Monday, February 7, 2011

Take Another Little Piece of My Heart Now, Baby

31st Street, 2011

When you’re a kid the world look so big. Distances are longer. Adults are taller. The house you grow up in seems big, even if it isn’t.

Have you ever been back to the house where you spent your youth? Did the visit live up to your expectations? I had a chance once to visit the house where I spent much of my youth. The little Cape Cod-style house seemed incredibly small, though in 1954 my parents were elated to be able to afford it and were probably puzzled as to what to do with all the space.

Back then almost the entirety of our family’s retail shopping could be done in the block shown in the photograph above. We lived just a few minutes away. Most of what surrounds the block today didn’t exist back then. The town of Virginia Beach extended no more than two or three miles in any direction from here.

There was a barber shop I visited every other Saturday morning, a drug store, a variety of gift shops (including one that ran a small lending library), an ice cream store, two different grocery stores, a bakery, dry cleaner, a stock brokerage, a florist, a liquor store, appliance store, a few doctors’ offices, a post office, clothing stores for men and women, a gas station and two restaurants.

All but the grocery stores were owned by people who worked in them. Everyone knew Wendy at Bill’s Barber Shop, Webster at Webster’s men’s shop, Joe at the Texaco, Ursula at The Ragged Robin and Ruby Rock, the straight-talking cashier at the Colonial grocery store.

This probably never was a particularly attractive stretch. The block had been developed in pieces over the years by different people. It doesn’t appear that any thought had been given to the design of these structures other than that they be cheap boxes from which things could be sold. The intervening years have done little to improve the scene. The wear and tear of age and the tug of gravity have been hard on these old buildings. Every decade or so someone would attempt to dress them up by slapping some new siding over top of the original brick or clapboard. But it didn’t really fool anyone. One grocery store closed. The other moved a few blocks “out of town.” Some of the smaller shops died along with their owners.

The biggest hit occurred when the town became a city and the boundaries of the new city extended to include almost five hundred square miles. This street was no longer a primary shopping area. The era of strip shopping centers and then malls was upon us. In recent years, a number of the storefronts were taken over by a health food store. The stock brokerage became a popular bar and nightspot. The family-owned drug store closed. A national pharmacy chain moved into the old grocery store. Bill’s Barber Shop closed in the late 1960s. Ursula, Wendy and Webster are all long gone.

Now the whole block’s slated to be replaced by a mixed-use development of “Resort Lifestyle Apartments,” “Exciting Boutiques, Restaurants and Cafes” and office space. The remaining businesses have been shooed off to other places. The development will be new and clean and modern. But if the drawings are to be believed, it will have about as much charm and personality as any nondescript suburban apartment complex.

Resort Lifestyle Apartments, 2011

This happens everywhere. New is always replacing old, and frequently for good reason. A lot of people thought this new development should have been blocked. I’m not one for fighting for undistinguished, worn out buildings, though. I’ll just miss the satisfaction of patronizing locally owned businesses. I’ll miss the hodgepodge of contrasting colors different shopkeepers used on the outsides of their stores to draw attention. But I’ll get over it.

Oh, and lest you think I forgot her, Ruby Rock survived long enough to outlast several changes of grocery store ownership and eventually retired as head cashier at the “out of town” store.


  1. It's what we do in America. I'm always amazed in Europe that places you visit have been there for centuries, and it's part of their charm--we travel overseas to enjoy it, in fact. We are so fickle here, and most of the time, what we replace things with is no better than what we had in the first place.

  2. What a great (and sad) picture, and thanks for the opportunity to re-live the old memories. I remember the toy section at Roses, and the managers' area inside the Colonial Store, a perch that sat up high in the corner of the store. I don't remember Ruby but I am sure my mom did.

  3. It's what is known, erroneously, as "progress".