On Giving Up

We have, it seems, given up.

In our town we squabble over building heights and brick color, bike lanes and traffic calming, chickens and dogs, but we generally commit to doing the things expected in a civil society pretty well. Trash gets collected; broken stuff gets fixed; daily life hums along. But on Monday night while Americans honored those who gave their lives to ensure domestic tranquility, Alexandria declared that our high school students are not safe in their own school building. At one of the most fundamental promises of civil society, we have simply and plainly, given up.

ACPS has never been a leading light. We’ve got crumbling facilities and a seeming inability to fix them. In the last twenty years we’ve had five superintendents, two of whom the school board paid to go away. And our current superintendent would rather be touring around hawking books, teaching a college class, or pontificating on podcasts than doing the job he was hired to do. But despite the physical limitations and the wildly inconsistent leadership, our teachers have generally educated kids well in a relatively safe environment. Until this year.

The year started with what seemed to be a dizzying array of acts of violence in and out of our schools. Videos of fist fights around busses, in bathrooms, and in hallways went viral. School and city leaders sniped at each other over school resource officers engaging in a hugely embarrassing display that was a master class in how not to work collaboratively to solve a problem.

Sitting in the center of the city, Bradlee Shopping Center became a popular but increasingly unsafe destination in the afternoons. Business owners clamored for attention from law enforcement as they witnessed skirmishes and bad behavior. A student was shot there. And as the academic year drew to a close, the misbehavior and disruption at Bradlee built to an unthinkably tragic crescendo – the death of a student in the middle of a melee that police officers on the scene could not quiet. In the aftermath ACPS has essentially thrown in the towel, tacitly admitting it cannot keep teachers and students safe enough to be in person for the last two weeks of class.

It’s a stunning state of affairs. How is it possible that a city flush with the resources and talent of 160,000 people just a stone’s throw from the nation’s capital is not capable of safely sending teenagers to school?

As with many civic problems, it is easy to cast blame–there is plenty to go around–and devolve into relitigating old battles. It is harder to take stock with open minds and work together on a solution. School leaders and city officials must put aside their egos, listen to the community, and come together to create a path forward for the city.

So where do we go from here? If this year has taught us anything, it is that screaming into the void doesn’t solve anything. Nor does screaming at each other. Nor does screaming into a pillow (believe me, if this one worked I would know). If solutions were obvious, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

It is easy to feel lost in the face of indescribable events, when words seem to slide around the sides and margins of understanding without gaining purchase. To feel like any action is small to the point of vanishing against the enormity of the challenge we face. Yet each small individual action builds to collective strength as certain as a sky of stars beats back the dark vastness of space. What we each owe the youth of this city in this moment is our presence. All of us, every one of us, must now show up however we can for every single young person in the city. Volunteer, coach, mentor, instruct, hire, whatever you can do. Hell, start with making eye contact and saying hello. So many things have been taken from the youth of this city—the future of this city—the one thing we cannot do is not be there when they need us most.

The one thing we cannot do, is give up.

– P.C. Publius

May 31, 2022


On Frailty

In the summer of 2016, I wrote about the spectral shadow of gun violence dimming the light of renewal in one of our historic neighborhoods. It was the second essay I wrote for the site.

Not one month later I wrote again about violence, as a pair of homicides in our city seemed of a piece with the endemic condition typifying these late stages of the American experiment. At the time I suggested that community—particularly exemplified by our community—was the only durable and lasting solution to the polarization and Othering that drove the unceasing anger and manifest violence along with it.

What a quaint idyll 2016 was, in retrospect.

Of course we know now that the flood tide of polarization didn’t ebb, but rather washed over us in an algorithmic deluge of bitter division. Of course we know now that gun violence and the cheap culture war rhetoric canonizing the martial posturing of our dumbest American entitlement has not in any way abated but only further metastasized. Of course we know now that our community has not been immune or special or spared.

This year in Alexandria has seen spikes in burglaries and DWIs, along with spates of vandalism and carjacking. Shots fired incidents have propagated into neighborhoods throughout the city, and singular instances of violence have shocked the public. Fights at the high school and middle schools have roiled social media feeds and local news coverage alike.

None of this is ok. None of us should pretend this is ok.

But even as we agree that we do not need to accept or tolerate this slow erosion of public safety we must also agree that we cannot seek a solution in the same dark torrent that has dragged us under to begin with. Our response to the challenge of this moment cannot—must not—be further acrimony and division.

The violence and disruption we currently face is not due to any local or state or national elected official, it’s not driven by the actions of any city department or staff, it’s not being catalyzed by the presence or absence of anyone’s pet public safety intervention. This is not a political problem, it is a human problem. It is a humanity problem.

We are coming out of—hell, are still stumbling through—one of the hardest and most tragic periods in most of our living memories. This public health crisis has cost people their jobs, their livelihoods, and for 147 of our fellow Alexandrians, their lives. Our school-aged children went nearly 18 months without seeing the inside of a classroom full-time. The financial, emotional, and mental toll that the pandemic has put on each of us individually and all of us collectively is genuinely incalculable. People are desperate. And desperate people do desperate things.

Our response to unthinking cruelty cannot be more unthinking cruelty. Our response to anger cannot be more anger. This is not a moment for grandstanding demands, or punitive crackdowns, or a return to failed police-state excesses; this is a moment to remember who we are and who we want to be.

I still believe even in the face of the past year—of the past four years—that coming together around a shared commitment to place is the surest foundation upon which we can build safety and prosperity. We have neighbors stealing because they are hungry, so we must address that hunger. We have neighbors abusing substances because they are in pain, so we must address that pain. We have neighbors fighting because they are grieving, so we must address that grief as surely as we must mitigate that violence.

Efforts like the basic income pilot, ongoing eviction prevention measures, and new investments in our early education and childcare workforce are not on the surface public safety measures but they will surely protect and strengthen our community as much or more than any armed agent of the state. Similarly, the dialogue around school resource officers and the recent fights in our schools is a genuinely complex issue—the notion of safety is profoundly complicated and unevenly distributed. Rather than creating a zero-sum political fight pitting the mental and emotional safety of some students against the perception of physical safety of other students, we must pursue a shared attempt to find solutions and common ground informed by the perspectives of those most impacted by these events: the students.

This is not a time for coming apart, it is a time for coming together. Do not sit safe behind a locked door and abjure the parts of our community that need each and all of us now more than ever before. Do not look at your neighbor and through a veil of long isolation see only the Other. We can overcome the transient anxiety and fear that has infected us over these long hard months. We can share a commitment to place again. We can be a true community.

It can feel like a frail thing, community. But it’s a deceptive frailty, particularly when measured by our individual resolve. By putting faith in one another—by understanding that it is not each of our resolve alone that must carry the collective weight—we find the subtle and quiet strength that was there all along, a strength that comes from our civic volunteers, from our faith communities, from our business leaders, from our elected officials and from every person that has decided that making a life here matters. It’s a strength that will be there when we call on it so long as it’s grounded in this sacred and powerful exercise of shared humanity. Community in the end, is not frail. Community—real community—is hard.

But then again, so is anything worth a damn.

– P.C. Publius

October 4, 2021

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