ACADEMICAL village, schmacademical village - who really believes in it anymore? I mean, there are myths and there are myths. And then there are whoppers.
No one can deny that Jefferson started out with good intentions when he founded this place almost two centuries ago. We see the vestiges of his long-cherished dream in the splendid architecture all around us. Our noble Lawn, for instance, was supposed to be a public meeting place where both students and faculty could exchange ideas. With the University population ballooning each year, however, it becomes more and more difficult for students to interact with faculty on a personal and intellectual level.
Similarly, the open plaza outside Newcomb Hall once provided a ready center for student interaction - until last year, when a hideous white concert tent appeared on the scene. The $17,000 plastic confection was designed as a bandstand for the alcohol-free Sunset Concert Series, sponsored by the University Bookstore. Two weeks ago, preparations for Hurricane Floyd facilitated the tent's removal from the plaza, and students once again began to congregate in the new, open area. But c'mon - we all suspect the tent will return someday, to loom over our outdoor socializations like something out of a "Twin Peaks" episode.
Interestingly enough, however, the idea of academical fellowship is taking root elsewhere in Charlottesville. Just steps from the sadly under-utilized Lawn is a little area known as the "Corner District," a motley assortment of trendy clothing stores, cafes and restaurants that seems to attract conversation-hungry students like catnip. This year, two establishments in particular have distinguished themselves in their efforts to foster community life by celebrating the spoken word.
This past summer, Espresso Corner began sponsoring a series of open-mike poetry readings known as "Verbal Arts Live." After purchasing the popular hangout last May, new co-owners John Salidis, Kerr Evans and Jin Zhu decided to initiate the readings with the help of University graduate student Jeff Drouin. "We were hoping to make [Espresso Corner] a place for people to hear new music, poetry, and all sorts of stuff," remarked Salidis in a personal interview, "So far there have been lots of people coming in to share [at the readings]. That's just what we wanted: to make this place the epicenter of community life in Charlottesville."
Event organizer Jeff Drouin also is pleased with the quality of the readings. "I like to plan things like this," he said in a separate interview. "The open-mike form has been around since the early part of this century, and I'm very happy with the way things have progressed so far [at Espresso Corner]."
Beginning tomorrow, "Verbal Arts Live" will take place every other Thursday, with sign-ups at 8:30 p.m. Everyone is welcomed to read either an original work, or a piece by another artist. Espresso Corner, with its casually strewn couches and armchairs, is the perfect place for individuals of all disciplines and interests to gather and listen to one another.
Having attended several "Verbal Arts Live" events myself, I can attest to the diversity of readers and audience members who make their way to Espresso Corner for these gatherings. University undergraduates freely mingle with graduate students, teaching assistants, professors and - gasp! - even a fair number of Charlottesville residents. "It's just an opportunity to chill out and meet people," said Salidis. "We're trying to create a diverse, cultural experience."
Espresso Corner, however, certainly is not the only establishment in the Corner District to nurture community life around town. Each Monday night at 9:30 p.m., Baja Bean Company hosts an open-mike reading event. In an interview, General Manager Neil Morris expressed his enthusiasm for the weekly gatherings. "The readings have always been a popular thing here at Baja," he asserted. "We get a variety of talent, and you just take the good with the bad. It's an open forum."
Clearly, we need more such forums, and not only for local artists. With all the learning that goes on around here, there ought to be a place where people can gather and converse on a variety of subjects.
Both Espresso Corner and Baja Bean Company positively serve the community by providing two such havens. I encourage every member of the University community, from first-year students to tenured faculty, to attend some of these readings and nurture our sagging academical village.
(Kiki Petrosino's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)