Vintage Wards Corner circa 1982

Remember Me When I’m Gone

By demolishing its past, Norfolk has lost its sense of place as a city

By Michael J Davye

First it was my high school, Norfolk Catholic. Next, it was the Lafayette Motor Lodge at the south end of the Granby Street Bridge; my dad’s parents stayed there whenever they came to visit in the early ‘70s. Later, it was The Kings Head Inn, Anthony’s Pizza and, finally, Dominic’s – the punk rock club of my late teens and early 20s. Over the years I have grown used to the reality of so many places I loved and grew up with being torn down. It just seems to be what Norfolk does – demolish anything old and cool and put up something new and bland. I’ve always wondered why Norfolk consistently seems to be cutting out its own heart.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised on the day after Christmas when I rolled to a stop at the intersection of Granby and Little Creek and found most of Wards Corner demolished. I moved away from Norfolk over a decade ago, but I come back a few times a year to visit my mom, who lives in the house I grew up in near Granby High. The last few times I came to see Mom, I took the Monitor-Merrimac and came in through Portsmouth, so I hadn’t seen Wards Corner in a year or more.

It felt as if I had just found out that an old friend had died. I couldn’t take it in; it was ALL gone. A huge part of my life between the ages of 5 and 15 took place at Wards Corner and now it was demolished. The Hirschler’s where I got my first pair of “big boy” shoes, gone. The K&K Toys lunch counter where I bought my first meal all by myself, at age 11, gone. The Suburban Newsstand where I bought my first comics and later caught glimpses of naked women in carelessly guarded issues of Playboy and Penthouse, gone. The Suburban movie theatre where I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind with my dad, gone. The Campaign Headquarters where I spent hours playing war games, gone. Tracks, where I bought my first records and met the Ramones at an in-store appearance, gone. And finally, Mr. Jims Subs was gone. It was here that I got my first sub sandwich and, later, where I played pinball on the ancient Mickey Mantle pinball machine with Johnny Ramone. By the time I got to my mom’s house five minutes later, I felt like somebody had yanked a chapter out of my life and flushed it down the toilet.

Now, Wards Corner had changed long ago from what it was in my youth. It had gotten pretty seedy and almost nothing remained from my childhood except the 15 Barbers barber shop, where I never saw anything even close to 15 barbers in my entire life. I’m not talking about the loss of the businesses themselves; I’m talking about the loss of the sense of place and the time I had spent in that place when I was young.

Years ago I was in New York with a friend and we went up to Washington Heights to see where her grandmother, who lives near Wards Corner, grew up. After a subway ride that seemed like it would never end, we were in the old neighborhood. Not only were we able to visit the tenement where her grandma grew up, we were able to stand in the church where she got married and walk into the corner store where she had worked behind the candy counter 60 years earlier.

Being able to walk into and visit those places really “explained” a lot about who my friend’s grandmother was, her way of being in the world, in a way nothing else could. Of course, the tenement had different people living in it all these years later and the corner store was no longer an ice cream store; it was a discount appliance store frequented by Hasidic Jews and Dominicans. But the block was pretty much unchanged, physically. If my friend’s grandma returned to her old neighborhood, she would be able to instantly reconnect with her past. This was something I could no longer do with Wards Corner or so many other places in Norfolk. Over the past 35 years, most of my history in Norfolk has been erased.

I’m proud of being born and bred in Norfolk. I spent 32 of my first 34 years of life there (I’m 46 now). Whenever I meet people and they talk about growing up in New York, Berlin, New Orleans or Rangoon, I always proudly chime in about growing up in Norfolk. I regale them with tales of battling drunken sailors in the parking lots of Filipino grocery stores that sold alcohol to those of us without proper ID. I recount the time Walter Chrysler told my father and me about the new Degas he had just purchased and in the next breath complained that there were no more 2-for-1 dented cans of peaches at the Giant grocery store. I tell them about the delight of watching Mr. Doumar make ice cream cones on the machine that started it all. I love my hometown, what’s left of it.

When I started writing this article, I was going to write a simple remembrance of the role Wards Corner played in my life, a nostalgia sort of piece. But then I started thinking about all the places in Norfolk that I loved and how almost every one of them had been torn down and I got sad and a little angry. Ever since I was a teenager in the 1980s, I’ve had the feeling that the “powers that be” in Norfolk have been, and still are, more than just a little ashamed of Norfolk. I’ll go a bit further and say I think they wish Norfolk were more like Virginia Beach. Over the past 55 years, it seems that the various mayors and city councils have tried to wave a magic wand of demolition and erase anything in Norfolk that pre-dated World War II, especially if it might connect Norfolk to its rough and tumble past. Whereas cities like Baltimore and New Orleans preserve, promote and even revel in their histories, warts and all, Norfolk really seems inexplicably determined to spend all its energy and money trying to remake itself into Virginia Beach Town Center.

But should we expect anything different from a city that demolished dozens of Federal time period houses to make way for parking lots for city workers? The aforementioned parking lots were eventually replaced by MacArthur Mall. And then there is the so-called Cannonball Trail, the perfect metaphor for Norfolk. It’s a trail where you walk around downtown Norfolk and see plaques commemorating all these places that played a key role in Norfolk’s history, that, of course, the city has torn down. (I think Norfolk should immediately change the name to The Wrecking Ball Trail) Norfolk is the only city I know that would pull down a beautiful art deco building to put up a totally generic condo high-rise. Any other city would have had the foresight to renovate it and turn it into pricey lofts and office space.

I was sitting in a restaurant in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond a few weeks ago thinking about what might have happened to the building I was sitting in if it had been in Norfolk. Instead of doing what the owners did and preserve the original plank flooring, restore the beautiful tin ceiling and repaint the 100 year old ad for Bromo-Seltzer that was on the outside wall so it looked brand new, Norfolk would have knocked it down and put up condos or something approximating a chain restaurant. This restaurant is in a hundred year old building that had once been a central part of its neighborhood – its drugstore – and it has once again become a key destination in the neighborhood. Other businesses are moving in nearby to build on this momentum and young home buyers are moving into the neighborhood as well.

This pattern is being repeated in neighborhoods throughout Richmond, because Richmond is filled with buildings – indeed entire neighborhoods – that carry a sense of character and history. It is this character and history that attract businesses and people to live, work and play in the city, somewhere that doesn’t look and feel like a hundred other places.

I keep hearing about how the big wheels in Norfolk want to create a vibrant urban environment where the so-called “creative classes” will congregate. What the Norfolk movers and shakers keep getting wrong is that the “creative classes” don’t want to live and work in place that looks like an extension of a suburb where the city fathers seem to base their urban planning a desire to erase the past. They want to live in a city that looks and feels like a city, a place that has a sense of history and place. What Norfolk leaders need to be worried about is that a city that has destroyed so much of its past will struggle to have much of a future as a real city.