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

Practical Proven Railbuses Often Overlooked

Between Norfolk and Virginia Beach, my late grandmother remembers taking a railbus shuttle that ran on the now abandoned tracks between the oceanfront and downtown. It did not survive deregulation. She talked about it more than a few times, as there has been contentious fighting about building an expensive, billion dollar light rail line from Norfolk to Virginia Beach. Why did they not take an interim step like a railbus? The answer is that there was no off the shelf equipment to buy anymore; the diesel units were just not made.

The resolution to the issue is unfinished. Currently, Norfolk has its expensive light rail system, The Tide, up and running, but Virginia Beach citizens do not want pay for The Tide, and so it does not reach the obvious destination, the Atlantic Ocean and Oceanfront resorts. Continue reading

The Record of Rich Conaty, New York Broadcaster

NEW YORK – Rich Conaty, one of the national treasures of American music history, died Dec. 30, 2016. Conaty, 62, was perhaps the nation’s greatest expert on the songs of the early era of classic American recordings, and his programs and legacy will live on, long after his life.

Conaty hosted a radio program, The Big Broadcast, beginning in the 1970s when he was a Fordham student. On his show he played and discussed popular standards from the early to mid 20th century, with an emphasis the ’20s and ’30s. The WFUV program continued until just before he died, and hundreds of episodes are recorded for posterity. Continue reading

Rural Houses, Real Challenge, Royal Opportunity

Rural decline in Port Royal, Virginia. Even genuine 18th and 19th century historic houses lay in disrepair.

The depopulating of America’s countryside is an odd trend in an era of locavore foodies, environmental consciousness and a supposed interest in authenticity and sustainability. Often, these notions are created by editors about millennials, as the young flock to places like Brooklyn and turn cities like Richmond, my formerly staid hometown, into hipster hotspots.

But the reality is far different. People migrate to places for jobs, and there are fewer and fewer jobs in rural areas, and many more in the growing creative cities around the U.S. As middle class jobs have left small towns, so too has opportunity, and thousands, literally thousands, of small downs and rural areas are declining. Young people go where jobs are, and if there are no jobs, they just hang around, sometimes malcontent and sometimes at peace, with marginal jobs in college towns. Continue reading

Anglican Devotionals in Ralph Wormeley’s Colonial Virginia Library

Here, Rosegill Plantation in Middlesex, in Frances Benjamin Johnston’s famous survey of colonial architecture.

There is an unfortunate notion that the elite leaders of colonial Virginia were somehow deists or agnostics, and that they operated in a sort of less-religious universe than Puritans up north. And it is true, of course, that Mayflower folk were leaving Europe for religious freedom, and the Virginia settlers came more for a better life, and often led a life of excess.

But I came across a fascinating anecdote while re-reading David Hackett Fisher’s  Albion’s Seed, the 1989 survey of American folkways that explain how settlers from different areas of Britain created patterns of living in the U.S. that are prevalent today. In the book, author Fisher cites Philip Bruce’s 1907 history Social Life in Virginia to describe some of the 391 books in Ralph Wormeley’s library at Virginia’s Rosegill plantation in Middlesex County. Of those books, 123 volumes were religious in nature, indicating that the elite figures of Virginia society were in some cases, striving deeply to be better men. Continue reading

CIA Declassifies a Norfolk, Virginia Garden Dedication

Alex Kiehl from his senior photo in the Horizons yearbook, 1978.

NORFOLK – Recently, the Central Intelligence Agency declassified a school garden re-dedication from 1979 in Norfolk, Virginia, as part of many hundreds of other documents. I happened upon this 1979 invitation to the dedication of the Alex Kiehl Garden by just using the word “Norfolk” as a search term. As I read the invitation, I wondered how on earth the C.I.A. kept information on my school’s student council? And what was the larger story?

The dedication was at Norfolk Academy, my preparatory school, on Sunday, Oct. 7, 1979. The handwritten invitation reads thus:

The Tunstall Student Council invites you to attend the dedication of the Norfolk Academy Memorial Garden, which is being established in memory of Alex Kiehl. The ceremony dedicating the Kiehl Garden will take place on Sunday afternoon, October 7, at one o’clock in the courtyard of the May Library.

It turns out the invitation, sent to Mrs. Turner (obviously Mrs. Stansfield Turner, wife of then CIA director Stansfield Turner) and written in perfect prep school cursive, was obviously issued by the students themselves. The CIA notes it was received Oct. 1, 1979. The invite was sent to Turner’s first wife Patricia; his second, Eli Karin Gilbert Turner, died in a plane accident in Costa Rica. The later divorce was public news because in 1986, the Associated Press reported on a lawsuit between Adm. Turner and his daughter over the divorce.

Pictured here, the declassified invitation to the Kiehl Garden dedication. Image in Archives/FOIA Reading Room

That Mrs. Turner might have been invited is no surprise. Kiehl was from a distinguished Navy family, and Alex Kiehl had died in 1978 in a tragic car-jacking at Georgia Tech where he was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. His father, the late Cpt. Elmer Hill Kiehl, was a distinguished and dashing Navy officer who commanded the Naval Amphibious School in Little Creek, Va., among many other assignments.

Kiehl was a great athlete, student and lacrosse player at Norfolk Academy, and the death in his freshman college year took everyone as a major shock. While a few years younger, I remembered him well as one of those older students with a sort of star power, though the details of the tragedy were only vague. Looking back, it tells how promise and youth can be quickly lost.

Meanwhile, the invitation lives in the C.I.A.’s online Reading Room archives, forever preserved as evidence of how evil acts can touch so many lives. It is one of many hundreds of fascinating pieces of Hampton Roads history in the archive including:

  • A letter to Gordon Harper of Virginia Beach’s Hoff Cadillac, thanking him for personally delivering his new car to Stansfield Turner.
  • A 1970 leave request from George A. Carver, asking for time to sail the Chesapeake Bay and visit Sandbridge, Virginia Beach, for rest time. Carver, a distinguished C.I.A. officer with extensive Vietnam expertise, was notably a witness at the successful libel trial of Gen. William Westmoreland.
  • Telepathy research the C.I.A. was doing in January of 1989 to ask a person to describe a section of the Busch Gardens theme park through ESP. Really. The idea was was to research whether Edgar Cayce-like extra sensory perception could assist spying. The files of the project, called Sun Streak and Stargate, are all online, and are endlessly fascinating.

Alex Kiehl is still remembered at Norfolk Academy, where an annual award is given in his honor. His mother, Aroostine Kiehl, died in February, 2016, in time to see Georgia Tech unveil stands in his honor, the Alexander G. Kiehl Stands.

Below, a video of his life and compiled by Georgia Tech, where his memory is still celebrated. The story is proof that decency and honor, over time, can take away but some of the pain inflicted by dark acts.


The History of the Southgate Lohman Map of Eastern Virginia

VIRGINIA BEACH – The recent edition of Virginia Living magazine includes a feature on the history of the Southgate Lohman map of Tidewater, Virginia that resided at my family restaurant, Duck-In.

The 1934 map was a featured decorative element at Duck-In Seafood Restaurant in Virginia Beach up to the time it closed.

You can get a subscription to Virginia Living here at or find it online HERE.



Post-Colonial Structures Offer Unique Benefits

Royal arms in St. George’s, Jerusalem, Israel, from Government house during the British Mandate

The subject of Brexit and the European Union offers an enormous opportunity for the U.K. and Commonwealth, despite the obvious anxiety of a country having to renegotiate its trading relationships.

That Britain is leaving the European Union is an odd thing for the former greatest colonial power in the world. The irony is that when the Empire was unwound after World War II, British bureaucrats had to devolve dozens of colonial power relationships that it ruled. Today, the Brussels boot is on the other foot, as Britain seeks to extricate itself from its unwittingly gained colonial master, Brussels.

Britain took the devolution of power seriously in its colonial realm. It most cases, Britain left with dignity, and in many cases, and quite archaically, kept the Queen as head of state. In the case of Israel, it turned over the future of Palestine to the United Nations. The U.S., when it left the Philippines and Panama Canal Zone, also turned over power in a dignified way. This is a practical matter; if you want good future relationships with that former colonial power, you devolve power in a clean, elegant, and respectful way. This precedent was set by Lord Mountbatten, who when faced with the prospect of losing India, sent them to independence with great dignity. Brussels would do well to understand this, as Britain will forever be located next Europe. Continue reading

Jeremiah & Wacky Stuff God Tells You To Do

In 2013, my group at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the walls were torn down by the Romans.

In Jeremiah 13, the Lord tells Jeremiah to do something odd. “Go and get yourself a linen sash, and put it around your waist, but do not put it in the water.”

So he did it.

And then the Lord told him to take it all the way to modern day Iraq, the Euphrates River, and hide it under a rock. He did it. And then he had to dig the sash, which was a priestly garment, and then put it again under a rock in the water. Later the Lord told him to dig it up.

This was odd in so many ways. It “accomplished” nothing except for the lesson that the Lord told him that as the sash clings to man, so does the whole house of Judah cling to Me. Continue reading