The horrifying images of violence, angry protesters shouting at each other, and a car tragically plowing into a group of people is not the Charlottesville I know.
For six years, I worked for the NBC station in Charlottesville, a beautiful city in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park. Thomas Jefferson called the city his home, his Monticello overlooks the city still today. The scenes of this weekend’s violence are part of the city’s beautiful downtown, an incredible mix of shops, restaurants, and offices blended with history, including a courthouse that is older than the United States of America.
The images you are seeing on television or online do not represent the city I know and love. The Downtown Mall, an area where protesters clashed with police, is a positive community gathering place. There’s an amphitheater at one end where everyone from big stars to the local community band performs. There are fantastic restaurants including a greasy spoon diner called “The Nook”, where construction workers mingle with lawyers and you might even spot someone famous like author John Grisham, whose office overlooks the square where all of today’s violence took place. Further down the mall is Miller’s, a tavern where local musicians play for appreciative crowds. Dave Matthews got his start at Miller’s, tending bar between music sets. There's even a drug store, Timberlake's, with an old fashioned soda fountain in the back, my favorite place to grab a bowl of chili for lunch on a cold winter day.
Charlottesville is consistently the type of place that shows up on lists as one of the best places to live in America. It's home of the University of Virginia, one of America’s top public colleges. The UVa Grounds (don’t call it a campus, Mr. Jefferson would not approve) are gorgeous, the buildings iconic. The Dogwood Festival brings people together in the spring to celebrate, including a parade down the same streets you saw today. Thousands flock to the area in the fall to pick apples at Carters Mountain. Even President Trump knows all about Charlottesville. He bought the Kluge Winery just outside of town that now produces Trump-branded wine.
The Charlottesville I know is the type of community that comes together, especially in tough times. The people of Charlottesville are kind, charitable, the type of people who help their neighbors, white or black, rich or poor. There are more charities and community groups per capita in Charlottesville than any place I’ve ever been. I saw firsthand how the community rallied around their neighbors’ time and time again.
The Charlottesville I know is angry. Angry that people who are not local, probably from hundreds of miles away, spoiled the reputation of their amazing city. From far away here in Jacksonville, I am angry that people full of hate are doing such terrible things in a city I love. But the Charlottesville I know will bounce back. The out of towners will leave and the “townies” (a name University of Virginia students gave the locals) will return to their normal lives.
If you ever get a chance to visit Charlottesville, please do. It’s an amazing place for history buffs, nature lovers, foodies, and even sports fans. Just leave your hate behind.
Neal Bennett is the Digital Director at KENS 5's sister station First Coast News in Jacksonville, Florida. He served as the news director at WVIR TV, NBC 29 in Charlottesville from 2004-10.