Digging deeper: On becoming a Hook reporter

One of the first stories I wrote as a full-time employee for the Hook in 2005 was about the planned renovation of a Downtown park. I spoke to advocates of the renovation, city parks and rec officials, the architects, local residents, and cranked out a piece you'd find in hundreds of small community papers. I was happy with what I wrote. It was good, solid reporting about a community project, and I'd spoken to everyone involved. But after my editor, Hawes Spencer, read the piece, he looked forlorn sitting at his desk— hurt even— as if someone had just given him some bad news he was trying to process.

"A million dollars?" he said, stating the price of the planned renovation of the park, made up of a combination of city funds and private donations. "That park doesn't even need to be renovated."

Indeed, I had lived near the park for years, had played with my kids there when they were young, and my oldest son and I had carved our names in a beautiful old tree, one that would come down with the renovation, along with many others. It was a classic old park with great tree cover, a wonderful steel merry-go-round, room to run around, and a basketball court. The new design would fell over a dozen trees, add designer play structures called "spicas," include a "weeping" water wall, and a round basketball court.

"Can you dig a little deeper here?" Spencer asked. "This reads like a press release."

I understood what he meant immediately. I had questions and concerns about the park project. I didn't understand what was wrong with the old park. Why not just spruce it up? Should the city really be kicking in $400,000 for this small park because a handful of North Downtown residents felt it was "unsafe" when there were so many other ways to spend that money? But I had felt squeamish about following those lines of inquiry because I knew it might ruffle some feathers.

And that's when I became a Hook reporter. Five or six articles later, after finding people who had similar reservations about the park project ("If it's not broke, why fix it?" asked one concerned citizen), and questioning the project from almost every possible angle, an intense public discourse was born.

"Dave McNair's idiotic architectural critique," wrote someone in a letter to the editor, "is a blatant, snarky smear with ridiculous comments about children being hit by cars and lonely basketball courts. All reason and perspective have been lost…."

"The Hook, in both of its articles on McGuffey Park, has lived up to its reputation of gratuitously trying to stir up controversy by placing a negative spin on what many people consider to be a worthwhile project," wrote the two women who had initiated the project."

"Spending $400,000 on that one little park is a travesty," said Charlottesville resident Kevin Cox in a follow-up article. "There aren't enough cops on the street, and the city wastes money on a playground."

It even got personal.

"Did Dave McNair once get turned down by one of the wonderful women who started 'Friends of McGuffey Park?,'" asked someone in a letter to the editor. "If not, then I'm at a loss to understand his increasing vendetta against the organization and the wonderful work they've done."

I was jilted?

The park would, of course, get built, with the spicas, weeping water wall, felled trees and all, but not without the community having its say, not without plenty of sunshine cast on the project, not without the difficult questions asked.

Of course, it was just a little park project, and I think all those who were involved in it were a little surprised by the attention we gave to it, but the stories, the comments, and the letters to the editor all helped create a record of something, a very small piece of history, that that original story of mine could never have done on its own.

I would carry that spirit of inquiry into the rest of my time at the Hook, using it on stories of greater impact, along with Spencer and my talented colleagues Lisa Provence and Courteney Stuart. It has been a wild ride.

My children are older now, and we've used the new park. It's popular now with the toddler set, and based on subsequent news reports in this paper and other media, seems to have actually attracted more of a troublesome crowd than it previously did in the evenings. The weeping water wall often gets clogged and floods. Most of the time it's shut off. One of the tall play structures is at least 15 or 20 feet tall, and it's nerve racking to see a five-year-old climbing to the top. And then there's the trees. The new ones they planted have refused to grow. Indeed, quite a few have died. And the round basketball court?

"This is the stupidest thing," said my older son, a senior in high school and a forward on his basketball team, when we were trying to play on the court. "Why would anyone build a round basketball court? How are you supposed to make corner three-pointers?"

Good question, I told him. And keep questioning, I added, don't ever stop questioning, even if you think your question might be stupid or offend someone.

"Huh?" my son said. "What are you talking about, Dad?"

Atta boy.

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