More than two millennia ago, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote, “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.”
Closer to our own day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
What we are in the process of witnessing is which of these statements is most applicable to the controversy surrounding the installation of lights at T. C. Williams High School.
A promise by the city and School Board was made when the first T.C. Williams High School was erected in 1965, re-enforced and documented in 2004 in the developmental special use permit when the school expanded, and respected in 2014 when lights were installed on the tennis courts. The promise was that no permanent stadium lighting would be installed on any athletic high school field in consideration of the quality of life of the adjoining neighborhoods. With the approval of the Planning Commission of the installation of the Parker-Gray Stadium lights on Oct. 3, it appears that the promise is to be unilaterally broken by our city government. Breaking that promise will further erode trust in the city government, not only in the community most affected, but among all thoughtful citizens of Alexandria. (“Me today, you tomorrow!”)
I have been dismayed by the scant attention given to the fact that the largely African-American community directly adjacent to the stadium will disproportionately bear substantial real costs for this proposed breach of promise, in terms of a very likely drop in property values, increased noise, trash, traffic, and general erosion of the quality of life in that neighborhood. And now we find that the hours of operation for the lights have been expanded from 8:30 p.m. on weekdays to 10 p.m., thus exposing this community to even greater noise and discomfort every night of the week! What else will we learn at the last moment, or even later after the “no lights” promise has been broken?
This is not the first time that this distinguished community, whose roots in Alexandria go back for at least 150 years, has had unilaterally to bear significant costs that primarily benefit other city residents. Members of this community were removed from the site of what became Ft. Ward Park in the early 1960s. The site to which many of that community’s residents moved was subsequently taken by the city for the construction of the first T. C. Williams High School. A number of homes were built by the city in the Woods Place area adjacent to T. C. Williams, but it was only half the number of those demolished to make way for that school. The displaced residents were given first chance to purchase one of these new homes, but not all could afford to buy them, thus members of the community were dispersed. The construction of a new T. C. Williams High School in 2007 made their property in the new location even closer to the school.
Having followed the discussions concerning this issue, I regret to say that I think Thucydides will be proven right yet again. “The strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must,” for few city residents seem to care much about the gross injustice being enacted here, and the Planning Commission has approved the installation of the lights. But can we not hope that a nod be given to Dr. King and his thoughts about the “arc of justice,” and have the more imaginative members of the City Council and city government apply themselves to thinking of ways to engage with those residents directly affected by this breach of promise and candidly discuss means by which these disproportionate and unilateral costs can be mitigated? Let’s prove Dr. King right after all.