Friday, June 29, 2007

Snob Knob

South Hills has the reputation of being the rich side of Charleston. Even though the largest, most ostentatious homes in town are found in places like Foxchase and Quarry Creek, it is South Hills that retains the reputation of the stomping grounds of the rich. Many people hold the erroneous belief that everyone who lives in the 25314 zip code is filthy rich. But I know better.

I grew up in South Hills. I went to John Adams Junior High and George Washington High. I know every street in South Hills, having ridden my bike as a teenager on every one of them. There is indeed some enormous wealth scattered about the hills, but there are also a few pockets of real poverty. A large segment of the area's population has always been working-class folks with incomes at or below the Charleston median. Growing up there I didn't know of the stereotypes until I was in high school, and by then I was so familiar with the truth that I didn't pay much attention to the myth. The bottom line for me was I lived in South Hills and I was definitely not rich.

Although my family's economic station was no where near the median of the families of my peers I had no trouble fitting in during elementary, junior high and about one-fourth of high school. Then things changed. Big time.

Looking back, I now know what was the trigger for the change, but I was oblivious then. All I knew was that many - OK, most - of the people who had been my friends since second or third grade were quite suddenly aloof. Guys that I had played little league baseball with were all of the sudden too preoccupied to take in a Charlies game with me. My buddies wouldn't go to the Kanawha State Forest pool with me any more and didn't invite me to go to Windemere or South Hills Pools with them. No more golf at Coonskin or Shawnee for the ol' gang: Nothing but Berry Hills would suffice any longer. Girls that I had known for years and years, and even dated, would act as if they didn't remember my name if we were to meet in unfamiliar places when they were with unfamiliar friends. It was very clear: I was no longer on their level.

It seems that these striations were revealed in the second semester of tenth grade.That was when there was no more denying that there were marked differences in the societal landscape between the "haves" and the "have mores." That's when the truly upper crust kids began to disappear from school one by one. We never knew where some of them went, and some were rumored to have been shipped off to Linsly or another far-away boarding school with names I did not know. These were the future leaders of Charleston, West Virginia and the Nation: They had to be schooled accordingly.

The next lower tier were less likely to be sent away to school unless they got into some trouble, but they were still separating themselves from the chaff with the clothes they wore and, more importantly, the cars they drove. In fact it was the introduction of cars into the high school society mix that triggered all of the separation of the classes - socioeconomic class, that is.

Now there were basically three levels of vehicular status at George Washington High School in the late 1970s. There were those with no car (I would reside in this class my entire high school career), those with cars and then there were those with really expensive cars.

The No Car people, my people, were carless for a variety of reasons, but none of them would be kids from affluent families who denied their offspring a car; no, that never happened. The carless class was made up of those whose parents couldn't afford cars for them, those whose parents thought cars were an unnecessary luxury, those whose parents felt that cars corrupt kids, those who had once had cars but had lost them because they wrecked them or had some run in with the law. There were probably many other reasons that our group had so many members (lack of driver's licenses for one), but we didn't discuss it amongst ourselves.

The largest group were the regular Car Kids. They drove anything from shiny new Trans Ams or Camaros, to the ten year old Datsun Uncle Ralph had given them. This group also had lots of pick up trucks and four-door Caprice Classics, Monte Carlos and an Olds Cutlass or two. Most of these cars were second hand or were daddy's toys that the kids were allowed to drive to school.

The chasm between the Car Kids and the Expensive Car Kids was vast. The lowest of the expensive car kids had new Corvettes. Porsche, BMW, Audi, Mercedes were typical for this group. These are the people who now, 30 years later, drive the highest priced Mercedes and Lexus models, and whose wives all drive Escalades.

And they all eat pizza at Lola's; which is actually what I wanted to write about this evening.

I finally made it to Lola's. I've been trying to get there since I first heard about it last Summer, but the place is tiny and always full to overflow. So my wife and I went a little early recently and got a table with no problem. Nice little place with interesting and expensive gourmet pizzas and lots of interesting and expensive imported beer and wine to wash it down. We had two 10" specialty pizzas and water to drink. The bill? $30. That's-a some-a pricey pizza!!

The little old house that is home to Lola's sits below Bridge Road in the curve that signals the end of the Bridge Road Business District. Its tiny parking lot and
the overflow lot across the street is full of expensive machinery anytime the restaurant is open and especially on Friday night. The drivers of said machinery sit or stand around on the front porch waiting for one of the eight tables and few bar stools inside to become vacant, or for their to-go order to come out of the oven. Inside the patrons order from the pricey menu and sip their wine and guzzle their beer until their pizza comes, then they eat their crispy crust pizza with Gorgonzola cheese and caramelized onions with a knife and fork. They chat with their neighbors about the trip they took to Tuscany last summer and how dreadful the champagne is that is served in Delta's first-class.

It was like deja-vu. Like I was back in the GW cafeteria, except that none of these people would have eaten in the cafeteria.

By the way, the pizza at Lola's is good. Not to die for good, but very good indeed. All things considered I think I'd rather go to Lorobi's in St. Albans: They have pizza that is to die for, and my Ford would fit in better in the parking lot.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Other than the way cool sidewalk drawing at Appy Park I did not partake of a single event at this year's Festivall. I'm not sure why - kids, work, weather all seemed to conspire to keep me distracted and when I did venture downtown at around 6:00 Saturday evening the sidewalks seemed to have already been rolled up.

There are several bloggers who wrote and posted photos of the events, and Oncee has a round up of the posts.

Last year's event was great for the first time and I was hopeful this year would be even better. But I'm wondering how the attendance was this year. A friend told me he went down to Capitol Street Sunday afternoon and the place was deserted. I heard that the Wine and Jazz event was well attended, but I know no one that went to the Blues, Brews and BBQ on Friday (I really wanted to go to see Robert Cray, but alas).

Having events scattered around town might seem like a good idea on the surface, but I think it tends to suppress attendance overall. Many of the venues are too far apart to walk and it's difficult to drive and park to all the different places. The trolleys aren't frequent enough to encourage a steady stream of riders (and I didn't know about the trolley plays until I read about them in the paper!). The "river taxi" to UC is an insufficient solution to the event-to-event commute for many folks since it only ran every 90 minutes.

The Regatta went through this same wierd tranformation in the 80's. A sponsor would step forward and want to hold the event in its neighborhood, and the sponsor hungry festival commission would acquiese. We ended up with events for this "River Festival" scattered all over town and everything just felt watered down after a while. I wonder why we always do this in Charleston? A word of advice to Larry Groce and other Festivall organizers: Pick an area and focus the activities there. The two and three-hundred blocks of Capitol and Summers Streets would be plenty of room for Festivall. Go ahead with the two big pay events at UC, but keep downtown open a little longer into the evening for those of us who can't or don't want to pay.

Just my $.02. Take it or leave it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Charleston's U$er Fee

As I predicted a year ago, on the very day that Danny Jones took the oath of office to begin his second term as mayor, he proposed a doubling of the user fee.

Read the whole sad story in today's Gazette:

Imagine how easy it would be to run a business if you could just have an extra few million when you wanted it. Instead of being fiscally responsible and living within your means, just grab more money from your constituency.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

East End Boondoggle in the Making

I am not an "aginner." I'm not one of those people who nay-say every idea to make the community a more enjoyable place to live. I don't have a problem with spending tax dollars on projects whose only benefit is quality of life. And God knows that we have a dearth of greenspace in Charleston and recreation space is at a premium. But there is a project in the works in Charleston right now that is a terribly bad idea on so many levels it's difficult to see how anyone could think it will work.

I'm talking about the park that is being proposed for land that sits tucked away in a dreadful little corner of the East End. Here's an aerial photo. (click to enlarge).

The circled area that sits right across the railroad tracks from Laidley Field is the site that has been proposed for this park. Notice how it is bordered by a very dense neighborhood to the south. Here is a street view of that neighborhood.

This shot is taken one block from what has historically been the worst drug corner in the city: Lewis and Thompson. The row houses you see are along Dixie Street and behind these houses are other houses as you can see in the aerial shot. Almost all of these houses are rental units owned by some of the worst slumlords our city has to offer. Many of these houses have been illegally subdivided into multi-family units and the whole area is as densely populated as any section in the city. And the back doors of these houses look out onto the proposed park site.

So, some reasonable people might say, maybe a park will make a difference. Maybe it will be what the neighborhood needs to turn around. History would predict otherwise:

In the mid 1990's, a fantastic community playground, called "Celebration Station" was built not to far from the proposed park site. This wider aerial shot shows both sites. Celebration Station is at the lower left corner

Celebration Station was an amazing community project that utilized hundreds of volunteers to build an awesome playground adjacent to Piedmont Elementary School. Here is a photo taken there on a recent beautiful early summer evening.

Note how many kids are in the picture? None. Other than the basketball courts, the place is desolate most of the time, except for a few neighbor kids who live directly across the street and some rough talking teenagers that seem to always be around. (shortly after snapping this photo I was nearly hit by a shoe that was thrown in my direction by teenagers who were rough-housing on one of the children's swings - I obviously wasn't welcome on their turf). Trash is strewn about the place and graffiti covers the once-beautiful and ingeniously designed structures that were built with such care and hope. When the place was first opened I would take my kids a few times a month, but as the years went by it felt less and less safe. I don't know anyone who takes their kids there now because it just doesn't feel safe.

And Celebration Station is in a much, much safer and more accessible neighborhood than the proposed park.

People in the East End have been clamoring for recreation facilities for years and years. Mayor Jay Goldman, whenever confronted with these requests, would point at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center and say it was on the East End. Only someone who had always lived in South Hills would consider the King Center, which sits on the bank of the Elk River, as being on the East End.

The residents of the East End need and deserve a park, but not here. Granted, land is in short supply on the East End, and this land has little potential as a business location or other economic development project. But the bottom line is that, if this park is built, will be the most phenomenal waste of money we've seen in decades. And after a while residents of the East End will be run out of this park by the criminal or unseemly element that will no doubt thrive in this isolated part of town with a dense area of low and very low income housing surrounding it. And when they complain that the park has become unusable, the city fathers will say "we built you a nice park and you don't use it!"

My opinion is that this is a ploy to pre-empt the uprising that will certainly occur when the City throws several million dollars into the new library. Either that or it is a misguided attempt to fulfill a Danny Jones campaign promise. Or it might be both. Whatever the motive, it is a bad idea.