Last Wednesday, Charlottesville, Va., mayor Nikuyah Walker decided to tweet out a bizarre, self-composed, free-verse poem about the city. According to her, the anthropomorphized city of Charlottesville is raping its citizens. “Charlottesville: The beauty-ugly it is,” she wrote. “It rapes you, comforts you in its c** stained sheet and tells you to keep its secrets.” When questioned in the replies, Mayor Walker doubled down, tweeting out a longer poem full of even more accusations. In this second version, Charlottesville also lynches its residents, among other heinous crimes.
I’m not sure when public office became a pulpit for amateur poets, but these grotesque metaphors are unbecoming rhetoric from anyone, let alone an elected official. Metaphorically likening Charlottesville to a rapist is a baseless vituperation against Charlottesville’s character, even more outlandish when the mayor herself is the vituperator. The person who is supposed to be solving the city’s problems has instead decided to accuse the city (under her guidance) of rape and murder. While Charlottesville’s own mayor is attacking the city, I am more than willing to defend it, after having spent four years living in this place.
Though a town of fewer than 50,000, Charlottesville is no stranger to having its character put on trial at a national level. The most infamous incident was the Unite the Right rally in the summer of 2017, after which “Charlottesville” became a metonym for violent white supremacists, and presidential candidates debated on national television how best to prevent “Charlottesville.” Two years before Unite the Right, the infamous and since-redacted Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus” released national ire upon fraternity culture, specifically at the University of Virginia, on the basis of an egregiously false claim of gang rape in one of UVA’s fraternity houses. And 2010 saw the murder of UVA women’s lacrosse player Yeardly Love. When a town like Charlottesville that has seen and suffered so much tragedy is maligned by its own mayor, I see a clear example of how a leader should not act.
My own experience in Charlottesville has given me a different sense of the city: one of gratitude and appreciation. I began my studies at UVA less than a month after Unite the Right. When I first arrived in Charlottesville late in the summer of 2017, the city and the university had suffered tremendously, from both the rally and the fallout. In my first semester, I witnessed this city recover from catastrophe, and above all else, it stood together amid national divisions. While the mayor feels that Charlottesville itself is the perpetrator, I would argue the opposite. Through all of its trials, Charlottesville’s character has been one of the greatest aids to its recovery.
At the top of almost any list of America’s most beautiful towns or best college towns, you will find ours, and with good cause. In 1973, Richard Montoya, a local taxi driver and artist, constructed one of Charlottesville’s most beloved and enduring public artworks: a photogenic mural on the side of a tire shop that reads simply I love Charlottesville a lot. On any given sunny day, locals, students, and tourists pose with the sign. With its simplicity, it sums up how most of us feel: We all — except for the mayor, apparently — love Charlottesville. A lot.
It is almost risible to juxtapose Montoya’s mural with Mayor Walker’s poems. Whereas the citizen feels love for the city, the mayor writes in her second poem that “Charlottesville is void of a moral compass . . . [and] rapes you of your breaths.” For our sake, I hope that a city’s moral compass is not determined by its ostensible leader. At any rate, its residents feel differently. About two months ago, I had an Uber driver who had moved to Charlottesville from Iran six years prior. When I got into the car, he was listening to a UVA basketball game on the radio. Watching his animated reactions, I asked how he felt about the season and the team. He told me that he had started following the team when he moved his family to Charlottesville. He loved America and this little city in particular, he told me, and his oldest daughter had just been accepted to college for next year. Does this sound like a place that, in the mayor’s telling, “suffocates your hopes and dreams”?
Like many small towns in the American South, Charlottesville retains the communal nature that so much of America has lost in the digital age. A few years ago, one faculty member at UVA described to me the experience of moving to Charlottesville from a much bigger city, with a story of “everyone smiling” when walking down the street. Another story involved calling to make a dinner reservation and realizing that the employee on the phone was a student from class. Some would call these conditions of small-town life stereotypes. But Charlottesville fulfills them while showing the virtues of a rooted, smaller-scale existence. I talk to my mail carrier, know why the clerk at the convenience store changed jobs, and ask how the Vitamin Water delivery man, who got sick last month and stopped delivering, is recovering every time I go to the gas station. Similarly, they all ask me about my classes, how exams are going, and if I have plans on any given night. The experience of Charlottesville kindness is universal. Students, faculty, locals, and tourists alike know the city’s charm.
Beyond these intangible small-town characteristics, Charlottesville is physically beautiful. Embraced by the Blue Ridge Mountains, the whole area between is often blessed with beautiful carmine sunsets broken over the low-set Southern architecture. On the sides of the buildings, you can see fading-away paint from a time past, reading things such as “barber shop” or “Chancellor’s Drug Store.” These stores have since been replaced with more modern options, but they elicit the same feel.
The story of Charlottesville is one of a small town and the wide spectrum of people who share it. Like the faded paint, there are elements of tradition and the past that help form its future. Despite the words of its mayor, not all of these traditions are bad. The maternal, communal character of this city is the exact reason we love Charlottesville a lot.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates fears that poetry can mask falsehood as truth, and he suggests that the poets be removed from the city. While I’ve never been a fan of this idea, and I shudder to think that our mayor’s vile composition was poetry at all, I also fear that she wants to guide the people she governs into believing that this city is the villain. The character of Charlottesville is what has guided it through so many tragedies, what allows it to function in unison, even with its many parts, and what will allow it to grow. We all love Charlottesville, and it loves us back. If the mayor feels differently, then she has mischaracterized her own city, and perhaps Plato was right about the poets after all.