The Useful Rural Economics of Dr. Wilson Gee of UVA

My father’s discussions of life at the University of Virginia in the mid 1950s often involved parties and social life, and the overall scene, from William Faulkner to periodic visits by Louis Armstrong and other jazz and big band greats.

I learned some important style issues from him as well; pants should not drag onto a shoe, button downs should never be too starched and a tuxedo is called a “tuck” not a “tux.” Continue reading

Radio Orange, Time Travel, and Great Radio

Harrison signing the papers to sell the station in 1984 to Digby Solomon. Click on Ray Brasted’s Orange County Review photo for more.

ORANGE – Back in the early 1980s, I went to boarding school in the Virginia country. As typical of so many 14-year-olds, I did not appreciate so many things that now I understand to be great. One such institution was Radio Orange, the clever marketing handle for the dual AM-FM station WJMA. WJMA, the initials of which stand for hometown President James Madison, was one of those great community radio stations, thousands of which have been rendered puerile by the vile radio consolidation of the last 20 years. Each morning, Radio Orange woke me on my clock radio.

I was lucky enough to know, however, that the station was a standout, even as I would have rather heard its less Middle of the Road (that was the music it mostly played) tunes of The Carpenters and such on my morning clock radio. Patricia McArver, the wife of our faculty member, often did the news, and Ann Harrison, the daughter of the legendary station owner Archie Harrison, was a day student at the “all-boys” school. Mrs. Skillcorn, the wife of my patient algebra teacher and wrestling coach Bill Skillcorn, also filled in with the news, as I recall. McArver later went to The Citadel, where she still teaches communications.

So we listened to radio Orange, alot, as it had great news and a sort of subversive marketing nickname Radio Orange. The “Radio” echoed Radio Free Europe and other ambitious attempts to subvert collectivist thought with facts, and we as students thought it pretty hip. The ads too, were intensely local. In fact it was all local, even a classical show.

Archie Harrison, who died in 2013, was famous in Virginia news circles, and beloved, as the station was even more innovative than some of the more over-programmed teenybopper stations in the larger markets of Richmond, Norfolk and D.C. The news staff did live news, with actual reporting from county meetings and such. I wish I had talked to him about radio then; instead I just remember him as a dapper guy who came around quite often.

An announcer at a street festival in 1976. Click on the image to see it on the WJMA tribute website.

Waking up this morning, I wondered if there were airchecks related to the station, to hear the sound of what those mornings were like. Airchecks, I have realized, are one of the few ways that time travel is truly possible, as you sort of step back into the moment when you hear them. Thankfully, there are dozens on the website, as well as an exhaustive history of the station’s accomplishments. Please read the site, as it also includes a long list of the local civic leaders who made the station happen. These foresighted men realized that good, local radio programming was essential to a town’s economic health.

The station was sold, and eventually moved to Culpeper, which was a great loss for Orange-ites, as we called them.

Would that today’s large radio companies go back and study the economics and ecosystems of these independent radio stations, to see what they contributed to our country, and what potential they still have with thoughtful, civic-minded local ownership. Or even better, Agit Pai’s newly radio friendly Federal Communications Commission could carefully study the current radio stations that operate in this fashion, and with policy, encourage more of them.

Today, the radio giants of Cumulus and I Heart Media own hundreds of stations. Their leveraged companies are short of cash and ideas. Perhaps there might be a way to de-leverage these companies, spinning off the radio stations into joint ventures with majority local ownership, yet with some of the advantages of networks. Expanding the pie. That’s what capitalism is about and that’s what Radio Orange was about.

Ivan Illich’s Convivial Legacy

Austrian thinker and Catholic priest Ivan Illich, largely forgotten today, predicted and legitimized a critique of capitalism and socialism that is still relevant. Illich, who illustrated the destructiveness of consumer and communist Western culture as it was in the 1960s and 70s, seems to today to be a visionary who understood the downside of “progress” as it was and is defined by bureaucrats and the establishment.

His book Deschooling Society took on the education establishment, and he had equal contempt for the medical establishment, both of which upheld lifestyles that in the end were harmful to people. He was, it seems, an unwitting part of the Catholic social justice movement, but was able to rise beyond the dogma with a critique of World Bank do-gooderism echoed by Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity. Tools For Conviviality (Harper & Row, 1973) was the book that tried to give Illich’s way of moving forward, calling “conviviality” the ability to use tools to create your own God-given vision of the world. Continue reading

Texas History With the Thaddeus Bell Family Scrapbook

From left, first row, Katharine Bell and her sister Ruth Bell with her brothers above.

My window into the history of Texas in the late 19th century and early 20th century is a scrapbook from my my Bell ancestors. It seems funny to say ancestors, as my great-grandmother Katharine Bell Byrd (May 11, 1894 – May 5, 1985), lived with us growing up in Virginia Beach. Born in San Antonio, Texas in 1894, she lived until 1985. My memory is of a stylish, Buick driving grand lady who gave me Pringles, Coca-Cola and Morton Honey Buns. But there was much more to her life than that.

The scrapbook, which is about 40 pages, includes hundreds of photos, most of early Texas. It is a notable bit of social history, as my great-grandmother’s great-grandfather was Josiah Hughes Bell, who lived from 1791-1838. Bell was one of Steven Austin’s early Texas pioneers. I heard, quite often, about the first capital of Texas being at his town and plantation, Bell’s Landing, later named Columbia, on the Brazos River. I recall her saying that her grandfather was the first “white” baby born in Texas, though later mentions of Thaddeus C. Bell indicate that he might have been the second “Anglo” born in the Republic.

Katharine Bell Byrd (actually known as Mrs. G. Bentley Byrd, who I called Nini) was a Scot, with clear blue eyes, and she always understood herself to be a Texan. This did not manifest itself in too many ways, as she lived most of her life as the wife of a prominent Navy physician in Norfolk, Virginia.She was the only person that I ever knew during my childhood that ate Mexican food; she often had enchiladas after her bourbon toddy.

I would ask her, over and over, to tell me the story of growing up in Texas, and the Galveston Storm. The storm was a horror, and her father Thaddeus Copes Bell, as an executive of New York Life, was one of the first ones there afterward. Thaddeus Bell, who later moved to Virginia, paid out claims as the funeral pyres of the thousands of bodies burned; apparently the smell was what was the worst.

Nini did not not tell me that part (I heard it from my grandmother) but she did tell me of having to go over to a neighbors house across the street during the storm; to protect the windows they put mattresses up against them. I believe then she was living in Houston, along with her sister Ruth Bell.

Unfortunately, she did not actually have the scrapbook in her possession in the 1970s, as far as I knew; it came to my grandmother later. But getting the scrapbook when my grandmother died confirmed the world view that I heard, first hand.

Some photos from the scrapbook.

Above, a hunting party in Encinal County, Texas on November 20, 1898. Included in the 10-person hunting party were Shepard (at far left and perhaps the most stylish of the bunch), Culberson (bottom right) and Albert (far right). Others there (they are identified in an another scrapbook) included Jones, Puckett and Rose. Ike, not pictured in this photo but in another, was the black “all around man” and Albert was the cook. Thad Bell was taking photos.

Below, part of the game during that 1898 hunting party. Albert, again at right, looks to have a pan and a very large knife!

I have no clue where this is, or what vessel she is.

Above, the house of a J. O. Ferrell (I think that is what it reads) on 100 Summit Ave in San Antonio. There is a house that sort of looks like it on Google Maps, though I cannot find an exact match. Its a great area of old houses.

Above, the Thaddeus Bell photo of the remains of the First Capital of Texas. It has since been reconstructed as it was in the days of the Republic.

Often, in their travels and hunts, they were at the King Ranch. Below, a photo of “Mr. Curtis.’

Above, this is apparently a very old tree on or near the Bell property in Columbia, which was the capital of Texas in 1836. Sam Houston was sworn in as president of the Republic in Columbia and it is also apparently where Secretary of State Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas,” died.

Above, my great grandmother with a nurse named Maria.

A beautiful horse at King Ranch. I am not sure who is holding it.

Above, another view of the King Ranch stable.

Tell Me What Is Right; Persistent Negative Views Hurt Cities

When locals are negative about the economic future of their own towns, watch out.

The negative stories and “memes” that are told over and over again take on the veneer of truth, and then begin to affect the psyche of the city. Such stories as:

  • There is little hope for this XYZ town.
  • All the young kids are moving away from XYZ county.
  • Since the XYZ Factory closed, there is no opportunity.

Of course, the reality is that factories do close, governments are corrupt, and corporations are very often so focused on the bottom line that they are happy to run a company into ruin, and tear the heart out of a city. And people do have to leave when there is no opportunity.

But that’s different than a town’s own mantra, which usually comes from some in the the ruling class that had a stake in creating the old, unsuccessful order.

This was certainly the case of some in Richmond, Virginia, which had a persistently negative view of itself, in spite of its riches in architecture, culture and people. Pictured here, a lovely painted postcard of the 14th Street Bridge, with a lighted trolley going across at night. A delightful place.

All during the 1980s, when great Virginia banks like Virginia National Bank, State Planters Bank and Central National Bank were being sold out by elites into stupid-named banks like Crestar, Signet and Sovran, and then sold out again to newly created national banks, one of the many negative Richmond mantras went something like this:

  • Virginia, unlike North Carolina, deregulated its banks late to allow state-wide banks. Because Virginia was so behind, North Carolina banks got more powerful, and that’s why we had to sell out to the likes of NCNB, Wachovia and First Union. That’s why North Carolina won all of that and we are so miserable.

Of course, I made that last sentence up completely. It’s a sort of paraphrase.

Of course, there was some truth in it. Richmond was slower to deregulate its state banks and allow consolidation. But further questions were never asked including was the deregulation the right idea in the first place? What can we do to preserve bank jobs? What banking related industries can we attract to rebuild lost white collar jobs?

And there are were other memes. Richmond is so racist, northern companies don’t want to be here. The Club won’t let in all the relocated employees, and so they feel left out. City government is so corrupt they are scared to open a factory here. On and on.

Today, things have come full circle, in spite of the negative meme. A few years ago, Forbes listed the “Cities that are Winning the Battle for Finance Jobs:” And what was the city with the most growth? Richmond, Virginia with a total of 47,000 people who worked in the financial sector. In the stats, Richmond gained 12 percent in finance jobs from 2009 to 2012, a 12 percent gain overall and 4 percent gain in 2012.

Much of this is because of the success of Capital One, which was born as Bank of Virginia Charge Plan, and spun off. Of all the charge cards, Capital One has a gentler approach; I worked there for a time and it was a fantastic company. It was growing, both in Richmond and in Northern Virginia, its headquarters. So much was the growth a few years ago that they had to have a shuttle bus from their Richmond campus to Northern Virginia. But it wasn’t just Capital One, but smaller brokerages and banks, as well as insurance and other finance and accounting. Small boutique investment banks also opened up.

Another factor has been the presence of the Federal Reserve, federal courts and state offices. This legal and financial infrastructure helped carry prestige of the the financial sector when many of those banks sold out.

Through it all, Richmond had steady leadership in their regional economic development personnel, including the longtime head of the Greater Richmond Partnership, Greg Wingfield. Wingfield was consistent in his positive message, and focused carefully on recruiting in industry clusters, using asset-based methods.

Go to any city that is ailing, and ask what is wrong. You will get an “answer” that might be technically correct for a time, but it does not explain why the city fails in the long term.

For a time in Richmond, I worked in Petersburg at their afternoon newspaper The Progress-Index. I loved the paper, and the city was gorgeous, with almost as much historic architecture as Richmond. But it had been hit hard by the closure of Brown & Williamson’s tobacco operations. The once-famous home of Raleigh, Kool, Viceroy and Kent became a scary place in some areas, even as there were successes in the restoration of Old Town Petersburg. A small group of devoted people kept looking forward to preserve old buildings and history, but the whole place became negative about itself, and all the middle class whites and blacks had to leave because the schools were awful. It was not good, and in some ways I felt that Petersburg was sort of cursed with a type of demon. I hope things are better now.

Part of the revival of Richmond has been in architecture and urbanism; many of the elites in Richmond made a commitment to preserving the history and architecture of their city. I remember one Virginia visit of urban planner Andres Duany back in the 1980s; I wish I had the year. As a reporter, I went to ask him about some of the problems of Richmond, of how the city was ignoring its urban fabric. Duany did not disagree. But he then put the onus back on me. “Tell me what is right,” Duany said, wanting to hear examples of successful urbanism that one could build on, to fix the bad areas.

Tell me what is right.

That’s a lesson that goes well for cities, and it works well in life too.

Sensible Approaches to Passenger Rail in the U.S.

By John from Southern Maryland, USA - VRE V09(RP39-2C), CC BY 2.0,
View of VRE by Wikipedia Commons by John from Southern Maryland, USA – VRE V09(RP39-2C), CC BY 2.0

Every few years, federal, state and local planners lay out outlandish plans for high speed rail networks that never seem to go anywhere, or go over budget. Florida’s SunRail loses millions, and does not even go from downtown to the Orlando airport. There should be a caveat to all government regional rail projects; if it does not connect the airport to downtown and other main destinations, DO NOT DO IT.

Perhaps the last great large government plan for rail that was wildly successful was D.C.’s Metro. It connected all major places in D.C., and has been a catalyst to development there. While not high speed, it was and is popular with customers, although it is worn, tired, under-capitalized and sometimes unsafe. Amtrak has had success in a few select areas, including the Northeast Corridor Acela and Auto-Train, from Virginia to Florida. Continue reading