For many years recently, my old neighborhood was as hot as the green curry at Thai Diner Too. Now, on the cusp of a recession that could upgrade to Great Depression 2.0, Carytown is cooling off. Anyone with his or her face not buried in a bowl of Bev's Homemade ice cream will note a few more "for lease" signs than usual. I suppose we can blame rapacious landlords and a commercial culture that tries to sell us things we want, but don't need. Yet for a while, this formula seemed popular with many Richmonders, both the wealthy and those who wanted to act that way.
To me it seems very familiar. Hop in my time machine and we'll go back to the era of stagflation, bad popular music, worse fashions, and truly awful cars: the mid-'70s, when Cary Street showed every sign of getting renamed Skid Row.
I lived on Parkwood Avenue for the first 15 years of my life, right behind what is now Mary Angela's Pizza. And since then, I've been a regular patron of Cary Street's businesses. In 1975, however, my family reluctantly moved to a house near Thomas Jefferson High School. My parents fought over moving, but mom was right. The old 'hood was too dangerous. My dad was routinely shadowed by a group of drug dealers who rented across the street from us. It was time to get out.
What would be Carytown 10 years later was then blue-collar shopping of the pre-Wal-Mart variety. A quarter of these stores were boarded-up. The Salvage Barn sold dented cans and generic items in the shell of the old Woolworth's. Stalwarts like Lorraine Hardware and Bob's Hobby Center remained. You could still buy nearly any necessity, from a snow shovel to Fruit-of-the-Loom tighty whiteys, just by walking down the street from your home. You could entertain yourself at the Byrd Theatre. Didn't like "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes?" Watch TV or wait a week. Who needed more?
The glimmer of a better future - local shops like Compleat Gourmet and a few chains like Pier One - had just appeared, but no one in their right mind thought the newcomers had a chance in hell of succeeding in a neighborhood going downmarket so fast. I'm thankful that my family refused, however, to leave the city for the drive-to banality of the counties. Willow Lawn, just across the Henrico County line, was a longer walk than we'd been used to taking, but we still hoofed it there.
Not many of us believed a miracle could happen. White flight and then-shiny, now decimated, venues like Cloverleaf, Azalea and Eastgate malls sucked the life out of the older shopping districts. Gone, with many locally owned businesses, were small chains like Spotless that thrived on the GI generation's thrift to buy from a place they could get to without a car. Similar urban shopping strips, in Manchester and on Broad Street, were also in trouble.
Yet a miracle did happen. Cary Street bloomed with new stores that were unlike the cloned outlets in the suburban malls and strip shopping centers. For a while, before rising rents made the district too expensive, several funky stores thrived by selling moderately priced gifts and urban necessities. Luckily for non-Yuppies, a few still do, such as Plan 9 and World of Mirth. Those Devo, Johnny Cash and T-Rex stickers on my old pickup truck, as well as my Maakies' Uncle Gabby action figure, make this consumer happy (and they didn't cost $100).
Yet the malaise I recall from the 1970s is palpable along Cary Street again. Upscale consumers with a lot of disposable income may not be present in enough numbers to sustain the miracle. At some point, the American need to act rich when we really are in debt makes this era different from that of three decades ago. Why else would someone use a credit card to waste $40 on bubble-bath at a place (now closed) called "Soak"? Or squander five times that on a cocktail dress at the (now closed) St. Tropez? Joining these dead storefronts are Urban Artifacts, City Shoes and several more where I never shopped. I do not want to show disrespect to the brave folks who started these stores, but what, exactly, were they thinking? How many tiki lamps and sparkly miniskirts can this local economy absorb?
Even as I buy my next bottle of Rioja at River City Cellars, my fingers are crossed. I want another miracle. Our city, so often the place of nay-saying and second-place finishes, deserves better. I have hope we can keep our shopping districts vital and unique, if local folks will support local businesses, whether in Carytown or Midlothian. The payback is enormous. The people at Thai Diner Too know who I am. The faceless, replaceable guy who gives me his name at PF Chang's does not. And when an economic ill wind blows hard, as it now blows, who will stick around longer? The retrenchment of Starbucks shows how little corporate behemoths can care for their communities. Meanwhile, and with great regret, Tammy Rostov moved her coffee emporium from Cary Street because of spiking rents.
Kelly Justice now puts books into my hands when I walk into her shop in Shockoe Slip. She once sold books on Cary Street.
As the world's supply of cheaply extracted oil dwindles, times will get hard and remain hard. The neighborhood where I grew up is now a racially mixed area of owner occupants. That part of the miracle on Cary Street makes this downturn different from that of my childhood; these new residents are not fleeing.
As the economy worsens and the big, suburban chains sputter and stumble, we will need places with local roots, where we can walk or bike to shop for things we use on a day-to-day basis. That has always been the best miracle of all on Cary Street. S
Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond. You can buy his donated set of 1970s Pier One tiki lamps at Second Debut by Goodwill in Carytown.
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