MAN ABOUT TOWN: I’ve Had My Say
December 13, 2010
The Man About Town’s first column in the Falls Church Times ran just shy of 18 months ago. It was about the author James Thurber and how in 1902 he was shot in the eye with an arrow on Maple Avenue. For his trouble, James Thurber Court is named after him.
That was the idea of the column – walk and bike around town and offer whimsical commentary. There followed articles on the duck tree on South Virginia Avenue and the skateboard park, but thereafter the Man About Town began to exhibit a critical bent. A list of the City’s Ugliest Buildings shocked one of our editors, who temporarily withheld it from publication for fear of upsetting people. Little could he imagine how many upsets were to come.
The Big Bang came September 21, 2009, with Why Falls Church Needs Arlington:
Falls Church City is no longer economically sustainable. You won’t read that anywhere else because other media have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. But despite the desperate measures being pursued by City officials, we are approaching an insoluble fiscal crisis. Ironically, to forestall the inevitable, the City has launched a massive residential/commercial development that would diminish the very village atmosphere that attracts residents to the City in the first place.
In October 2009, the Man About Town’s critique turned political, and the biggest target was then-mayor Robin Gardner, who told the Washington Post, “We’re not broke. It’s not affecting our bond rating, so it’s fine.” While the M.A.T. peppered the mayor and her City Council cabal with weekly fire, the entire FCT staff received retaliatory potshots via the mayor’s husband’s blog, who even suggested the threat of a lawsuit over our request to publish free of charge the FOCUS pages which the City was paying $55,000 a year to publish in the News-Press.
So, a year ago in November, it was open season when Mayor Gardner read into the record all the encouragement she had received from her Facebook friends about moving the date of City elections. The M.A.T. and others had a field day with that. I even signed up with Facebook and tried (unsuccessfully) to “friend” the mayor.
But that was only prelude to the most sensitive subject – the third rail – in the City, and it hit the fan on February 1 with It’s All About the Schools, Stupid.
Folks, read the handwriting on the whiteboard. It’s not going to get any better. Even with higher and higher taxes, Falls Church cannot provide the opportunities to students that exist next door in Arlington. It’s not a matter of bad management, it’s a matter of 1) a poor economy of scale, 2) a weak commercial tax base, and 3) an ever-increasing student/resident ratio.
Whew. That column got nearly 100 comments, a personal best (or worst). Even my fellow staffers publicly disagreed with me. I stood alone.
But while I got no traction on the schools, in May a lot of voters agreed that it was time to clean house at City Council. Bear with me, I wrote on election eve – this may be the most important column I ever write. I endorsed four new candidates, three of whom won.
There’s only room to mention one more column: September 27. What – Tear Down Our New School? I asked, referring to Mary Ellen Henderson. That got everyone’s attention, including a stinging rebuke from the chairman of the School Board. The only part I regret is that some people confused my opinion column with the factual reporting that others write in the FCT. I had to run a reprise noting what was fact and what was opinion.
And so it’s been quite a run. But as a friend once advised, “If it’s not fun, don’t do it.” And, frankly, it’s no fun to predict the Little City’s bleak future and ultimate demise. But if I’m writing a column about the City, how can I ignore it?
The record shows that our most prominent local commentator, Nick Benton, also once recognized that the City is not sustainable. In an August 24, 2007, News-Press editorial, Benton wrote that “one of the City’s wisest and most respected administrators stated not that long ago that he doubted the City could sustain itself as an independent jurisdiction for the long haul in its current configuration due to its lack of capacity for expanding and diversifying its tax base.” But when Benton’s proposed scheme to expand the City’s borders met with ridicule, he dropped the subject.
Since the Man About Town has demonstrated an inability to drop the subject, I’m dropping the column. As some commenters have noted, I have visited this theme ad infinitum. There’s not much more to say, and I take no pleasure in the words “I told you so.”
So from now on I will try to keep my opinions to myself, thereby allowing me to return to reporting news of the Little City. There’s much to investigate. A year and a half after I reported the strange circumstances surrounding the Whittier Park townhouse fire, nothing has been rebuilt. Just one example.
Oh, and that first column I ever wrote – the one about James Thurber? Turns out to be my most successful effort. Google “James Thurber & arrow” and you’ll get 23,000 results. The Falls Church Times is #1; Wikipedia is #3.
Perhaps I should have quit while I was ahead!
By George Southern
December 13, 2010