Commentary: What Are Our Priorities in Alexandria?

Commentary: What Are Our Priorities in Alexandria?

I’m exasperated of this city kneeling before the idol of its historic self-importance, even in the face of baldly more critical human needs.

Last week, in connection with the FY19 budget, a city council member said of keeping city hall intact: “Unless we all prefer just to be an ordinary city … this is the cornerstone, this is the symbol.” No. It. Is. Not. No matter how it’s couched, that’s a malignant narrative, which needs to wither under the x-rays of justice-oriented leadership.

Families are the cornerstone. Council is considering investing $41 million in city hall and Market Square over 10 years — though, concurrently, we face human-centered crises. Not itches, but crises. If anything, city hall epitomizes our blindness to the human costs of our almost pathological special interests. If it’s such an iconic magnet, sell it outright to become some tourist trap. Why deprive the city of the site’s commercial and taxable potential? Laser focus public resources on pre-K and primary education; housing for struggling young people, families, seniors; middle class wages for cops, teachers, firefighters, etc.; expanding low-fare bus service; addressing the de facto racial segregation that still exists to a shocking degree in this charming, progressive little town; not to mention the eyeball-popping costs we face with sewers and Metro. That would convey extraordinariness.

Local esprit is fine. But put it in perspective. Another council member calls Alexandria a “national treasure.” C’mon. Before moving here, I’d probably last heard of it, fleetingly, in a high school history class. This isn’t Alexandria, Egypt. Many cities have history, old buildings, “old towns.” That’s pretty “ordinary.”

I’m reminded of a conversation with an employee at a local store. She and her spouse bought a home, unknowingly, in some historic district. She said they were subsequently instructed to replace their front door to the tune of 5-figures, a hardship for them, in order to meet that area’s special aesthetical requirements. Phew! Quaintness catastrophe averted. No doubt tourists, after gaping at city hall’s majesty, indeed dash breathlessly to their next bucket list item: Alexandria’s nationally treasured front doors. Well worth the cost to that household.

Moreover, might the history we’re so concerned about celebrating — at a cost of millions of public dollars — be a wee bit filtered through rose-colored glasses? I’ve heard much about tearing down Confederate statues, renaming Jefferson Davis Highway, etc. Well and good. What makes city hall categorically different? This is a southern city; what kind of unabashedly nasty policy decisions have likely flowed through that building, not even all that long ago?

In this regard, Alexandria seems not wholly unlike other southern cities, which are obsessed with their Robert E. Lee statues. Differently flavored, but similarly baffling to me, convictions of the universal and eternal value of their hyper-local, not-altogether-noble legacies. It’d be funny if it didn’t come at the cost of people and families who haven’t yet passed into history.

The writer, a city resident, reports on a variety of housing, budget and faith-based issues for the Gazette Packet.