This Week 1/23

“If Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence,” my 7-year-old asked me the other day, “why did he have slaves himself?”

The notion that “all men are created equal” was a radical and noble idea, and it still is, if you take “men” to mean “human beings.” But back then, as I struggled to explain to my daughter, many white men’s conception of humanity didn’t extend to people of other races. Nor did it include women, who were not allowed to vote or own property, and were often unable to go to school or hold a job (cue hilarious disbelief).

Our country has since expanded its definition of what constitutes a human being and who deserves equal treatment under the law, though clearly some of us are still not on board. And in similar ways, Charlottesville’s government and its residents are evolving in our ideas about who we are as a city, which neighborhoods matter, and who deserves to be heard.

As the city weighs a new land-use map, part of a Comprehensive Plan that will shape development for decades to come, we look back at how our neighborhoods came to be.

In particular, our feature story examines the history of the city’s neighborhood associations, groups that advocated to protect their neighborhoods from noise, traffic, and unwanted development–all seemingly worthwhile goals. But since city government ignored the concerns of black residents, while prioritizing those of white ones, that local advocacy ended up reinforcing Charlottesville’s segregated and unequal neighborhoods.

The president of the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association told us his own house, built in 1946, came with a racial covenant that would have prevented him and his wife from living there, if it was still in effect. Which is to say: Things change. We learn to welcome new neighbors. We can build a better city, if we want to.—Laura Longhine