On Reckonings

You can’t always mark the exact moment that one era ends and another begins. Most of adult life is being comfortable in the muddled middle of things, epochs seamlessly bleeding into one another such that the passage from daycare to driver’s ed seems both endless and impossibly sudden. Definitive closure is rare and unusual, and the parts of us that expect it grow calloused and rough to better withstand the incremental creep of change.

And then there are moments like Tuesday, when you could actually see the light go out of the eyes of Alexandria’s NIMBYs in real time.

This is not to say that our most recalcitrant neighbors are gone for good (though some of them are petulantly posting in their precious little Facebook safe space that they’re going to move) or that they won’t on occasion sally forth guerilla-like from their caves deep in the hills of our civic discourse, but the results of this week’s primary election put to rest any notion that there was an ascendant and durable anti-progress movement in this city.

The mayor’s 15-point 3,200 vote margin of victory over the former-mayor-turned-road-repaving-aficionado was astonishing in scale even to those of us that follow such things closely. Inaccurately described by the local fish-wrap as a “change agent” (to paraphrase a friend, you keep using that word “change”… I do not think it means what you think it means) Silberberg did indeed change our perception of the mandate for progress our next Council will enjoy, should these results hold in the general election this fall.

And it would be without a doubt, a mandate. Had Tuesday’s outcome been isolated to the mayoral contest it might have been possible to hand-wave it away as a result of the long and intertwined history of these two oil-and-water personalities. But the NIMBY candidates got routed up and down the Council ballot too! The six candidates that emerged from Tuesday as the Democratic slate in November’s general election (incumbents Chapman, Jackson, and Aguirre, along with first-time candidates Gaskins, Bagley, and McPike) all ran positive forward-looking campaigns focused on big ideas to help the whole city. They didn’t pander to fears or lean on culture war rhetoric. They most certainly didn’t run on punch-lists of things they wanted to un-do or re-do. And in the end the preference for their positive vision of Alexandria wasn’t particularly close; you had to plumb the depths of the table to find any kind of constituency for the can’t-do brand of politics offered by others.

To be clear, the reckoning that arrived on Tuesday was not about the right to have bad ideas. That’s what’s great about this country, you’re allowed to believe all sorts of wrong things. You are more than welcome to your belief that no one should be allowed to come within half a mile of the 8,000 sq foot neo-classical monument to Republican lobbying wealth you call a house, unless they’re driving a car past it at 55 miles per hour. No, the reckoning that came this week wasn’t for those awful ideas, it was for the notion that everyone in our city believed them. That most people in our city believed them. That anyone other than the three other people on your private drive believed them. The reckoning that came should lay to rest once and for all the notion that being on the losing side of an issue means no one listened to you. All possible grievances against progress were aired widely over the lengthy arc of our little civic Festivus these past six months. The voters of Alexandria heard the caterwauling “no” from the candidates loud and clear and unequivocally rejected it.

We woke up on Wednesday in a city that wants to say yes to things. We woke up in a new moment, with new opportunities for growth and imagination, new determination to face and solve old challenges. We put our faith in a group of leaders eager to try and help our imperfect city attain every additional bit of perfection that we can, little by little, one vote at a time.

And I for one can’t wait to reckon with that.

– P.C. Publius

June 11, 2021

On Public Service

We live in the dumbest of all possible timelines.

Of the myriad Earths spinning their way through the multiverse, we’re stuck on the one where the Republican Party just cast aside the assiduously conservative Liz Cheney for championing (checks notes) representative democracy, while retaining the walking human resources complaint sent to Washington by the good people of Florida’s 1st congressional district.

In this world, the most popular anchor on cable news is a sentient critter-belt whose primary critique of the Third Reich was their excess of compassionate open-mindedness, yet millions of people hang on his every piece of public health advice concerning the role of vaccines in an insidious plot to something something hamburger gulags.

We are stuck in the reality where hundreds of thousands of Americans died avoidable deaths from a contagious disease because a distressing number of our fellow citizens needed Endless Shrimp™ more than open schools.

Just the absolute most deeply stupid timeline.

It’s no better closer to home, where we find ourselves trapped in a flat circle of everything being 2018 again but this time around instead of musings about whether Mexican restaurants should serve salad, we’re forced to reckon with the housing circumstances enjoyed by the Golden Girls relative to local zoning restrictions. And this is to say nothing of the spectral menace of bulldozers haunting the verdant spaces of our city, warded off only by an ocean of cardboard and hyperbole.

We’ve now had two high-profile mayoral debates hosted by serious journalists that have repeatedly lingered on issues like “are chickens bad” and “why did you pave this road wrong” and this would be silly if only it wasn’t so exhausting. When did Alexandria politics become an endless exercise in reductio ad absurdum? It is not in fact necessary to invent a whole-cloth new political identity based entirely around FOIA’d emails about classical music performances! Have we tried not doing that? We should try not doing that!

This fixation on various local versions of cancelling Dr. Suess is obscuring the fundamentals of a genuinely consequential mayoral race. Simply put – the former mayor should not be in this race. She has articulated no vision for Alexandria, shared no ideas to move the city forward, and barely acknowledged the ongoing public health crisis and immense responsibility of leading an inclusive recovery. She has reemerged in our civic life bearing little more than petty grievances, passing off conspiratorial whispers as a populist calling that she alone can wash City Hall clean with the righteous power of transparency and unceasing open mic testimony.

We are all trapped in 2018 because she never left it.

Listening to the former mayor these past two interminable months, the words that have most stood out are “me” and “my” and “I” and other manifestations of her ego. She frames past collaborative successes as “her” accomplishments, even when she voted against them (hell, especially when she voted against them). This race—by her estimation—is a referendum on her importance and stature, on her centrality to our shared narrative. If not the mayor, she’s just a person standing on your corner.

This is a meaningful contrast to how the current mayor talks. Not to say that he doesn’t talk about “his” accomplishments or have an ego—of course he does, he’s an elected official—but on measure he more frequently frames things around “us” and what “we” or “the city” did. And I think this reveals a deep distinction between how these two candidates view public service.

One of the enduring misconceptions in American democracy is that being a public figure is synonymous with politics is synonymous with public service. That a desire to possess one of these dimensions serves as an indicative proxy for all three, but this is just simply not true. Of these only one is genuinely necessary for the healthy functioning of the republic, yet public service is far far too often the one that is cast aside or neglected in pursuit of the other two.

Our current mayor is a public servant. The aggregate accumulation of his actions emphatically demonstrates his fixation on the “service” part of public service. He has shown over and over—from his psychotically responsive social media habits to his effective advocacy in Richmond—a tireless drive to help people and to solve their problems. He has shown time and again that he is for things and being for things at this particular moment in time—and in a race shaped and defined by those standing against so many things—feels revelatory. The former mayor talks a lot about listening, but listening is not the same as doing – and if you steadfastly refuse to actually do things you are not serving anyone other than those already well and comfortably served by the status quo.

We need a public servant if we are to truly put this plagued year behind us. We need a public servant to ensure we do not fumble away this city’s exciting and prosperous future just now nearly within our grasp. We need a public servant that holds in the core of their being a shared call to service that is the sustaining energy of the people and community that makes Alexandria the rare and uncommon place that it is.

So consider this my public service Alexandria – vote for Justin Wilson on or before June 8. Vote for tackling the issues that actually matter. Vote for being able to ignore local politics again.

Vote for living in a timeline that’s a little less dumb.

– P.C. Publius

May 14, 2021

On Hot Air

You ever run across something so counter to common sense you immediately assume it’s a joke?

You know, like a conference of conservative Christians featuring a literal golden idol. That sort of thing. The assumption that something so self-evidently backwards must be a prank is natural. It comes from living in an internet age in which such things often are a prank, and it comes from our underlying belief (or hope) that people couldn’t actually be that dumb.

As it turns out, people can be pretty dumb.

As it turns out, people can look at a situation as high-stakes as returning students to indoor classrooms during the pandemic spread of a respiratory disease and say, with a straight face, that one of the necessary safety protocols involves keeping the windows closed at all times.

Open the schools, but close the windows says Alexandria City Public Schools. No this is not a joke.

A new piece in the New York Times lays out exactly how crucial open windows and fresh air ventilation is to reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools. This is but the latest in an overwhelming volume of coverage these past 12 months on how being outdoors or being in open air or extremely well ventilated spaces drastically reduces exposure risk. This is common sense! It’s great to have ample scientific evidence confirming this, but ultimately it is extremely intuitive that more air equals less risk.

So how is it remotely possible that ACPS has landed on the “wait, this must be a joke” decision to issue guidance that classroom windows should be kept closed when students return in person this week.

Indoor classrooms! Respiratory pandemic! Closed windows! This is insane.

This goat-rodeo of a plan is seemingly built on the following set of assumptions: open windows means cold air; cold air means the HVAC system running harder or longer; and the HVAC system running harder or longer means higher energy costs and a reduced HVAC system lifespan. The response to which should have been… sure?

Wearing out the already old and overtaxed HVAC systems in our schools is not ideal. More costly school system utility bills are also not ideal. But both things are considerably more ideal than increasing the transmission risk inside our schools!

We have one chance to get this right. One chance to restore faith in ACPS and begin to repair the crushing learning loss and equity gaps that have spread unchecked for the past year. One chance to finally actually put students and teachers ahead of other concerns.

Yet in the face of those stakes ACPS is voluntarily choosing to tie a hand behind its back.

This is just the latest exhausting example of ACPS dithering and fretting over what-ifs instead of doing what is right and necessary. Maybe school HVAC systems will wear down faster. Maybe school energy costs will spike. But those are tomorrow’s problems, and they are ultimately problems that can be fixed with money (and with federal stimulus pending, money will most likely be something we have).

Today’s problem is getting our students back into classrooms that are as safe as we can make them and keeping them there. Today’s problem is getting as much fresh air into classrooms as we can. Today’s problem can be solved with common sense.

Open your eyes ACPS. And open the damn windows.

– P.C. Publius

February 28, 2021

On Taking a Look in the Mirror

It’s easy to lose sight of who we are.

We lead busy lives, even in these pandemic times. It’s easy to move from Zoom call to Zoom happy hour, from masked up shift at work to masked up grocery store run, from socially distanced soccer practice to Bridgerton binge on the sofa, all without really thinking about who we are.

It’s easy, in this swirl, to not think about what the accumulation of our words and actions adds up to. It’s easy to observe a mild annoyance, to comment on a slight inconvenience, to question a minor oversight… until the next thing you know you’ve become part of a local Facebook group that imagines a vast and insidious civic conspiracy wherein every single local event is a deliberate attempt to ruin your life.

This group claims to have 2,200 members united in displeasure with the city. The reality is that the group has several dozen members united in displeasure alongside a 2,100 person audience being entertained by their abject nutbaggery. I know this is the case because I receive daily screenshots (fine fine, ok, I send them too) from about 800 members of that audience.

I’m not concerned about those in the audience—there is, after all, only one season of Bridgerton so far—but the rest of you in that group should really take a look in the mirror.

You should take a look in the mirror if you joined this group because of your belief in transparency and open debate. The group is a tinpot dictatorship in which comments and posts that don’t share the narrow worldview of the moderators are routinely deleted and removed, and the offending poster evicted from the membership. This authoritarian intolerance for diverse and divergent viewpoint—not to mention an outright manipulation of the discourse in the group (“IT’S CANCEL CULTURE!!” comes the ironic scream from the cover of the CPAC brochure most of these people probably have laying on their kitchen counter)—is pretty hypocritical for a group allegedly concerned with integrity.

You should take a look in the mirror if you are the moderator of such a group and ask, when did my life get so small? When did my life get reduced to taking a picture of my car idling at a stoplight and posting it on the internet for a dozen old grumps to make surprise face emojis at. I think it’s great that you smear on eye black and slip into a tactical vest as you stand your post as a proud keyboard warrior, but for the sake of good taste and respect for the English language maybe write your 3,000 words of rearguard action in a lost culture war on a word doc on your desktop and just leave it there? Or a notebook even. I hear nice things about journaling.

You should take a look in the mirror if you are a self-styled civic leader and aspiring public servant and all (let that word roll around in your mouth for a moment, aaaaalllll) you do is shitpost in a private forum and write I WOULD LIKE TO SPEAK WITH THE MANAGER style op-eds in the local tabloid. Real leaders are selfless – so you might want to rethink things if your animating instinct is born of the selfish grievance that your tax dollars might accidentally let a 25-year-old teacher live in this city without having to sell a kidney. And if your only ideas are to cut taxes and eliminate regulations, it’s possible you’re in the wrong primary. I mean seriously, it’s like a pair of pleated dockers was granted its wish to become a real boy.

You should take a look in the mirror if you think of yourself as a liberal or a progressive but you spend time complaining in this forum. You cannot be either of those things while also screaming about new housing in your neighborhood. You cannot be either of those things if you’re upset that an investment in the common welfare leaves you occasionally inconvenienced. Many of these posts seem likely composed on laptops propped up by bought but never read copies of White Fragility and The New Jim Crow (the rest, I assume, on laptops propped upon dog-eared copies of Atlas Shrugged).

So take a look in the mirror Alexandria. If you find that anything written here is looking back at you, maybe log off for a little while. Take a walk. Enjoy one of our city’s lovely green spaces. Because when you unplug from the imaginary hellscape that lives inside your computer screen, you might find that you actually like it here.

It’s a pretty great city. I can’t wait for you to actually see it.

– P.C. Publius

February 25, 2021

On Light in the Darkness

2020 was not a good year.

We were struck by a viral pandemic and ravaged by an incompetent and indifferent federal response. Four hundred years of Black men and women on our shores was marked by the four hundredth year of state sanctioned violence against them. A choked and wheezing planet burned some places and drowned others, sending cyclonic winds and droughts to anywhere spared the fires and floods. Our democracy was splintered to the point of shattering by weak and grasping men in thrall to a venal grifter and the fear-enriched media empires looming behind him.

2020 was, for these reasons and countless others, not a good year.

Alexandria has hardly been spared. By the end of December, we had climbed past 7,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 85 deaths, numbers that tragically continue to rise even as you read this. The public health crisis sparked a recession that has fallen harshly on our bars and restaurants, decimated our tourism and hospitality sector, and impoverished city residents from all walks of life. Our schools remain closed as ACPS leadership stumbles from one half-formed plan to another, spending more time on utterly inscrutable powerpoint slides than on addressing widening learning disparities and families drifting away from the system.

But even in a year of kaleidoscopic crises folding in on and compounding one another, there were clear glimpses of the city that I remain immeasurably proud to call my home.

2020 was a year in which we opened a rebuilt and renewed Carpenter’s Shelter, a handsome building that doesn’t try to hide services for our neighbors in need in some tucked away corner of town but instead greets all southbound visitors to Alexandria with an example of this community’s commitment to embracing all those who live here. The shelter and affordable housing project—a 60-bed shelter, 87 affordable apartments, and 10 permanent supportive housing units—is a partnership between Carpenter’s Shelter, the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation (AHDC), and the City and is hopefully a model for future efforts in this regard.

2020 was a year in which partnerships between developers, the City, and major institutions kick-started projects that will bring world-class facilities to the city, catalyzing long-term elements of the City’s master plan. Virginia Tech received approval for the first buildings in its Innovation Campus, just steps from the new Potomac Yard-VT Metrorail station now under construction. Inova Health System announced a new ambulatory care center in Oakville Triangle in March and a new home for Inova Alexandria Hospital at the shuttered Landmark Mall in December. Each of these projects will beneficially change the face of our city for generations.  

2020 was a year when this city’s nonprofits rose to the challenge of the moment, none more so than ALIVE! and Casa Chirilagua. ALIVE! has been working to make sure that nearly 14,000 Alexandrians per month don’t go hungry; they’ve delivered close to 200,000 pounds of food since the start of this crisis. They doubled the amount of funding in their family assistance program that distributes up to $500 per household for rent, utilities, medical expenses, and other emergency needs. Casa Chirilagua created learning hubs to provide learning and emotional support for dozens of students and delivered food and financial assistance for hundreds of families. Their efforts were recognized with a $25,000 grant from Bloomberg philanthropies to help them deliver additional wireless connectivity to the community they serve.

2020 was a year to be inspired by the youth of this city and the inclusive future they represent. Even as adults that should have known better dragged their feet and rended their garments over taking the name of a racist segregationist off our high school, it was the students in that high school that spoke loudly with actions like covering the sign in front of the school and sharing their painful stories of personal experiences with discrimination and racial inequity. School district leaders will surely take a victory lap and look for accolades now that the name change decision has been made, but we will remember that it was the students that acted while the adults took face-saving half measures and waited for an easy answer.

2020 was a year when the City of Alexandria’s fiscal prudence and long-term planning bore massive benefits as we weathered an era-defining financial downturn, suffering sharp but not terminal reductions to city services and workforces. What’s more, the City showed a degree of creativity and resilience in its support of retail, restaurants, and early childhood education providers that ensured many of these places were able to limp on, bowed but not broken. The City cut red tape to facilitate curbside, takeout, and outdoor dining, and finally made room for pedestrians on the 100 block of King Street. Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP) worked with the City to distribute CARES Act funding through the Alexandria Back to Business (B2B) grant program. Now in its second round, the first round of ALXB2B grants helped over three hundred small businesses in the city reopen or rescale their operation. Businesses in every zip code in the city received grants, and 40% of the awards went to businesses that are minority-owned.

It has been a hard, exhausting, tragic year. It has been a year that indelibly marked many in our community, driving changes that will not soon be reversed. But through it all ours has been a city that looked inward and found a wellspring of strength, and determination, and love. Even as a small handful of our neighbors groused online about small inconveniences that must stand as proof of some nefarious civic conspiracy, far more of us extended grace and compassion and solidarity to neighbors and public servants alike.

2020 was not a good year. Yet Alexandria endured, and will continue to endure. The strength of this community has been tested at previous times over our two and a half centuries on the banks of the Potomac and it has never been found wanting. And it will not be found wanting now.

2020 was not a good year, but we’ll pass through it soon enough. And the things that guided us through this storm—those shining examples of the best of us in the darkest times—they will be there to light our way in the tomorrows to come.

– P.C. Publius

December 28, 2020

On Doing This All Over Again

Election day has come and gone for reality-based Americans, and with it the end of the bruising, interminable 2020 campaign cycle. But even as the rest of the nation gets to enjoy a period of time free from mailboxes choked with glossy campaign lit of politicians playing with their dogs, here in Alexandria we have to confront the distressing truth that our next citywide election day is less than 11 months away, on November 2, 2021. Moreover, the race for mayor and City Council is likely to heat up as soon as the new year, with a Democratic primary to choose nominees fast approaching this summer. With Councilwoman Del Pepper’s recently announced retirement, there will be at least one new face on Council in 2022.

City elections aren’t on most of our radar screens yet, but they’re certainly on the minds of the self-appointed civic guardians whose letters to the editor and social media posts aim to save Alexandrians from the tyranny of their City government. This group is the MAGA crowd of Alexandria, aiming to “Make Alexandria Great Again.” But like the national gaggle of red-hat-wearing Trump supporters, their view on the issues that matter in this election is a caricature of the real challenges the city faces:

  • Stopping bike lanes instead of safer, less congested streets
  • Limiting the size of school buildings rather than providing adequate educational facilities to meet growing enrollment
  • Saving individual trees instead of preserving open space and enhancing and recreational facilities.
  • Preventing accessory dwelling units rather than creating more inclusive and affordable housing
  • Blaming development for, well, practically everything, including flooding in neighborhoods built in a flood plain 100 years ago

Their views inhabit an alternate reality in which there’s no pandemic ranging, no fiscal crisis facing our state and local governments, no economic challenges facing our small businesses, no oppression by systemic racism, or a myriad of other important issues that have been front and center in civic debates this year.

Their volume outpaces their numbers—as is always the case with civic complainers—but the result still fills the ears of City Council with noise and a few members who seem to play to that audience with “vaguebook” social media posts about city issues.

This group will certainly aim to support a challenger to Mayor Justin Wilson next year, in either the primary or the general election. The most likely candidate is “The Honorable” Allison Silberberg, the former mayor who recently came out of hibernation to author a richly-worded essay on hunger in Alexandria that, in her typical fashion, is laden with anecdotes but short on solutions. Just this past week, she entered the fray on social media offering a long-winded take on the horrors of felling a tree on the Maury Elementary schoolyard, only slightly moderating her tone when she learned the tree was diseased and the need for its removal was widely communicated to the surrounding neighborhood two months ago. (She has seldom exhibited such passion for the children attending the school).

There is likely to be a slate of MAlxGA candidates running in the Democratic primary for Council next summer, and possibly Republicans and independents on the ballot in the fall. In Alexandria local politics, party identification signals little about the issues that motivate each candidate, requiring careful attention by voters seeking to make a progressive choice.

As we head into local election season in 2021, it’s more important than ever to know who’s on top of the issues that matter. Seek out information from reliable sources. Learn candidate’s positions on the issues you care about. Most importantly, tune into not just the race for mayor, but also for City Council. After all, in our city government, the mayor is just one of seven votes on council. Make certain that candidates that share your views about the real issues that matter to you and your family have your vote.

Even if a vaccine essentially ends the pandemic between now and the election, the next Council will have to deal with the economic fallout for years to come. If we are not careful voters—who seek to educate ourselves and our fellow citizens—we may wind up with council members more focused on thwarting progress than making it. In 2021, may Alexandrians have the wisdom and integrity to elect a mayor and City Council candidates who understand the depth of city issues, and offer pragmatic solutions to the serious challenges confronting us.

– P.C. Publius

December 7, 2020

On Memory

History and memory are not the same thing.

This is not a complicated idea, yet disagreement about this fundamental truth gets us most of the way to understanding the swift and dark undertow in the currents of the national mood. There is an unruly sentiment abroad in the Republic that by choosing to lift up previously disregarded perspectives and parts of our past—a past that, as history, will forever remain unchanged—we are ignoring and abdicating our responsibility to celebrate our “real” history.

But history and memory are not the same thing.

When a statue is pulled down it does not change the history of our seditious Alexandrian forefathers who took up arms to preserve for-profit human bondage, but it does change who we say we are and what we are striving to be. When a high school is renamed it does not change the history of discrimination and diminution of opportunity by race that once stalked its halls, but it does change how today’s students see themselves and the type of future they can have.

These actions change what we as a community choose to remember. And memory is just as real—and powerful—as history.

Indeed, memory remains on the march long after history has been driven from the field, as we just saw in Fairfax County when John R. Lewis joined that proud American tradition of visiting stinging defeat upon Robert E. Lee, on Virginian soil no less. Our neighbors in Fairfax choose, quickly and decisively, the kind of memory that is needed to shape and sustain the community they have become and wish to remain.

In Alexandria, predictably, the powers that be formed a committee to discuss what we might want to remember, eventually, maybe, if that’s not too much trouble. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. And infuriating.

If only the high school had been named Affordable Infill Housing, we’d have it renamed tomorrow.

It is important to understand the full arc of what has happened in recent weeks. Community activism—in response to the Movement for Black Lives and the national reaction to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many more at the hands of the state—revived the decades-long effort to remove the name of avowed racist segregationist Thomas Chambliss Williams from our city’s only public high school. These activists put the challenge to the School Board to remove the name immediately and the Board responded, predictably, by agreeing that maybe something should be done about the name, just not by them, not now, and perhaps not at all.

Showing considerably more character and backbone than most members of this cautious Board, students responded by tastefully draping Titan-pride red and blue fabric over the segregationist’s name on the sign outside the school. This action was met with patently absurd charges of “defacing school property” and threatened consequences by the person responsible for maintaining good “school and community relations.”

In truth I have not yet retrieved my jaw from the floor where it fell when I read the audacious words of our high school principal—in a letter shared with the community—parroting the ACPS line that this behavior was out of bounds and that acceptable protest takes the form of a pre-approved agreement between the powerful and the aggrieved. What a ghastly thing to model for the righteous youth of 2020. If John Lewis had been similarly advised on his march to Montgomery, he’d still be standing in Selma on the western approach to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, waiting for his paperwork to clear.

I can think of no greater tell that you believe in the permanent primacy of The Way Things Must Be Done than to suggest it is necessary to seek permission from those in power prior to disagreeing with them. That’s not protest, that’s performance. You’re essentially saying the kids can have a little civil disobedience, as a treat.

As I’ve sorted through my feelings of anger and frustration and bafflement at the words and actions of various ACPS leaders throughout this sordid debacle, what I keep returning to is that this is the hill they chose to die on. Not the wheezing, crumbling school buildings choking our system to death; not the vision-less, consultant-driven plan for mitigating an over-enrolled high school; not the dual public health crises of viral spread and systemic racism locking in permanent equity gaps; but this. The insistence on a long and deliberate process regarding the memory of an unreconstructed racist. A can kicked into slow orbit around the sun.

And even this obstinate disregard for the moment wasn’t enough! Worse still was when ACPS chose not to lead—and that mantle necessarily fell to the students in their charge—they sought to slap it from their hands as well.

Memory is an active and ongoing choice. The choices of a prior generation about what must be passed down—what stories we tell about ourselves and about our city—do not need to be our choices. It is the proper and healthy action of a community to continually revisit and renew our collective memory of who we are and who we wish to be.

We do this not only with excision and subtraction, but with the addition and inclusion of new memories as well. We can choose to remember those who shrank from this moment when the bright light found them. We can choose to remember the students with the courage to see justice when the adults around them saw only inconvenience. We must choose to remember our Black neighbors—Blois Hundley and countless others—on whom the shadow of this man’s name has too long fallen. And yes, members of this current School Board—several of whom seem to be in thrall to a constituency that lives primarily in the back pages of the local tabloid rag and nowhere else—we can and will choose to remember you too.

History and memory are not the same thing; in the end, only one of them is a dustbin.

– P.C. Publius

July 28, 2020

On Opinions

I don’t know about you, but there is one thing there will be no shortage of around our Thanksgiving table: opinions. About everything from football (is $4 too much for a ticket to see the local team?) to which sides are better (garlic mashed potatoes, please) to the state of the world today (don’t even get me started). One thing is certain, everyone at the table will understand that each has a different view. Yet somehow, we can sit at the same table, enjoy a meal, and generally indulge in this most American of holidays together.

Contemplating the upcoming feast and its opinionated participants made me think of recent events in our little hamlet. In the event you have been ignoring the local NextDoor posts, listserv screeds, and local papers’ opinion sections, let me explain.

Over the last decade or so, the city adopted a Transportation Master Plan, a Complete Streets plan, and a Vision Zero plan. All of them together amount to this: in our 14.9 square-mile corner of the world, the streets should be safe for multiple modes of transportation. In short, one should be able to safely get around Alexandria on foot, on bike, on scooter, or in a car. The implementation of these plans involves a variety of things, from the relatively simple like adding a stop sign or adjusting pedestrian signal timing to the more complex like adding sidewalks and re-configuring traffic lanes. Where changing the road configuration is required, the city implements such changes as roads come up for repaving. It’s a fiscally prudent move, but it means the plans cannot be implemented at once.

That brings us to the latest tempest in our replica colonial teapot: changes to a slightly less than one-mile stretch of Seminary Road. If you want to read the background on the various proposals, public meetings, and the Council hearing, go for it. But to summarize, the city is changing the road from four lanes to three. Doing so creates a traffic pattern with one lane in each direction and a center turn lane. It also allows the addition of a bike lane, which provides a buffer between vehicular traffic and the sidewalk.  The changes are consistent with the various adopted plans. As with any change to anything, there were opinions – quite strong ones – both for and against the changes. And, as often happens on issues where there is a fair amount of civic shouting, the council vote was a close one.

And in the aftermath, a now-familiar Alexandria script has played out: those whose view did not prevail in front of Council have accused our elected representatives of “not listening to the people” and their fellow citizens of being “outside special interests.” They have fomented about the lack of sway civic associations carry despite the fact that civic association membership is a mere fraction of the populace. They insist that somehow there is a conspiracy at play here. Someone is on the take! Someone is trying to destroy our city! The people are against it! Those fellow citizens for it are outsiders or in the pocket of… Big Bicycle? the Pedestrian Industrial Complex? Whatever the case may be, it’s clear they cannot be real Alexandrians!

There is always a group out there yelling that “the people” are of one mind on a given topic. Not sure who needs to hear this, but in the spirit of the holiday here goes: there are as many opinions as there are people in this city. Just because the vote does not go your way does not mean you were not heard. Chances are there were just as many fellow citizens–residents of Alexandria in full-standing their ownselves–who had an opposing view. And our democratically elected Council is not in fact The Party of Orwellian imagination, nor for that matter Palpatine’s Empire.

Elected representatives make the decisions they believe are best for the city as a whole, taking into account not just varied citizen opinion but also technical data, opinions of a variety of professionals, and local, state, and national studies on the impacts of various proposed changes. We elect them to use their best judgment on our behalf.

Change is never easy. And piecemeal change, while the responsible fiscal decision, is particularly difficult. But railing against change by insisting that no Alexandria resident could possibly be in favor of it without somehow being corrupt is insulting to your fellow citizens at best.

We’re all at this big 160,000-person table together. Maybe we should agree that no one opinion is more privileged than any other

Now, please pass the gravy.

– P.C. Publius

November 27, 2019

On Saying Yes

The very first essay published on this site was a paean to inclusive public spaces, written in response to those seeking to neuter the activation of Waterfront Park. And while the ensuing years have not seen us successfully drive the NIMBYs from Alexandria as Saint Patrick drove the snakes from the 32 counties of Ireland, we have gotten a wonderfully vibrant Waterfront Park and that is victory enough for now.

If you haven’t yet made it down to see the reborn and re-imagined front porch of Alexandria, make time on the next nice weekend to experience its sun-drenched glory. Waterfront Park is more than just a place to gather and relax, a place to kick up your heels or kick off your heels. It is a physical monument to the perseverance of the best possible vision of what Alexandria can be.

Gone is the blighted private building that long loomed over the foot of King Street like a two-story KEEP OUT sign. You’re greeted now by an expansive view of the water, anchored with public art that encourages curiosity and interaction. You’ll have to navigate children and families running and playing as you make your way across the broad lawns—both real and plastic—to sit and swing and watch the boat traffic come and go.

City staff deserves a tremendous amount of credit for how they’ve programmed and activated Waterfront Park. Barely a weekend goes by without some festival or other opportunity for outdoor drinking taking place. Clutch those pearls tight- this park has already hosted live music, off-leash dogs, food trucks, and strollers as far as the eye can see. And crucially, all this activity has been a true public/private partnership: some events like Portside In Old Town were put on by the City and others like the Old Town Beer Wine and Dogs Festival and the Old Town Festival of Speed and Style were independently planned and executed.

This is the Alexandria I want to live in! The willingness of the City to just try stuff in Waterfront Park has been revelatory. And nearly all the stuff they’ve tried has been fantastic! There was a pop-up beer garden. An Irish culture festival. Next month, the return of the Portside in Old Town festival. Right now, at this very minute, there is an airstream trailer selling tacos on the Alexandria waterfront. Let me repeat that again in case those in the back couldn’t hear me- there is an AIRSTREAM TRAILER SELLING TACOS ON THE ALEXANDRIA WATERFRONT. Truly we live in an age of miracles.

The larger point here (as if there could be a larger point than airstream trailer tacos but stick with me) is that this didn’t happen by accident. This happened because the vision documented in the Waterfront Plan was supported by our local electeds, delivered by City staff, and defended in the court of public opinion by people like you and me (and also defended in, uh, actual real-life court).

So come enjoy Waterfront Park. And if you like what you see, know that people fought for it. Fought hard for it. For years. Inertia is the most powerful force in the universe and absent the committed efforts of people who want to see growth and change and vibrant inclusiveness—that inertia will reproduce and replicate private privilege, stifling and lifeless.

We cannot ignore the power of our collective voice as we drag Old Town and the rest of Alexandria into the 21st century. In the coming months and years we’ll consider things like a pedestrian plaza along King Street, a reinvigoration of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, and a creative revisioning of our City Hall. Looking beyond Old Town there’s the critical projects at Landmark Mall and Cameron Run, both still on the horizon but getting closer every day. All of these initiatives are just as likely to encounter stiff-necked opposition as Waterfront Park did.

So I’ll close by repeating the refrain I wrote nearly 40 months ago. No longer can this be the city of the hidebound and the chicken-littles. This city is not theirs; it is ours. Ours is a city that says we want progress. Ours is a city that says we want public spaces that hum and bustle with laughter and music and enterprise. Ours is a city that says we can try things.

Ours is a city that says yes.

– P.C. Publius

September 23, 2019

On Civic Engagement

Rejoice fellow Alexandrians, for I bring news that our long civic nightmare is over. After months of debate, nearly 100 speakers at a public hearing, and around 8 hours of deliberation, City Council has at last (narrowly) voted to solve one of the most vexing problems in our city. Was it affordable housing, you ask? Or perhaps over-crowded schools? No wait- it must be small business health and competitiveness! Nope. All wrong.

City Council made a decision on how to paint lines on Seminary Road.

Granted, the four Councilmembers who voted in favor of the complete streets measures are on the correct side of this issue. Choosing an alternative that turns the busy four-lane street into a safer design with one vehicle lane and one bike lane in each direction and a center turn lane is the responsible decision, backed by volumes of scientific evidence and a proven track record on King Street, Janney’s Lane, Slaters Lane and other roadways throughout Alexandria that have experienced a road diet.

The point here is not to take a victory lap on behalf of road diets (even the simple act of typing those words feels small and sad) but rather to examine how this episode revealed important truths about the march of progress in the Port City.

For starters, many of the city’s civic associations have been unmasked as something akin to the man behind the curtain. Thirteen civic associations, united by the Federation of Civic Associations, voted to oppose the complete streets on Seminary Road, claiming that translated into residents’ monolithic opposition to the proposal. Meanwhile, some informal probing by Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker presented at the Council meeting found that only about 30% of Seminary Hill residents opposed the complete streets proposals. Moreover, the opinion of many civic associations represented only the views of an executive board, as most did not reach out to members for their opinions on this issue. About that membership: In many cases, the dues-paying members are just a handful of the population the associations claim to represent. And the largest and most vocal of the civic associations in the center of the city, the Seminary Hill Association, actively discriminated against condo owners and apartment renters by restricting membership to residents of single family homes until just this month. Rather than a vast and powerful voice of the people, many civic associations appear to be the collective voice of a few private individuals. We should keep this in mind as we consider their positions on future issues.

Second, the case exposed the poor judgment of the Traffic and Parking Board in rendering its opinion on complete streets. Despite a proposal consistent with the Transportation Master Plan, Vision Zero Action Plan, and Complete Streets Policy and Design Guidelines adopted by the City—as succinctly outlined in a thoughtful letter by the Transportation Commission—the chair of the Traffic and Parking Board testified (video at 1:18:00) that he places the views of adjacent residents and business interests above the standing policies adopted by the City. This illustrates a blatant disregard for the policies residents and Council members have worked to adopt, turning TPB hearings into a private dispute resolution process among those who testify at meetings rather than a policy-informed decision on how to deploy civic infrastructure in the public’s interest. The City Council should provide guidance to the TPB advising that its opinions should be based on the standards and principles outlined in adopted policies—or seek to seat new members on the board.

Third, city staff showed poor judgment in creating a process for Seminary Road that seemed designed to create more heat than light. From the start, this was headed for conflict with a meandering process ending with a City Council public hearing. An effort that started by evaluating three alternatives—including one, Alternative 3, that most closely aligned with the city’s complete streets policies—was muddied by staff’s introduction of a hybrid alternative that appeased no one. At the hearing on Saturday, city staff presented a conflicting front, with the Fire Department recommending Alterative 3, Transportation & Environmental Services staff delivering a presentation that all-but made the case for Alternative 3, but a staff recommendation to Council to adopt the four-lane option advanced by the TPB. In the end, nearly a year’s time was expended on an effort that most cities and counties would have addressed with a few weeks of staff time and a public open house.

City Council members should truly be appalled by the time and resources wasted on this single case. Most of them campaigned to solve big issues confronting the City, and while safe streets are important, the configuration of lane markings on a 1-mile stretch of road is not an issue a city council should need to address. Yet three members of Council voted against this proposal because they wanted to spend more time and effort studying what to do.

With a population of more than 150,000, Alexandria is not a small town. It has major issues to address. We can’t saddle our City Council with small-time problems—and Councilmembers themselves need to understand where to focus their time and attention. We need effective decision making by advisory boards like the Traffic and Parking Board, managed by staff through a process appropriately scaled to the decision at hand. Without properly gearing the input to the relative importance of the output, we won’t have the capacity to address the bigger challenges confronting our city.

This last point is not a trivial one. When we swamp our civic engagement mechanisms in the service of relatively trivial matters we diminish the ability of those mechanisms to function properly in genuine moments of need. If we sound the alarm on everything, we effectively sound the alarm on nothing. The boy who cried wolf is not a story about the triumphant power of overwrought and insistent engagement with your neighbors. The boy is not some plucky underdog, speaking truth to power in the face of a system determined to ignore him. The boy who cried wolf is a story about how being a self-centered child will get you eaten by a wolf.

It’s time we stop feeding the wolves, Alexandria.

– P.C. Publius

September 17, 2019