Let's Talk
Let's Talk is a series of editorials authored by Charlottesville Tomorrow's Executive Director Giles Morris.

The conviction and sentencing of James Alex Fields closed 2018 in Court Square, and the hearings on the removal of the statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, initially scheduled for this month, have moved down the calendar to March. It’s another reminder for all of us that healing from deep wounds is slow and happens in phases.

At Charlottesville Tomorrow, we finished our schedule of public events in December with a coffee conversation addressing the legacies of Vinegar Hill in today’s policy discussions. If you have seen Charlene Green, Manager of the Office of Human Rights, deliver her presentation on Vinegar Hill before, then you know how relevant it is to today’s discussions about neighborhood identity, affordable housing, and trust in government.

The purpose of confronting the past is to understand the present. It’s to remember that with Vinegar Hill’s removal, the black community lost its Downtown foothold and its central business district in a highly politicized referendum carried by then Charlottesville Mayor Thomas Michie and his supporters in the name of progress, both cultural and economic. To forget the details is to forget that voters had to pay a poll tax to cast their ballots, that many of the property owners in Vinegar Hill were white, that the neighborhood had outdoor privies but didn’t look anything like a slum, and that most of the footprint, after it was bulldozed, lay practically vacant for two decades.

"To forget the details is to forget that unpaid debts are always literal and specific."

To forget the details of Vinegar Hill is to allow it to become an abstraction of a past more racist than the present, rather than the result of a long, local policy debate undertaken in the name of future generations that permanently damaged a large part of the community’s basic trust in government. To forget the details is to forget that unpaid debts are always literal and specific.

Last Friday, Charlottesville Tomorrow published a story by Jordy Yager that takes a thorough look at one of today’s planning issues intimately linked to the city’s history of broken trust with African-American communities: the redevelopment of Friendship Court. I first wrote about Friendship Court in 2012, understanding that it was a frontline in the conversation about gentrification and displacement. But I didn’t know that Garrett Square’s history was intertwined with Vinegar Hill’s, or that the displaced residents from both razed neighborhoods wound up in Westhaven. The darker side of our history is one that we often never experience until it cuts us.

The revolutions in social media, and the rise of the citizen reporter are changing what media today is, how journalists work and how we engage the community in our work beyond the grim economics of publishing. These things are forcing us to re-evaluate our assumptions at a time when communities have stopped trusting us to arbitrate public conversations.

As long as I can remember, the idea of watchdog or investigative journalism, the unflinching kind that speaks truth to power, has been the ideal of our industry, even as the resources for that kind of work have been stripped away year by year. That kind of journalism has mostly, in my experience, operated from the assumption that our system is basically good, but that bad actors find ways to take advantage of it and use their power to cover their tracks. If you can just catch them, like a detective, then you’ll make society free of evil.

Watchdog and investigative reporting models remain essential, but I think today we are confronting the darker reality that we have let our systems off the hook. What if it’s our assumptions that are bad and our goals that are unjust? And what if our most persistent problems are perpetuated by good people adhering to bad rules, continuing the cycle of damage and mistrust by aligning with misguided priorities and practices? The equity issues in Charlottesville (the achievement gap, displacement, disproportionate contact, economic isolation, etc.) aren’t the acts of evildoers. They are the results of the systems we have created together.

For journalists, the problem then becomes helping communities come face to face with realities that have far-reaching impacts but also particular present-day articulations, because without those kinds of accountable, on-the-record, transparent conversations, we won’t be able to get to a shared reality. You can’t build trust without first establishing shared truth.

In “The Reimagining of Friendship Court,” Jordy Yager interviewed over 20 people intimately involved in the redevelopment project and connected the policy timeline to over a century of history. Sunshine Mathon, the CEO of Piedmont Housing Alliance, opened his organization and his process to a news outlet, understanding that radical transparency, while risky, is an act of healing. Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Councillors Kathy Galvin and Wes Bellamy spoke openly about their assumptions, priorities and logic. Architects Liz Ogbu and Barbara Brown-Wilson lay out the changing theories of community co-creation in architecture. City planners Alex Ikefuna and Brian Haluska discussed the challenges of enforcing policies that struggle to contend with shifting economic and social pressures.

More importantly, Jordy, by working patiently and conscientiously, listened to the residents of Friendship Court, past and present. From Mary Carey, who has represented the community’s voice in political dialogues for decades, to Devin Gentry, who grew up in the community and teaches at Albemarle High School. He listened to Tamara Wright, Crystal Johnson and Zafar Khan, who live there today and have helped drive the redevelopment process. He listened to Marissa Turner-Harris, Daemon Nowlin and Audrey Woodson, who aren’t exactly sure what the future holds, balancing their hopes and fears. And instead of cribbing what they said, he let the tape run and worked with a local team of web developers and designers at Braid to share all of those perspectives with our readers.

“The Reimagining of Friendship Court” also attempts to ground the debate over competing theories about the redevelopment of urban subsidized housing with the specific realities of an unresolved project with far-reaching implications for how our community addresses one of the front lines of our equity conversation. It shares the power of voice by passing the talking stick around and around until there is not much left to say, only the space to find common ground and the acknowledgement that we cannot move forward without shared truth. Our team, and I hope the participants in the story, got something else out of the experience: hope that Charlottesville can work through its challenges and create a more just, honest, and beautiful community.

Listen to Giles explain the intent of “Redeveloping Friendship Court” on WTJU’s public affairs radio show: