By Tom Robotham


The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, ‘This procession has got to go on.’ So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.

~ Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Here we go again.

Norfolk officials and civic boosters have launched yet another effort to convince people that the city is undergoing a dramatic renaissance. We’ve seen this before—when MacArthur Mall opened; when the cruise-ship terminal was built; when the Tide embarked on its maiden voyage. But this time they’ve up the ante.

The new initiative, known as the Norfolk Collaboratory, embraces the notion that “the City of Norfolk 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.

I kid you not.

New York? Hah. Seattle? Pshaw. Barcelona? Meh. What do these and countless other cities around the globe have on Norfolk? A few diversions, maybe. A bit of heritage. But if you’re looking for the most fun and livable city in the world, well, just step outside your front door, and take a look around.

Really, please: Take a look around. Having been a resident here for 22 years, I’ve been looking around for some time, and I think it’s safe to say that you’ll find very little to support the Collaboratory’s assessment.

First of all, it takes an extra-large set of balls to call this a “heritage” city, given that Norfolk has made a concerted effort over the last few decades to demolish as many historic structures as possible.

So let’s scratch the word “heritage” from the vision statement.

How about the alleged sense of community, where “people of all backgrounds and ages” are actively working together?

Uh…sorry. The reality is that Norfolk is a hodgepodge of disconnected subcultures. The hot-shot members of the self-described “young creative class” have expressed again and again their belief that anyone over the age of 40 is culturally irrelevant. Meanwhile, most people who live outside the Larchmont-Ghent-Downtown corridor couldn’t care less about the “hip” factor. By and large, they want just a few things from the city: lower crime rates, lower property taxes, better road maintenance, and better schools.

It’s more than a bit of stretch, meanwhile, to talk about “people of all backgrounds” working together. Drive east from Ghent on Princess Anne Road, and you’ll get a startling reminder of the stark racial segregation in this town.

But you won’t find any of that in the Collaboratory’s vision statement. Scroll through the project updates on the initiative’s web site, and you’ll get the impression that Norfolk is on the verge of becoming the most progressive town this side of Portland.

Among the “placemaking” initiatives it touts are Norfolk’s “farm markets,” “community gardens,” “food trucks,” “street parties,” and “local breweries.”

The trouble with this misrepresentation of reality is that these things, while laudable in and of themselves, are few and far between. Moreover, the city has tolerated these things at best, and in many cases has fought them tooth and nail. Now that these small enterprises have met with modest success, city officials are trying to take credit for them.

It doesn’t take much historical perspective to recognize the silliness of all this. Back in 2002, after author Richard Florida published his book The Rise of the Creative Class, there was a lot of buzz around these parts about how Norfolk could capture its share of this coveted group.

Florida’s thesis was simple: The “creative class”—the innovators of the labor force—were driving today’s economy, and the cities that were attracting them were the ones that were thriving.

Many of the things described in the Collaboratory’s vision are, indeed, initiatives that attract a diverse and creative population.

But what has Norfolk done in the 12 years since the term “creative class” entered the popular lexicon? The opposite, by and large, of what Florida advocated. The Ward’s Corner redevelopment is a case in point. The city had a major opportunity to do something cutting-edge when it leveled much of the neighborhood’s old shopping district. Instead, they facilitated construction of a tangled mess: a cluster of buildings, parking lots and traffic lanes that are offensive to the eye and hazardous to anyone who would be foolish enough to take to the area on foot.

This is an important point—maybe the most important point. The creative class—the people who make Portland, Seattle, Austin and other U.S. cities culturally vibrant—place a premium on areas that are pedestrian friendly. And how does a city accomplish that? By bringing new construction to the sidewalks.

You might have expected the city to push that in Ghent, at least. After letting a massive abandoned eyesore sit on West 21st Street for a decade, the city finally approved plans for a new development that includes a Fresh Market. OK, fair enough—at least it wasn’t another chain pharmacy. Ghent apparently needs three of those within a two-block stretch, but I suppose that’s sufficient.

So what’s the problem? Well, for one thing, developers decided to situate the Fresh Market way back on the lot near the railroad tracks, with parking out front, in conventional suburban style, rather than bring it to the street to encourage more pedestrian traffic.

A better idea still, would have been to facilitate development of two- or three-story mixed use buildings, then give tax incentives to attract small, locally owned businesses. This is another important point worth emphasizing: The creative class is attracted to neighborhoods with distinctive character—which decidedly does not mean, neighborhoods littered with national chains.

But Norfolk officials seem oblivious to this fact. Indeed, a lot of small-business owners in Norfolk whom I’ve talked to complain that the city offers them nothing—and often makes them jump through hoops before they can open their doors—while giving corporate chains pretty much anything they want, including tax incentives and flexibility in design.

But never mind. The Norfolk Collaboratory tells us that our fair city is on the threshold of becoming the most “vibrant” waterfront city in the world. And how do they plan to move this vision forward? By “crowdsourcing” their message and creating a “brand message architecture.” Side note: Anytime you come across buzzwords like this, it’s a pretty good indication that you’re about to be scammed. I can just see city officials muttering a line from a minor character in Wayne’s World: “I don’t know what that means but it sounds impressive.”

In short, the Norfolk Collaboratory (and I do hope this is the last time I ever have to write the word, collaboratory) is big on flash but lacking in substance. It is yet another version of The Emperor’s New Clothes. As in that story, any child could see that this is a farce. The question is, when will the grown-ups stand up and say so?