A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal

By Tom Robotham

Last month in this space, I took Norfolk officials to task for claiming in a new vision statement that our humble town “is America’s vibrant, heritage port city where people of all backgrounds and ages are actively transforming their neighborhoods, economy and culture into the most fun and livable waterfront community in the world.”

My essential point was that this statement is overreaching to the point of absurdity. (If you missed that column, you can find it on the VEER website.)

“So what vision statement would you suggest?” my friend Jim Roberts asked me during a discussion of the column on Facebook.

Fair enough. I’ve always seen value in criticism, but at some point it’s incumbent upon critics to offer more positive alternatives.

For starters, let’s consider the phrase, “most fun and livable.” There are two problems with it.

First, it’s highly subjective. Take my hometown of New York, for example. I would argue that it’s the most fun city in the world, and there are a whole lot of people who would agree with me. Depending on circumstances, it’s also quite livable. At least it was for me when I was living on East 39th Street in the 1980s. My commute was a six-block stroll. Moreover, a host of restaurants and a nice little grocery store were just around the corner. If I wanted to venture farther, Grand Central Station was a mere three blocks away. In short, the living was easy. Other people—outsiders, mostly—don’t see it that way. The crowds and towering skyscrapers make them feel claustrophobic, and they perceive New Yorkers to be rude.

Which gets to the second problem with the phrase “fun and livable”—the two adjectives are often at odds with each other. Hence the often heard statement, New York is a fun place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.

With that in mind, let’s think about the two claims separately, as they pertain to Norfolk. Most people, I suspect, would agree that Norfolk cannot currently lay claim to being the “most fun” waterfront community in the world. The question is, does it have the potential to achieve this status? I think it’s pretty clear that the answer is no. Sure, it’s good to set the bar high. It’s also wise to be realistic. I might fantasize about beating Rafael Nadal in next year’s U.S. Open, but it ain’t gonna happen. And I wouldn’t take offense if anyone pointed that out.

Norfolk officials and civic boosters should accept the city for what it is and consider its actual potential.

The city does offer residents and visitors alike a lot of opportunities for fun. Its cultural gems include The Virginia Arts Festival, the Virginia Symphony, the Opera, the Chrysler Museum, the NorVa, the Naro Expanded Cinema and video store, and the Wells Theater. It’s also home to many fine restaurants, bars and coffeehouses, some of which offer good live music. The opening of new local breweries in recent years is also noteworthy.

But all of these things combined hardly make Norfolk a top-tier destination for fun. As a friend and fellow baseball fan once told me, “Norfolk is a Triple A city in every respect.”

That’s not a put-down; on the contrary, its minor-league status is part of its charm—the very reason that the city is quite livable. Indeed, to continue with the baseball analogy, think about the experience of going to a game at Harbor Park. It cannot possibly deliver the excitement of a game at a Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. But that’s part of its appeal. It’s laid back, very accessible and relatively inexpensive.

In other words, it’s a kind of microcosm of the city as a whole.

So here’s my vision statement: “Norfolk is a pleasant, easy-going mid-size city with lovely, family-oriented neighborhoods, a clean and quiet urban center, good access to the oceanfront, and a variety of cultural and recreational attractions for people of all ages and tastes.”

Yeah, I know—doesn’t have much of a WOW factor, does it?  But so what? Leave that to New York, Paris, London and other cities that could lay claim to the being the best in the world. At least it’s honest—and people respect honesty.

It’s also a solid foundation to build on.

How can the city do this?

For one thing, by avoiding more mistakes like the ones made with the redevelopment of Ward’s Corner and the western end of 21st Street. The latter is particularly noteworthy because as things stand now it’s a study in contrasts on opposite sides of the street. On the southern side is a row of colorful shops and restaurants (Streats, for example), in restored older buildings of a human scale. There’s a feeling of intimacy to them, and since they are built out to the sidewalk, they create a pleasing backdrop for pedestrians who are headed there or just passing by. Alas, directly across from them looms the large, new Fresh Market building set way back on the lot. Its disproportionate size and distance from the street make it look out of place. And its architecture is wholly uninspired.

Yeah, I know, it’s just a supermarket, right? But that’s missing the point: If Norfolk is to achieve its full potential, its leaders must insist on certain design standards for corporate chains and local businesses alike. It can happen. I’ve visited towns in Vermont that even require McDonald’s to conform to the surrounding aesthetic. Surely Norfolk could do the same.

Above and beyond this imperative, Norfolk also needs to focus more on connectivity through public transportation. Extending the light-rail line to ODU and beyond would be a major improvement. I know there’s talk of this—but it needs to be a higher priority. In this day and age, no city can claim to be “the most livable,” without a great public transit.

Finally, city leaders need to listen more closely to citizens. That is ostensibly one of the purposes of the Norfolk Collaboratory initiative, which I discussed in last month’s column. But the emphasis of the web site unintentionally underscores the problem. There is a great deal of resentment in the various neighborhoods of this town that Norfolk officials place too much emphasis on downtown and not enough on outlying neighborhoods. Whether city officials are actually guilty of this is beside the point. The perception is there, and that’s a big problem. If any vision is to be realized it must be supported by broad consensus.

If Norfolk can achieve these things, it will indeed realize a greater a degree of its potential to become one of the most livable cities in the mid-Atlantic region. And that, in itself, is a noble goal.