Robotham-State of the Region

ROBOTHAM - The State of the Region

Two new studies highlight the benefits of living in Hampton Roads - and some disturbing trends.

This month marks my 20th anniversary as a resident of Hampton Roads. As I noted in my first column for this magazine last year, I've never regretted my decision to move here from New York City. Indeed, I agree with the majority of respondents to a recent survey conducted by Old Dominion University. More than 80 percent said that the quality of life in this region is either "good" or "excellent."

I feel that way first and foremost because my two children, who are now reaching adulthood, have grown up here and have enjoyed a fine quality of life themselves. Both have reaped the benefits of one of the most extraordinary institutions in this area—the Governor's School for the Arts. Our neighborhood of Ghent/West Ghent, moreover, is a tightly knit community of friendly people, tree-lined streets, woods and a large undeveloped field at the west end, a community pool, a wonderful little church, and the stimulating social and cultural life in and around Colley Avenue.

More recently, my life has been enriched by my association with ODU, where I teach in the English and Communications departments; my affiliation with Norfolk Karate Academy (see my feature story on the martial arts in this issue); the Muse Writers Center, where I conduct workshops and host a monthly music jam session, and a large circle of friends with whom I often connect at the Taphouse, the Boot and Elliot's coffee shop.

In spite of all this, I have some reservations—concerns that were accentuated recently by two studies coming out of ODU.

The first was that survey, conducted by the university's Social Science and Research Center. Although I continue to agree that this region offers a good quality of life, I was alarmed by some of the attitudes reflected in answers to other questions.

Nearly half the respondents, for example, said they believe that immigrants will take jobs away from people already living in Hampton Roads. Several recent reports conducted elsewhere suggest that this won't happen. A study published a few years ago by the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center, for example, found no evidence that increases in immigration had led to higher unemployment among American citizens. Other recent studies, including one conducted by the Associated Press, have suggested the same thing. Moreover, according to ODU's 11th annual State of the Region report, produced by former ODU president Jim Koch, our region "has experienced a net migration outflow."

Whether the anti-immigrant sentiments in Hampton Roads are due to xenophobia or misinformation is hard to say. The point is, they're not exactly in keeping with the fundamental idea expressed in the Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Indeed, this nation was built on immigration. The now-widespread attitude that immigrants pose a threat to our economic welfare is, to my mind, a symptom of deeper societal ills. People who read with an open mind are well aware of this. But according to the survey, nearly a quarter of Hampton Roads residents never look at a daily newspaper, and a comparable number said they never look at online news sites. Less than a third, moreover, said they read news sources of either kind on a daily basis.

Responses to questions about cultural life in Hampton Roads appear, at first glance, to be more encouraging. More than 61 percent said they had attended an art exhibition, concert or play in the last year. But nearly a quarter said they simply had no interest in doing so, and another 16.4 percent said local arts organizations "don't offer events I want to see."

That response is mind-boggling. Over the past year in Hampton Roads I've seen more first-rate concerts than I can count; I've also seen superb classical ballet and modern dance, art exhibitions large and small, and a wide variety of plays. Indeed, during any given week there are cultural events to suit every taste. People who complain that this area lacks cultural vitality and diversity simply aren't looking for it.

People stay away from cultural events for other reasons, too, of course. Nearly a quarter of respondents cited "cost" as an obstacle, while 42 percent cited "bad timing." A more honest answer would have been, "it's not a priority." After all, as I noted earlier, the residents of this region have a plethora of cultural events to choose from, virtually every day and night of the year. And many of them are free or inexpensive.

AMONG THESE are exhibitions at the Chrysler Museum of Art. As the State of the Region report points out, the Museum stopped charging admission back in September of 2009. Since then, there has been a slight increase in attendance among African-Americans and among residents in lower income and education brackets. But the annual total attendance for 2009 was only 183,690—just slightly more than ten percent, in other words, of the region's population. This figure "stands out favorably when compared to national statistics," according to the report. But I don't find this comment to be especially encouraging. After all, it reflects a gross indifference to art nationwide. The fact that the Chrysler is more successful than many other museums doesn't change the reality that 90 percent of our region's population has no interest in visiting it—even though it's free.

Two other cultural gems highlighted in the State of the Region report are the Naro Expanded Cinema and the Naro Expanded Video store, located next door to each other in Ghent.

Both institutions are holding their own in a tough market and cultural climate—and for this, I am grateful. The Naro Cinema, after all, is more than a movie house—it is a community forum that often couples important political and social films with audience discussions and appearances by guest speakers. The video store, meanwhile, is also a place where neighbors connect with one another, and its staff members are as knowledgeable as the best librarians. As any of its patrons knows, moreover, the Naro's inventory puts Blockbuster's to shame.

For these reasons, the State of the Region authors assert that the two businesses, as well as the Kimball Theatre in Williamsburg, "seem well positioned to continue to serve discerning movie lovers."

But again, I find my pessimism kicking in. The future of these cultural institutions—and the vitality of our region as a whole—will depend on two things: the state of our economy and the willingness of more people to engage in civic and cultural life. At the moment, I'm not feeling terribly optimistic about either.

The State of the Region report focuses largely on the economy—and the findings are not encouraging. Our "extreme dependence upon defense spending places us in a highly vulnerable position," the authors state. "Further, because of our peculiar topography, we are highly dependent upon a road transportation system ... [with] numerous choke points.

"Taken together, the factors noted here ... suggest a subtle deterioration in the long-term outlook for economic growth in Hampton Roads."

That's a depressing statement indeed. But I don't find it nearly as discouraging as the lack of civic and cultural engagement in this region—or the realization that large numbers of people see diversity as a threat rather than a strength.

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy for all the people who are satisfied with their lives here (84.7 percent, according to the ODU survey). I just hope that collective contentment isn't a result of too many heads being buried in the sand.


Tom Robotham, editor of the online magazine Treehouse (, can be reached at

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