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June 06, 2012

Placemaking: Bill Emory

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20120426-Placemaking

Our 2012 annual community conversation took a look at the concept of placemaking and the  findings from the Knight Foundation's Soul of the Community project which reveal how attachment to place drives economic vitality – and how understanding those attachments can direct the ways in which a place chooses to change and grow.

This series features reflections from community members who attended the event. We hope their stories will inspire you to define your version of this community’s narrative and use it as a lens through which to view decisions that will impact the character of this community.


Name
: Bill Emory
Age: 59

Emory
Photo courtesy of Andrew Shurtleff.

City/County resident? City
Occupation: Photographer

How long have you lived in Charlottesville?
Thirty years in Charlottesville, 11 years in Albemarle: forty-one years total.

Why did you come here?
To attend UVa.

What do you love most about where you live? 
Today I love the mulberry trees that line the road and feed me when I walk my dog.

Any takeaways from the Placemaking event?
“Let’s write a narrative!”

The Soul of the Community research says there are four top attachment drivers which connect a person to their place: aesthetics, openness, social offerings, and education. Of those four things, where are we most successful and where do we need more work?
I happily cede discussion of openness, social offerings and education to those qualified and interested in speaking about such. I am interested in the fourth “attachment driver” that Soul of the Community chooses to call aesthetics; I would call it “landscape (natural environment) and architecture.”

If placemaking was central to our decision-making, what might this community do differently?
We would be more thoughtful in our stewardship and use of green infrastructure, the aforementioned natural environment.

The Piedmont of Virginia is an area of old and settled topography. We have a diverse catalog of flora and fauna. The area is well watered, the climate is reasonable. Regarding Charlottesville City, from Pen Park clockwise to the Fry’s Spring neighborhood, our boundary with the County is delineated by waterways.

We have done a credible job in the City instituting policies to facilitate the preservation of a portion of our built environment, particularly old buildings; but we treat much of our public space, our waterways and roadways, with little regard. We use the waterways and their associated floodplains as drainage ditches and dumping areas. Where are the small craft “put-ins” along the Rivanna? Where are the River Parks? Where are the storm-water management best practices? We are making halting corrective steps now, but nothing close to the measures needed (apologies to the cadre of County and City staff, who do work tirelessly for our environment). Our political leaders are effectively blind to the social, financial and environmental benefits of reconnecting their communities to the water. The Constitution of Virginia speaks to this:

"To the end that the people have clean air, pure water, and the use and enjoyment for creation of adequate public lands, waters and other natural resources, it shall be the policy of the Commonwealth to conserve, develop and utilize its natural resources, its public lands and its historic sites and buildings."

Charlottesville and Albemarle didn’t get that memo.

Our streets are a critical part of the “Commons,” the civic area that we share. The City has 156 miles of streets. In 1975 Parks and Recreation developed a plan for the installation of green infrastructure, the planting of trees, along miles of our City streets. The plan wasn’t implemented. The absence of street trees is a pronounced deficit in our “green city.” It lowers the quality of place and the feel of the streets.

We have abandoned our street rights of way, turning them over to utility interests for the easy, ugly and inexpensive transmission of communications and electricity. Lucky that the sewer, water and gas lines aren’t run in the air. Our streets look like utility conduits, defoliated forests comprised of creosoted poles. Often both sides of streets are festooned with wires. Walk down a canopy street, like Monument Avenue in Richmond, to realize the promise of well-executed street design. A street can be a greenway, a linear park, a source of community satisfaction and health. 

Aesthetics have an effect on quality of life. During the day we see our City by the reflected light of the sun. By night we see our City by the light of 5,960 streetlights. Who designed those lights? How was their location chosen? The lights apparently followed the utility conduit installation method, with ease of installation and maintenance paramount. Lighting designed to yield the maximum illumination at minimum expense. Good lighting, like good architecture, is an art. Well-designed lighting can both augment beauty and enhance safety. There is an occupational category: “lighting designer;” there is a recognized authority: the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America. Charlottesville has not had the benefit of good lighting design. Our lighting is haphazard, misdirected. Considering that the City spends close to a million dollars annually operating lights, it would make sense for one City employee to be a qualified “lighting designer.” Our streets and many of our public spaces trend towards being ugly and uninviting places. 

If placemaking was central to our decision-making, what might this community do differently?
We would implement a street tree plan, and take better care of public lands and waterways. 

(Note: I vote with my feet. I choose to live in Charlottesville. The City does many things well. This is my home. This is not an ad hominem attack on City employees. I thank them for all that they do well. Clearly, there are exceptions to my complaints. We pay for services received through many different types of tax levied by the City…Might as well ask for the best possible job.) 

Anything else?
Emory_1
I live in a house built by this girl’s parents in 1890. The girl, Mamie Starkes Baltimore, died the year I was born. When Mamie’s husband John died in 1946, Mamie laid him out in the living room and put black crepe around the front door. Her neighbors and family visited, and then John was carried up on the hill to the neighborhood cemetery, Riverview.

In 1980 Mamie’s nephew, Roy Baltimore, then 76, climbed an extension ladder to the roof of my house on Woolen Mills Road (a.k.a. Market Street) to say hello. Roy explained to me about the Woolen Mills Neighborhood:

“There was a common name applied to this area, they called it The Place. I don't know how that came Emory_2 into being. But if you listened to some of the older people, Louise's mother, whenever they referred to this area they always called it the Place. 'This family has moved on the Place, this family has moved away from the Place.' That was the terminology they used. When you were living here , on this area which is called the Place, you knew everybody. You visited people. We would go to different peoples' homes for dinner after church you know. You knew everybody.”

I have lived in this neighborhood, cradled in a bend of the Rivanna, at the base of Monticello Mountain, for 25 years. When Roy was a boy he “knew everybody." That was a function of the structural components of the community, it was a family neighborhood joined around a common workplace and agrarian traditions.

In the early 21st century some of those structural components have departed--the mill closed in 1962. But the sheer beauty of the place remains. The river, the mountains, the front porches, the yards and gardens; these things remain. The stability of the neighborhood’s populace is impressive: people move in and stay put.

These are drivers of attachment. Friends, family, topography, history, place -- these are things that comprise the armature of this neighborhood. 

On the other hand, there are pressures that will destroy our neighborhood if left unabated. There is scouring “cut-through” traffic, there is outrageous, inappropriate split parcel zoning, there are vulture capitalists, there are absentee landlords who don’t give a dam, there are tree cutters…

But that is another story.

Emory_3John and Mamie Baltimore. Front porch of their Woolen Mills Road house, of which I am now caretaker (1604 E Market). The tree in the background is still in place: a silver maple 15’8” in circumference, probably planted in 1890. Many cities have ordinances against these.

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