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Council Helps Build Bridges in Bosnia; Local Blood Supply Doesn't Go to Waste; Weeklong Events Focus on Homelessness; Walker Statue Is Scaled Back; Too Many Signs, City Tells Strip Club 

Street Talk

Council Helps Build Bridges in Bosnia

In a recent Thursday evening about 30 well-dressed people — including former Congressman Tom Bliley and Carol Negus, president of the Council for America's First Freedom — gather at a stately house in Historic Church Hill to talk about peace.

The reception is a nicely catered chance for members of the council, based in Richmond, to welcome Mihailo Crnobrnja to town.

Crnobrnja, or Misha, as he is more apt to be called, is a former Yugoslavian ambassador to the European Union. He also is the program director for the First Freedom group's first international peace-building mission.

The project, which the council launched last July, is called Bosnian Rebuilding Initiative, Dialogue and Group Empowerment — or, simply, BRIDGE.

BRIDGE is an effort to bring the council's focus on religious freedom — CAFF's cornerstone — to Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovinia. Specifically, its aim is to gradually win the youth of Mostar over to the idea and practice of religious and ethnic understanding.

For years, the council had been seeking an international outreach opportunity and Mostar seemed the perfect place to plant peace. Its comprises Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

Plus, there was a built-in metaphor: a bridge. Ever since 1566 a famous bridge named Stari Most had linked the small city's east and west sides. But during the recent fighting the bridge was destroyed. Consequently, many of today's teens from the east have never visited the west and vice versa.

The World Bank has pledged to rebuild Stari Most. But the time was ripe, says Crnobrnja, to build a "cultural" bridge connecting the communities. So the Richmond-based council stepped in.

Fifteen English-speaking youths ages 15 to 19 participated in a three-week BRIDGE summer workshop. Seven were Muslims, five were Croatian and three were Serbian. "We're targeting kids old enough to understand, but young enough to learn new ideas," says Crnobrnja.

Despite a few glitches here and there — delays, lack of money — the project is touted as a success. The youths learned about each other's families, cultures and backgrounds. They attended religious services in both mosques and cathedrals.

Since July, the 15 participants have added eight new members to the group. And they meet every Saturday. It might not sound like much, but to Crnobrnja, whose country has been ripped apart by war and strife, it's harmony in bloom.

"I'm not easily excited or overwhelmed, but I am with this project," he says. He shared similar enthusiasm with students at the Governor's School earlier in the day.

"It's one thing to read about religious and ethnic divisions," he says. "It's quite another to get involved." — Brandon Walters

Local Blood Supply Doesn't Go to Waste

Nationwide, blood banks are throwing out thousands of units of blood from donations made following Sept. 11. Since the terrorist attacks, it's been more than 42 days — the time when the red blood cells used most frequently start going out of date.

But Virginia Blood Services, the nonprofit organization that supplies blood to hospitals in Richmond, Charlottesville, Hopewell, South Hill, Farmville, Lexington, Staunton and Waynesboro, hasn't wasted a drop.

The reasons are simple. On Sept. 11 the area's available blood supply was shipped to hospitals in Washington, D.C., and New York. VBS also sent to D.C. and New York the 900 donations it collected that day. The subsequent wave of donations helped bring local inventories up to satisfactory levels.

But most of all, says Laura Cameron, vice president of corporate communication for VBS, the blood has been well spent because the group knew when to say stop.

"What you're hearing in the news is the National Red Cross had had to throw out buckets of blood," she says. "The reason we're pretty proud is we had the guts to start shutting down.

Guts? It's hard to convince people who want to donate blood in the midst of a disaster that their blood isn't needed and, in fact, might be tossed. "You have to protect them from their own generosity," Cameron says. VBS closed for the weekend immediately after Sept. 11 and canceled several blood drives.

Since then, VBS workers have called around the country to find out which centers need blood most. Blood from Virginia has been sent to New York, New Jersey, Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Even though everything appears to have gone smoothly, Cameron says the events of Sept. 11 convinced VBS to redo its disaster plan. If another attack or tragedy occurs, the blood service will operate from two locations, instead of seven, to minimize shipping of supplies. Centers in Richmond and Charlottesville will remain open. Cameron says she's sure people won't mind. "At a time like this, people don't mind at all going out of their way to give blood." — Brandon Walters

Weeklong Events Focus on Homelessness

Four residents at Freedom House have written a play that they hope will bridge the gap between people who are homeless and people who are not.

The play, scheduled to be performed Nov. 14, is one of several nontraditional local events that Homeward — a nonprofit umbrella group that helps coordinate resources for the region's 90 homeless shelters — has organized to recognize National Hunger and Homelessness Week, Nov. 11 through 17.

"We have something going on every day," says Homeward Executive Director Reggie Gordon.

And the events are not what you'd expect, Gordon says. "Theater, comedy and galas are some uncommon things to think about when you think about homelessness," he says. But, he adds, the creativity they inspire is important.

The play is called "Al's Fourth Wish." And most of the actors are homeless or have been.

The story begins when a genie named Sneakers grants three wishes to a boy named Aladdin. But after "Al" spends some time in other people's shoes — Romeo, an NBA star, and the president of the United States — he discovers what he really wishes more than anything is that he could read.

In greater Richmond, an estimated 1,600 people are homeless. And Gordon says the purpose of the week's events is not necessarily to entertain but to inspire and provoke.

"Part of the challenge and beauty of creativity is that it reminds people of what was hopeful before they had a shelter crisis," Gordon says. "Here you have these men who have created this play. Maybe homelessness for them boils down to not being able to read."

"Al's Fourth Wish" will be performed at 7 p.m. on Nov. 14 at Pine Camp Cultural Arts and Recreation Center. Tickets are $5. For information about other Homelessness Week events call Homeward at 225-7909. — B.W.

Walker Statue Is Scaled Back

After two years spent trying to raise $250,000 for a 6-ton, 13-foot-tall bronze statue honoring Maggie L. Walker, the nonprofit group charged with raising the money has decided it's just too much.

Too much money, too much time and too much indecision.

So the group now intends to cut back sharply on the size of the project.

"It's been an uphill battle for us," says Alfred "Doug" Goodwein, director of the National Commitment to Noble Works. Goodwein has spent the past two years studying, among other things, the life of Maggie Walker, the first female bank president in the United States; statues; bases; foundries; sculptors.

Now, instead of the 13-foot-tall, $250,000 statue, the group plans to dedicate a $50,000, 2,700-pound life-size statue at the same proposed site: Adams and Broad streets in Jackson Ward.

Goodwein suggests the bigger project was simply taking too long.

Last year, he says, AT&T pledged a significant contribution. But efforts to get the board to finance the rest — even at a much lower $10,000 — have been difficult. Goodwein hopes the modified goal will spur support from board members and the public.

"It's better to take the half loaf," he says, and get the project done.

Three names make the short list for potential sculptors: Robert Shore of Massachusetts; Vinnie Bagwell of Maryland, who sculpted the statue of Ella Fitzgerald in Yonkers, N.Y. and Richmonder Paul DiPasquale, most famed for the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue.

Goodwein says NCNW hopes to have a contract signed by a sculptor in January 2002. The statue is targeted for completion in November 2002.

"We hope Maggie Walker won't be matronly," he says with a chuckle. The image of Walker will be taken from when she was 34 and in her prime.

Oddly enough, Goodwein says, $50,000 is the original amount of money Maggie Walker needed to raise to open her bank, Consolidated Bank, a century ago. It's kind of ironic, he says, and kind of sad.

"Honestly, I'd love to go with the real big one, the big plum," he says of the 13-foot statue. "But the only thing I've been working on is a dream. Now I can focus on a reality."

Plus, he adds, if things go well, people may realize one is not enough. "We may very well end up with two statues," he says. — B.W.

Too Many Signs, City Tells Strip Club

It's difficult to overlook Club Velvet, which bills itself as "Shockoe Bottom's ONLY Place for Exotic Entertainment." The brick building at Main and 15th streets boasts an enormous painted mural of Princess Diana (a carry-over from a previous tenant) and glowing neon script.

But a few weeks ago, Club Velvet became even more noticeable. Several Day-Glo-colored chartreuse and orange signs, illustrated with silhouettes of voluptuous women, were posted on the building at eye level.

Some residents and business owners began to complain. Charles MacFarlane, who lives in Shockoe Bottom, says he objects to the club "trying to advertise in such a graphic and visual way."

The club's manager says she prefers not to comment on the signage.

MacFarlane's repeated calls to the city zoning inspector brought Robert Johnson, a city planner in charge of violations, to inspect Club Velvet last week. He confirms that the silhouettes aren't allowable under current zoning — though not because of color or content. "They've got a lot more signage than they were allowed to put up," he says.

Zoning ordinances allow 3 square feet of signage per square foot of lot frontage. It's a little difficult to measure the combined surface area of all the signs, but Johnson says he's confident the limit was exceeded. Plus, the club never applied for a permit to put up the signs in the first place.

Johnson's giving the club until Nov. 21 to remove the silhouettes and says he won't issue a fine unless the signs stay up past then.

The citation was issued because the signs were excessive, not because they were inappropriate, Johnson points out.

Does the city consider issues of taste when approving or prohibiting signage? "Unfortunately not," Johnson says. — Melissa Scott Sinclair
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