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Archive for April, 2013

Until the ceremonial announcement April 19 that Google is going to expand its data center in Lenoir, I didn’t even realize where the data center was.

I had driven past it at least a dozen times since arriving here in January.

I don’t think anyone at Google intended for it to be poignant when they selected a site within Lenoir for the company’s data center, but that’s what happened. When you leave Google and turn left to Morganton Boulevard, you face Bernhardt Furniture’s Plant 3. There at the traffic light, you sit smack between looming symbols of this area’s past and what may be its future.

When I worked here as a reporter 25 years ago and furniture was at something close to its height, every afternoon around 3, black smoke poured from the smokestack at that Bernhardt plant. At least in my memory, a thick plume boiled against the sky for 20 or 30 minutes, and then it gradually eased. People I knew who had worked there or knew people who did said it was from workers clearing the scraps from their work area at the end of the shift, tossing everything into the incinerator.

I haven’t seen smoke like that since returning.

Out of curiosity, last Saturday morning I drove up Lynnhaven Drive past Google’s entrance and into the old neighborhood there. The juxtapositions can be striking. In certain places, it can feel as though a spaceship has landed and altered the landscape.

Tall chain-link fencing draped with concealing green fabric lines Google’s perimeter, but you can still glimpse the large, white buildings lined with towering cooling equipment, with an empty field between them and the fence. At one point along Overlook Drive, which has no overlooks, there is a sheer earthworks wall at least 50 feet high where a holler was filled in. It too is topped with fencing.

On the opposite side of the road, meanwhile, are woods or modest houses of the kind you might find on any country drive.

Before long the road passes out of range of Google, and you could be in any hilly spot in Caldwell County, if you didn’t know where you are.

I’m left with the lingering images of old and new. Old neighborhoods on one side of a winding residential road, new hillside and fencing on the other. Old Caldwell industry and new, almost face to face across a city thoroughfare.

The former Broyhill Furniture Industries headquarters on U.S. 321, soon to be home to a growing pharmaceutical company, still seems to me the greatest single symbol of the local economy’s transformation.

But there on the street outside Google’s gate you get a greater sense of the sweep of change. From the Google sign you can look at the company’s guarded, high-security gate and the almost-new buildings beyond them, look to one side at the Bernhardt smokestack, and then look to the other up the hill to houses where some people have lived since before the founder of Google was born.

Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov said: “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

Who could have foreseen this world?

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Before moving to Lenoir, N.C., I lived almost 12 years in Richmond, Va. Richmond is a beautiful city, a mix of Old South and mid-Atlantic, accents from hither and yon, a wonderful array of exceptionally good but reasonably priced restaurants, tons of historic sites, a city that can feel big, mid-sized or small depending on exactly where you are and who you’re with. In every positive way, it’s not Charlotte. It has a sense of place and history. And yet parts of it also are like so much of Charlotte — all sprawl and no sense of place.

Living there was a great experience.

But one thing I definitely will not miss from Richmond is the result of what I can only assume is the thrill that newspaper writers there get from referring to the region’s residents — everyone in the entire nearly-1-million-person region, not just in the fewer-than-200,000-person city — as Richmonders. Richmonders Richmonders Richmonders. You would think they earned money from every appearance of the word in an article.

Unlike “New Yorkers,” it does not roll off the tongue. I never once in 12 years there, as best I can recall, heard a single person in conversation use the term “Richmonder.”

I was reminded of this one day recently while reading a story a friend had forwarded to me from Richmond’s main alternative weekly newspaper, Style, about Virginia’s attorney general. Because I have been in Lenoir almost the entire time since Jan. 20 and don’t seek out news from Virginia, it was the first time I had seen the word “Richmonder” in nearly three months, and it struck me: In many other towns, including most of the ones where I have lived, no one even has a word for local residents. State residents, sure — North Carolinians, Virginians, Floridians, Oklahomans. But not so much the residents of most cities and towns.

What in the world would Lenoir residents be? I wondered.

Lenoirites? Lenoirians? Probably not Lenoirons, except to people from somewhere else trying to make fun of them. Lenoirlings? Nah.

If I were Hudson’s mayor, I might try to get people to adopt “Hudsonians.” It sounds like “Smithsonian.”

Sawmills would pose a particular challenge because of the s on the name. Sawmillsers? Sawmillsions? Sawmillsites? I’m not sure any of the usual endings for such things were intended for denoting residents of a place with a name that itself is a plural.

Similarly, what do you do with Granite Falls residents? Granite Fallsers?

Maybe Cajah’s Mountain residents are Cajah’s Mountaineers, although that sounds like a sports team.

The issue abounds in the larger region.

Consider Rhodhiss.

Blowing Rock.

Drexel.

Connelly Springs.

There are so many place names that don’t lend themselves to labels for who lives there.

Here’s this editor’s riddle and answer:

Question: What do you call residents of (fill in the blank)?

Answer: People.

That much has generally proven to be true everywhere.

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Here’s a little secret of the legislative process: Absolutely every time a legislative body convenes, anywhere, some of its members introduce bills that they know stand not a snowball’s chance in Hades of seeing the light of day.

Why would they do that?

The bill may represent a dearly held belief. Sometimes it’s just to please some folks back home.

No matter the motivation, though, at some point the legislator or legislators in question knew or should have known that the measure was fatally flawed – either impractical, unpopular or flat-out illegal and/or unenforceable.

Sometimes, they don’t even file a bill; all they do is stand up and make a speech that includes phrases to please certain audiences but doesn’t mean anything. In fact, North Carolina is the source for one term for this: bunk, as in “That’s a lot of bunk.” It is said that in February 1820, as Congress was debating the Missouri Compromise, U.S. Rep. Felix Walker, who was from the Asheville area, rose to speak but assured his colleagues, “I shall not be speaking to the House, but to Buncombe,” and went on to deliver a speech that had absolutely nothing to do with anything under consideration. Bumcombe became bunkum became bunk.

Which brings us to the measure that made North Carolina a national punchline this week.

When I was the state editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, our state capital reporter routinely reported to me on certain, well, unusual pieces of legislation. One that springs to mind would have mandated that prison inmates sleep in shifts around the clock – you could use one bed for three inmates, so each prison could house three times as many inmates as it was intended to house. My response always was to ask whether the bill in question stood a chance of getting anywhere. The reporter would check around, and almost without fail the answer was no, the people in charge knew the measure was impractical, or nuts, so it wouldn’t even get to a committee debate, it would just disappear into the archives.

Back then, before Facebook and Twitter, that would have been the widespread response to House Joint Resolution 494. Introduced by Rowan County legislators, it appeared to be crafted to satisfy folks upset about an ACLU challenge of local governments starting their meetings with an overtly Christian prayer. What made it stand out, and what made it spread virally across the Internet, is that the proposal declares that the U.S. Constitution prohibition against government establishing an official religion doesn’t apply to anyone but Congress, so that “states, municipalities, or schools” would be free to do so.

Imagine, if you can, the free-for-all of a United States where individual towns or even schools can declare their own official religions. Want an officially Muslim town somewhere? A mini-Israel in the mountains up North? An officially Buddhist village in the Carolina coastal plain? And then after the next election cycle the official religion could change again? This kind of idea would make it possible. It has all kinds of unintended consequences.

Aside from that, though, even as the resolution itself states, the nation’s courts at every level have consistently interpreted the establishment clause as applying to everyone, not just Congress. So, passing anything to implement the idea would have zero legal effect. None.

In other words, the legislators expressed support for something that on its face would be unconstitutional – violating not just the U.S. Constitution but the state constitution as well. And that is where the stuff hit the fan and splattered across Facebook, Twitter and all the tubes of the Internet. “North Carolina is going Taliban,” the commentary suggested.

But here’s the other thing: Because the legislative sponsors introduced it as a resolution, they never really intended to try to make their idea the law of the state. A resolution is more like standing up on a box and declaring to the folks all around, “Here is what I think is a really good idea.” They were speaking to Buncombe.

John Hood of the conservative John Locke Foundation said as much in a column Friday: “A resolution is not a bill. A bill introduced is not a bill enacted. And a bill enacted is not necessarily a major policy change that will affect the everyday lives of North Carolinians.”

That’s what I kept trying to tell people when I saw them flipping out on Facebook.

And on Thursday, what I expected came to pass: The House leadership declared that the measure would never even come to a vote.

So ends another week in the sausage-making business.

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Nieman Media Lab’s article about media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now” struck me because ever since my move less than three months ago to become editor of a small newspaper in northwest North Carolina, I almost never see anything on Tweetdeck. As a result, I feel extremely cut off from the up-to-date flow of new information on news industry developments from sources I have followed, in some cases, almost as long as Twitter has existed.

At the same time, my current job feels almost entirely linear, and I can’t say my previous job with Media General in Richmond, Va., did. Day to day, hour to hour, I am too busy to monitor the river of tweets. I literally cannot carve out the time. So Rushkoff’s description of what he means by “present shock” resonates — I have spent hours doing nothing but watching what comes in, following it, evaluating it and deciding what was worth following further and spreading, devoting some small amount of time to thinking farther ahead about the longer-term implications — it was, after all, part of my job to think ahead, but connecting “right now” to the next few hours was not so much part of it.

Of course I think my situation illustrates part of the stratification of the industry: Editors at papers with small staffs are too occupied with the immediate needs of today’s paper and the next few days’ papers to follow the commentary on what is likely coming down the line.

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