This blog post is long overdue--a testimony to the fullness of the past few months that the blog has taken a side burner. More on that later, but now for a post I've had on my tuexduex list for a while (I really recommend this latter site for keeping up with life). This past April, two friends and I from PieLab went on a road trip into the Eastern United States. What began with a desire to make it to Charlottesville, VA to see their community design center, led us to plan a week long trip stopping at places all along the way. It was initially just for fun, but turned into an incredibly informative trip that was fun for sure, but more research gathering than anticipated--a welcome surprise.
After driving through the hills of northern Alabama (I am always amazed by the varying topography and landscape of the state), we arrived in Chattanooga, TN to crash in a very generous host's house in a revitalized part of town. She worked near there at a place called CreateHere that graciously allowed us to sit in on their Monday morning meeting and stay afterwards to probe for information, ideas, and direction for our own endeavors. We left completely enamored with the work they do (I won't even try to explain, just visit the site). What I gained mostly from them was the power to be had in collaboration among disciplines, especially when business/venture capitalists get involved. It was very obvious the group was made of people just "loving on their city", as they phrased it. I was very impressed with their attention to the hollistic nature of society and thereby considering all aspects from economics, to culture, safety, business, civic engagement, education and so on. They stressed to us to start with core values, not initiatives and to first figure out a place's assets and then turn them into tools (asset-based development). One abstract map they offered that I found interesting was that creativity>innovation>economy (sustained economic development/long-term local wealth). They re-iterated much of what we have been discussing here: that changes can be sparked by an outside catalyst, but must be adopted by longterm efforts from within a place. And once again, education, education, education. A city's success seems to boil down to the commitment it has to its education system. Education>wealth>health. Education>economy based on professionals>they create jobs. Education>knowledgable electorate>good elected officials>good government>better city>more education. The circle of cities.
Departing for Asheville, we encountered closed interstates--a welcome detour as we loved wandering through mountain paths, crookneck roads we had to slow to 10 miles an hour around, and for much of it, followed a river backdropped by spring vegetation and livestock any romantic era artist would have drooled over. The small towns seemed to have appalachian charm and had us asking the questions that each city prompted: "What is that keeps people here?", "What makes this place work?", "What lends this place its identity?"
Asheville was rainy, meaning we couldn't meander the city we'd heard heralded before going. We plopped down in a chocolate shop/cafe where I tried honey-lavender hot chocolate which at first sounded like the oddest combination, but as hoped, proved to be divinely delicious. Dinner was at a chic Indian restaurant that was a treat for the palate, but so spicy my ears were stopped up and nose dripping.
Unexpected stops popped up throughout the voyage that actually made the trip more than some of the intentional destinations. One being in Black Mountain, NC. As we were studying the map for our route the next morning, we were delighted to find that we would be driving right through this little town. Black Mountain was home to the renowned Black Mountain College where many modernists and progressives in the teens and twenties of the past century pushed the boundaries of art, design, theater, and communal living. We drove to the school's location, now turned boys' summer camp, tucked away on a hillside with a pond in front of it. I tried to imagine what it would have been like filled with young, creative minds, engaging in the rapidly developing dialogue of art, design, and architecture--in a place that offered them the time and space to create. What was more engaging for us was the stop we made at the town's visitor center where a sweet, decades-weathered lady offered us looks into the center's literature on the college. We immediately started pulling out scraps of receipts/paper from our purses to jot down quotes that electrified the illuminous ideas these great thinkers offered:
"Democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience...the widening of the area of shared concerns, and the liberation of a great diversity of personal capacities." -John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1916 (see last blog post to know how elated I was to find the continuity of this quote with what I learned at the Dave Matthews conference and all this year at PieLab)
"Qualities of character considered just as much as intellectual abilities in which development of critical thought, creative ability and social adjustment are more respected than mere acquisition of knowledge and skill." -Josef Albers
Next stop, Raleigh. We didn't get to spend much time there, but saw the beautiful campus of NC State, couch surfed with an out of work architect now turning to cool guerilla architecture projects, and ate some delicious Lebanese food for dinner before relaxing with a drink at a local bar hosting a sitar player. Our goal in each place was to go cheap on two meals a day and eat well for the third--and hopefully find a coffee shop to start each day.
A jewel of a town we stumbled upon was Edenton, NC on the water (bay?). It felt much like a thriving Greensboro on water, had Greensboro, not slipped from prominence as a flourishing city. It had a wonderfully charming, walkable, quaint main street that led right up to a waterfront park. All storefronts seems full and the houses radiating from the town center were stately southern homes that were well-groomed. Finally tried some tasty North Carolina bar-b-que.
In route to Charlottesville we stopped in Williamsburg. I felt like a dorky tourist, but tried to not look the part (not having kids in colonial garb with me and no map in hand helped). I casually strolled the mall contemplating how this location was a great compliment to the other cities we had seen. In each of them I pondered what makes them work today, but in this one rather, I questioned what made this city work? Why design it this way? Why put that building there? What was the priority for this public space? How did the city plan promote or destroy social equity (probably not their concern)? Did this church really seek the spiritual growth of its congregation or merely serve cultural objectives? And oh yeah, that makes sense that each shop just had a picture of its goods/trade instead of words because the majority couldn't read.
I love Charlottesville, Virginia. It was honestly just the final destination solely for seeing its community design center (which was incredible as well). I've never before given two thoughts to Charlottesville, but how I was wrong! The closer we trekked toward Charlottesville, the hills heightened to mountains and the woods thickened to forest. We drove down the hill off the exit and down into its historic, yet modern, downtown. The weather was perfect. As our host told us, people re-fall in love with Charlottesville every spring when the cold breaks and you can actually enjoy the pedestrian mall. I was immediately captivated by it. So much so that after wandering for a few hours, I planted myself in the middle of it to make sure to record what I saw: The weather is perfect today--a good day for my new pink sundress and sandals. The mall is so nicely arranged and designed. The sun peaks through the leaf gaps and the clusters of trees provide welcome shade. There is a wide range of people-college kids, preps, punks, different races, homeless, seemingly high falutins, artsy folk, and corporate businessmen. There are delicious looking restaurants with cafe tables in the middle of the brick paved walkway. Several bookstores--most of them second hand which is even better! It feels local. I can stroll and and feel like I fit. There are businesses and studios. Old and new facades. It almost feels very European in the sense that there are old buildings with modern dwellers appropriating certain parts of the architecture but covering other parts with modern angularity. Not too many gift stores but enough to provide interesting perusals. People running and biking. So nice, so livable. Gosh, this sun and weather! Intoxicating! People seem active, outdoorsy, educated. There was a steel drum band playing for a while. Culture. Accessible culture. Culture that is found in the fabric of the street--everyday life--not in fancy venues or costly overplanned events. Music, art, fashion, conversation, cuisine, architecture-all elements being combined in a beautiful way to make sense of a city. And its all at a human scale, a human pace.