Adrienne Arsht Resilience, Strong Towns and Disasters

Swiss Army Knife, James Case, Flickr.com. The knife was my first experience as a kid with the joys of survival, made even better by it being useful and slightly dangerous. I still have mine from the Virginia Beach A&N store.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – We all like to be prepared. It’s the Boy Scout motto, Be Prepared. And what does that mean? The story with scouting founder Lord Baden-Powell was that the phrase meant to “be prepared for any old thing.”

Often “any old thing” comes at us, and we are not prepared. TV weathermen and reporters tell us to fill our cars full of gas well before a hurricane, and to keep three days supply of food, and to have key personal papers in a safe place, and to keep a well-stocked medicine cabinet. Terribly sensible stuff.

We know this, and yet as we see our news, hardly any are ready. Indeed, those who prepare well are marginalized as reality show “preppers”, sort of wing nuts who seem to be hoping for the worst as we secretly admire their pluck and grit. But that is not the reality; hundreds of thousands of people were and are Boy and Girl Scouts, and Bear Grylls, friend to the Royals and Presidents, is celebrated even as we do not follow their advice.

Continue reading

Living History at Virginia’s Mattaponi Church

View of the entrance to Mattaponi Church. Note the Flemish bond glazed headers, still prominent after almost 300 years.

KING AND QUEEN COUNTY – Mattaponi Church hardly looks like the typical rural historic Southern Baptist church. The cruciform-shaped church, with a glazed-blue Flemish bond brickwork pattern, is instead a high-style relic of the time when church was state, and George II, the last non-British British monarch, was Defender of the Faith. More stylish and polished than even Bruton Parish in Williamsburg, it sits in the almost disappeared unincorporated village of Cumnor in the depopulated (and in some eras impoverished) Middle Peninsula county of King & Queen.

Mattaponi, which began life as part of the English church, dates from 1730-34, a period when landowners were fabulously wealthy with tobacco; churches expressed those aspirations. It is one of a handful of former Church of England colonial churches that are now Baptist. It is the church that my family, then Baptists, attended throughout the tumultuous 19th century, and a place that holds many untold family stories, and graves. Continue reading

The Atom-Age Chip & Joanna, Henry & Ottalie Williams

One of my favorite architectural books is Old American Houses, 1700-1850 by Henry Lionel and Ottalie K. Williams. Henry and Ottalie Williams were a Bloomfield, Conn. couple who restored and lectured on old houses at a time when the idea of restoring old houses for their intrinsic value was fairly new.

Like HGTV’s Chip and Joanna Gaines, Henry and Ottalie Williams created a cottage industry around their restored houses, which appeared in magazines and books, and inspired many thousands to restore an old house themselves. While the word shiplap is not used, the couple both restored houses and collected furniture and regional objects, just like the Gaineses.

Henry Lionel Williams (1894-1974) was a native of England who, alone and with his wife Ottalie, wrote over 50 books on buildings and furniture. He was interested in a vast number of subjects, including aviation. His 1974 New York Times obit described that his works even extended to two histories of the head-shrinking Jivaro Indians of South America. With his wife Ottalie Kroeber Williams, he wrote books on historic houses, both practical and picture. Henry Williams was also an advocate of maintenance of houses, contending that a few minutes each week would save money. Ottalie was described in the overleaf as an authority on architecture and antiques.

One of their biggest books also pre-figured another current area of cable tv fascination, the tiny house. The couple in 1964 published America’s Small House, a coffee table book feature the glories of the little residence. Houses included those of Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Chorley of Colonial Williamsburg, antiquarian Hatfield Ellsworth and interior designers Mrs. Truman Handy, Elmo Avet and Michael Greer.

Most fascinating in the book is the stylish one-room log cabin retreat of television entrepreneur John W. Kluge from his Virginia farm. This one room building may or may not be part of the current Trump Winery; we hope someone can fill us in what happened to it.

There has not been much research work on the work of the two together, though I did find that they had a daughter, Mrs. John C. Sellars, who was mentioned in Henry Williams’ New York Times obituary after his Jan. 11, 1974 death.  Continue reading

Singapore’s Raffles, Another Once Threatened Lee Statue

Sir Stamford Raffles in Singapore. He stayed, and investors remained.

SINGAPORE – If a body politic is looking at how to move a struggling city from poverty to riches in a short time, Singapore is the model. When Singapore was founded after independence from Britain in 1965, it was not only poor, but it was torn by ethnic divisions from its un-formed national identity, including a departing British colonial mercantile and trading class, a Chinese majority, Indians and Indonesians.

Singapore had nothing of note in 1965, when it split off from the newly formed (and also struggling more) Malaysia. Neighboring Indonesia was against the formation of the country, and Singapore’s survival was tenuous. It had no national resources, no extensive education system, no industry, no social services, no defense, no land, no oil, no nothing. Just a year earlier, the tiny city state had survived Muslim race riots. What a way to begin a nation.

What Singapore did have was a port, about two hungry million people, and a leader named Lee, Lee Kuan Yew, who believed in the place. It also had a a statue of a British colonial, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, situated in a prominent place for all to see. Continue reading

Williamsburg’s 150 Years of Fighting Off Fenced off Streets

Symbols are important: With the reopening of the Raleigh Tavern, Williamsburg founder Dr. Goodwin gave the key to the Raleigh Tavern to the people of Virginia, represented by my great -grandfather, Gov. Pollard

WILLIAMSBURG – Colonial Williamsburg is at it again with the notion that somehow it can cordon off a public street, charge admission, and make people pay for what belongs to the nation as a whole. This idea, which seems to pop up every two decades or so, comes even though Williamsburg, as its reason for being, is supposed to be an object lesson in freedom and the noblest aspirations of Americans.

The corollary example: What if a clique in Boston decided it was going to fence in Boston Common and hold regular re-enactments?

A bit of background. Williamsburg was, and is, an actual city, the colonial capital of Virginia, and birthplace of our country’s most notable founders. Over a six decade period from the roughly the 1930s to 1980s, Colonial Williamsburg purchased, restored and rebuilt much of the colonial fabric of the town. This built on decades of efforts by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and others beginning in the late 19th century. These predecessors of CW purchased historic sites and buildings (Capitol, Powder Magazine) and laid the groundwork for The Restoration, or what others call CW.

Williamsburg opens up many of the houses and buildings and shops for tours and such, by ticket. However, the public streets have always been just that, public, with Williamsburg closing Duke of Gloucester Street merely to cars during my childhood. However, in recent years, Williamsburg has struggled, and has searched for revenue to keep the enterprise afloat as it created ever more elaborate re-enactments and costume dramas. Thus the idea of fencing off portions of Williamsburg, turning the city into a sort of Disneyland, is fully realized. This could make true Frank Lloyd Wright’s October 1938 criticism of the “shallowness” of Williamsburg, heard at that famous Phi Beta Kappa hall lecture.

Long History of Fences

My namesake great-grandfather, Virginia Gov. John Garland Pollard, was mayor of Williamsburg during the early days of the restoration. While he was professor at William & Mary, he conspired with the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin to get John D. Rockefeller Jr. to come to Williamsburg to rebuild the Raleigh Tavern; his interest was Phi Beta Kappa, and teaching citizenship. He was also founder of the Marshall-Wythe School of Citizenship, which created what became the Marshall-Wythe School of Law.

While governor, he helped write the 1932 public policy book Modern Government in a Colonial City. The lead author was Luther Gulick, Director of the Institute of Public Administration at Columbia University. The book details the history of government in Williamsburg and brings that history from colonial establishment to the 1930s.

Gov. Pollard writes that in 1870, the state abandoned the idea of local government by closed corporation. The idea, he recounted, was that city officials needed to be elected, and not some sort of guild or private club. This legal structure allowed Williamsburg to elect 12 councilmen, four justices, one overseer of the poor and one street commissioner. However, the large elected body was apparently unworkable, and in 1884, Williamsburg became subject to the rules for towns of less than 5,000.

This new lineup was more useful, providing for a city corporation that would elect a mayor and six councilmen, none receiving a salary. Gov. Pollard, who was a notable Virginia Constitutional scholar and former Attorney General who yearly annotated the state code in his popular law book series Pollard’s Code, observed that a main reason for incorporating was to keep the streets open. He wrote:

“The ordinances passed were characteristic of small communities – bills to prevent peddling, to require gates to be hung so that they opened inward, to tax billiard parlors, to prevent persons fencing the streets, and a bill to keep Policeman X out of saloons, except in the discharge of his duties.”

When I read it, I almost fell out of my Paschall-era William and Mary windsor chair. You read it right; one of the first duties of the city was to prevent persons fencing off the streets.

There are so many arguments against this issue, that go beyond whether some people might be “for” the idea or “against” the idea. Such as:

  • The correct “colonial” interpretation (a CW mantra) of the street is that it is public. So to wall it off makes it most unlike the 1775 time period.
  • The street has been paid for many times by the public.
  • CW will become even more isolated, as everyday Virginians of all means, who are used to shopping and walking the street, stay away from the area.
  • Williamsburg itself will become more isolated and theatrical, rather than historic and  authentic. The key value to Millenials, a future audience, is authenticity.
  • Williamsburg is not Disney. It is an educational institution that owes its tax free status to its availability and service to the general public.
  • The people who would not pay for a visit to the historic area are precisely the people who need the historic area.
  • Alexandria, Charleston, Savannah and seem to do well with public streets.

Cities, particularly cities that carry the history of the nation, do not “belong” to private entities, no matter how much they make a mess about how great they are. Colonial Williamsburg was created so the everyday man could see what life in Colonial Virginia was like, and walk in the steps of patriots. In particular, it was designed so that the everyday person could visit the town and not pay to visit the restored buildings. The idea being that we all need to be informed by the architecture.

Through the years, CW officials have been careful about being too imperious in their approach to locals. In June of 1928, when the Rockefeller Fund gift was announced, the audience who might be concerned about this even included special meetings of the everyday citizens of Toano.

Genteel Civil Disobedience

I do wish Williamsburg native Margaret Lane Toth were still alive. As a child, and well into the 1980s, Aunt Margaret, as I called her, would drive her very large, powerful Buick Riviera down Duke of Gloucester street, whenever she pleased. She resented even the blocking of Duke of Gloucester street to traffic during the day. We thought it a hoot though, and always admired her gumption at doing this.

Her case was simple. This is my street too. There is a bit of injustice in this whole idea of fencing; she grew up at “Shady Lawn” on Waller Street, behind the Capitol, where her father Col. L.W. Lane, lived. CW records indicate that it was Col. Lane who apparently sold at least a piece of the Raleigh Tavern property to Colonial Williamsburg. Margaret Lane Toth, a fearless conservationist who lost her only son tragically in the U.S.S. Liberty attack, was not about to be told what to do on her childhood street.

The streets belong to the people of Virginia, and if CW is not up to the cause of keeping these buildings up, they need to reinvent, rent out some houses like England’s clever Landmark Trust, ratchet down the re-enactments or return the buildings to others. That CW cannot find its way is no excuse for a wrong to be committed.

Virginians graciously let The Restoration come in, and operate. They have done a great thing over the years. But they were to come and operate for the benefit of the people, not for the benefit of themselves. If somehow they have proven themselves incapable of it, perhaps they might turn over some of the operation to others, and leave the low-rent, plein air Hamilton show to others.

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7597145
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

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

The U.S., Tangier & Those Chinese Islands

Exported Image_2016-08-16 12-14-44TANGIER, VA – If ever there were an issue that would let us see where the United States is compared to China, let us compare the Virginia island of Tangier, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, and the Spratly Islands, those coral reefs in the middle of the South China Sea.

In the case of Tangier, officials from the state and federal governments are unable to come up with a solution to a simple thing, namely the erosion of a historic island. In the case of the Spratleys, the Red Commies are easily able to create new islands, even while American officials dither, in the middle of an large sea.

Tangier is universally beloved by, well, everyone, for its bucolic frame houses and waterman culture. The Tangier accent, which many say is closer to 18th Century English than England, is an artifact of study from linguists and scholars alike for its relationship to Cornwall and Devon. The island is also beloved and supposedly “protected” by ecologists, biologists, indeed almost every kind of “ologist” save perhaps herpetologists (well we guess there might be some water snakes, but not too many!) and archaeologists. For you see, Tangier is washing away, day by day. And so the archaeology is well, not so big a thing in a place that is slowly disappearing. Continue reading