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