I left feeling refreshed from vacation, but also incredibly optimistic. Despite its clear and apparent commercial exploitability, our country’s leaders stepped out of workaday politics and onto the pages of history by naming the Grand Canyon a National Park. I was seized by a deep patriotism and renewed affection for America when I came upon an engraving of Teddy Roosevelt’s admonition on my last day there:
“Do nothing to mar its grandeur, for the ages have been at work upon it and man cannot improve it. Keep it for your children – your children’s children and all who come after you…”
I came home to Norfolk with renewed energy for the conservation and preservation cause I’ve been working on the past few years, saving the land and manor house at Talbot Hall from destructive development. Many of you have shared your stories of Talbot Hall with me, and many have spoken and written supportively to members of the Planning Commission and City Council. But, as you many have read in the past week, the City Council voted 6-1 in favor of allowing development on the land which, in its current form, will destroy the historic and environmental integrity of Talbot Hall.
A glimpse of Talbot Hall’s future?
Since then, members of the Talbot Hall Foundation, neighbors, and other concerned citizens have launched a petition drive to exercise the “people’s veto,” as outlined by the City charter. I encourage you to visit savetalbothall.org and sign up there to learn more about signing the petition. Hurry, though– signatures are needed by July 21.
Why is this so important? Consider this: Norfolk was founded in 1682. Since then, we’ve built our city around a working waterfront, we’ve survived war and plagues and storms, we’ve transitioned from an agricultural to industrial economic base, we’ve become the largest naval base in the world, and one of the principal centers of global trade on the East Coast. But how would anyone know this if they didn’t read it on the city’s Wikipedia page? There are a couple old brick buildings Downtown that survived the Revolution; there’s a quasi-public park on the waterfront where we have some fun festivals (but be careful doing much else); forbidding fences protect Naval Station Norfolk; massive coal and container trains disappear into railyards and come back out empty; and we’ve got some really big houses covering basically every free inch of remaining waterfront. These concrete examples represent more what’s filling our coffers, not the people who live (and lived) here. Their stories pass away into mist as succeeding generations pile on their demands and expectations. And you know, that’s not all bad, especially not in America. One of our great national gifts is our ability to take What Is and say, “But why not….”
What we can’t allow, though, is for this to turn into a blissful amnesia. Our history has urgent lessons for us. Struggles for freedom and equality, conflicts with the power of Nature, and individual journeys of success and failure. Talbot Hall is intrinsic to Norfolk’s story in every one of these ways. If we let it go– and I say “we” here meaning the citizens of Norfolk– we lose access to that story. We don’t have any way of getting it back. There isn’t another Talbot Hall out there. It’s the last of its kind in our City.
We would lose the chance to tell the story of the heady days of the early Republic. We would lose the chance to tell the story of the human tragedy of slavery. We would lose the chance to witness the roots of our maritime commerce, a cash-crop farm connected to the world by its river. We would lose the chance to observe scores of Canada geese, night herons, egrets and other migratory and local birds and animals in a natural habitat they have enjoyed for hundreds of years. We would lose the chance to prevent more runoff and chemicals from everyday use out of our waterways. We would lose unspoiled land that acts as a buffer between vulnerable neighborhoods and our sinking shoreline.
I started here talking about the Grand Canyon. Well, Talbot Hall is not the Grand Canyon. You would be hard-pressed to find anything this side of the Mississippi that approaches its grandeut. There is still a challenge in Roosevelt’s words to us here in the East, though. We may not have the unspoiled wilderness of the West, but we have history, and we have unspoiled corners of life and nature that deserve protection. We shouldn’t expect a pass from his vision just because someone else somewhere else had the foresight and courage to act and protect other places of significance. Our leaders need this vision– and when they lack it, they need to be reminded that they are elected to serve all of our interests together, not just those narrow concerns of a few with connections.
Our children and their children aren’t going to learn what Norfolk is from a mixed-use residential apartment building or a waterfront pavilion of boutiques and affordably-priced upscale chain family dining destinations. In truth, they won’t even really learn everything that Norfolk is from Talbot Hall. They will learn what Norfolk is by whether we care enough now to preserve for them the places that define us.
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