in place, we can pursue the funding (more than $1million) to build a tunnel under 64 and few bridges to connect the old right of way, which would get us to Route 53 at Michie Tavern. Longer term would include a bridge over 53.

My best guess is it will be at least 3 years before the tunnel is in place, if we can get the funding. We will keep plugging away at it!
I was positively surprised to hear that time frame. We’ll keep checking in with Chris and, when the time come, mobilize to support this amazing plan. Hopefully more soon...

* Mr Delaney owns the gas station at the foot of Monticello Road, as well as other surrounding parcels. The route would directly impact his property and probably pass through it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The People of Monticello Road: Remembering Alex Caines


Alex was one of the most supportive people I've ever met.

News of Alex Caines’ passing flowed quickly through social media and when a remembrance page popped up on Facebook, one of his friends pointed to the irony that arguably the most social guy in town did not play in that sphere.

“Alex was a live, face-to-face interacting person. I think it's great that Alex never had a need for Facebook or other social media. Belmont and Downtown were his social media.”

Running into Alex on the street or at an event, as happened on a more-than-weekly basis, was the capital form of interaction with Alex. It always led to a conversation and often an invitation to the table for an extended visit.

In an earlier post, I pointed out the well-accepted fact that he was the Mayor of Belmont, with a specialty in nightlife. There was an admiration for his ability to know everyone and to seemingly be everywhere at the same time. He always knew where the action was but now that he’s gone, I can see that there was more to the designation. In a very real way, he was our leader.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Biophilic Art at the Bridge


Natalie Jeremijenko's "Greenlights" filter the air and produce oxygen while providing a pleasant indirect light. They're a great example of biophilic design, which recognizes human affinity for natural forms and processes. Excellent video about Natalie's work.

This past weekend I had the pleasure to meet NYC-based artist and environmental activist Natalie Jeremijenko at the Bridge PAI. Her primary ambition is to reorient our relationship to health, as signaled by the emergency red cross rotated on its side.

In her view, the bacteriological paradigm of healthcare, in which individual bodies are treated in isolation is not only a dead-end but counterproductive. The culprits for the worst public health problems are environmental, so the path toward well-being must be radically decentralized and aimed at fostering more bio-friendly conditions. And it must happen with urgency.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cities + Nature


There's abundant nature where people live their daily lives but do they experience it? I took this shot during a vacant-lot safari with Sebastian at the corner of Monticello and Carlton Road, a block from our home.
As part of my professional development, I’m taking a class called Cities + Nature at the University of Virginia. It examines the importance of interaction with Nature and ways for planners to make it part of the everyday experience. This post is part of a series on the subject.

My professor invokes the notion of a Nature Pyramid to describe a practical diet of exposure to the Natural World. At the top, one finds rare but intense lifetime experiences such as a safari or a raft ride down the Grand Canyon; in the middle trips to state parks; further down daily or weekly rituals like gardening; and all the way at the bottom views through windows or even looking at art. When I worked in a downtown financial firm, the productive people all had flyers for cruises or postcards pinned to their cubicle walls so they could rest their eyes several times an hour. A pet or a houseplant serves a similar function.

From an urban planning perspective, it makes sense to focus on the bottom half of the ladder, seeking ways to improve the quantity and quality of experience in towns and neighborhoods where people spend most of their time. Do we hear birds or see butterflies? Smell flowers or leaf rot or a skunk’s nocturnal passage? Do possums cross our yard or robins nest in our porch? Can we see the sun rise or set or clouds pass overhead? Feel fresh breezes or crunch on a frosty path?

These are not man-on-cliff confrontations with the Sublime but through a lifetime they add up to a connection with something much larger than ourselves, a centering force that makes us better and healthier.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The People of Monticello Road: Aimee Hunt



Aimee Hunt has lived on Monticello Road since 2007. An artist and educator, she works at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia while also studying art education at Virginia Commonwealth. She enjoys, and is part of, the neighborhood’s creative community.

Aimee has made an intriguing contribution to the physical environment through an unconventional home renovation with results that somehow manage to be both subtle and audacious. I spoke with her about it over tea as her two children assembled her daughter’s 12th birthday cake.

I first learned about Aimee’s project when I was visiting her then-neighbors Dan and Serena a few years ago and noticed that her small cinder block home had a tarp where the roof should be. Because of the lot’s wedge shape, it did not make sense for Aimee to build back into it, so she built upward. That decision was in some ways made for her when she discovered structural issues that would have doomed the existing hat.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Holiday Celebration = Social Investment


It pays to take a breath and notice the resources we have in one another
.

I recently wrote a celebration of shallow ties that unite the community and enrich us all but we can’t overlook the deeper ones either. From a social perspective, the holidays are about recognizing and reinforcing our connections on all levels.

From a nod on the street, to an office party, gift baskets for customers, Christmas cards for old neighbors we no longer see, brunches with friends and visits (even under duress) to or from families out-of-state, the season is a gauntlet of social obligations.

The other day, my wife and I shared our annual holiday freakout from being overwhelmed by it all. I asked her to take a deep breath and I needed one myself. So I walked to the studio through the neighborhood.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Architects Should Listen to their Mothers


This is a common problem where the old and new meet, but it doesn't need to be.

Charlottesville has been popping up in the New York Times a lot lately—and for mostly unfortunate reasons. The latest breakfast-table surprise was an op-ed piece about high-concept, tone-deaf architecture.

lament big-A Architecture’s willful disconnect with the public and used a specific case in our fair city as an example. While the whole thing is very well written (you should go read it now and come back) I thought it was great because it offers a solution right at the top—although not explicitly.

It opens with an exchange between an architect and his 88-year-old mother critiquing a house on Elliott Avenue, presumably the one pictured above. The mother thought it looked like a shipping container with some cheap scrap metal shoved against it and completely unconnected to its surroundings, which is true.

The problem isn’t that the layperson lacks understanding of the architects’ vocabulary, it’s the converse. Architects too often show little interest in the site’s heritage and none for the neighborhood vernacular, as if they're annoyances or threats to freedom. If architecture aspires to art or genius status, it must simultaneously sit in the past, present and future. It’s not enough to be bold or forward-looking unless you’re trying to do something that is completely irrelevant, disconnected from what’s on everyone else’s mind—the world of what was and/or is. Context matters.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Power of Weak Ties


There are many spaces along Monticello Road that are suitable for casual interactions.

I’ve just finished Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class and while I don't agree with everything he said one thing jumped out. About halfway through he offers a counterargument to Robert Putnam’s best-seller Bowling Alone. Putnam laments a loss of social capital in America as a result of less participation in civic and social groups like clubs and bowling leagues.

After arguing that it’s not even really happening—today’s kids are more likely, for example, to be in a soccer league than I was—Florida explores the possible benefits that come with shallow ties. That really got me thinking about my own project because I think it says a lot about why Monticello Road is such a great place.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Running and Place: a Conversation with Allan Steinfeld


Courtesy NYRR

Allan Steinfeld is the former race director of the New York City Marathon and president of New York Road Runners. I am fortunate to say that he is also a mentor and a friend. I had an email conversation with him about the relationship between running and sense of place, a few days prior to his induction into the NYRR Hall of Fame and the Marathon’s 44th running.

Peter: To know a place you must get out of the car, but when most people say that they’re usually thinking of walkers. How does one’s perspective about a place [neighborhood, park, road, etc] change as a runner, as opposed to walking, riding a bike or driving through it?

Allan: I believe that running in a place gives a new perspective of that place. By car or bike you go through it fast. Walking or running allows you to "feel" as well as see this environment and concentrate on your surroundings.

There’s doubtless a deeper appreciation but what about new, non-running, behaviors within the space such as trash-picking, social interaction or even safer driving?

Hopefully, all thee will occur.

Does the presence of runners change the place as well?

It certainly does. It gets its character from the runners like no other modality.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Front Porch Chat with Rosie Breeden



I often have front-porch chats with my neighbor Rosie. She's an absolute master of this important and neglected form of social interaction. She agreed to go on-the-record this time around.

Peter: Did I hear your birthday’s coming up?

Rosie: This September. The 25th.

[I didn’t ask her age because that would be rude.]

Peter: How long have you lived here?

Rosie: Since 1969.

Where did you come from before?

The University area—right where the hospital is now. We lived in a house in that area.

Why did you choose this house?

This was the one we could afford! It wasn’t very expensive then.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Erasing Unbearable Reminders of Better Times


Were the Accomack Arsonists trying to erase painful memories, better than the present?
[New Photos | More Succession Photos]


My secondary project, Succession, explores human spaces being reclaimed by Nature. I have found rich inspiration for this work in the many abandoned homesteads along Route 13 on the Virginia Eastern Shore. Last year, serial arsons terrorized the region, torching nearly a hundred structures, almost all unoccupied, and a few that I had photographed.

Most initially suspected some real estate or insurance fraud motive but profilers eventually identified and authorities apprehended a troubled couple that included, also predictably, a disgruntled former volunteer firefighter. Case closed, people returned to their daily lives. But is the underlying issue really settled?

They were clearly wrong and unhinged but weren’t they also responding to feelings widely shared? Some people actually applauded the removal of so many “eyesores” but what makes them fit for destruction? I think one deep motive could be related to a sickening and ultimately intolerable mismatch between tradition and current conditions that even a non-native such as I found very striking long before the crimes took place.

At the turn of the last century Accomack County was one of the Nation’s wealthiest. Before California was irrigated, the Eastern Shore was a primary source of produce and poultry (as well as seafood) for the growing cities of the Northeast. Like the rest of rural America, that food came from family farms and this area did better than most because the land is pancake flat, exceedingly fertile and, most importantly, very close to huge markets.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Conversation with Amanda Poncy


Three roads, each quite different, run parallel through the neighborhood. Belmont Avenue is a quiet residential street. Monticello Avenue (pictured) carries State Route 20 into town. Monticello Road is a hybrid, historic, pathway that predates colonization and is narrow, a little windy and a strangely compelling route for people pedestrian, bikes and autos.

I sat down with Amanda Poncy, Charlottesville's Bike/Pedestrian Coordinator for a conversation about Monticello Road and what makes a successful neighborhood street.


Peter Krebs: I saw you measuring Monticello Road the other day, what were your impressions?

Amanda Poncy: We were looking at some of the curb ramp locations because it is one of the tighter, less accessible routes. Virginia Industries for the Blind is right there so it’s one of the more important places to make accessible. And of course it’s right next to the school as well so we’re trying to provide that accessibility for a range of users of the street.

There are a lot of places that are really tight and the crossings are very tough, especially near the school and Tufton where there’s that blind curve. That’s a challenge and the sidewalks are very narrow, even more so with the utility poles. There’s a sidewalk on the one side but in many areas you have to cross over to get to the sidewalk and it’s definitely a challenge.

Peter: What would you describe as a successful neighborhood street?

Amanda: I feel like Belmont Avenue is a really nice neighborhood street. I was walking down it this morning with my son and it’s nice. You’ve got the parked cars and there’s a nice tree buffer separating the sidewalk. Front porches are on the street so if people are out you’re able to interact and say “hi.” I think all of those things make it a great street—one of the few really great neighborhood streets in Charlottesville.

How do you transpose that onto a road like Monticello Road that’s really constrained? You walk down it and even the sidewalks have a lot of constraints within them. It feels tight and it feels like the cars are traveling faster because the sidewalk is right on the road. The parking is sort of intermittent because some places have off-street parking so the cars parked on the road aren’t as frequent so it just feels like the cars are right on you, whereas on Belmont Avenue they don’t feel that way.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

DC deserves personhood status.


Detail, Yoko Ono's "Wish Tree for Washington DC" at the Hirshorm Museum and Sculpture Garden. Definitely feeling some love on this trip....

I just got back from a Fourth-of-July getaway weekend to Washington, DC—the place where I grew up and came of age. Meredith and I lived there during an unforgettable period—Marion Barry’s bitch-set-me-up heyday—and a pivotal time in our own small lives. Our first independent households, careers born, graduate school, married and identity frameworks forged. It will always be a special place and I love going back there but I was especially jazzed to notice something profound on this past trip: a new maturity, though I cannot say whose.

The DMV has arrived as a major metropolis, in ways that go beyond its enormous size. The Metro is still pretty clean but now it has buskers, rats, people selling crap—and a feeling of shared endeavor. There’s a lot going on around town, quite different from the easily exhausted scene in the eighties and nineties. It’s grown nicely and added many cool things—like the terrific Capital Bike Share, on which New York’s CitiBike is modeled. The infrastructure has improved and it’s even more pleasant to walk, run and ride about then it was before.

Even though much has been added through in-fill (enterprises ranging from garden shops to a baseball team), many of the institutions from back in the day are still there as well: stores, restaurants, bars, secret gardens, shortcuts through the woods, places to hear a guy play sax by the river.

By contrast, nearly all of my friends have moved on, which surprisingly does not bother me—it’s just the flow of life. It’s almost the opposite of New York where most people are still there, clinging to whatever branch or root they can find, while the landscape around them is blasted away by a flood of real estate money.

Meantime, DC has continued to grow and flourish, playing with new ideas and points of view. Being back this time felt like visiting a friend that has retained its main personality traits and is still very familiar and welcoming but has developed in the meantime, with new thoughts to share. The city had acquired personhood—or maybe I just noticed it.

I grew up a huge devotee of Italo Calvino, Armistead Maupin, Lawrence Durrell and writers who talk about cities as living, organic entities. But that didn’t really feel the case for my hometown. It was as if the abundant green space dispersed the energy too much for it to coalesce and ignite fusion, making it a pleasant place but not a real city.

The spark is definitely there now, but if Calvino taught me anything it’s the impossibility of knowing whether it’s the place that has changed or if the maturation I’ve noticed is my own.

Postscript:

I ran the concept by my friend long-time James, traveler, poet/philosopher Lawrence Durrell character. He just recently gave up his DC address but was back in town to work the Folklife Festival and couch surfing--much as I do for the Marathon. We watched the fireworks together on a rooftop with a partially obscured view, then went back to his friend's apartment and drank Virginia viognie and talked about the world. A typical evening. Anyway, when I texted my thesis to him, he responded:
I think DC is stuck in an adolescent purgatory and will never attain personhood. This is because it is a 4-year town. If we move the capital to St Louis,  DC will become Fred Sanford.
Well then.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Underpass or Bad Bridge: a False Choice

Several years ago, the Belmont Bridge, in the heart of Charlottesville (and the terminus of Monticello Road), was deemed structurally deficient. That analysis was performed by the firm, MMM Design, that would be tasked to design a replacement. That's an apparent conflict of interest but it's true that the eye-ball test confirms that the structure is in terrible shape and is a Robert-Moses-era eyesore in the heart of a beautiful small city.

The community widely rejected a an MMM proposal to replace the structure with a carbon copy and a citizens group, called Project Gait-Way, initiated a process that yielded an alternative that included an auto underpass and a foot bridge. City Council was to vote on one of the two directions; I spoke in their chambers and was misquoted in the C-Ville Weekly as endorsing the underpass. I was offered an op-ed to clarify my thoughts. Note: the vote was tabled, changing the session into a hearing.

I was misquoted in the lede of last week’s brief, “Underpass gets public support as Council delays Belmont Bridge vote.” I appreciate the opportunity to clarify my thoughts.

The Gaitway team has done a tremendous service. They’ve shown that we can have better design that is imaginative, bold, forward-looking and—yes—iconic. What a refreshing change from the lameness MMM had proposed! The citizenry has seen a new standard and we now know that is what we deserve. No going back.

But that does not necessarily mean that we should build the underpass, even if it contains those traits. Along with advantages, the plan contains some fundamental flaws. The team does a terrific job of mitigating most of them, but those solutions often make the vision even more difficult to execute.

Take the chief work-around: the pedestrian bridge. No one would even consider the design without it, yet it is not budgeted. I’m all for bike/pedestrian mobility but if we’re going to employ serious financial wizardry, this is not even the most strategic connection we could go for. For example, Monticello and the Rivanna are higher-impact, currently broken, links in the same price range; while an appealing multi-modal crossing would render the Belmont pedestrian bridge redundant. Or what about the middle school renovation that’s perpetually on hold for want of capital? Talk about a gateway!

I would have loved to see what the team could have done with an enhanced bridge. They were tasked with that and worked on it for about five minutes then dropped it (or were dropped) to focus exclusively on the underpass. I've heard stories from both sides about why but it doesn’t matter. This is a rare opportunity and we need our best minds on the whole project.

Based on what we’ve seen, that might not include MMM for this phase. They may be fine engineers but they’re clearly not imagineers or even urban planners. Gaitway or a team like them should seriously explore bridge concepts that embody the new standard of excellence that we now expect. An independent group, free from conflict of interest, should audit both schemes using transparent, matching, criteria.

This should not be a false choice between creativity and a pothole-ridden bridge. It’s about getting the best outcome that approaches consensus by being ambitious yet really smart with our limited resources. That is the genius that we deserve.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Open Love Letter for the Neighborhood School


The 4th Grade Photo Club documented the school and its neighborhood. The School has been the core of Sebastian's realm and he has thrived in that arrangement. (Photo: Sebastian Krebs)

“I am both happy and sad,” said Sebastian at bedtime, four days before the end of fourth grade and of his tenure at Clark Elementary School. I told him that sounded about right. The neighborhood school is a sweet little nest that he is now ready to leave—as he should be.

Meantime, it’s been a victory lap of celebrations of what the kids have accomplished together—field day, talent show, concert, dance performance, art exhibition, basketball game versus the teachers, awards, trip to DC and a step-up ceremony. It’s a cheerful gauntlet worthy of a Superbowl champ but there will be tears because these youngsters are coming to understand that life only flows in one direction.

We bought the house specifically because it sits across the street from the beautiful historic school and its community playground. We enrolled him in kindergarten at the first opportunity and every morning since Sebastian has sprinted out the door so he could be waiting when the doors open. We actually have to restrain him at times so he won’t be a nuisance. Fortunately the librarian caught on and managed to harness his enthusiasm for some help shelving books or catching up at the circulation desk; it just encouraged him to try to go even earlier.

The school and its grounds are the center of his life; after spending all day there he dashes home, drops his enormous backpack (full of important primary school things), hits the bathroom and goes roaring back to the playground. We have a New Years Eve party horn that we blow real loud when it’s time for dinner. He runs back like a mystical wild horse, then back afterward until darkness hides the basketball rim. He has a defined realm.

Wonderful as it has been, Clark is not a fake fantasy world. Sebastian has certainly heard more stories of struggle and woe than I had at his age. There were some tragedies that were completely random and others of the harder reality that you can see coming a mile away. Healing is a shared endeavor and the there are enduring signs of it in the gardens, on the walls and all around.

And yet. It’s a joyful, loving community full of singers, fabulous dancers, little brothers and sisters plus a few amateur rhetoricians: a place where the kindergarten teacher (star among stars) would make an excellent President. The staff is enthusiastic and well motivated, always very focused on the kids. They give and give and treat each student according to their needs.

It definitely feels like a family and the best knowledge Sebastian will take away is that ours is a world where everyone is different but with love and patience and listening we can all learn and grow together. He has succeeded academically too. Although testing has its drawbacks it’s a truly gratifying to have data that affirms that all is as good as it seems—sometimes even better.

Belmont is so great in large part because it has this huge energetically beating heart contained in a jewel box right in its geographic core. I’ve worked hard to know the community and this blog flailingly attempts to sketch it out but that school is where the most actual community engagement is happening.

I could spend hours (more than I have) talking about the amazing teachers, field trips, gifted program, afterschool clubs or the surprising fellowship around the breakfast table (we allow him an occasional “second breakfast” at school). The impression that I think will always last is of three kids walking down Monticello Road one evening with their mother. They were siblings ranging from Sebastian’s size to a toddler and all piped in unison “Hey Sebastian!” Smiles followed with an understanding of what a neighborhood school is all about.

Sebastian has learned to be a part of the human family: loving, decent, striving for something better together. And we have been blessed to walk along with him.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Art and Public Policy: Synthesis

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I was fortunate to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in this series are reaction to our readings and discussions in which I find links between our readings and discussion and the front lines of community-based art. This is my end-of class synthesis essay.

The Citizen Artist, protagonist in our Arts and Public Policy course, embodies the broad intersection between art and policy. We’ve described him, asked what he can offer and wondered whether he is getting what he needs to thrive. This question is about more than personal satisfaction: the citizen artist is ideally suited for our rapidly changing world and his critical thinking, creativity, synthesizing approach and ability to imagine into reality are key ingredients for a healthy democracy. As Bill Bennett says, those who are competent manage but those who are creative lead. Prior to the course I suspected, and the readings and lectures have confirmed, that the dominant public policy approach is not particularly well suited for assessing or fostering creative civics; it has a real blind spot there. Perhaps the question needs to be inverted: rather than focusing mainly on the worthy goal of fostering the arts through policy, let’s ask how the arts can inform better public policy—or, at least, how they can work better in tandem.

Artists actively engage their own experiential development—discovery, experimentation, synthesis, pursuit of excellence. They delight in process as much as result, and are therefore disciplined in developing their ideas and capacity through endless iterative and synthetic experimentations. They want to sharpen their skills so they can bring their creations to life. They also broaden their vision and have a high capacity for diversity (for it is their fuel) and they are therefore unhindered by the central dilemma of democracy: how to reconcile freedom and consensus. They do it all the time in their artwork. The America of our dreams where creativity, discipline and joy in work open a brighter future for all will need a population rich in these qualities.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Belmont Bash Part 3: Interactions and Engagements


All kinds of people stopped by the photo booth but they all shared a desire to document their love for one another.
[More Photos]


The Tom Tom Festival / Belmont Bash was a unique celebration in many ways. It had an unusual origin and interesting results. For me, the whole thing was an experiment in a few ways: how would one plan a multi-source celebration, what would a 100% DIY street festival look like and how such a party could inform public planning? It was amazing thanks to many people’s hard work.

This three-part story examines how event came about, how it went and what I got out of it from a community-development perspective. I’ve spoken about why the idea became a reality and some issues that arose along the way. Today I’ll share some impressions about the interactions that took place—of course from my own perspective.

The Belmont Bash was really successful.

Tons of people showed up and it seemed like everyone had a good time, with few if any complaints. It was a beautiful day, the music was great and there were many small touches that really created an atmosphere of sharing—like folks from the neighborhood association strolling around with free cupcakes.

We knew that it would be a fun party but it was also a project; an experiment of sorts. We wondered, for example, what kind of crowd would come? Would it be neighborhood regulars or people from outside looking for a good party? Would there be unique interactions? Could a block party serve as a venue for city research about community preferences?

My answer to the first question is “yes.” The party attracted both the usual suspects and itinerant revelers but mainly a surprising category that seemed the largest to me. I met many people who live, work, and play in the area but who I had not met before in the standard channels (like the neighborhood association or PTO) or even in my atypical engagements like the photo booths. This was really exciting because there was a huge joy in mutual discovery but also it really validated the model of block party as community networking tool. As a very real illustration, the neighborhood association meeting that took place the following night included several new members who had been recruited at the Belmont Bash. That's concrete evidence-backed success.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Belmont Bash Part 2: The Chalenges of a Contested Space


It was important that the community see the event not as a nuisance but as an asset--and one that they could own themselves. We developed some strategies make sure that would be the case.

The Tom Tom Festival / Belmont Bash was a unique celebration in many ways. It had an unusual origin and interesting results. For me, the whole thing was an experiment in a few ways: how would one plan a multi-source celebration, what would a 100% DIY street festival look like and how such a party could inform public planning? It was amazing thanks to many people’s hard work.

This three-part story examines how the event came about, how it went and what I got out of it from a community-development perspective. Last time I explained why the idea became a reality and today we’ll discuss how that came about and some issues that arose along the way.

Downtown Belmont is a contested space.

It's quite different from the type of neutral space where events like this normally take place. Eight streets and many more social threads converge in a two block strip of Monticello Road. The social challenges were more daunting than the logistics but that same rich heritage also held tremendous upside: the potential for an organic celebration arising from within the community and a new way to come together with art and music as catalysts. That's why the idea was so compelling.

In an era when everyone is talking about “place” as an abstraction, this site has character that cannot be made from whole cloth. The party arose from a hundred years of social interactions and it would contribute its own share toward the future. It was very important that it be done right.

The area is fairly unique within the city—a neighborhood commercial zone that is designated for commercial activity destined for the locals. It’s a tiny patch of urbanism within a quiet neighborhood and a zone of cultural experimentation within an old neighborhood that is even divided about whether the word "historic" is helpful or not. Ironically, those characteristics make it a very appealing place to visit, which brings challenges. It’s a crossroads where different people—and different agendas—interact, and not always harmoniously.