Monday, May 31, 2010

How About a Day for Those Who Love Peace?

I think it says something about our temperament as a country that we have two two national holidays--one today, Memorial Day--to honor dead soldiers, and not a minute devoted to those who collectively toiled for peace throughout our history.

There is a Vietnam Memorial in Washington, but nothing denoting the millions who poured into the streets and had the hell beaten out of them in the name of peace during that period. They shortened the war and saved a lot of human lives.

There are memorials to the dead in Korea, Iraq (twice), World War II, World War I, the Spanish-American War, Granada, the Civil War, the War of 1812, the American Revolution, the Texas "war for freedom" (which was fought because Mexico opposed slavery and Texans wanted to keep their slaves), and on, and on, ad infinitum.

People who love peace hold lonely, ill-attended vigils, flower-infused rallies and quiet readings. They're often derided by our warrior culture as cowards or "appeasers," people who "hate America" or who misunderstand its ignoble, colonial, resource-grabbing ambitions. My impression over many years is that those in the peace movement are idealists who believe in America and Americans--despite the best evidence to the contrary. They are brave souls, not afraid to be jeered, who turn the other cheek in the face of brutality and whose strongest expression is an incredible and peaceful grace, something a warring culture lacks almost completely in most circumstances.

I'm afraid my temper and tendency to use the same confrontational, diminishing, disrespectful tactics and language as the opposition keeps me from being worthy of membership in the brotherhood of my peaceful friends, but I admire them and I would genuinely love to see them honored in some significant way.

Let's not set aside another battlefield in this country or build another ugly, mid-town statue of some half-savage trained killer holding a gun until we've constructed a 100-foot-tall, white marble peace lily to those who have honored our best instincts, those who have fought for peace--and yes, I see the oxymoron there, but it's language we all understand, unfortunately.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Wasena Bridges: The Contrasts

This is the bridge at the east end of Wasena/Smith Parks yesterday.^

This is the newly rebuilt bridge at the West end about five minutes before the top photo was taken.^

This is a side view of the dry bridge.^

Above is a pretty dramatic example of the new low-water bridge in Wasena Parking working the way it is supposed to: allowing water to pass beneath it. The contrast with the other bridge in the park, which has not been replaced and remains more of a dam than a bridge, could not be more striking and the need for another bridge more pronounced.

The rain that caused this flooding was not all that much, frankly, but it was still enough to, in effect, close the park.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Here's the Best Movie So Far This Year

The performance of an extraordinary young actress named Noomi Rapace would be enough to make "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (subtitled, Swedish, showing at the Grandin Theatre in Roanoke) required viewing, but there's much, much more to what may be the year's best movie.

Based on a complex crime novel by Stieg Larsson expertly directed by David Fincher), the story centers around the investigation by a reporter
(Michael Nyqvist) and a computer hacker (Rapace) of the disappearance of a girl 40 years in the past.

It is a complicated, layered plot with a lot of people, a number of circumstances to remember and some troubling violence (much of it shown). It is never difficult to follow, however, and even though it's nearly three hours long, it seems half that.

We're dealing with murder, rape, incest and some death scenes that border on nauseating. The rape scenes are terrifying. It is a gritty movie, full of plausible outcomes, believable characters (and performances), appropriate music and outstanding cinematography.

The word is that Hollywood is preparing a version with Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Carey Mulligan and George Clooney and my feeling is that they should leave well enough alone here. This movie is something of a "To Kill a Mockingbird" in that I don't expect it could be done better.

Because this is a dark, plodding, often brooding film, imagining a satisfying ending was difficult throughout, but when the credits started to roll during our viewing, the audience enthusiastically applauded. I see that maybe once a year and it's almost always deserved. It certainly was here. This is a truly fine piece of motion picture making. See it.

(I find it impossible to pass up the mention of
Rapace attacking a bad guy with a golf club--three iron, I think--without mentioning the increasingly relevant warning: "Beware Swedish women wielding three-irons"--think Tiger Woods.)

Study: Cities With More Immigrants Are Safer

A new study from the University of Colorado has given a hard right hook to the notion that immigrants are lawless crazies who are inundating our cities with violence and drugs. In fact, the opposite is true, according to a study by sociologist Tim Wadsworth of UC who writes that when immigration rose dramatically in the U.S. in the 1990s, crime statistics went the other way in an equally dramatic fashion.

Firedoglake.com also explains (here) that Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist, has found that immigrants tend to be family-centered, hard-working and they often move into neighborhoods that have been abandoned--saving those areas from becoming hotbeds of crime. Additionally, FBI statistics conclude that immigrants are far more likely to be victims of crime than criminals.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Major Change for Media General Papers

An old pal of mine who works for a Media General newspapers has just relayed some interesting information about how that giant news corporation is restructuring and centralizing the editing function of its organization.

Traditionally, newspapers—except for the smallest—have had what they called copy desks and, most often, a group of copy editors would sit in a circular configuration where they edited the day’s stories and designed the paper and occasionally threw food at each other. In the olden days, when I did some copy editing in this type of setup, we all smoked dozens of cigarettes, drank gallons of coffee and cussed loudly and often during our shift, but I digress.

All of the news copy for a given cycle (daily, weekly) goes through the copy desk. A few copy desks serve both a television station and newspaper in the same market with the same owner. I am not aware of a single copy desk serving more than one organization except in the TV/newspaper rare exception. There may be one or two.

Media General is planning to change that for its papers, my friend tells me. MG owns three metro papers--Richmond, Winston-Salem and Tampa--and they are merging into two copy desks, one in Tampa, one in Richmond.

My pal continues, “All of the community dailies and weeklies (23 community dailies) and non-dailies (couple of hundred, maybe? Who knows?) are merging into two desks, one for North Carolina in Hickory and one for Virginia in Lynchburg. It’s already happening.” The Virginia community dailies are in Manassas, Culpeper, Charlottesville, Waynesboro, Lynchburg, Danville and Bristol (which recently won a Pulitzer Prize).

Sounds like the same kind of assembly line Henry Ford invented. My wife calls it "the Clearchannelization of local news," especially when you consider that there won't be any institutional memory in those far-flung copy desks. Newspapers, especially, live and die on institutional memory. These copy editors know when a young writer calls Franklin Road, Franklin Street or when when that writer doesn't know that two mayors back, the guy in the big chair wound up in the clank for selling dope. Little stuff like that will slip through and ruin any semblance of credibility. But this is the brave--cheap--new world.

Fewer people will apparently be doing the work, which seems to be the trend in a business that is rapidly killing itself.

(Update: An editor at one of the Media General papers takes issue with my friend's assessment of the editing situation there. This editor says news stories are assigned and given a first edit [“and sometimes a second or even third edit”] at their paper of origin, then are transmitted to the central editing area. He also says that at one of the community papers, MG hired extra reporters when the desk was moved to to a central location. He also insists there are "as many, if not more, copy editors and designers on the Virginia consolidated community desk as before.” Seems these guys have different opinions about what’s up.)

(Update 2: The opinion from the MG editor above is in a distinct minority. I have received several others from MG people at various levels--including execs--who believe this move is bad for the company, worse for the readers. They did not want to be identified "for obvious reasons," almost all said.)

Perriello and a Third Party Candidate

Tom Perriello gained a lot of credibility facing hostile crowds in discussing the health care plan last year without flinching.^

My friend Tom Cain, a close political observer of a left-leaning persuasion, sends the following e-mail:

"Tea baggers are doing their part to keep Virginia’s Fifth District in Democratic hands. Politico reports that Tea Party activist Jeffrey Clark will run as an independent if moderate Republican Robert Hurt wins his party's nomination to take on Tom Perriello.

"How serious would a Clark candidacy be? When we polled the district in early February, we found that a generic Tea Party candidate would pull 19 percent. Perriello received 44 percent and Hurt 27 percent in such a scenario."

Reminds me of the Roanoke mayoral race a few years ago when far right Republican Ralph Smith challenged incumbent (and not especially popular) Mayor David Bowers and Republican/Democrat/Independent gadfly Mac McCadden. McCadden pulled enough of the African-American vote away from Bowers to split the Democratic preference and give Smith a landslide victory--with 34 percent of the vote. Bowers and McCadden each got a third.

Smith proved an embarrassment as mayor, then moved out of the city following his term, to Republican Botetourt County where, with the help of some of the party's extremists (think Morgan Griffith), he nipped moderate Republican Brandon Bell for the Virginia Senate in the primary, then squeezed by the Democrat in the general election. He has continued his habit of being an embarrassment, but without the split vote in Roanoke would likely have never have had a political career at all. "Landslide Ralph," they call him.

Perriello, on the other hand, is quite possibly the best congressman in the country, but he comes from a backward district that elected a rube year after year until Perriello jumped on George Bush's massive unpopularity and sneaked in.

So much of what happens with this country is based on luck and chance. Scary stuff.

(Christian Science Monitor photo.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Virginia Military Women Ask Webb to Help Repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell

A coalition of military women in Virginia has asked Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) to lead the fight to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that clearly discriminates against gay people and is almost certainly unconstitutional (though not with this particular Jurrassic-era Supreme Court).

Advocates have for overturning the policy have been working to muster the 15 votes needed on the Senate Armed Services Committee to include repeal as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act 2011.

Here’s some of the text of the letter to Webb:

“We are military women who believe in having the strongest military possible. It is for that reason that we write to urge you to support the repeal of the discriminatory Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law this year. For the sake of all of our men and women in uniform, the time for repeal is now.

“Though we come from different backgrounds, we are all Virginians, we all served, and many of us studied at our nation’s service academies. But our common thread as women reminds us of the challenges we faced during the debate to allow our service in combat roles. Before that many of the same arguments were made against allowing African Americans to serve. Otherwise reasonable people believed that denying these groups of patriotic Americans the right to serve was in the best interest of the military. Now, we hear the very same arguments against allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. Those arguments are as unfounded and misguided today as they were generations ago.

“There is no evidence that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly will harm unit cohesion, just as there was no evidence that allowing women and minorities to serve would do so. To the contrary, we have seen from our own experiences that it is dishonesty that hurts unit cohesion – not the sexual orientation of our brothers- and sisters-in-arms. Poll after poll shows that the attitudes of today’s service members have changed and they care more about whether their fellow service members do their jobs, not if they happen to be gay or lesbian.

"Further, the American public is with them--75 percent support repealing DADT and allowing gays and lesbians to serve with integrity, openly and honestly.

“We are counting on you, Senator Webb, to stand on the right side of history. Stand on the side of integrity and support legislation to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell this year.”

Nicely stated, I'd say.
(Photo from Gryphmom's Grumbles.)

Picking a Tiffany & Company Bracelet at Happy's

Here's the bracelet in a Tiffany & Co. ad.^

Here's my 'pick' with the little 1920s pin of the lady and her dog.^

UPDATE: Just had the Tiffany bracelet appraised at Frank L. Moose Jewelers in Roanoke and the jeweler verified that "it's a real Tiffany; it's sterling and it's almost new.")

I had another of those pickers' moments yesterday on a flea market run out to Happy's. This time I came away with a Tiffany & Co. 925 Sterling Silver Mesh Bangle Bracelet Somer, valued at $250 used (according to bonanzle.com). I nailed it for $2. (No, I don't know what a "somer" is, but I can spot a quality bracelet from a mile.)

I also picked a 1920s-era appearing pin of a flapper walking her dog--not sure if it's gold--for $1. (If you're not familiar with the term "picker," you might want to watch "American Picker" on the History Channel. It's about a couple of guys who travel the countryside rummaging through junk and finding valuable stuff. Tonight at 9 p.m.)

Both of these finds came from a guy who appears at the flea market occasionally with thousands of pieces of small jewelry, some of it organized, most not. When he's talking to a customer, you can hold up a piece from a distance and say, "How 'bout $2 for this," and he'll usually agree. That's what happened with the Tiffany. He was engaged in haggling with an Asian woman a few minutes later and I held up the pin and said, "A buck?" and he said, "Two." Later, after the lady had left, he came over and said, "you can have the pin for $1. When I'm haggling, I can't look weak or I get killed. That woman spent $150."

Of course, both of these could be fakes or copies, but the Tiffany looks real and Geoff Jennings Frank L. Moose Jeweler will tell me the hard truth. Right now, though, there's the thrill of victory (Geoff could add the agony of defeat).

A year or so ago, I landed a Vol. 1, first edition copy of Ulysses S. Grant's memoir (the one Mark Twain published in order to give the dying Grant's family something of an income; ex-presidents didn't get a pension then and Grant was broke) at an antique mall between Boones Mill and Rocky Mount for $7. I'm not sure the owner of the stall at the mall took the time to open the book and see that it was signed. My guess is that he saw an old, beat-up book and hurriedly stuck a price on it in pencil. The signature could be a fake, in which case I have a worthless book and a priceless story.

And maybe that's all it's about anyway.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bent Mountain School Up for Bids?

Bent Mountain School (above) and Ed Elswick (below).^

My pal Eldon Karr of Appalachian Architects, who lives on Bent Mountain and is active in the community, sent me the following e-mail he just received from Roanoke County Board of Supervisors member Ed Elswick:

"The school board is going to lease the [Bent Mountain Elementary] school facility and is preparing to do so. I assume the community will be allowed to bid. Yesterday, I was shown a draft of an RFP [request for proposal], which is being prepared for leasing of the school facility. Some of the requirements favor an established non-profit but we should be able to address our ability to manage the facility. When the final RFP is prepared, I will get a copy for the group to review and prepare a proposal. It is good that you have enough volunteers to establish the community’s interest in being the lessee."

My guess is that the county is opening a can of worms here that could lead to a neighborhood revolt. People love their community schools and leasing or selling this lovely old building to an outsider--if that's what happens--would not be a politically popular move.

The Intensifying Battle for the Moron Vote

Rand Paul: "My lead is this big" over Sarah Palin.

If you had to look up "intensifying," you qualify for this poll. I am not going to get into the middle of this, but the race for the moron vote in Kentucky is big news in some quarters and I'm just passing it along to those who might be interested.
(Paul photo: Lexington Herald Leader. Palin photo: Blue Bluegrass.)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

'Robin Hood': This One's Ridley Scott's


There has been some grumbling among reviewers and Robin Hood devotees that Ridley Scott's new treatment (with Russell Crowe and Kate Blanchett as Robin and Marian) is dark, unfamiliar and not in the tradition of Erroll Flynn and many who followed.

I saw it tonight and will begin by suggesting you view it on the biggest screen you can find. It's a spectacle and it needs room to breathe.

Fact is that there is no one Robin Hood in the legends, stories and books that preceded the mid-20th Century movies about him. He is a series of men with a variety of names (the Earl of Huntington, Robin of Locksley, Robin Fitzooth, et. al.) and many adventures. Robin Hood showed up--if only briefly--in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur, the legend of King Arthur) and was the subject of eight rhymes in the 15th Century. He was from the village of Locksley (or Loxley) in the county of Yorkshire or Notinghamshire. He evolved into a full-blown character with many faces (including that of a forest pixie) over time and was in full flower by the time Errol Flynn put on the green cap and pulled back the bow string in 1938 (poster right).

Ridley Scott's telling of "Robin Hood" is set in the "late 12th Century," according to its lead-in, and time frames seem all over the place and as confused as anything else about the Robin Hood legend. The Magna Carta was signed in 1215 and could have resulted--in theory--from this specific story, but then we have a King Richard the Lionheart (who spoke little English and was rarely in England) being killed in France and never returning the conquering hero, as we are accustomed to seeing, as well. And in this telling, there's nothing particularly heroic about Richard. He is--and probably was--a brutal, ambitious, murdering expansionist with little thought of the country he ostensibly ruled.

Scott's version gets little use from the Sheriff of Notingham, but plays well with some of the usual characters: Will Scarlett, Friar Tuck and John Little (Little John), all of whom have bad teeth. In fact, general hygiene in this version is lacking to a significant degree and if you're looking for Olivia de Havilland or Audrey Hepburn swishing around as Marian, forget it. She's as tough and dirty as anybody else in the movie.

I liked it, frankly, at least partly because it was fresh (if a bit smelly) and because the story was not a tired retelling. Thing about legends is that they can be told to suit the teller and this one is very much Ridley Scott's version.

Ciclovia Postponed Until June 27


Ride Solutions Program Director Jeremy Holmes says today's much anticipipated Ciclovia, a celebration of non-motorized transportation (among other things) in downtown Roanoke, has been postponed by the threat of rain. Didn't even take real rain. But, here, let's let Jeremy explain:

"With Weather Underground (wunderground.com) forecasting an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms starting [this] morning, the CiclovĂ­a organizers--RIDE Solutions and Roanoke Parks and Recreation--egret that we must postpone the May 22nd event. Much of the equipment for the planned activities is weather-sensitive, there are many people and Roanoke
City departments are involved in the logistics of closing down the CiclovĂ­a route, so we are erring on the side of caution in making the announcement this evening.

"We encourage you to plan on attending the June 27th event, for which we hope Mother Nature is more accommodating, and if the rain changes its mind and stays away we encourage you to come down and enjoy the many activities and shopping happening every weekend in
Downtown Roanoke. See you June 27th to play in the streets."

A Photo Contest For You (Open 'til Wednesday)

My pal Dan Casey, who writes a column for a local daily in Roanoke, ran a caption contest yesterday based on one of the photos of Pearl Fu I shot at Local Colors last week. The contest is over Wednesday at noon, but the initial report and some of the funny responses are here. (My initial report on this had it ending earlier, but Dan corrected that, so send in your thoughts.) There was to be a note on the contest in Saturday's paper.

My wife won't let me look at the paper that comes to our house. It's her subscription. My free one was canceled when I "retired" from the Business Journal (I may be the only retiree in the history of Landmark--the BJ's owner--to have his free sub snatched away, but, hey, they need the money).

I've said before that Dan is the best columnist the local daily has employed since Mike Ives in the 1970s and now he has proven to be an astute art critic. The boy has too much fun.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Keep the Ambulance Off the Grass!

Potomac player, staff work on injured player.^

Ambulance circles the field, rather than going straight out.^

A scary incident involving a beanball during the Salem-Potomac Carolina League baseball game tonight tempered the good time some of my buds and I were having.

Potomac catcher Derek Norris--the No. 2 prospect in the Washington minor league organization--was hit in the helmet by a Zach Hammes fastball late in the game and was finally carried off in an ambulance 25 minutes later. The team says Norris regained consciousness and has movement in his extremities. For a while, that didn't look plausible.

I was astonished that the rescue vehicle, whose driver seemed hesitant to drive onto the grass, gingerly crept toward the stretched out player who was surrounded by emergency workers. He used the track around the field and actually drove all the way around the ballpark, avoiding any grassy area, with the young player in back, heading for the hospital.

It would have been much shorter to have turned the ambulance around and headed straight out of the ballpark. I will not make a judgment here about whether the young man was endangered so as not to have tire tracks on the grass, but that’s what it looked like. If that is, indeed, somebody's employment needs to be re-considered. Salem lost 5-4, if it matters.

And Here I Thought Roanoke Had a Newspaper ...

The Newseum in Washington (above), a new museum about the press, has a marvelous little Web-based interactive gizmo that'll give you a look at newspapers all over the world. Take a look here and click on a city, any city--except maybe Roanoke--and you get a newspaper.

It appears Roanoke has no daily, weekly or otherwise newspaper. That was sudden.

UPDATE (May 22, 8 a.m.): According to an observant reader, the local daily is now part of the interactivity. Somebody must be reading this blog, I'd say. Heh, heh, heh ...

Fleming Stadium Light Turbines Up and Spinning


These are the new wind turbines (above) on top of the light fixtures at the new William Fleming High School football stadium in North Roanoke. Architect Richard Rife (left) of Rife + Wood designed the stadium and tells us about the turbines:

"They are Skystream 3.7 models built by Southwest Windpower in Flagstaff, Ariz. The blades are 12 feet in diameter, and they are 'downstream' type turbines, in that they turn their backs on the prevailing wind. 'Upstream turbines have tails that turn them to face into the wind.

"The turbines start producing power at wind speeds of eight mph. They are fairly unusual in that they have a transformer built into the turbine that converts the DC power turbines produce into AC power that can be used. Most turbines require a separate transformer.

"The top of the blades are 97 feet above the ground. At the school's location, anything under 100 feet does not need FAA review and approval. These are 'grid-connected' turbines and do not have batteries.

"The power they produce feeds back into the stadium's electrical system and helps provide whatever power the stadium is using at that time. If the stadium is not using power, the electricity produced by the turbines feeds backwards through the school's electric meter into the AEP grid for use by other customers.

"Roanoke City Public Schools' electric bill is credited for the amount of power returned to the American Electric Power grid. The turbines won't produce enough power to run the stadium during a night football game (unless it's really windy), but during the winter months when the stadium is not in use and the wind is pretty strong, the stadium should be a net exporter of power. That is, it will produce more power than it consumes keeping the toilet plumbing from freezing.

"I can't really project payback too accurately, as it is dependent on how much wind we get and how much rates continue to rise. Ideally, we should have done a year long wind study placing a wind speed monitor 100 feet in the air and taking recordings, but this would have cost more than the turbines, which run about $6,000 each, material only."

MMT's Return: Please Spare Us the Musicals

Mill Mountain Theatre's rise from the ashes appears to be imminent within 18 months to a year, according to a story in a Roanoke daily newspaper this a.m. (here), and that's some of the good news.

More good news is that "No Shame Theatre," which recently pulled out of Studio Roanoke, will return to its stages in the near future; MMT's $700,00 debt has been erased; the stage will be made available for producers of plays outside the MMT brand and for other entertainment; a fund-raising campaign will begin next summer and there seems to be a truly positive attitude about it.

The bad news? The first play with the return will be a musical. If MMT went five years without a musical after its return, it would only be catching up to a norm. I think we all simply got sick of them. They cost too much, they rarely challenge, they bring in an older crowd and--worst of all--a steady diet of musicals is lazy, unimaginative and bad theater. Frankly, I think if MMT returns to its reliance on musicals its new life will be brief, lonely and unhappy.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Explaining Greene Memorial's Bulldozer Award

This is the new view of Greene Memorial United Methodist Church as you turn from Franklin Road onto Second Street. The rubble will be gone shortly, but the view won't improve much.^

The steel in the demolished building was impressive. The concrete walls were as much as a foot thick, as well.^

A story on the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation's annual awards in a Roanoke daily newspaper this morning gave a too-short explanation to the reasons behind the selection of Greene Memorial United Methodist Church for the Bulldozer Award, which goes to an organization that has failed to live up to the preservation ideal the foundation hopes to spread.

The selection was not unanimous and it was argued vigorously within the committee. Those arguing against the selection pointed out that Greene Memorial has a good preservation record in taking care of its own historic building and that an investment in the building would have been significant with little potential for return. The opposite side countered that the building that was destroyed--the Old Roanoke Photo/Downtown Learning Center building next door--is one of the last of its kind in the Roanoke Valley, that it was built like a tank and that potential buyers had expressed an interest in purchasing it.

The young reporter posed several questions to Preservation Foundation President Michael Kennedy (a former newspaper columnist and a newly-minted architect) via e-mail and I have a copy of Mike's answers, which I will share with you in full on this particular point, because it is important. This was not an insensitive or thoughtless selection. It received a full airing from some intelligent and knowledgeable people before the decision was made. The goal of the Preservation Foundation is to promote the reuse of as many good, old buildings as possible--a form of recycling that has few parallels--but we (and I'm on the board) know some will be lost. The Roanoke Photo/Downtown Learning Center building was one that's gone.

At last night's awards presentation (the local daily was not present), one notable, who didn't want to be quoted said, "Churches are among the worst offenders when it comes to preservation. They are often more concerned with other issues and don't even consider preserving buildings that aren't the church itself."

Here's what the building in question looked like last week before the bulldozers struck. (The list of winners in the initial post about the awards can be found here.)

Following are the questions Mike was asked by the young newspaper reporter and Mike's answers:

Why was Downtown Learning Center chosen for the bulldozer award?

I nominated it and other people voted for it, though it wasn’t unanimous. I used to serve on the board of the Downtown Learning Center, which was its last occupant. While I am very happy the DLC has found new digs in another old building, The Jefferson Center, I think the old camera shop could have been rehabbed to serve any number of purposes. It needed to be gutted. And it needed plumbing, electrical and roof work. What old building doesn’t? But it has just one hell of a structure.

You should see the steel beams they’re pulling out of it. It’s got masonry walls a foot or more thick. It was a very adaptable building. I sort of get tired of owners who’ve had a building a long time say they have to tear the building down because it’s in bad shape. Who owned the building while it was falling into disrepair?

We’ve had some enlightened developers in town who have done wonderful things with buildings that were in far worse shape and far less well located. Aside from that, it was of a style we have few, if any, remaining examples of here. It was a building in the Streamline Moderne style, a variant of Art Deco. Now that it’s gone, all you’ll see when you turn from Franklin onto Second is the painted-concrete-block-and-fire-escape side of Greene Memorial United Methodist Church. Every building has a backside and Greene Memorial has hung its out for all the world to see.

Long after the demolished building is buried under pavement, it will be obvious to anyone that something is missing from the streetscape. I spoke with the Rev. Gary Robbins, pastor of Greene Memorial, some months back when we were putting the DLC on the Endangered Sites list. I’d love to say he’s greedy and thoughtless, but he’s not. He’s concerned about his church and he sees the building as an albatross around the neck of his congregation that endangered an older, more significant building, his church. So I promised him I wouldn’t demonize him.

That was an easier promise to make when the building’s demolition was an abstraction. Now that the guts and sinew of a fine building are strewn all over the parking lot, it’s harder to maintain detachment. One of our board members told me she tried to work with the church last fall when a group, which included a parishioner and some people from the city government, tried to get the church to allow someone else to develop it. Apparently they had some developers interested.

What do you hope to gain from this year's awards?

The same thing as every year: to get people to appreciate our natural and built heritage and to recognize those who already to appreciate it. I have focused too much on the negative. The really good thing is how many building owners get it. Folks like Anstey Hodge, Interactive Design and our other award winners, developers such as Ed Walker and Bill Chapman, and neighborhood activists like Florine Thornhill have made Roanoke a much better place to live.

Ice Cream and Pickin' at the Library

A nice crowd turned out Wednesday at noon to hear Al Coffey and Billy Joe Chambers do a little pickin' and singin' at the main Roanoke City Library. The performance was part of a summer music series to be held on the patio of the library through September. The added incentive is that free ice cream is available.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

April's Progress: Now It's On to the Movies

My good friend April Drummond, a 40-plus-year-old Hollins University theater student and single mother of seven, is getting ready to make her first movie.

April, a Roanoke native, won a statewide writing contest that I judged a few years ago and was such an astonishing talent that some of us got together and helped point her toward the Hollins Horizon program, where she immediately earned a scholarship and has been one of the star students on campus since.

April is a theater major who has been working on her own productions since she was a kid. But she had no real training outside church productions until recently, and she has truly blossomed under the direction of Ernie Zulia and Todd Ristau at Hollins.

April had one of her plays produced at Studio Roanoke recently and has become something of a national traveler with her work. BET has apparently expressed interest in her film, “When Life Knocks You Down,” which stars April’s oldest daughter, La'Fawn Johnson and features professional TV actor Jarrett Alexander, who lives in Maryland and most often works in New York. He will be on an upcoming episode of “Law and Order.”

April’s daughters Farrah Johnson and Autumn Drummond are also in the cast. Kevine Johnson, her son, will help with equipment. Michael Jones, a professional from Los Angeles, will be filming and editing the movie.

It is, says April, “a film is about how violence brings three lives together but grace gives them choices and opportunities for a better life. What life choices will they choose? What would you do?”

Says April, “I love film because your message can reach a bigger audience. My church has a motto we go by and I'm doing the same for my film projects. I want to 'educate, equip and empower' individuals.

"I'm an advocate for women who are involved in or used to be in domestic violence situations and I wanted to do a film to honor those who have lost their lives because of it. I want to encourage women to seek help no matter how hard life is.

"Also, for those who are just good people and have had hard times, I want to encourage them that life does get better and to hang in there. For the bad people, you don't have to continue to be bad, there is help for you too, if you want it, but if not, there are consequences for your actions.”

April, like my pal Sara Elizabeth Timmins, who is making a movie on a much larger scale at Smith Mountain Lake this fall, is trying to raise money to help with the expense of making the movie. Like Sara, she is a woman who is not intimidated by the impossible. These two are a lot alike and I hope to introduce them soon. They'd be quite a pair.

If you want to contribute, donate, help, support—call it anything you’d like—you can reach April at adrummond@hollins.edu. I hope you will. Aprils don’t come along every day and my guess is there’s a growing Pulitzer Prize within this one.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Vinton Voice Publishes Its Last Issue


I just got the following e-mail from Chris Manning, publisher of the Vinton Voice:

"We gave it a shot, it was our last one. Effective today, the Voice has ceased operations.

"I would like to recommend Dan Vance, editor of the Voice, for anything you may have available. Everything you saw good about the Voice, Dan was responsible for, from the design and layout, to some of the ideas and excellent writing and reporting. I've given Dan your contact information, I hope you don't mind, and maybe, just maybe the Voice's loss could be your gain.

"It's a damn shame, but such is life sometimes ... we've been fighting this for months."

The Voice was a very small player in a large pool of publications, but it was one of the few in this market for which I had considerable respect. Chris knew from the beginning what he was getting into and what he wanted to accomplish. He had been the sales manager for a the group of weeklies that includes the Salem Times-Register and the Vinton Messenger and he was aware of how difficult the business is right now.

But Vinton is his hometown and he had an idea what he'd like to read if he was still living in Vinton. He didn't believe the Messenger was giving it to the readers because it was operated out of Salem and had shown little interest in that side of the Roanoke Valley in the past few years. If the Messenger was profitable, it was only marginally so, even though it had been around for many years.

I hate to see this little paper go because of what it says about following a dream and what it says about people's interest in the profession I've loved for 44 years. You gave it a good shot, Chris, and you have my admiration for that. I'm sorry it's gone.

Geico-boy Gets His Groove Back

When the right-wing organization FreedomWorks complained about a call it got from a former Geico voice-over guy, he was fired. He's getting even with this video, which is very, very funny. Watch and smile (or turn your tea-bag anger into something positive: go to the gulf and save a bird).

Here's the video (it's not long and it is funny).

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Constant Battle With the Noble Bamboo Plant

You'll note the aggressive shoots heading straight for APCo's precious wires. Heh, heh, heh ...^

I've just come in from one of those periodic battles I have out back with a stand of bamboo I planted a few years ago to piss off Appalachian Power.

APCo's tree-chopping boys had come by and whacked down six newly-planted rose of sharon bushes that I'd put in to shield the back yard from the alley. They didn't tell me, didn't ask me, didn't do anything but grin, crank up the chain saw and whack merrily away. I was so mad, I could have made mulch out of the leavings of my bushes with my teeth. So, I determined I'd get even, went down to Roanoke City Market on the following Saturday, picked up a few promising bamboo plants and put them in the ground. APCo and I have been fighting them ever since. And we're both losing.

Frankly, I don't mind going out with my trimmer occasionally and cutting back the bamboo from the trash bin. I just let the rest of it grow, though, and it has to drive APCo crazy because the boys who got my rose of sharon are chopping at it several times a year.

Which leads us to a little bamboo trivia (nice segue, huh?) from the Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, a book I find interesting on an almost daily basis:
  • Bamboo is basically grass and there are 1,2oo species of it. It'll grow anywhere in any kind of soil and any climate (save the truly frigid) and I swear I've seen it growing through rocks.
  • It can get big. The record is a 150-foot-tall shoot found in China (14 inches in diameter).
  • Bamboo plantations are harvested every 3-5 years (softwood trees like pine take 10-20 years to mature). Bamboo growth has been clocked at two inches an hour.
  • Bamboo's uses are almost limitless: you can eat it, make wine from it, serve the wine in bamboo cups, build a house with it, construct some of the best flooring available with it, turn it into soap, feed it to animals housed in bamboo pens, irrigate fields with bamboo pipes and you can eat with bamboo chopsticks.
  • Bamboo is high in protein.
  • Bamboo absorbs more carbon dioxide than other plants and produces an equally high amount of oxygen.
  • Bamboo leaf litter is so dense, it reduces evaporation and retains water in soil.
  • Half the world's bamboo species are threatened. But not the ones in my back yard.

Architect Frank Gehry Humbugs LEED

My friend Tom Cain, an architect and staunch environmentalist, sent me a short piece this a.m. from architect.com relating that famed architect Frank Gehry (above) has dissed LEED certification and concern for climate change in one fell swoop of the tongue.

Here's the paragraph: "Frank Gehry, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect responsible for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Dancing House in Prague, has slammed the LEED certification, saying it is awarded for ‘bogus stuff’ and that climate change and sustainable design are 'political' issues. This will no doubt raise a few eyebrows in the environmental and design sector, as ensuring buildings are as energy efficient as possible has the potential to cut CO2 emissions drastically. Currently, almost a third of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the construction and housing sectors."

I've heard grumbling from architects and engineers for some time that LEED certification has much less value than is apparent, but Gehry's words have more weight than those of most others in the building trades (and frankly, if his design is the reason, I don't see it). Tom says he "stopped attending U.S. Green Building Council [which issues LEED certification] meetings very early on as I saw the group's interest veering toward credentials (as marketing) rather than making real positive change in the world--much less, actual architecture (something for which Roanoke has yet to acquire a taste; civilization takes time)."

The LEED certification has proved beneficial in helping bring attention to design and construction methods and materials that are good for the environment and there's nothing bad about that. If it's used politically, I don't care one bit, so long as the goal is attained. Still, Gehry has a point about climate change being political (what else would it be), and building affects that change as much as anything else.

I would like to see building codes reflect the need for environmentalism in construction so that it's not at the whim of the person paying for the building to do the right thing. Environmentally-friendly building is a bit more expensive than conventional construction, but if it becomes part of the code, the cost drops immediately and dramatically. And we all benefit.

A Look Inside the Studio Roanoke Split

"Financially, we're doing well for a year-old theatre, I think. We manage resources carefully and make it all work through economy of scale." --Kenley Smith on Studio Roanoke (above).


"I'm a bit put off that the Times article tried to characterize the situation as some kind of divorce between Todd and myself. It was not a personal issue, and the final disagreement was not between the two of us." --Kenley Smith (left above with Todd Ristau)

Roanoke’s movie and theater world is rocked occasionally with an explosive artistic difference, a clash of ego, a collision of money vs. art, a financial meltdown. The latest in the continuing saga was reported Saturday in the local daily newspaper by former arts beat reporter Kevin Kittredge, who noticed a title change (artistic director) on Studio Roanoke's Web site, and involves a dispute that leaves Roanoke’s newest and highest-profile theater in a lurch.

Artistic Director Todd Ristau (who heads the theater master's program at Hollins University) and Studio Roanoke general manager Chad Runyon have resigned, leaving those tasks to founder and owner Kenley Smith, a former graduate student of Ristau’s, and the board of directors.

Ristau and Runyon won’t comment on the specifics, other than to refer questions to the board of directors, but Smith will and what follows is his take. Ristau says he will continue to advise the theater and Chad says he’s going back to grad school (at Hollins, under Ristau). Both said they wish the theater well and their wishes sound genuine.

Let me say at the top that I know all the players, like and respect them and can only imagine what made this interesting coalition fall apart (though I am pretty confident the imagining is reasonably accurate), so I won’t speculate. If there is a loss here, it’s Roanoke’s. We are a community struggling to find a theater base, since our professional theater—Mill Mountain—may or may not return from a re-structuring that could eventually take two years.

Studio Roanoke—along with Star City Playhouse, Showtimers, Hollins Playhouse and a couple of others regionally—have filled the void nicely, but if there is turmoil here, the future looks shaky.

Here’s what Kenley has to say about it (and it’s a long statement, but it’s important if we are to begin to understand):

"I'm currently the artistic director. We needed someone in place immediately, I felt, to ensure continuity of operation and to maintain public confidence. At a board meeting [Friday], I resigned my position as board president--one can't do both, of course--and agreed to serve as unpaid AD until August 31, at least.

"Kristen Moses is the new board president, with William Penn taking over her former duties as secretary. We'll all proceed with open minds and see how it works out. I'm a playwright. I never set out to be an artistic director, and the role I'm taking on is one of necessity.

"Since my identity isn't wrapped up with the job, I won't be shy about asking for help and advice, and that alone may give me a decent chance for success. I think it will be enjoyable to be on the artistic end of things, however, and I'm looking forward to diving in.

"I assembled most, if not all, of the board. Our original members were myself, Catherine Leonard, William Penn, Martha Bensinger and Keith Martin. After the first year, Cate and Martha rotated off, and we added Kimberly Jew, Angela Wright and Kristen Moses. The current board includes two theater MFAs (Angela and myself), one theater Ph.D. (Kimberly) and an MA in art history (Kristen). Keith is a successful local businessman, and William, of course, is a renowned local musician and a performer/director with the Dumas Drama Guild.

"My goal was to bring together a working board, one driven by personal talent and not by personal wealth. That's the dilemma with the current non-profit structure, I feel; boards so often go after the "usual suspects," those with disposable incomes and some sense of noblesse oblige. I didn't want that.

"Studio Roanoke was to be, and I hope is, a theater that dares to be challenging, provocative, even transgressive. It's not mainstream, and it never should pretend to be. I wanted a board that bought into that ideal. It may be my tragic flaw, but I'll always prefer deep thoughts over deep pockets.

"Financially, we're doing well for a year-old theater, I think. We manage resources carefully and make it all work through economy of scale. We don't try to replicate Broadway and focus instead on smaller, character-driven pieces. You want a singin', dancin' spectacle? Go see what's loading into the Civic Center. You want sharp writing and fresh ideas? Try us out.

"Did money play a role in this week's events? I'd say it was more a question of oversight and philosophy. Sometimes we simply agree to disagree, and move on. I'm a bit put off that the Times article tried to characterize the situation as some kind of divorce between Todd and myself. It was not a personal issue, and the final disagreement was not between the two of us. We remain cordial, and Todd will be at the theater often in the new season. He's directing two plays and writing another; that involvement should speak for itself.

"The stakes are high. I've invested a great deal in this theater, obviously, which is also an investment in the community. I think that Studio Roanoke's survival is critical to the future of theater in this town. How so?

"Let's talk about the elephant in the room. Mill Mountain's failure, along with the short-sighted treatment of its season-ticket holders, threatened to poison the well for start-ups such as ours. Why invest in tickets or donate to some unknown little venture that features unknown plays by unknown playwrights, especially when a decades-old institution lay dead on the beach? We had to prove ourselves, even more than might be expected.

"With Todd's efforts (with recent help from Chad Runyon), I felt we really turned a corner this year. If we cast aside this work and allow Studio Roanoke to flounder and become another casualty, theater downtown will suffer for years to come. That's why we're dedicated to moving forward.

"Studio Roanoke is in no danger. We're committed to the 2010-11 season that Todd established, and I'm excited about my new role, however temporary it may be. As I told the board, all I want to do is put on the show. The next one is 'Devil Sedan,' and it's great to be working toward bringing it to life (which involves figuring out how to pull a '66 Cadillac out of a field in Patrick County. If that last statement makes you curious, come and see the damn play.

"Theater in Roanoke is bigger than any one person, including myself. Studio Roanoke is just getting started on a long, long run. Our board and staff are dedicated to bringing this town great shows, every time. Count on it."

Kenley had one other interesting observation, though not about the theater. Here's his thought on the local daily's coverage of Studio Roanoke: "This morning's newspaper story left me wondering why, if a personnel change at Studio Roanoke warrants that kind of coverage, no one at the Times can be bothered to do a damn play review. It's frustrating that important local work is so often overlooked."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Day for Celebrating Our Differences in Roanoke

Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty (the green one, not Pearl Fu) led the Parade of Nations.^

Diane Elliott leads the Native American contingency.^

Jeffrey Rigdon looks sufficiently fierce as a Viking. He's a teddy bear.^

Bangladesh is represented here, quite well, I'll venture.^

This 15-year-old Honduran sang the national anthem and it didn't sound like "Star Search" warbling. Good for you, kid.^

Young Bangladeshis await their turn.^

River Laker hangs on to the English flag.^

Sorry, I don't recall which country this youngster represents, but she was pleasant.^

Kenya meets Honduras.^

These Irish boys look like they're either on the way to a soccer war or an IRA meeting.^

Japan at its best.^

These red shoes belong ...^

... to the Dutch boy, here with his wife.^

More Japan. Relaxed.^

France gives a fetching smile that melts American men.^

Finland is a flag-waver.^

Walk like an Egyptian. Or just look like one.^

Lithuania had pigtails ...^

... and square hats.^

Another smile from Kenya.^

These Japanese gals put their fans to good use on a hot day.^

OK, she's not a country. She's a galaxy.^

Red rarely looked so good as it did on these Hawaiians.^

These Bangladeshi women are watching their kids dance.^

Here are the kids (above) and a little Greek girl to wrap it up (below).^

Roanoke's best festival, Local Colors, played before thousands of people today and many of those in attendance were not only spectators, but also served as "talent."

Local Colors is a celebration is the parts that, when melted in a large pots, make Americans. What started 20 years ago--by Pearl Fu--with two different nations being represented (Pearl representing China) has grown unofficially to more than 90 these days. Some of that number were not in the Parade of Nations (three little girls from Samolia, for example, didn't want to march by themselves, but they certainly count).

Pearl's vision remains a good one: a small Southern city that celebrates diversity as if it were a large west coast metropolis. That's progress. Here, in 26 photographs, is what some of it looked like (and you'll note that I didn't even get around to the marvelous food).