Downtown Belmont. In the opposite direction, the west end of East Main, called Vinegar Hill, was the core of the Black community and lined with small shops and businesses. Further west was West Main and the University of Virginia. Once the far reaches of West Main were considered a separate town, called University, with its own equivalent downtown blocks, known as The Corner.
Here is a rather amusing map, not in scale but showing the relative locations of Charlottesville’s various “downtowns”:
By World War One the outlying reaches had knitted together and all the disparate foci became secondary to East Main Street, the unmistakable downtown center of Charlottesville life.
In the waning years of the Eisenhower Administration, my mother would collect my brother and me on most Saturday mornings and we would walk five blocks to the nearest bus stop and catch a bus downtown. It was Mama’s way of getting out of the house once a week. This wasn’t really a shopping trip as much as a looking-at-things trip; it often involved a Coke or a dish of vanilla ice cream at Woolworth’s Five and Dime; sometimes we would go to a movie at the Paramount or the Jefferson Theater; we might go to Standard Drug or Gleason’s Bakery. The post office and the library were also common stops. Then we would catch the bus home. I’ve not been able to find a snapshot of us downtown, but the picture below shows Mama, my younger brother Alan, and myself in front of the Rotunda, on a late fifties outing.
provide some relief. This was a common practice. Even though the stores were closed in the evening except for the theaters and the Dixie News Stand and a couple of diners, Main Street would still be backed up end to end in both directions, from Vinegar Hill to the Belmont Bridge. Every traffic light in a three by five block grid would be jammed. With the headlights and the traffic lights and the neon, you might have sworn there was commercial
activity going on. But in reality, not much; people in cars cruised downtown to get some breeze. Some percentage of them might go to a movie.
When my brother and I were still in grade school, my mother went back to work, unusual for mothers in that era. It’s not easy to sort out my memories of our Saturday trips downtown in the late fifties from the late elementary school or middle school trips I later took downtown on my own. I sometimes caught the bus but 15 cents was a vital amount of money to me. (I made about two bucks a week in summer and fall mowing lawns and raking leaves and I got another quarter a week from my father; later, I worked a paper route with another kid, which gave me a bit more spending money.) So, I usually walked downtown; it took about 40 minutes and the bus only ran once an hour anyway.
The most important places to me in this period included a hobby or toy store that had the kinds of military models and figures I collected, the Dixie News Stand which had paperbacks I could afford, and an office supply store that had the art supplies I wanted, chiefly ink and calligraphy pens and sketch books. I don’t remember the names of the hobby store and the art store.
Most of the stores I remember are gone now, though the buildings remain. The theaters have been painstakingly restored and renovated. The Dixie News Stand is long gone. McCrory’s Five and Ten Cent store burned down in the sixties, and where it once was an outdoor fountain now anchors the downtown mall’s "Central Place.” The handsome post office/federal building on Market street, one block over, became the library. The McIntire Building, which housed the library, became a senior center and then the home of the Albemarle County Historical Society. The façade and shell of Gleason’s Bakery is still there, but the bakery closed years ago; an events venue, the Old Metropolitan Hall, has taken its place. Much of Vinegar Hill was sadly razed to the ground in the so-called urban renewal of the early sixties.
Though the uses of most of the downtown buildings have been altered to some degree, a few establishments are still what they were—for instance, the New Dominion Bookshop is still a bookstore, Timberlake's Drugstore is still a drugstore with soda fountain, and Standard Drug is a CVS.
Downtown Charlottesville fell into senescence in the late sixties. With the spread of affordable air conditioning even the nocturnal summer parade of cars with nowhere else to go fell off. The construction of the Barracks Road Shopping Center, and later of the Fashion Square Mall, the new-model supermarket, and improved television reception were also part of the reason.
The old downtown died fast and hard, and the city reacted with a daring foray into the realms of planning, plunging ahead with the reinvention of downtown, closing traffic on East Main Street and building a pedestrian mall. This is not a story about Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall. Suffice it to say, for the first several years the Downtown Mall was still fairly deserted. The things that killed the downtown didn’t exactly help the new mall. The few remaining businesses steadfastly shut their blinds shortly before sunset and went home to dinner. The theaters, a couple of diners, Standard Drug and the newsstand still owned the night, insofar as it was worth owning.
But in due course, the boutique movement, the restaurant renaissance, and the discovery of outdoor seating and public music all contributed to today’s bustling daytime activity and vibrant nightlife on the Downtown Mall. It is again a true center of town activity, though no longer the only center.
To me, though, downtown Charlottesville is a place of ghosts—ghosts of bygone buildings, bygone traffic and people of the past. I remember when the line of moviegoers wrapped around the block twice for the opening of Goldfinger at the Paramount. I was in that line. I worked downtown. I went to Lane High School (now the site of the Albemarle County Office Building) downtown. I mopped floors at night in the old Standard Drug until I had exactly enough money to buy my first typewriter, a seafoam-blue Swiss Hermes; ironically, it was the cheapest typewriter in the shop, because the keys were in the AZERTY alignment. I wish I still had it. It seemed expensive at the time; now I would say they were giving it away. The day I bought it I called the drug store and quit. I
hated mopping floors. I must have thousands of recoverable trivial memories of downtown.
community. Thus one evening I found myself at a table in the basement reception hall of that downtown church with a number of elderly black ladies of my mother’s generation, not really sure what to talk about. “I’m an Episcopalian” is a conversation-killer in basically every context, so I said, “Do you remember McCrory’s?”
They certainly did; these wonderful old ladies remembered everything. In minutes they brought Old Charlottesville back to life, memories of where things were, what people did, how it was. This may sound dull. It was actually thrilling. I’m exactly the right age to have seen the tail end of a bygone way of life that was, to say the least, different from today.
But memory is rarely free of loss and regret. The old ladies were remembering a Charlottesville that was segregated. Segregation was a background detail for most white people but a foreground detail for all black people. When these ladies rode the bus, they rode in back. They went into the theaters by a different door, and sat in the balconies. They could not sit at the lunch counters. They could be customers in some stores and not others. Downtown was one of chief locations where black people and segregation came into contact.
Segregation was not a custom, it was the law. For these old ladies, who at the time were young ladies, downtown was a place of official encounter where the lines were most sharply drawn. You could get into trouble by accident, by putting your foot wrong, by saying the wrong thing or even without doing anything. What I remembered from childhood as a safe and convenient place of stores and shops, mostly a good bit above my means, these ladies remembered as a place of restriction and potential threat—a place they had to go from time to time, but where they also had to follow an intricate body of special rules designed to shape how they could go, and what they couldn’t do or had to do.
Decades later they remembered all of this, not without hurt and regret, and they still couldn’t understand it.
Of course they couldn’t understand it. No one understood it. It was the law, which often is a substitute for thought and understanding. Few could imagine then how something entirely legal, mandated by the state and upheld by city officials, could also be completely wrong. Few could congeal the thought that something literally evil, designed by corrupt legislatures to inflict harm on innocent people, would naturally be enforced by the police with badge and club.
“People didn’t know what they were doing,” I said feebly to the old ladies in the basement of the Baptist church. “The people they thought were supposed to be in charge handed them an evil law, and they blindly went along with it because they were stupid and irresponsible. There’ll never be a shred of excuse for it. Even the children knew better.”
That’s roughly what I said. Other things I didn’t say: black Charlottesvillians were not merely innocent of segregation, they were innocent of the kind of thinking that created it. So were the white local rustics, out in the woods and fields raising pole beans and eating squirrels. It came from the Downtown people, the mayors, attorneys, business owners and judges and the people the lunch counters were built for.
The old downtowns are still full of ghosts and scars, lurking in the shadows of the new boutiques and tasting bars. We do well to take heed of Santayana’s warning, and acknowledge these ghosts.
In a couple of upcoming blog posts, I’ll write a bit about Downtown Belmont and The Corner.