Thursday, June 9, 2011

My Town

26th Street, 2011

There’s a Facebook page called “I grew up in Virginia Beach.” People post old pictures there. Some wax nostalgically about the “good old days.”

The 1950s and 1960s were simpler times in some ways. But in other ways they were primitive and brutal. Drunken sailors wandered between bars on Atlantic Avenue behaving like, well, drunken sailors. Paddy wagons from the Navy’s Shore Patrol police force were as ubiquitous as tee shirt shops are today.

In those days, it was unwise for people of color to come into the resort area unless it was to cut grass, do laundry, cook or clean hotel rooms and toilets.

In those days a few powerful people made all the important decisions. While in the guise of “guiding a growing city,” they feathered their nests. It was easy to make a fortune in real estate speculation, for example, when you knew, as one dying city father admitted to me from the safety of his death bed, where the roads were going to go.

I dare say most of us who didn’t grow up among the powerful don’t look back fondly on some of those times. But there are places that we miss. In the 50s and 60s, the Peppermint Lounge had a killer dance floor and live music. In the 70s The Shack on Seventeenth Street was a good locals hangout. There were enough little markets back off the beach that sold beer to under-age kids to keep us under-age kids buzzing.

What many of us miss are the buildings where our youth played out. It’s true that many of them have gone. Some deserved knocking down. Others have greater meaning, though, and are missed more.

Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again. I accept that. People come and go. It’s like the old joke told by university presidents about how new alumni start complaining barely an hour after the graduation ceremony is over about “what’s happened to my school.”

When big pieces of the landscape of home change, it’s easy to feel like the metaphorical house of your own history has slipped off its foundation. The familiar touchstones of your youth—the places you shopped, got your haircuts and went on dates—are gone. Some of the streets aren’t even where they used to be.

The resort area of Virginia Beach runs along the shore for just under three miles. When I was little there were hotels and inns along the beachfront. But among them were several hundred old family homes. Today there are no more than a dozen or two of those old homes left in the first couple of blocks off the ocean. There are so few of them, in fact, that those of us who follow such things can pretty much name them all. We especially notice when it looks like they’re no longer being cared for; that’s an almost certain sign that demolition is not far away.

The photo above is of an old beach cottage that has through the years devolved from a single family home into a duplex, an inn, a b&b and, in its latest incarnation, a hot rack for temporary resort industry workers from Russia and East Central Europe. Since the old house behind it was demolished this past spring, it’s the only old place left on the block. Parking lots for oceanfront hotels surround it. From the noticeable lack of attention given to its maintenance lately, my guess is that this house won’t be around next summer.


  1. What's that expression--"the only constant is that everything will change." It really is sad to see the old places go. Part of what I love about Italy is that really ancient places remain--nothing's new there. And it's all revered and cherished as it is. But you're right; we do tend to mythologize the past, and as you say, it wasn't always so rosy at the time. Love all the values in that shot above. Good thing you got this shot if this will be gone soon, too...

  2. Well I had a nice long comment that summary.......what an amazing area to grow up in......few places on earth like it......and I've seen a lot.

  3. I think a very interesting remnant of the old days you mention was the up-to recent banning of tattoo businesses on the southside.

    I am married to a woman who's father grew up on one of those disappeared streets, (Washington Ave and 19th St. is now a parking lot for the convention center). The fact that my father-in-law used to have to travel all the way over to Witchduck and VA Beach Blvd. to attend high-school, or go to the Norfolk's Ocean View to visit the beach doesn't seem to embitter him that much. But then again who knows.

    I know that my favorite irony is that Union Kempsville was closed down after integration because it wasn't good enough for the white kids. That one always made me shake my head in wonder.