Read This First

Before I moved to Charlottesville, I already had a picture in my mind of the perfect place to live. It was a university town with a balance between culture and country. A place with a liberal view of the world that retained its history. A river ran through the middle. You could get a job that paid enough money to buy a house, in the city or the country, depending on your preference.

I’ve tried to find U-topia before, and when I was living near Western Carolina University, the search put me in the middle of a conversation about the difference between a college town and a town with a college. In one, the university is an economic and cultural center that enhances but doesn’t subsume the flavor of the place. In the other, it’s more like an occupying Roman army.

Missoula, Madison, Eugene, Burlington are all neat cities, and they exemplify how in practice there is always a creative tension between school and town. Universities, like armies, want to grow. University towns, which people choose to live in because they are not big cities, don’t.

In my U-topia, I bike to work instead of driving. I can hear music any night of the week. My neighbors wave. I can walk to the river. The food and drink are city good.

At the Monticello Heritage Harvest Festival last weekend––which was a really exciting demonstration of the energy around sustainable agriculture, local food, and cultural preservation––I remembered something about places. You have to love them as they are…but to love them as they are, you have to want to make them better.

Another one of Jefferson’s paradoxes, I guess. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said he’d rather be a man of paradoxes than one of prejudices. I’d rather live in a place of paradoxes than prejudices.

Read This First

 I spent two years teaching high school English on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the way I look at the world will never be the same. If there was one idea I took away from my experience with the Lakota, it is how differently oral and written cultures operate. 

Oral cultures are mediated by relationships between individuals. Written cultures by individual relationships to universal ideas.

The value of oral history is that it is tailored to the listener. The truth is ultimately prismatic if not obscure, and the different accounts you get on the Rez of the same event, the same legend, the same prayer convey that reality.

This week’s feature on Chief Gordon and the old Fellini’s exemplifies what is so groovy, and valuable, about narrative non-fiction, our written culture’s attempt to get at the same notion, which is the not so fashionable idea that truth is illusive and we have to be nimble to get close to it.

My wife and I saw Hamlet at the Blackfriars Playhouse Friday night. John Harrell was funny and complicated in the title role. From “conscious doth make cowards of us all” to “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” he mocked the gap between the stories we tell our ourselves and the ones we tell others.

Back to Chief…every town has its unwritten legends, and some of them should be written down.

Charlottesville, like a lot of places in America, is molting from a regional seat with great accents, flavors, and histories, to a cosmopolitan node in the new economy. Development, politics, ideas, and individuals will shape how this turns out. But so will stories.

Read this first

As the C-VILLE Design Annual returns (p. 16) to look at a rising generation of architects, we ask, What’s Next? I like the question; being C-VILLE’s editor for the past nine years, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering it myself. Putting together a good read each week—and landing on the thing that needs to be covered next—requires the talents of many. Last week I thanked dozens of writers and contributors who have helped create C-VILLE for the past 20-dozen issues while I’ve been in charge.


But in the end, a newspaper is only as good as its readers—and you are one demanding and intelligent bunch. That comes as no surprise, for Charlottesville is a fertile place for the worldly, the passionate and the quick-witted. Whenever our internal discussions turn to what the reader thinks or wants (or even, who is the reader?), it’s reader with a capital R—a tough customer, as my much-missed Nana used to say. Thanks for insisting through your feedback that we aim for a high standard of reporting, curiosity, humor and design. It’s kept the job lively and made the paper better.

Fiercely intelligent as it can be, Charlottesville is also a place rich in contradictions. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the news stories where people can, for instance, credit themselves as good community stewards and raise a holy fuss about a fitness facility going up in a local park while remaining largely silent on an epidemic drop-out rate among the city’s poorest high school students. People proudly think and act regionally when it comes to food production, but the city and county, whose boundaries most of us probably can’t name, continue to feud like Hatfields and McCoys. And then there’s the question of Thomas Jefferson. Were it not for his influence, Charlottesville would be a shadow of itself. Yet, so many people here force a kind of irony about him. Or they’re quick to denounce him for his own contradictions—slavery and Sally Hemings, among them. I’ve grown to appreciate Jefferson even more in the time I’ve lived here; I like a complicated man. And from the seat I occupied at C-VILLE, I saw a lot of TJ in Charlottesville’s own hypocrisies and vice versa. In the very city that erects a monument to free expression, a newspaper editor can field personal hate mail, harsh phone calls, and yes, a death threat or two for publishing an unpopular opinion.

Not that I would have traded this job for any other in town. The writers alone have been a cast of characters that no playwright could imagine (buy me a beer—on the Upper West Side—and I’ll tell you the story of the eco terrorist). I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to shepherd new products into this market, too, from our home and garden monthly (ABODE) to a bridal magazine (UNIONS) and a women’s lifestyle and fitness quarterly (C). It’s been personally and professionally rewarding to conceive and launch these C-VILLE-branded publications and absolutely terrific to watch them find a marketplace. Ultimately, the support of C-VILLE and everything else we do relies on buy-in, literally, from local businesses, without which we’re not worth the paper we’re printed on. C-VILLE was on the shop local kick long before it became a bumper sticker, and we still are. I hope you are, too.

It is not immodest of me to note that C-VILLE is a fine looking publication. And so are all the supplements we make. I can say that because another person is the wise hand behind that outstanding design. He is Bill LeSueur, longtime co-conspirator and unparalleled art director. Bill, I love your work—and I’m crazy about you. You’ve made me a better editor than I ever imagined I could be with your exacting sensibility, your tireless work ethic and your beautiful eye. When he or she gets here, my successor will be a lucky soul indeed to be able to make a mark on C-VILLE (and Charlottesville) with your support.

So, returning to that question… What’s next? I got off the train 17 years ago with a double stroller and deep dismay at the dusty surroundings. I leave alone via I-95 with my two men set up in far-flung places. I arrived highly skeptical of the South. I depart with a love of the Blue Ridge and collard greens. After early years spent at magazines and another alternative weekly, I had room to advance in my career when I got to Charlottesville. I exit at the top of the local journalism game with a micro awareness of a town that is so richly nuanced it would take more than one career to master it. I’m headed to the Columbia Journalism Review, where leaders in this field are still fighting the good fight for journalism that is accountable and accurate. I’m charged with raising the funds to keep it going—a worthy cause in a time when means of distribution, such as social network sites, are mistaken for real journalism and when many reporters (never mind, readers) are themselves unsure of the difference. After nearly a generation in this town, I know a Jeffersonian principle when I hear one and CJR’s motto, Strong Press, Strong Democracy, is just that. And so it will be true that you can take the woman out of Charlottesville but you can’t take Charlottesville out of the woman. I will carry 17 years of life here and nine years of serving its discerning readership into every conversation and pitch I make. Good for me. I love New York, you know it’s true, and I love Charlottesville, too. Peace out.