CHARLOTTESVILLE — Two spots have become pilgrimage sites in this historic university town.
The first is a memorial for a revered Confederate general. The second is a memorial for a 32-year-old paralegal killed last year.
In between lies the adorable downtown on the edge of the University of Virginia — a vibrant stretch of brasseries and galleries, the perfect mix of outdoor seating, shops and salons. It’s the red-brick heart of the city that residents would prefer we know them by, the place pictured with all those lists that declare Charlottesville one of the cutest, happiest, best places to live, to visit, to descend on with your she-squad for Galentine’s Day.
But that was before last August. Before Nazi flags flew, before tiki torches lit the night, before a black man was beaten in a parking garage and before a counterprotester was killed, allegedly by a hateful white supremacist.
It all began at Market Street Park, on the north side of town, where an effort to remove the giant statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee led to the bloody and alarming “Unite the Right” rally.
The park, formerly Lee Park and then Emancipation Park, attracts homeless guys dozing on benches and knots of older black men who always have colorful and pointed commentary to share with one another and passersby. They see who comes to pay homage to the beleaguered Lee memorial.
“I know who they are when they get up there and take their selfies with that thing,” said Robert Miller, 50, a Charlottesville native.
The rally-turned-riot shocked a nation that never imagined Nazi flags would openly fly on its soil, that gasped at the sight of scores of young white men carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” and the anti-Semitic slogan “blood and soil.”
Since those two days last August, Charlottesville has been reeling. And healing.
The city denied permits for the white-nationalist group that wanted to return for a first anniversary march. And one of the organizers, Jason Kessler, is suing the city for the right to come. They’ve got preliminary approval to stage a rally in Washington instead.
“But I don’t think they’re staying away,” said Leonard Harris, a 53-year-old electrician in Charlottesville who plans to be out of town that weekend. “I’m going to visit family in North Carolina. I don’t want to be anywhere in Virginia for that.”
A judge had similar thoughts last week, when he banned one of the rally’s most visible figures, white nationalist Chris Cantwell, from entering the state of Virginia for five years. Cantwell, who became known as the “crying Nazi” after breaking down on camera when he was hit with an arrest warrant, pleaded guilty to two counts of assault and battery.
After the violence, the city shrouded the Lee statue in a massive black tarp. But in February, a local judge ordered the tarp removed. And that’s when Miller and some of the other men who pass the afternoons in Market Street Park noticed the tourists who came to snap photos of themselves with the uncovered Lee. Or to leave bouquets of flowers at the foot of his pedestal.
“If they’re taking selfies of themselves with it? That’s like taking their hoods off for me,” Miller said.
On the south side of Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall is the other pilgrimage site.
It’s a stretch of Fourth Street renamed Heather Heyer Way, for the woman who was killed during the rally when James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly plowed his car into a group of counterprotesters.
There, a small tub of chalk waits for folks who want to write inspirational messages on the brick. “Gone but not forgotten” and “Be Kind” and “Be the Change” and probably what they want to hear most: “Charlottesville, You are loved and adored more than you know.”
Some of the shops have a flier offering “Strategies for Personal & Community Resilience.”
“The events of summer 2017 in Charlottesville affected all of us,” it says. “For many, the events and the ongoing news cycle around them are part of a longer history of community trauma. As we mark the one year anniversary and beyond, let’s keep these tips in mind for caring for ourselves and our community.”
The tips include limiting media exposure, connecting with friends and helping others.
“We really just want to get back to being Charlottesville, a nice town,” said a clerk at one of the shops. “I’m a triple target. Black. Female. Lesbian. And I do feel welcome here. It’s a progressive, welcoming place. It’s not what those protesters were about.”
On the anniversary, the city is planning to shut down streets, close parking garages and hunker down.
“This thing won’t stop haunting us,” said another worker at a shop close to where Heyer died. “It’s not who we are.”
Though many of the racist marchers came from out of town, the chief organizer — Kessler — was born in Charlottesville and graduated from the University of Virginia.
To the north, in the park, are Lee’s worshipers.
To the south, along the sidewalk, are Heyer’s mourners.
In the middle is a vibrant street of prosperity and hope.
The truth is that Charlottesville — like our country — is all of this.