In 1990, I self-published a small booklet, “Keep Me Home, Country Roads: A Second Look at Tourism in West Virginia,” with an introduction by Skip Johnson, the late Gazette columnist. Based on a cross-country road trip, I shared some observations and ideas for things we might be able to do differently in our state. I am pleased that a number of the suggestions came to pass, possibly because their time had come.
Since then, I have had the opportunity to get directly involved in this realm via fine art landscape photography, mini-exhibits and a book of New Deal photographs, and producing arts fairs for FestivALL for over 10 years.
Since I moved from the country to Charleston four years ago, I have seen up close some additional areas where we may make improvements. I believe the key players are our elected officials, including our mayor and city council; our Convention and Visitors Bureau; the Charleston Area Alliance and its members, including our hotels; our bus system; and our taxi company. There may also be others I am overlooking here.
I often hear anecdotally and experience first-hand that we have some of the most welcoming people in the world living in our city and state. My concern is that parts of the infrastructure in our gateway capital city do not do justice to the hospitality of our people.
On a Friday night recently, I was returning to Charleston from a two-day trip to Charlottesville. We were about half an hour late. The train pulled up and left us coach passengers in front of the parking lot. It was already dark, and there was little lighting and no benches or other seating.
Most people who dropped off or picked up passengers cleared the area within about five minutes. I called for a ride share and then watched in dismay as my phone showed the car coming across the Southside Bridge and then heading down Corridor G, away from the station.
I texted and then called the driver, who said that he knew where the station was but could not get access to it because the streets were closed off. He said he would find a way there, but it might take a while.
I then watched as he turned around and took the interstate bridge back across the river and then made a circle through downtown to return again via the Southside Bridge. When he showed up, the concert at the Levee had ended and fireworks were being launched down from the station, with police cars blocking the streets. Somehow he found his way into the parking lot and, by the time we left, the streets were open again.
In the meantime, I noticed two younger women and an older man standing near me in the dark. I first asked the women if they had a ride. They said they had called for a taxi, and the dispatcher told them she didn’t have any idea when it might arrive. I realized from their accent that they were from England, and it turned out they were planning to visit the Vandalia Gathering over the weekend. I offered to include them in the ride share to get them to their hotel across the river.
Then I turned to the older man, who was returning to our county for a class reunion after living away. He had also called for a taxi and gotten the same response. I invited him to join us, and he accepted. Fortunately, the driver had a large SUV and was willing and able to accommodate all of us and our bags and drop the others off at their two different downtown hotels.
There is no way to know how long they would have had to wait if it were not for the ride share. Before Uber and Lyft, I had experiences where I was stranded somewhere for an hour or more while waiting for a taxi.
One night, following a snowstorm, I was told no one could get me, although the streets were open. I walked a mile to the house of friends whose phone number I did not have but who were willing to put me up for the night when I showed up at their door. Another time, I was left at the CAMC Memorial heart center lobby so late they were turning off the lights.
Since we have had ride shares, I have rarely had to wait more than five or 10 minutes. I can only remember a couple of times when no ride was available from either ride share service.
But there are some things we can do to make our city more hospitable and easier to get around during events or late at night.
- Put lights around the Amtrak station and benches by the parking lot.
- If we cannot get Amtrak to staff the train station, then find a way to pay for a concierge to be outside the station for the six times that the Cardinal goes through each week. The goodwill and convenience of the passengers would justify the expense.
- Figure out how to dispatch taxis so people can depend on them. If that is not possible, then the dispatcher needs to tell people to download and use a ride-share app if they want to get around. A concierge could also help people who don’t have access to an app. Maybe the hotels could even take turns providing a van to take people across the river to downtown hotels and the transit mall each time the train comes through.
- Create an alternative pathway to the train station, with good signage, if we are going to block off the streets at a time when the trains are coming through. This may only be a few times a year, but it is worth the extra trouble to protect and welcome our travelers.
- Identify bus stops throughout the KRT system. In most cases, we now have to guess where to get on and where to ask to get off. Different drivers use different spots. I once had a driver yell at me in front of a busload of passengers because I asked to get off in the same place where a previous driver had stopped. The driver said the previous driver had violated the rules. These rules were unwritten, and I had no way of knowing what they were.
- Set up seating by each and every bus stop. If benches are too inviting for sleeping, then use cubes like those in San Diego’s North Park, which may be decorated by artists, with shelters or umbrellas as a bonus for bad weather.
- If construction or a street closing is blocking a hotel entrance, as it was on this particular Friday, post clear directions on how to get in. Not everyone knows how to get around or has the ability to explore and walk to an entrance, especially with luggage.
We need to think in terms of making everyone welcome, at all times, in order to be the kind of city that we know we can be.
The responsible players must work together to create the necessary infrastructure, along the lines suggested above. These kinds of changes can go a long way in facilitating the natural hospitality of our citizens and serve all of us well.