No one perhaps meant more to the success of the DTM than developer Gabe Silverman, who died on November 10 of a cardiac arrest at the age of 73. Architect and design planner Katie Swenson, who moved to Charlottesville in large part because of Silverman and spent 11 years here, offers a remembrance, one of many that have been pouring out since the developer’s death.
In 2003, Silverman was featured in a Hotseat feature in the Hook, which is definitely worth another read, if only for the answers to the short questions, like Best advice you ever got: “Don’t listen to any advice.”
Here’s Swenson’s tribute:
It is not an exaggeration to say that Gabe Silverman was a big part of the reason I moved to Charlottesville in 1996. I was living in New York City at the time, in a loft on the corner of Bowery and Delancey (that building is now gone to make way for the ‘new’ Bowery) and had been accepted by Columbia and UVA for Architecture school. I lived in a micro-neighborhood of New York, between Broadway and Bowery, and Houston and Canal, for about five years, and felt like I lived in the best small town in the most dynamic big city. That neighborhood has since been called “Nolita” or “East Soho”, but it didn’t really have a name then, a little bit Little Italy, a little bit Chinatown, with mostly Dominican residents and business owners and a lot of restaurant supply stores. Jim Jarmusch lived across the street on the Bowery, and dozens of artists, musicians, hipsters lived anonymously in the unconventional building there. I had renovated two lofts on the Bowery, both with (rough) dance studios and both great party spaces, opened a great local tapas restaurant at 33 Crosby, which just closed last year after 15 years. There was a dynamic energy there, with creative businesses, restaurants opening and a vibe of creative neighborly dynamism.
So when I came down to visit Charlottesville in the spring of 1996 to see the school and town, I worried about leaving that creative ecodistrict behind, unsure what I would find in the sleepy southern college town. Peter Waldman was chair of the School of Architecture then and gave me the hard sell. “You just have to meet Gabe Silverman” he said, “and then you will see what’s really going on in Charlottesville. He went to Berkeley, like you, and built a dance studio on the Downtown Mall. He’s remaking Charlottesville, one project at a time.” When I did meet Gabe a few months later, it was unceremonious. I think I thought I would ‘intern’ for him, or some such thing. Instead, we met in the parking lot of what is now Mono Loco, leaned against his pickup truck, he smoked cigarettes, and we chatted, about everything and nothing. There was no outcome, per se, to our conversation, but from that point forward, I had entered into the collective creative process of life, of his vision, of that town, and that place, with those people.
Having now been a student of collective action, neighborhood leadership, civic engagement and community design both in the places I have lived and loved and dozens of neighborhoods across the country, I think that Gabe Silverman was a rare kind of leader. There was no trace of the hierarchical kind of leadership with Gabe, but rather he engendered a subtle sacredness around his work, which drew people into creative collaboration with him. He never drew a master plan for Charlottesville that I know of, nor gave a lecture, or panel presentation on his vision for Charlottesville. Rather, he put his energy in sync with other people’s energy, helping them do what they perhaps wanted to do, but he could actually make happen. He built dance studios for dancers and choreographers, theaters for actors and directors, yoga studios for yogis. He made micro-business spaces for local entrepreneurs and micro offices for start ups. Each discrete project started to knit together a new version of the town. And as he did that, people thrived, the community thrived, and as the momentum built, people got a taste for what it meant to thrive as a town, as a community, and the town took off. Because Gabe’s world was not hierarchical, not exclusive, there was no limit to the creativity and collaboration possible.
Peter Senge, a Buddhist scientist and professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says while hierarchical structures may be visible, they are ultimately limited. It is the invisible networks of collaboration that leads to accomplishments. It is the quality of our interactions and creating a sense of sacredness in the shared purpose of our work and relationships that allow the meaningful creation of what he calls ‘our networks of loving collaboration.’ With Gabe, it was the way he stopped to speak with you on the street, seemingly never in a hurry. The way his hips moved on the dance floor. The way he loved his wife. The way his spaces have the best light. The color selection on his house or buildings. The way people thrived in his spaces. The way he smiled. The way he smoked. His devotion to his daughters.
I got to spend 11 incredible years in Charlottesville, and will think of it as home forever, the place, the people, and my network of loving relationships. I got to have my hand in building elements of the town, house renovations, design of city parks, the construction of dozens of new affordable houses, a community design center, a tapas restaurant, a yoga studio, a community center, and so, so much more. In none of these endeavors did I partner with Gabe in a traditional sense, but it all was a creative collaboration, with him, and with the ever expanding group of individuals who share a common vision and awareness of the potential of people and place to create something magical. I love you all and with you today, in celebration of a life extremely well lived.
writer. journalist. editor