1/08/2009

Laid bare like the Downtown Mall

This morning I had to drop something by the New Dominion Bookshop for a recording that Elizabeth McCullough was making for the Charlottesville Podcasting Network (follow on twitter!). I had rushed together a kit for her to record a woman named Donna Authers talking about her book A Sacred Walk: Dispelling the Fear of Death and Caring for the Dying. We'll post it later on this week.

But tonight's entry deals with trying to fix those that will live, at least for the foreseeable future.

The bookstore is just down the hill from my office in Court Square. I had planned to stop off at the Blue Ridge Country Store to get a salad. Usually I just retreat back to my desk as quick as I can, but today I became intrigued by the large green walls that have cropped all over on the mall.

Yes, the rebricking of the Downtown Mall is under way, but I was surprised by how big of a footprint the project has in these initial days. East Main Street went from normal to construction zone in a matter of days, and the shock took me out of my routine. The Mall has been the stage on which I've been a player for several years now, but the backstory threads somewhat through my adult life.

The first time I was on the Mall was sometime in the early 90's with my friend Jeffry, who was a student at the University of Virginia. There wasn't much to see, but those goofy shadow people were there already. At the time, I was neither impressed nor disappointed in the Mall. It was just a place that was, and there didn't seem to be too much going on.

In 1996, I got to visit Burlington, Vermont and its pedestrian area. At the time, I was reminded of England because of the prevalence of department stores and book stores in a small urban setting. It seemed like a thriving place, and I particularly liked the restaurants with cafes. To me, the height of civilization is being able to sit outside on a nice summer day while having a nice meal with friends.

I rediscovered Charlottesville's downtown mall while working for WVTF Public Radio. In 2001, I began to occasionally travel here because the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities funded two documentary projects that I got to work on. On one of them, I traveled to the Mall for the first time in several years in order to interview the late Mitch Van Yahres for a story I did on the eugenics movement in Virginia. By then, the place looked a bit more interesting than it did several years before. I filed it away as a location I wanted to revisit. I didn't have much time to walk around because I had driven up in the WVTF van with a colleague.

Another time I came back was to do some person-on-the-street interviews for an episode of the arts show Studio Virginia called "Ask the Poet Laureate" when George Garrett held that position. I recorded several questions and then played them back for him to record his answers.

(As a personal memory: When I got to this house, he let me idle his car in his driveway because the alternator was busted and if we turned it off, we couldn't start it up again without a jump. H e was a very nice man)

I moved here in 2002 to take a public radio job, but never really visited the Mall until I moved into the city limits a year later, aside from the occasional event I worked for the VFH. After I moved, though, I was within walking distance. After my first marriage ended, I found myself hanging out downtown a lot more. I ended up working at Court Square Tavern, which meant I suddenly was on the Mall almost every day for some reason or another.

I've never really left for five years, and even continue to work in Court Square. I seem like I belong and frankly, being downtown never seems to get boring for me. It's home.

As I've mentioned, this is a rough time for me. But, who isn't having a rough time? There is seemingly a kernel of worry embedded in everything particle of our collective existence at the moment. Things are not the same as they once were, and odd things are happening. I'm seeing that everywhere as we deal with the economic slowdown. The word "depression" hangs over our heads in so many different ways.

And now, the Downtown Mall is a total shambles. My backdrop for the past five years is never going to be the same. The banged-up yet majestic yet cracked yet but lived-in but authentic and poetic and magnificent mosaic of bricks has been torn up, and it hurts to see yet another major change in my life at this time.

It was a shock, even though I have frequently written in my professional life about the details of the project. I knew this was coming and knew how they would get to work right away. I had seen the plans, had attended the ground-breaking, and knew what the scope would be.

Yet, walking today in the beautiful winter sun at noon, I was struck by how the execution has altered the canvas of my daily life, during a time when my own life of the last four years has been ripped up and altered as well.

I was amazed at how naked and sick the concrete slab looked like when the bricks that we've all walked upon had been removed. The air was not as clear because trucks were idling while their occupants ate lunch. A squirrel had trouble negotiating the metal grates that have been installed around the trees. The Mall looks like a sick patient that is receiving a transplant for totally everything. It all seemed so uncertain and vulnerable.

And just the other day, it was as magnificent as ever.

Of course, I know when this is all done, it will look even better than it did before. I know I am going to be a better person now that I am on my own rebricking project. In both cases, the underlying infrastructure is being taken care of in order to make sure things don't fall apart again for many years.

And frankly, what's the point in looking back? What was is over. Something else will take its place. A new backdrop. Maybe it will be better. Maybe it will be worse. Nothing is ever the same. Change never stops, never gets old. By now no one should be surpised that the topsy becomes the turvy.

Things get better. The pain of sudden transformation fades away. At least, I have faith that in time, all construction projects are completed.

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