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


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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Belmont Bash: Making it a Community Celebration


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, 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 challenging than the logistics but that same rich heritage 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.

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 a historic district. 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.

A day in the archives yields a thick stack of news reports of public dissention around two main issues: excessive automobile speeds and out-of-control noise. The mandala and the one-day road closure were direct responses to the traffic (which is admittedly quite tame). Still, one person’s speeding is another’s travel convenience, so this had to be handled carefully.

The noise issue is more tender. A series of badly run night clubs had fractured the neighborhood, pitting old versus young and residents versus outsiders. The specific conflict was resolved a few years ago but memories (which last a long time around here) are quite fresh.

The volume and hours were kept very reasonable, but equally important was the choice of music and musicians. We had indigenous music by neighborhood musicians. This is one of several the reasons why the gospel bluegrass was so important as a tone setter. It felt like providence, because we did not seek them out—they approached us to offer their musical gifts. These are the mechanics of the party arising organically from community.

The most challenging issue was communication and it is one that’s shared with every neighborhood. We did not leave that one to fate—even though we knew that word-of mouth would do a lot. As everywhere, there are difficulties related to geography, age, attention and access to digital media. We had a mass email, social media and posters but we did not feel like this was enough to counteract the grievances around a history of exclusion that is simultaneously imaginary and very real.

“If this is to be a celebration of the community by the community, we need to make sure that everyone is included,” said one of the planners. “The neighborhood association has spent the last several years reaching out to the community in concrete ways and we need to do that here if the event is to be the unifying force you describe.”

The communication was important for two reasons. On the one hand we worried that residents (some of whom would be partially landlocked by the street closure) would see this as an annoyance and we also wanted for everyone to feel welcome. It’s only an inconvenience if it’s someone else’s party, right?

My friend didn’t just have the right ideas—she was prepared to work hard to make them real. She crafted a plan and mobilized volunteers to go door-to-door flyering and conversing with hundreds of residents. It took her and her team all day but there’s nothing better than direct, person-to-person communication; again: the mechanics of a healthy, connected community.

Undoubtedly there exists a manual about how to run the perfect block party. Clearly, we didn’t read it and not everything went perfectly, but we co-discovered a very good process that set the table well for a positive moment in the life of the community.

The next post will talk about what I learned during the day’s interactions on that special occasion.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Belmont Bash: 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, sporadically appearing 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.

This past winter, there was a series of conversations about bringing the two together. I don’t recall the precise order but they included myself, Paul Beyer (organizer of Tom Tom), Greg Jackson (then neighborhood president), Tomas Rahal (community activist and restaurateur), Brian Wimer (filmmaker and community instigator) and some others. It was really informal and might have even begun in the hot tub at ACAC. (I never thought I’d be one of those people!)

That sort of conversation happens all the time in a community like this one but they don’t usually bear viable fruit. I’m interested to know why this idea worked while most others usually fail.

The Belmont Bash would not normally leave the Park because it didn’t have the weight needed to maintain momentum through the many predictable reasons not to do it—principal among them being that its a lot of work. The bash was lovely as it was but the community genuinely wanted a celebration in heart of the neighborhood. Perhaps the Park was the lungs. (Note: It would turn out that the neighborhood loved the old and the new and is leaning toward doing both in the future).

We needed an institutional backer and Tom Tom fit the bill and they really delivered. I’ll speak mostly about the community, but it’s very clear that none of it would have happened without Paul and his team.

The neighborhood association had a small grant available (which had to be used by the end of the spring to meet the Fiscal Year deadline) and this urgency was the match that lit the fuse. The grant covered water, treats, chalk, games and more. More broadly, that community development mandate was a motivation and organizing principle that guided us in difficult moments.

The event had passionate backers who were willing to do the necessary work to actually make it happen. While Tom Tom provided the necessary event infrastructure—permitting, equipment, music, a beer sponsor and an army of volunteers—the neighborhood itself made it a celebration.

The association also brought legitimacy, which was a big deal and the next post will talk about the mechanics of actively building that. It also has a potent communication network and its own crew of activists, several of whom played essential roles.

The organizing group, which met in restaurants, street corners, living rooms and informal settings had interesting ideas from a variety of directions—and none were mutually exclusive. Tomas’ urban farming exposition, for example, would have anchored a fun party all by itself. Brian’s street painting allowed people to literally etch their aspirations into the neighborhood fabric—and provide a visible core for the celebration. Lena and Greg brought a fire truck(!), a bus, and a host of community groups. My photo booth allowed people to say “I’m here” in a way that was more profound than I could expect. And on and on—and they were all people who have both ideas and accomplishments. No on in the room offered anything that they couldn’t deliver.

The City has had some notable successes with community block parties. They’re popular and serve a useful purpose for outreach and as ways of collecting community feedback. So the relevant City institutions were receptive—although this would not be the linear path we had expected.

But if I had to pick one subtle but crucial partner, it would be the nearby Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church. Their endorsement tipped the scale and they provided extraordinary positive energy for a celebration on Palm Sunday. When we learned that their bluegrass gospel band—led by a ninety-year-old fiddle player—would lead off we knew that this would be something truly special.

This incarnation of the Belmont Bash met a real need, but there was more to it than that. There were also multiple champions with similar (but not identical) agendas who were ready to make it happen and a little (but not a lot) of cash available.

I argue all the time that Monticello Road possesses traits that are typically American, but it’s special because it has unusually many strong threads that overlap. The same was the case for the Belmont Bash. It was always clear that it would succeed because it had extremely positive energy coming from several directions—largely (but not always) in resonance.

The next post will describe the process and challenges of organizing the bash and what that reveals about the community.

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.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Is Extreme Wealth Killing Art?

It’s great when a newspaper story about art jumps off of the kitchen table and demands to be noticed. This week, it happened in two very different articles about money in the arts, both laments, about where our culture is going and how its creative edge is being dulled through neglect.

The tighter, more straight-forward piece was in Sunday's Washington Post. Philip Kennicott asks, “As the price of art rises, is its value plummeting?” It’s a great, if oft-posed, question: as asking prices for blue-chip art enter mathematical ranges, and it becomes monitized, what does that do to the motives behind its creation, curation and distribution? How can that have an other-than-malign impact throughout the food chain? If one assumes that art is meant to be for something does not the commodity role squeeze other things out?

It can be argued that other assets—grain, for example—successfully perform dual roles as repositories for wealth and useful social functions. But those roles, different as they may be, are apples-to-apples: they are both utilitarian. Art has a quasi-spiritual function and that is what differentiates a urinal from a DuChamps. As we move into a supra-corporate model of wealth, with oceans of opacity between owners and assets—and increasing walls between people, I can say as an artist that it’s despairingly difficult to connect money and meaning in art.

Kennicott opens the piece by describing the record-breaking sale at Christie's of a Francis Bacon triptych. He closes by noting that the piece will be on display in Portland for a short time and notes that the anonymous owner is being heavily reimbursed for the loan through a tax deduction. The bad thing in my view is this: almost no one will go to see Bacon's art (although justifiably many people love his work); let’s be honest—everyone is going to see the huge container of wealth, ostentatiously displayed by someone who is ironically uncomfortable (also, I think, justified) about that very wealth. And even this one act of sharing is heavily caveated.

If I were to hazard one explanation of art’s social purpose, it would be that art is an exploration of each maker’s individualistic condition and that by midwifing those ideas into an object and putting it into public space, it transforms into an independent object among us all for discussion and reflection. It brings us together despite all of our differences because we all have varied but equally valid connections.

But by standing in as an explicit class signifier, the Bacon becomes a symbol of difference. Instead of bridging barriers, it is wall itself and the crowds that will go see it do so in the spirit of fascination with a car wreck. Is that what art is for? Is that what Bacon intended? As an artist, it is discomfiting, to say the least.

Surely we can do better.

[Full Story]

Editor’s Note: This phenomenon is the reason why Monticello Road is explicitly non-commercial. Too often, the confluence of money and art is a barrier between people. As this project strives for the opposite effect, it was important (though difficult) to find a way to get money out of the picture. Anyone who wishes to have a picture can have one through a variety of channels and support strategies, all deriving from the community, not through government or foundation financial. 

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

Can Charlottesville Plan its Way to a Better Cultural Scene?

The second article about money in the arts was more problematic. In reporting about the Create Charlottesville/Albemarle Cultural Plan, C-Ville Weekly reporter Elizabeth Derby zeros in on one, predictable, aspect of a complex plan: Can public money grow Charlottesville’s arts scene? I calmed down with the third reading, but I must say that I was put off from the first line, in which she describes the multi-year undertaking, which unified the cultural community like nothing before, as “absurd.” It’s the type of blithe snark that one expects from a free weekly and I hope that it was awkward writing--not her intent.

The question itself is an absurdity in itself, but in the opposite direction: of course money can grow the art scene, just as it can grow the restaurant scene or the skateboarding scene. The real question, though, is how best to grow the art scene? That’s what the plan is about and money is really a small part of it, notwithstanding the huge dollar bill on the tabloid’s cover.

The spirit of the plan is about working together as a whole community—different organizations, municipalities, interest groups, audiences, and cultural workers—toward making Charlottesville a livelier, more culturally rich place. After its inauspicious start, the article dives into the planning process in some detail sketching the whole process from the Arts and Economic Prosperity Study that inspired it, through 1,000 surveys and focus groups, all the way to the final draft and launch. It’s a lot to digest in just a few pages and the story sketches it out pretty well, notwithstanding the gloomy tone.

The Cultural Plan is a hopeful exercise based on the premise that it’s possible to work together to make the region better through cultural policy and planning. I happen to agree with that premise, but even if you’re not sure, what’s the alternative?

Those who have studied art and public policy know that power abhors a vacuum and, in the absence of public discussion, wealth will drive cultural priorities, as it does in other fields. That’s why I loved seeing the Post story next to this one—it highlights the market’s limitations as a cultural driver.

The Cultural Plan does not directly address supply and demand (and that is indeed a grave weakness) but neither is it a specific road map; more of a statement of values and priorities. The genius, really, is in the process: in bringing together diverse parties to discuss priorities, it sets the table for those groups to work collaboratively to solve some of the daunting challenges that lie ahead.

After I got over my anger at the article’s tone, it made me sad. It’s full of lamentation about what an interesting place Charlottesville used to be in some undefined golden age of hipness. (It should be noted that several of the story’s primary sources have not lived here for some time). I feel sorry for them, if that's what they want, but the collaborative process going forward can only improve the situation (marginally at the very minimum) that drove them away.

I’m glad the C-Ville decided to highlight this important discussion. How could it not, really? I’m sorry, though, that the story is written from such a pessimistic perspective. Yes, there is a malaise in the arts community, as if
“Art is just another hope to be abandoned, along with the hope that your children might do better than you’ve done.” [from the WaPo article]
But here’s a very real effort, with real investment (mostly time) by smart people, to make it better.

Let’s button our vintage flannels, roll the sleeves up and get to work!

[Read the C-Ville article here]

Disclaimer: I was closely involved with the Cultural Plan as a focus group leader and on the Artist Resources Task Force. Monticello Road and StoryLine are cited as successful models and McGuffey Art Center, where I am resident, is listed as both a key asset and opportunity for growth.

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.   

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Citizen Artist

This week was a great discussion about the citizen artist and the role of the arts in the crafting of a meaningful, balanced and productive live. As this blog is all about a community art project, it’s necessary for me to add that arts are an important glue that creates healthy communities. The many demonstrable benefits that accrue to an individual who has a rich creative life project onto the community at large as well.

This happens on a few levels:

1. Art creates a common reference that two discrete individuals can share without giving up any of their individual autonomy. You can talk to your neighbor about a performance you’ve witnessed at the local school, just like you see people of very different social extraction bonding together about last night’s football game. (Read here about Bill Ivey's amazing riff on that topic).

That may seem trivial or superficial but those initial bonds are key. No conversation of any merit can take place without a hello and the more we share simple things, the easier it is to work together on the profound. Liu and Hanauer argue that these small bonds are the key to trust, which is the only glue that can hold democracy together.

2. Art is an opportunity for engagement and if it is successful it does so in a zone of the sublime. It inspires an active response; it provokes—and that is how it is different from craft, which comforts and reassures. So art clears out the cobwebs and opens the pathway toward constructive engagement, bettering ourselves in whatever crazy way we see fit and kicks off a virtuous cycle of inspiration, creation and sharing.

This breaks through the lethargy and demonstrates that we can do something and that difference between zero and one is profound. So, as we bond together in the previous case, we do so in a way that is optimistic and with a quiver of emotional tools for positive change.

3. Finally, the making of art can itself be a community building activity on the physical level, which reinforces so much that is good. For example, in my neighborhood we painted a mandala on the road, which is now a community landmark, and it is one that we built ourselves and invested in together. By getting our hands dirty together we literally made ourselves into a community and doing so through art imbued that process with profound meaning on top of the circumstance. It was much better than picking up trash, for example.

So clearly, art within the community (as opposed to being shunted off to some cultural reservation) has virtuous effects. While it’s great to have art in the community, it is much better when the art is of/from the community. That way we truly own it (the art and, by extension the community itself). A citizen is one who invests themselves in their nation, and like the other ingredients of a successful neighborhood, an art-rich community requires active participation.

That is why we need citizen-artists even more than we need art appreciators.

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.  

Saturday, January 25, 2014

It Takes a Garden

We are at all times both cause and effect. Our mirror neurons and evolved social rites mean that how we behave influences how others behave, and how they behave influences us. The permuting patterns of those interactions become the shape our societies take.
-- The Gardens of Democracy. Page 34
The Garden of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer (Sasquatch Books, 2011) could be a manifesto for the Monticello Road project.

Liu and Hanauer argue that it is time to look at society and its three arenas (culture, economy and government) according to a new understanding of how the universe works: interconnected, approximative, reciprocal and in need of constant, humble tending. We more like a garden than a machine. The authors call for a new form of self-interest that based on the notion that we do well when we all do well. Furthermore, the path to change will be the sum of regular people doing small things: democracy, heritage, economic growth—it’s really just us and the sum of our everyday activities, as much how we live as what we do.

I have always been intrigued by the garden as a metaphor for all complex systems: our bodies, our neighborhoods, the nation or maybe even the universe itself. It’s a big reason I left New York and the more I read and experiment with my own garden the more convinced I am that it’s true. This is hardly new—the Bible told us so.

The thing that our parents and teachers might have misunderstood, though, and we’re starting to learn now is that we’re not gardeners standing aloof—we are the soil. Actually one thing you learn as a gardener is that there’s not much difference between the plants, the bugs, the compost, or even the guy pulling weeds. It’s only a question of applied intent.

I don’t wish to dwell too much on the nuances of this metaphor. Like any device metaphors have their limitations, but the spirit of what this one says is powerful, namely that fundamental change is the fruit of underlying and atmospheric conditions and that hummus must be built and nourished through the introduction of positivity.

Society is not some arena where we duke it out, it is us, the sum of all of our interactions and the tone we take with one another.

By celebrating our neighborhood, by getting to know one another as individuals and lifting one another up are actively building the dream city we want to live in.

Together.

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. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Artists are Agents of Negentropy

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.

There are so many amazing ideas and topics that come up in this class. In just the first week’s reading and discussion I feel like I’ve uncovered a lifetime of food for thought. We’re looking at the search for meaning through experience and the process of creation. What tools and resources strengthen a life, a community or a nation? Ideal topics for a community-based artist on a mission.

The course looks at art through two main lenses: contemplation and expression and the first week has focused on the former. We spoke briefly with our neighbors about a contemplative approach and came together on the ideas that it is an active, conscious and intentional centering exercise that opens, cleanses and illuminates. Useful life skills in addressing the contradictions that weigh every decision.

We’re moving past a Twentieth Century that sought to cure the world’s ills (and caused more than it's share) by trying to identify dysfunctions and eliminating them. The new approach is a positive paradigm that desires to build and nourish. A positive paradigm is holistic (instead of zeroing in a syndrome) and seeks to grow the entity far past its baseline. It’s about potential instead of limitations and on this ground, Art is a potent force.

One of our texts, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studies ways to optimize experience and find meaning, appreciation (and yes power) in all domains. The section we read talks about how to reconcile differentiation and integration on all levels from the deeply personal to the whole social. It defines meaning as purpose, intention/resolution and organization/harmony.

In a complex world, this is difficult and it is not obvious how best to reconcile competing and sometimes oppositional ideas—not only from different points of view but within a single individual. How do we keep our thoughts organized and positively employed? Yet we must if we are to thrive.

Perspective is key: what matters is how we perceive each of our circumstances and our ideas about what they mean go a long way toward whether they limit us or not. In fact, our circumstances actually empower us if we can be smart about where we go from them.

As I read, Csikszentmihalyi dropped a term that stopped me in my tracks and illuminated many things. He cites the word negentropy, which I had never heard before but which is supremely powerful.

The reverse of entropy, negentropy is the force that brings things together, establishes order where there was none. For example, Wikipedia, states that Life itself is a negentropic force:
Life is considered to be negentropic because it takes things in less order, like dead food, and turns it into things in more order, like cells in the body, tissues, and organs.
This is also what the artist does: gathers ideas, sounds, visions, etc and produces something new, coherent and perhaps even astonishing. Art is a negentropic tool and, when drawing from a shared heritage provides valuable insight into how to order the often baffling chaos that surrounds us all. So art is a search for the organizational structure for life itself.

The artist is an agent of negentropy: a bringer of perspective who offers insights that allow us to bridge experience and intention and move forward toward our maximum potential. It is part of our human makeup and available to everyone. It's good for the artist and good for the audience.

That is certainly a Positive Paradigm!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Arts and Public Policy: Intro

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.

The class examines the dynamics between art—that which challenges the unknown—and the exercise of power (in a variety of domains), public life and Democracy. The discussion is founded on a variety of texts but most primarily on Arts, Inc. by Bill Ivey and the Gardens of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer.

I’ve already read both books and will have more to say about them soon, but it’s clear that these ideas are foundational questions for the Monticello Road Project. George says that art tells a story and is designed to make change, whether perceptual or social (as opposed to entertainment, which reinforces the comfortable). Monticello Road engages both fronts (perception and connectedness). It does so from the most granular level but with a purpose of doing its small part to revitalize democracy. I firmly believe the notion that small, individual actions are society and small things such as respect, courtesy and mutual curiosity can yield big change. 

Today’s opening session ended with a discussion of the ancient Greek notion of Agonism: an emphasis on the struggle itself far more than the end result, mutual respect for the contestants and the idea that defeat to a worth foe is superior to an easy victory. The project is a process not a product. That’s why it is art.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Catching Up with the Santa of Mountain View

You have to be a pretty cool character to be profiled twice on this blog. North Pole cold, in fact!

We stopped by Mountainview Street to check in with Jeff Norford and the Santa of Mountainview. They will be included in the forthcoming cell phone audio tour. Their open-handed generosity and considerable commitment of time and money [not to mention their wackiness] exemplify the spirit that creates great communities.

They always get alot of well-justified press and they were recently interviewed in the C-Ville Weekly. I chose to avoid the inevitable questions about the electric bill.

Here's our conversation. The audio version will be ready soon.

Monticello Road: How’s it going this year? Is it exciting?

Norford: Yeah, it’s great. Every year it gets better and better. We have more and more people show up.

MR: How far do people come from? Is everyone local?

Norford: All over the world. We have people come from all over.

Santa: Well last year we had them come from about 2 countries. This year so far it’s been about four or five.

Norford: We had a lady from England, I know of, then some from Africa. From Thailand, China. From Japan. All over.

MR: Mostly families or a mix? Adults?

Norford: Yeah a mix, half and half pretty much. Really a lot of adults, elderly people come through.

MR: One time I was here last year and a seniors bus pulled up.

Norford: Yeah…Alll the senior busses come through. Every night…we had one tonight.

Santa: Yeah, from Canterbury.

MR: The other day I saw some lampposts up in downtown Belmont or street signposts that have candy canes attached to them with a note that says “have a treat.” Do you know anything about that?

Norford: No I don’t know anything about that.

MR: Yeah it’s cool. They have little notes that say “Have a treat.”

Norford: Wow. I haven’t seen that.

MR: Well, when I think candy canes I think of here for some reason, I don’t know why.

Norford: We give out quite a few candy canes, that’s for sure. I’ve bought twelve-hundred candy canes already. So we’ll probably go through another twelve hundred at least, before Christmas.

MR: Can you please describe for me the schedule in terms of how long Santa on Mountainview goes on and what are the hours?

Norford: We start on Thanksgiving, we turn everything on and we run through the Sunday after the New Year. It runs until the fifth of January this year. We’re open from 5:30 til 10:00 every night. Santa’s here from 5:30 til 10:00 every night until Christmas Eve. And then after that we have the display open until January 5th for people to come by if they’ve been away for Christmas or something like that.

Child: Hey Rudolf!

Norford: Hey, how you doing!

Santa: Ho ho ho!

Norford: Merry Christmas!

Mom: Merry Christmas!

MR: I would imagine Santa needs a break after Christmas, has some cleaning up to do. Mucking out the reindeer stables, all that stuff…

What are your thoughts about have creative expressions out in people’s yards? I mean, most people are up to cool creative things but they don’t normally put it outside for everyone to see.

Norford: Not really (laughs). I don’t have Christmas inside; all my Christmas is outside. I don’t even have a tree inside. My tree is actually the one sitting outside—he’s way there in the corner by the skiing Santa.

[Aside, to a family] Come on in!

Santa: A bus came here with a Santa driving the bus.

Norford: The Westminister bus…a senior bus.

MR: It was probably just someone dressed like Santa. Not really him…

Santa: I was ready to say, “Would the real Santa please stand up?”

MR: He has a lot of helpers.

Santa: Yes he does.

Norford [to family]: Come on in!

MR: What’s the craziest thing you’ve witnessed here?

Norford: They get so excited and the excitement of the seniors. That’s really something. We have 90-year old ladies come in…

Santa: and they’re as excited as a nine-year-old.

Norford: And the handicapped people and people in wheelchairs, we bring them in around the back way so they can still come in....

MR: Has anyone asked to be married here, proposed marriage?

Norford: Not that we know of.

Santa: We’ll have to get one of those back-of-the-magazine ordained ministries so we can…

MR: Wear your longjohns because it’s cold in Mountainview…

Norford: Oh yeah: it’s about ten degrees colder when you get inside of there.

MR: When I was here, Santa told me it’s because of the fans. Is it because of that or the air compressors?

Norford: Come on in!

Santa: It’s because of all the fans for the blow-ups.

Norford: There are a hundred seventeen blow-ups. Actually some of them have two fans, so there’s probably a hundred twenty fans going in there circulating air in there.

Santa: It’s like a giant air condioning.

Norford: We have a lot of people say that. They walk in there and are like, “it’s colder in there than it is out here.

We just pump in air from the North Pole.

MR: Thanks Gentlemen; Merry Christmas!

Norford: Merry Christmas. Come on in… 

[More Profiles]


The Monticello Road Audio Tour is an extension of the Charlottesville Audio Tour in cooperation with Charlottesville Historic Resources and Preservation

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Where's the Art Version of Streetball?

The book I’m reading, Arts Inc. by Bill Ivey (former head of the NEA) is full of provocative and smart ideas but one quote made me throw the book in the air and start clapping. It’s spot-on accurate but I really love it because it makes an explicit connection that I’m always reaching for between my two twin interests: art and running. Furthermore he states explicitly what I’m always preaching: that art organizations should study sports marketing and especially those groups working on the grassroots—like, my employer, New YorkRoad Runners. They are doing a better job of changing lives than anyone in the arts and there are specific reasons why. Here’s Bill's blurb:
We first need to reframe our connection to art-making to match the way we think of athletics and exercise. In the world of museums, symphony orchestras, and dance companies, “participation” today means “attendance”; we’re participating in art when we buy a ticket to an exhibition or plant ourselves in a seat at a Mozart festival. In the world of sports we also participate by purchasing tickets and attending competitions, sometimes alongside thousands of fellow fans. But real sports activity is spread throughout the population; for those who don’t play tennis or golf or participate in an amateur softball league, society offers plenty of encouragement to exercise—even if it’s just a long, brisk walk three or four times a week. Our relationship with amateur sport seems healthy and rounded; we are accepting of wide disparities in talent and generous to those who can only take part in limited ways: we applaud the ten-minute miler just as vigorously as the sub-four champion. “Participation”, in sports and exercise means just what it says, doing. And, as a bonus, broad participation produces knowledgeable, enthusiastic audiences who support substantial compensation for thousands of professional athletes.

In contrast, most Americans are almost afraid to make art casually; there’s no longer an equivalent, in music, dance, drama, or drawing to the pickup touch football game on the back lawn on a Sunday afternoon. If we’re going to make art, it’s got to be serious business and the result has to be good. As Kimmelman observes, “Amateur equates to amateurish.” My friends in classical music talk with envy about European opera or symphony performances at which innovative or controversial performances once produced audience outrage and near-riots—people over there really care! Of course American enthusiasts are just wishing for the kind of audiences we find today at U.S. sporting events. To reach such a point we need to reconfigure the hierarchical pyramid that today is geared toward elevating only the best.[1]
Bill actually doesn’t go far enough. Sports programs that are well done create a virtuous cycle of health and fitness and that cycle is self-powered. He cites running, an industry I understand extremely well. Here’s how it works at the most macro level:
  1. Small groups gather informally at the amateur level to train or play. They are very welcoming.
  2. They work alongside one another pushing their own limits and each-others’ in a mutually supportive environment.
  3. Some few rise to such prominence that others want to come out and see them.
  4. Those performances inspire others (of all abilities) to run alongside them.
  5. People of all ages get out there and try to better themselves literally one step at a time.
  6. Here’s the cool part: others, including (and especially) the professionals see those kids, old folks and couch potatoes moving and they are hugely inspired.
  7. Repeat, only in larger numbers…
Of course, the analogy has limits. Running does not produce a very large cadre of people earning a living that way. It may seem impossible, but the odds of “making it” as a performer are even less for a runner than as an artist. Running is quirky that way. But the endeavor attracts breathtakingly many committed practitioners. Imagine what America would be like if as much time, and numbers, were devoted to actively exercising our souls as we do at the gym, trail or park. I suspect that many things would change.

The positive trends in health and fitness are exactly that: positive; so no one would advocate staying in a room (or a studio) at the expense of going for a run. Yet, the time and energy needs to come from someplace and I suspect the book will go on to advocate that we make time and money for informal, spontaneous art by refraining from so much consumerism and passive entertainment.

He’s interested in finding a way to get everyone involved and inspired and to feel empowered to do so at whatever level makes sense. That’s what we’re trying to do too.


1. Ivey, Bill. Arts Inc: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyedour Cultural Rights. University of California Press, 2008 pp. 118-119. Reprinted without permission. Since Bill devoted  about 50 pages prior to that quote arguing that fair use is essential for a thriving democracy, I will take my chances…

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Monticello Road Audio Tour: Downtown Belmont

For the latest stop on the audio tour, we spoke with Greg Jackson, architect and neighborhood president, about "Downtown Belmont" and what makes it so special. There are about 45 minutes of great recording, which we may share some time, but for the audio tour, we've distilled three short segments.

In the first clip, Greg describes Downtown Belmont. For out-of-town visitors, "Downtown Belmont" is an area where Monticello Road passes, oblique through the grid and creates a series of corners that yields a small but thriving commercial district in the midst of a residential neighborhood. This phenomenon has continued for nearly a century and its current incarnation is anchored by several independent restaurants, several of which are internationally acclaimed.


Next, he talks about pedestrian-friendly neighborhood commercial districts, and why mixed use--if carefully done--can be a huge benefit and attraction:


Finally, he talks about the origins of the new sidewalk enhancements, and what they can do for the area:


The Monticello Road Audio Tour is an extension of the Charlottesville Audio Tour in cooperation with Charlottesville Historic Resources and Preservation. Special thanks to Amanda Henry for transcribing the interview. Monticello Road is an art/community project in Charlottesville Virginia.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Inspiration: Chalkville

Monticello Road is an in-depth exploration of one street in Charlottesville, VA. It asks how art can be a key, everyday part of a healthy and vibrant community. This blog normally focuses, as it should, on the people and places in that neighborhood but it also occasionally presents related examples and inspirations from elsewhere.

Elinor Slomba is an artist/organizer/agent/angel and a lifetime collaborator and friend of mine. I caught up with Elinor as she was catching her breath after the completion of Chalkville, a monumental chalk drawing on a high school parking lot in West Haven, CT and an excellent example of art-centric community organizing.



Tell us about Chalkville. What was it about and how did it go?

Elinor: Chalkville was a Guinness-approved world record attempt for Largest Chalk Pavement Art. The record we had to beat was 90,000 square feet of one unified chalk drawing, set by Mark Wagner of Alameda, California. After I got the idea this might be a good civic art project, we got seed funding from the Awesome Foundation, Connecticut Chapter. They give $1,000 grants to individuals for creative projects that benefit communities. That was enough for a little less than half of the chalk, but it enabled us to begin saying "we have funding for this." It wasn't just a crazy idea, we were certified Awesome!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Monticello Road Audio Tour: Lazy Daisy

Lazy Daisy Ceramics was one of the first businesses I discovered when I arrived on Monticello Road. When I told Sonny and Novella about my project, they were quick to help. Sonny has been in the neighborhood in various capacities all his life and Novella has ever since the business moved here in the seventies. Both have seen a lot and are master storytellers.

It was impossible to distill even the highlights of our conversation into my 120 second limit, so I broke the narration into two segments. In the first, Sonny talks about the neighborhood and the history of his building.



In the second segment, Novella talks about the business and how it has changed.



The Monticello Road Audio Tour is an extension of the Charlottesville Audio Tour in cooperation with Charlottesville Historic Resources and Preservation. Special thanks to Tara at Lazy Daisy for arranging the interview. Monticello Road is an art/community project in Charlottesville Virginia.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

StoryLine 2013



This is the fourth year I’ve worked on StoryLine, the fifth year of its existence. It’s never the same and it’s always good.

This year’s theme was transit: how people and things get around. We spent three days in July with 30 Charlottesville Parks and Rec summer campers (ages 10-14) and a phenomenal team of volunteers exploring three distinct modes of transit: water, bikes and busses and on the fourth day, the kids made a huge chalk mural about it on the Free Expression Wall.

StoryLine invites the youngsters to explore and discover their worlds and use that as fuel for art-making. The Constitution guarantees the right to express oneself, but whence the willingness to do so? What should they say and why?

We’re teaching kids to make connections between their own experiences and the wider world and encouraging them to speak their perspectives. It’s not only a visual expression, although the Free Expression mural is a very visible testament. This year, we included a group of poets and rappers and they really invigorated the experience.



The kids instantly responded to the spoken verse for a variety of reasons. The language and rhythm of Hip Hop feels familiar but they also come from a deeply verbal culture, much more so than visual. So when we asked kids to draw about their observations, they were hesitant—and that’s ok; it’s why we have artist mentors. But when we asked them to rhyme their observations, our jaws all dropped at the adolescents’ fluency. It was amazing.

Words disappear into the air and sky and the drawing did not last the day, as afternoon showers washed the chalkboard clean. Although nothing endures forever, some things have a lasting impact. I hope StoryLine triggers something in the kids. It has certainly changed my life.

Story|line is a collaboration between the Piedmont Council of the Arts, the Bridge, Charlottesville Parks and Recreation, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, Siteworks Studio and many, many volunteers.

Learn More about StoryLine:
Web Site | Exhibition Info | Photos | Media Preview | Media Recap | Blog Thread

 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Monticello Road Audio Tour: VA Industries for the Blind


Virginia Industries for the Blind is one of the oldest and most important enterprises along Monticello Road. It's quiet exterior hides a hive of activity and gives no sense of the fascinating people who work there. The latest installment in our audio tour goes behind the scenes to meet some of them. [Listen to Clip | Read Profile]

VIB has been a early and enthusiastic supporter of the Monticello Road Project. I would like to thank James, Peggy, Preston, Jeff, William and all the staff there who have been so welcoming. If Clark has the brains of Monticello Road, VIB is the heart.

The Monticello Road Audio Tour is an extension of the Charlottesville Audio Tour in cooperation with Charlottesville Historic Resources and Preservation. Special thanks to Jim Meehan for narrating this clip. Monticello Road is an art/community project in Charlottesville Virginia.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Monticello Road Audio Tour: Old Belmont Bridge


The Belmont Bridge is the gateway that unites Belmont with downtown Charlottesville. It's the beginning of Monticello Road. In the previous entry in this thread, we heard about Monticello Road's opposite [truncated] end, out past the edge of town. Here we get close to the heart of town and this will be the logical first stop in the cell phone audio tour.

The audio tour will eventually have ten stops (some with multiple narrations).

For now, enjoy this one, in which Preston Coiner, Diane Graves and Rosie Breedin remember the old Belmont Bridge, as it existed when they were kids. It was a gateway for them too. Big thanks to Pete O'Shea for his opening narration.

The Monticello Road Audio Tour is an extension of the Charlottesville Audio Tour in cooperation with Charlottesville Historic Resources and Preservation. Special thanks to Chris Gensic for narrating this clip. Monticello Road is an art/community project in Charlottesville Virginia.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Block Party, Street Fest, Monticello Road Celebration


Pantheon Popshop was one of many local businesses sharing the love at the block party. [More Photos]

The Tom Tom Fest closing party at the Bridge was alot of fun. There was live music (WTJU broadcasted live all day), food, drinks and alot of fun.

We set up one of our pop-up photo booths and gave away dozens of on-the-spot prints. As I explained the project to people, they instantly understood and we were no longer strangers.

There was lots of great sharing, as I received gifts of burgers, fries and beer, but the best one was cameraderie. The party might have been a one-time thing, but it was a good one and a terriffic way to celebrate the project's anniversary.

It was wonderful to see so many people come together with the simple purpose of celebrating one another.

View Photos

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Celebrate Monticello Road at Tom Tom

A year after the main Monticello Road events, we're still celebrating the community. On Sunday, April 14, we're joining the Tom Tom Founders Fest Closing Party, which is taking place at the Bridge PAI--right back where we started.

We'll do another Pop-up Photo Booth, record stories for the Cell Phone Audio Tour, and if the space is available we'll show the Community Slide Show. We'll have books for sale as well.

The block party starts at 2:00 p.m. and runs until 9:00. We'll be there sometime in the afternoon and into the evening. Stop by, get your picture taken (and a free print), record your impressions, and help us celebrate our wonderful community!

Volunteers/collaborators are needed for the photo booth. Contact me if you can help.

The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative is located at 209 Monticello Road, across from Sputnuts.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Glad I Photographed Those Old Houses!


Accomack, VA 2011. This was a controlled burn, which is now illegal. [more photos]

Please permit a quick detour from Monticello Road to the Virginia Eastern Shore.

Many readers know about my other project—Succession—in which I photograph human spaces being reclaimed by nature. I’ve taken many pictures along US 13 in Accomack County, an area rich in abandoned buildings and farmsteads.

Something strange and bad is happening over there.

A string of arsons (more than 70 since November) have targeted abandoned buildings and have been done in a highly sophisticated manner, studiously avoiding both detection and human (or animal!) injury. Naturally, speculation about the arsonist(s)—and it’s almost certainly a team—and their motives, is rampant.

People seem to think that it must be some group of trouble-makers, anarchists, revenge-seekers or pychos and fear is taking hold. That’s a natural response to fire.

I haven’t heard anyone ask an obvious question though: who benefits by eliminating traces of old family farms? Most arson cases are related to insurance fraud but for that to be the case here would require an entire community-wide conspiracy, which though fascinating from a sociological perspective, would be highly unlikely. Big poultry, which dominates both landscape and economy seems a more likely candidate.

Perhaps it’s the manifestation of dark desperation, like the monster that emerges from the lake in that Police Song.

It’s certainly a sign that something bad is happening in that community’s soul and whatever the motivation, the effect is sad. Many people are afraid and an already-poor county is forced to divert limited resources to try to protect lives and property. Beyond the financial losses (some of which are heartbreaking) it’s a troubling erasure of past lives. Everything changes and if the arsonist hadn’t taken those buildings, Nature most likely would have. But this feels different: vicious in ways we've seen too many times before.

At any rate I’m glad I stopped and documented some of those tumbledown dreams before they were wiped away. Although I have a renewed urgency I’ll certainly be careful about creeping around those places in the future, lest I be collared on suspicion of pyromania!

Photo Gallery with Accomack Pics | More Succession Photos
Good Summary Story (Weird end-times header notwithstanding)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Montcello Road Audio Tour: Ghost Road Stop


The Monticello Road cell phone audio tour will provide visitors and residents with a deeper experience and appreciation of one of America's most interesting neighborhoods.

It will consist of a series of nine narrated tour stops along the length of Monticello Road, each with a sign including a phone number and/or a QR code that will call audio narrations about the sites in the voices of the local people. If all goes according to plan, geolocation will also be available.

The project is expected to be ready this summer, at which time we'll produce a map and a series of public events.

For now, take a listen to Stop #9, which explores the historic extension of the road, past its dead end at Moore's Creek.

The Monticello Road Audio Tour is an extension of the Charlottesville Audio Tour in cooperation with Charlottesville Historic Resources and Preservation. Special thanks to Chris Gensic for narrating this clip. Monticello Road is an art/community project in Charlottesville Virginia.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Monticello Road Extended: Ghost Road


Like an appendix, about a mile of historic Monticello Road still exists, cut off by the Interstate, isolated and now disused. An artifact from the past, it looks like it could have an exciting future. Check back soon for a full photo gallery.

Monticello Road was once a primary entrance to Charlottesville but it was truncated when Interstate 64 was built and replaced by nearby Monticello Avenue in the Sixties. What’s left is the quiet neighborhood street it is today.

I’ve always wondered what traces of the old Monticello Road exist on the other side of the Interstate, out into the country. I’ve crawled through culverts and fought through brambles but never found anything definitive.

A lucky break came when I called Chris Gensic, trails coordinator for Charlottesville for assistance with the cellphone audio tour [more on that soon]. He had an answer and was willing to show me. He also has a plan.

Old Monticello Road crossed Moore’s Creek at its present terminus (bridge abutments still visible), followed the creek for a short ways, then wound through the hills up to the current site of Michie Tavern (it was originally located in Earlysville) then joined VA-53, the current route up to Monticello. In between still exists about a mile of ghost road, completely abandoned and covered with leaves but largely intact. A kick in the leaves reveals a solid yellow line.

Along the way, the road passes through a spectacular successionary ecosystem, largely protected from human intrusion by its very cut-off state. So cut off, in fact, that major trespassing (or acquiring owners' permission as we did) is required to go there.

Interstate builders straightened and rerouted Moore’s Creek to its north flank and diked off an oxbow that is still filled with water and that hosts seasonal waterfowl. There’s a rich and varied understory with particularly abundant ironwood beneath a canopy of mature sycamores and oaks. Archeological traces abound. I can’t wait to revisit the place in the Spring.

If Chris gets his way, we will all get to go there soon. He has an ambitious but surprisingly feasible plan to reconnect with the historic right of way by bridging Moore’s Creek and boring a tunnel under I-64, sweeping the leaves off the old roadway and connecting with the Saunders-Monticello trail, yielding a family/tourist-friendly pathway all the way to Monticello.

This will be a boon for residents and visitors alike and will make available a real treasure for all. In the meantime, it’s a neat little tract: hidden and cut off from both place and time.

Edit to add (2/1):

This came from amazing archeologist/naturalist Devin Floyd, who accompanied the walk. So great to walk those woods with people who really knew what they were seeing:

"Peter, you might add spicebush and pawpaw to the understory species list you describe, as they were the dominant woody plants, and important indicators of ecosystem health. You might also add poplar and ash to the overstory descript., as they are the dominant species in the overstory.

The road does pass through a spectacular and varied display of forest succession. There are also remnant trees, echoes of fields and open spaces long ago abandoned (that's what those biggest trees represent).

Friday, January 4, 2013

Succession 2013


This picture, which depicts the historic traces of Monticello Road that extend into the country is part of both Monticello Road and Succession series.

I am exhibiting eighteen photographs from my Succession series at Milli Joe (Charlottesville) January 4-31, 2013. These pictures explore nearby human spaces that Nature has begun to reclaim.

There will be a opening kaffeeklatch from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, January 5, with a second one Tuesday, January 15 from 7:30 to 10 a.m.

Every artist has a second, secret, project and this is mine. If Monticello Road is about the human interconnections in a healthy community, Succession pokes around the poison ivy, cicadas and woodlots around the edges of the neighborhood.

Milli Joe is located at the corner of Preston and Ridge/McIntire in Charlottesville. Parking available next door. For more information please call 434-465-9869.