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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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.

Fullilove is a psychiatrist who sees sorting as a major public health crisis. Homogeneous populations are not resilient. They lack crucial antibodies. Look what happened in the Columbian exchange: two populations that had remained long-term separated proved unable to share the planet. The meat of the example is metaphorical, though—she’s far more concerned about the exchange of knowledge, norms and ideas than germs. And we're going to need all of our powers to survive as a species.

“If we stay on the path we’re on, we’re doomed,” she said. “I feel sorry for our great grandchildren. But just because our ancestors, who we even admire, made some bad choices doesn’t mean that we need to do the same.”

Speaking from a public health and well-being perspective that includes a healthy soul, she argues, “a rich person in a disintegrated society is less well off than a poor person in an integrated setting.” Mountain top compounds and a basement full of bottled water will not save anyone. As a psychiatrist, she knows.

“Problems are problems no matter who you are. Solidarity is the only solution.”

Here is her advice for planners:
  1. Keep the whole city in mind. We are not separate.
  2. Find what your for—what is your positive direction?
  3. Make a mark—there needs to be a physical expression of values around which the community can rally. (See items 6 and 9)
  4. Unpuzzle fractured space. Coherent, freedom of motion, connectivity between places (E.N. not just within them as Urbanists are doing)
  5. Unslum all neighborhoods. Make them places where people want to stay and its not about income.
  6. Create meaningful places, that people love and will defend if necessary.
  7. Strengthen the region
  8. Show solidarity with all life. We must have nurturing attitudes and that cannot exist in one realm and be left at the door of others. This one is hard.
  9. Celebrate your Accomplishments. People want to come together and sometimes a small achievement creates phenomenal momentum.
After the lecture, someone asked her how she transitioned from Psychiatry to Urban Planning and she responded with a familiar public health story about bodies in a river. If you want to get past crisis triage mode you have to look upstream for the sources. The city itself is an ecosystem that must be viewed holistically. Otherwise symptoms may be treated while the malady grows.

Her message was strident but not pessimistic.

"This stuff is hard but it's what we signed up for. We have to get to work."

For more information about Dr. Fullilove, see this excellent article in the Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/magazine/the-town-shrink.html?_r=0

Or check out her books.

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.

The program is located within the highly-rated Architecture School, and although I am opting out of the studio component, that creative problem-solving approach is very appealing. I’m looking forward to joining a field that is undergoing some profound growth and change—there’s tons of new research and new ways of looking at society and it’s problems. It’s an interesting moment and I think my life experiences and artist’s perspective will help me make positive contributions.

I plan to continue the blog and it will be interesting to see how it changes. I think it will be a good way to connect theories I learn and outside cases with the realities of my own community. We’ll see how it goes; meantime the full text of my statement of intent is pasted below.

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.

The site is owned by the University of Virginia Foundation and is not open to the public but as a student in Tim Beatley’s Cities+Nature class, I was able to peak behind the curtain. We were following in the footsteps of Dan Bluestone’s 2002 seminar, which developed a heritage-and-nature-sensitive plan for the site.

Spiritual practice must have been a huge part of life--for the terminal, the convalescing and the caregivers, who saw so much.

The property is gorgeous. Its well-preserved buildings, open spaces, woods, ancient trees and Piedmont vistas ignite the imagination and it is easily accessible by road, highway or [future] trail. The possibilities are truly breathtaking.

The Foundation is taking tremendous care of the place and it is clear that they appreciate its value. Although there are no plans to do anything with site for a while [likely decades] its condition is akin to a Boticelli in a vault. It's not possible to see anything but succession from the borders but the core is as immaculate as a disused campus can be, with well-trimmed lawns and structures shored against entropy.

When we think of Virginia as commonwealth, it is partly because we value the land in ways that transcend its potential for exploitation. We love its history, its beauty, the way it breathes and sighs and there is an understanding that the place itself is a resource to be shared. As I walked through the grounds, I was reminded what it means to be “land rich” and felt fortunate that this site, which has seen so much and holds so much potential, is simply being held for now by an institution with a Humanist agenda.

The hospital grew organically from this mansion, which added encircling screen porches, the reason for the large openings, now carefully boarded up. The house itself is reinforced with transverse rods. That's Cater's Mountain in the background. Michie Tavern is among the trees about a third of the way up.

There are many places for hiking and reflection in the surrounding area so although it might be desirable to open this parcel to the public, it’s not really needed for that at this time. Having said that, it’s important that nothing regrettable or difficult to reverse happen there and that seems to be the Foundation’s position for now. Meantime their portfolio is deep enough that they have quite a few development options elsewhere.

We are fortunate that their position is secure enough that they can simply bank an asset like this and it's part of the reason why there is so little sprawl south of Charlottesville. Neighbors like the Presidential Precinct will likely keep it that way. So, the two most-likely outcomes—either continued status quo with the woods sequestering tons of carbon and providing habitat, or some development low-key enough to satisfy Monticello’s viewshed requirements—seem rather positive.

I am grateful to Jeff Riley from the Foundation for the tour and the generous chunk of time he spent with us. I will continue to check in periodically and give updates, with a specific eye toward how the site can continue its historic contribution as a zone that promotes health and wellbeing through access to nature.

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.

There was a degree of fiefdom overlap and toe-stepping here and I could write a whole series of posts about Tom Tom’s very mixed history of collaboration/conflict with incumbent institutions but it is also fair and reasonable to posit that this part of Play the City might never have happened anyway. And it could still can in other places, other ways or even succeed the existing if an ever better vision comes forth.

All of that musing, however, fails to properly recognize the very real step forward Mickael’s mural represents. It is a very positive asset for the community, without any real downside.

Just this little section outplays the entire mural down the street depicting a universal hand-hold. And there's alot more than this.

The piece goes way beyond the idea of simply adding a splash of color to an otherwise dreary spot, although it does that too. It speaks of dreams, frustration, mobility, technology, plants and animals—there’s a lot going on. And while it does not specifically address that site or its history, it talks about universal human issues that everyone who sees it can relate to. Significantly, it does so boldly and with a specific point of view.

Rather than giving a history lesson or a manifesto, this new painting aims to enliven, enrich and inspire. It does those things, as art should, and people like it. I suppose it could be possible to create a masterpiece that synthesizes past, present and future but public art that accomplishes that is extremely rare.

I’m so glad I got past my initial snark and got to know Mickael and his work. He’s the real deal and he’s made a very good contribution.

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.


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.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Belmont Bash Part 1: Origins

When the Hintonaires signed on, we knew it would be a special event.

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. Today we tackle the origins.

The Belmont Bash has been around for a long time but never like this.

It has appeared sporadically every few years in Belmont Park, depending on how organized the neighborhood association happened to be in any given year. It’s usually a blanket-in-the-park family picnic in the fall. Two years ago, it was really organized; last year it didn’t happen at all.

Ever since the City undertook some minor street improvements in Downtown Belmont (about two years ago) there has been simmering talk of having the Belmont Bash in the streets to celebrate the change and initiate real public ownership of the small parklet that was created. But it never got past the “wouldn’t it be cool” phase.

Separately, last year’s Tom Tom Founders Festival included a small block party at the nearby Bridge PAI. I participated with a photo booth and it was fun but there was no real hook—it was a nice little party on a weekend already oversaturated with Tom Tom events.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The April 13 Belmont Bash was really successful and alot of fun. The Photo Booth was terrific--definitely the best yet.

I'll be back soon with many impressions. For now, check out the pictures from the photo booth and this timelapse of the amazing mandala painting that went down. Huge kudo's for Brian Wimer's leadership in making that happen.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Photo Booth at the Belmont Bash

I will be conducting my sixth pop-up neighborhood photo booth in conjunction with the Belmont Bash on Sunday April 13, from 2 - 5.

Members of the public can walk up, have their picture taken and receive a free print on the spot that I make with a small portable printer. The photos are then added to a growing slideshow of the People of Monticello Road, which is occasionally projected in public neighborhood settings during the summer.

I will be roaming the event but the booth headquarters will be on the porch of the old brick house across from Belmont Market.

The photos are free for the public but not free to produce (they cost me about $1-3 each). Donations will be greatly appreciated so we can at least break even. I could also use one or two helpers. Contact me for info.

See you there!

UPDATE: Photos Here!

The Belmont Bash is an annual tradition of the Belmont-Carlton Neighborhood Association. This year will be a unique block party in Downtown Belmont, part the Tom Tom Founders Festival in cooperation with the BCNA and a coallition of citizens, businesses and community groups. The event runs from 1-8, with a street Mandala painting starting at 10 a.m.

Monticello Road is a photography and story-telling project about the people and places along a mile-long byway that is simultaneously humble and historic, home to many and a reflection of us all.
More Photos:
Photo Booth I | Photo Booth II | Photo Booth III | Photo Booth IVPhoto Booth V

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Party in the Streets of Downtown Belmont

April 13, 2014, 12 - 8 p.m. will be a fun and unique celebration on Monticello Road.

Like last year, the Tom Tom Founders Festival Sunday block party will be in Belmont but this year it will be much, much more ambitious. They’re teaming up with the Belmont Carlton Neighborhood Association to bring the celebration into the neighborhood. The combined Tom Tom Fest / Belmont Bash will have hubs at the Bridge PAI and Downtown Belmont, which will be closed to automobile traffic and open for a family-friendly community block party.

There will be music, food, art, community information and discussion—and whatever fun you choose to bring. We're still working out the schedule but there will definitely be the following:

Street Mandala painting
Following the successful Belmont Avenue mandala, this creative street painting will calm traffic, and allow residents and friends to actively co-create an enduring neighborhood landmark

Porch Music
Local and acoustic music scattered on porches and patios throughout. More info coming soon.

Photo Booth, Story Station
Passers-by may stop in and have their photo taken and receive a free print on the spot. The pictures will then be included in a growing neighborhood slide show. We will also record stories and impressions from youngsters to long-timers for our future cell phone audio tour. 

Urban Agriculture Space
Mas will transform from world-class restaurant to an idea-sharing space that will feature community and design ideas and information from the food side this vibrant, innovation community. If TJ were alive today, he would definitely stop by to see what Schoolyard Garden and others are up to and hoist a local cider.

Community Groups and Vendors
Let us know if you or your organization would like to participate with a table.

Fun Block Party Stuff
Fire trucks, balloons and face painting

YOU bring the party!
This event is a true community celebration, rising from the ground up. If you have ideas for projects, would like to set up a table, or can volunteer your time, please get in touch! The only things that will happen will be what we do ourselves—together.

Note: Road Closure will extend from Belmont Market to Rialto Street beginning at 9:00 a.m. to allow community adults and children to begin the street painting. Streets will reopen by 9:00 p.m.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Design and the Public Interest

I was fortunate to attend a seminar on Design in the Public Interest this past weekend. Public Interest Design (PID) is an approach to architectutre with an organizing principle that “all people should be able to live in socially, economically, and environmentally healthy communities.” At the beginning of the session, we saw a slide with a pie graph with a tiny “2%” sliver. That represents the portion of the populace that interacts with architectural design. PID is for the other 98%.

Many industries have robust segments dedicated to the public interest—public health, pro-bono interest lawyers and community-based artists. As in those other industries, PID usually addresses the needs of the under-served, takes a humble listening-centered approach and is very focused on long-term impact. It’s relatively new and there is a developing set of best practices, ethics and evaluative tools—and a growing community of practitioners.

Many of their issues, approaches and objectives align with those of smart art policy. Terms like excellence, innovation, identity, diversity, heritage and sense of place are central in the discourse. The goals overlap quite a bit.

There was one moment, though, when I was struck by how far ahead the art discourse has advanced. In one of the discussions, someone said that “quality of life” is not a useful goal because it is difficult to define and perhaps impossible to measure.

Those who have studied art policy would disagree. The very purpose of art is to bring quality to life that exceeds existence and there is correspondingly much research about what defines a quality life, what cognitive tools and processes are employed and how art can spawn and nourish them.

NEA’s How Art Works study has defined the question with clarity and has map a methodical process that it is now following to examine the constituent sub-questions. We have a pretty good idea what makes people happy but finding the right approach is difficult. Although it will never be a settled question, it seems that smart strategies are available.

While PID professionals, who are mostly involved in small practices, might feel a little hopeless in the face of gigantic numerical social problems, they are a shining light when it comes to solving practical dilemmas—even if they are difficult. Funding is a prime example.

There is a strong current of social entrepreneurism guided toward the public interest. The question of resources is approached with creativity: every stakeholder is also a potential investor, in their own way. Lines blur between practitioner and client and then customer feedback becomes inherent in the early design process. It made me think a lot about the idea of the citizen artist, who is both audience member and performer, reader and writer depending on the time of day, location or hat.

There’s a powerful notion that art is for everyone because art is everyone. It’s inspiring to see designers working from a similar script, and their practical-minded problem solving approach provides good ideas.

It’s a great synergy.

The conference was organized by The Public Interest Design Institute.
As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted 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 the 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. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Robbing Art to Pay Reading

I received an email today from the Charlottesville City Schools Arts Coordinator (who is also a neighbor and Monticello Road collaborator) telling me that the school district is considering reducing his position to part-time (actually 10-month full-time).

This is an unsound idea but it also reflects a shortcoming that is consistent with much of what I read in the planning literature. There are two problems: it is strongly biased toward short-term metrics and it is negativistic. Let me explain.

The City Schools are facing a tight budget, like so many others. Yet, while eliminating content specialists, the budget adds more “educational coaches” who spend time with young children who have difficulty reading. So, while not quite a wash, the change is more effectively viewed as a resource shift. To the extent that budgets are financial manifestations of our priorities, both the message and the results are the same: beefing up reading dialing back on creativity.

I don’t mean to be overly reductionist—it’s a very complex issue. Indeed studies show that early investment in childhood reading yields very good social outcomes. But, in a zero-sum scenario (and we’ll leave aside for now the notion that it does not need to be zero-sum) is it smart to invest in reading at the expense of art? We can’t really know but be do know that since reading is obsessively tested and creativity is not there is a powerful incentive to allocate toward the program that is closely evaluated. Without any bad intentions, district planners must be sorely tempted to load resources toward measures that show good metrical results for the district. That makes everyone think they (the schools) are doing a good job.

But of course, there’s a big difference between showing good results and educating our children well. This misalignment of incentives is driving parents and teachers crazy nationwide but it’s not surprising. The planning process is almost built to fail that way.

I see the same thing in public policy planning, where economic impact is an overriding concern. Studies show (usually with heavy footnotes) that the arts have a mildly positive economic impact but it’s not akin to that of a water main, a road or communications trunkline. Arts are not for economic growth and so discussions that are heavily founded on economics won’t reflect especially impressively. It’s not that the arts look bad under economic analysis, rather more take-it-or-leave-it.

However, beyond the modest fiscal boost, arts do some essential things that have very fundamental—but indirect—ramifications. Arts promote vitality, optimism, trust and innovation, all preconditions for prosperity. So by sharpening the point of the economic spear into ever-steeper slopes of measurable return, we risk undermining the shaft that’s driving it.

That gets me to the positivistic/negativistic dilemma. The school district sees a problem (must raise test scores) and is reaching for an obvious response tool: coaching. But by pivoting resources toward this quantitative problem, it’s neglecting the qualitative question—the only one that matters: what kind of education should our children receive? What are we preparing them for?

The schools’ most essential job is to prepare children for the future—a world that doesn’t exist and jobs that haven’t been imagined yet. They will need the perceptive and creative skills that the arts teach so well. Cutting those programs is understandable given the incentive structure but it’s not in the interest of the child.

These are the mechanics of art getting short-shrift in the planning process. It’s also a great opportunity to change the conversation away from burnishing whichever metric is currently en vogue and toward a discussion about what kind of community we want to be.

Art does very well in that conversation if we allow it in. In this case, by proposing arts cuts, the district is necessitating the conversation. Perhaps a gift in disguise.

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted 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 the 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.