Valley Forward?

Once I saw this article yesterday, I knew I would have to post something about it.

It seems a group of young professionals has banded together to do something about the "cool quotient" of Roanoke. Apparently it ranks pretty low on the Richter scale.

While I can appreciate the views and motives of the group - I do have to question them. First off, the youngest member is 29, the oldest 42. The chairman of the group is 36, and a successful business owner. The youngest member is a financial adviser. 2 members are women, 1 is black, and most live in South Roanoke.

Under-representation appears to be the norm in Roanoke these days. The groups make-up mirrors Roanoke's own City Council - individuals that are, in some respects, disconnected from the majority of Roanoke.

When you surround yourself with folks who see certain things on a daily basis - your going to reflect that. Like being a cop. Most cops are decent, good people - but realize that a majority of their time is being spent dealing with the low-life criminals, and then ask why they are so jaded and burn out before retirement. While you might not become a reflection of what you surround yourself with, it does have an influence on you.

Valley Forward's emphasis on the "rebirth of cool" in Roanoke is commendable, however some of the focus is not. The claim of "You're not even relevant if you don't have greenways and am amphitheater" made by Mr. Lugar is overstated to say the least.

Most of the most important cities in the country do not have greenways, and some do not even have amphitheaters within spitting distance. Take good ol' Manhattan for example.

What Manhattan has: Madison Square Garden, New York Coliseum, Battery Park, and Central Park (along with many other much smaller neighborhood parks). That's pretty much it. Everything else is off Manhattan island. The Yankees and the Mets - Giants and Jets - all are off-island.

What makes the difference there? Private developers, a city willing to do the legwork to attract the "cool", and a community effort to "be cool."

It took 27 years for Manhattan to reclaim unused elevated railroad tracks and turn them into a greenway. It will be the first new park-space publicly funded on Manhattan Island in quite some years. Private developers have been adding miniature greenways to riverfront developments for roughly 20 years now.

Major difference - Manhattan has no more room to grow, whereas Roanoke does. Manhattan also has a motivated and community-minded population (across all spectrums of society) who want what they want, and far too many of them remember what parts of the island looked like circa late-1970's.

I give Valley Forward time to grow, and develop themselves. However, I do so with this warning. You are off to an auspicious start, and by allowing your focus to be portrayed as "greenways and an amphitheater" - you limit the impact you will have with the population at large.

I have the same problem with NewVaConnects, they - to all outward appearances- seem to be a group with limitations.

Perhaps we all need to take a step back and examine the situation again. The current need in Roanoke for change might just overpower all the smaller issues. Perhaps we just need some effective leadership, well spoken and knowledgeable about current issues. Not a group of middle-aged folk who are confused by the concept of MySpace.

One of the victims of the Roanoke City Council mindset, and perhaps someone they could all learn from, was former New York City Mayor John Lindsay (1966-1973). He inherited a city rife with problems, both budgetary and socio-economic ones. He was the first mayor to deal with public service unions. His first day in office was a 12-day disaster area as the Transit Workers went on strike, all due to his refusal to sit at the negotiating table.

He raised taxes, including the introduction of the commuter tax. And that same year - the sanitation workers went on a week long strike. This was followed by the unrest that came with the escalation of the Vietnam War, and its protesters. Crime soared, people left the city for the safer suburbs, the tax base was nearly wiped out. Lindsay bargained his way into decades and decades of debit for the city, in hopes of keeping the people quelled. Only years later did one of Lindsay's aides reveal the biggest flaw in the adminstration's policies: "We all failed to come to grips with what a neighborhood is. We never
realized that crime is something that happens to, and in, a community."
Assistant Nancy Seifer said "There was a whole world out there that
nobody in City Hall knew anything about... If you didn't live on
Central Park West you were some kind of lesser being."

To this day, New York City is still paying off the debit that Lindsay created. Both monetary and karmic. The Roanoke City Council is playing the same song on a different piano.

60-70-80 years ago the Roanoke City Council was responsive to the community, supported by, and worked with the Chamber of Commerce and other civic groups to effect a secure and smooth-running city. Most of the still-standing buildings downtown are from the days of an actual Mayor-driven City Council, back when the public and private sector worked hand-in-hand for the betterment of the citizens.

With the shallow pool of the current City Council, and the lack of strong leadership and decision-making - I suspect that 15-20 years down the road we will still be playing soccer on the land that used to be the Roanoke Fair Grounds (aka Victory Stadium), unless the public and private sector can start working together again. Valley Forward, NewVaConnects, and the City Council all need to realize that unless they can come together and work together - the celebration of the 125th anniversary is more of a New Orleans Funeral than a party for the re-birth of the phoenix.


Sean said...

Working together is just not how you get things started. If you wait around for everyone to get on the same page we'll all be dead and gone before significant contributions are made. Significant change occurs when you have a small group of extremely proactive and influential people who take risks and get things done. Once they affect change, and they usually do in dramatic fashion, they help to define the personality of a new urban area. The "working together" among multiple groups never really takes place; the other groups simply adjust their own direction so they can move more freely along the trail that the leading group has blazed.

It's then those trail blazing groups that influences the city council and county governments to develop public properties according to their own ideals. That's basically how it works, as I see it. I've just joined NewVaConnects. It sounds like my sort of group.


RoanokeFound said...

I also am on the NewVaConnects mailing list, along with the Roanoke Connect database list.

But there's still a lacking sense of community, and that's where the problem lies. I work in one of the tightest industries in creation - the commercial kitchen. Normally a haven for gossip and rumor, news and chest-beating - but around here the kitchens are quiet. They don't talk to each other, or about each other.

I do agree that it takes one group to change the paradigm, but that one group needs a cohesive concept. Networking meetings & after-work socials are not the kind of "breeding ground" of societal revolution. Groups that consider greenways and amphitheaters key to life are missing the crux of the matter. The community.

We have plenty of groups here in Roanoke, but none of them willing to step up and truly take a risk, to truly change things. No one looking at the grand scheme of things - the city itself.

Worry less about greenways and Victory Stadium site, and more about the very way the city conducts the business of being a city - which is the real issue keeping us from becoming the Roanoke we know exists.