A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
by Charles McGuigan
The heart of any real neighborhood is its commercial district. It pumps vitality into the community that surrounds it, strengthens the local economy and improves the very quality of life. Bellevue and Ginter Park are lucky enough to have two such areas—one on Bellevue Avenue and the other on MacArthur Avenue, which is the focus of this story.
Nineteen years ago, when the inaugural issue of North of the James magazine (then NorthSide magazine) first appeared, MacArthur Avenue was a ghost town, almost post-apocalyptic. Dot’s Back Inn, Rich’s Stitches, Decatur’s Garage and Lauterbach Electric were there, but not much else. The storefronts on the strip were by and large vacant or housed questionable businesses. Windows soaped over or so encrusted with grit that they were opaque: You couldn’t see in. It was depressing.
But it hadn’t always been that way. For decades Bellevue and MacArthur avenues were bustling, vibrant business strongholds, bastions of free enterprise. During those boom years, Bellevue Avenue housed three grocery stores—a Lukhard’s, a Safeway and Wood’s Store. And there was also Willey’s Drug Store where politics was served up with a limeade on a summer afternoon.
MacArthur Avenue was home to two movie theatres. Samis Grotto was formerly the Bellevue and on the site of Once Upon A Vine there was a second theatre called the MacArthur. Before World War II, the street was called Rappahannock Avenue—the name was changed after VJ Day to honor General Douglas MacArthur. The MacArthur Theatre eventually became a skating rink. And there were many other businesses along the strip and no vacancies. There was a Sinclair Service Station, a hardware store and a grocery store. MacArthur Avenue was also home to the Bellevue Post Office which was located in the building that now houses 4025 Yoga. Fifteen years ago, I interviewed a long-time resident of Bellevue, a woman by the name of Elizabeth Reynolds. She told me that once the Bellevue Post Office was relocated in the early 1970s, business along MacArthur went rapidly south. “Moving the post office was the worst thing that ever happened in Bellevue,” she told me.
Where MacArthur Avenue fell into palpable decline, Bellevue Avenue generally held its own. I spoke recently with Brenda Stankus who co-owns Classic Touch Cleaning with her husband Joe. She also operates a full art school out of the same space on Bellevue. Their residential cleaning business is brisk and all of Brenda’s art classes are filled to capacity. She and her husband have lived in North Side since 1978. Her husband grew up on Noble Avenue and she attended John Marshall High School.
“Bellevue Avenue never really went downhill,” Brenda told me. “The stores here are more visible and have grown up with the city.”
But the same was not true of MacArthur Avenue. “When I married Joe there wasn’t anything over there,” she says. “There was just Ray’s Cock and Bull and Decatur’s. That was before Dot’s Back Inn or anything else was there.”
Bellevue Avenue still has strong tenants, including Nicola Flora, Northside Grill and the newest kid on the block, Little House Green Grocery open seven days a week and owned and operated by Erin Wright and Jessica Goldberg.
“Our goal is to provide fresh food to the neighborhood and to support local Virginia producers,” says Jessica. “And we feel like we’re accomplishing our goals.” They’ve already seen consistent traffic since their opening back in December. As Erin says, “We have a lot of people who do their weekly shopping here and come in for things they know they can find here.”
Just next door is Northside Grille, which was an immediate success when it opened its doors in May of 2007. A lot of that has to do with its owner, Shanan Chambers, hard-working and diligent. Her restaurant seats 100 indoors and another 75 outdoors on the covered patio. She is quick to point out that the restaurants in Bellevue on both commercial corridors make things better for everyone. “We have a lot of people who now come to Bellevue to eat because we’ve got so much to offer and it’s all different,” she says. Shanan, for a time, had run an ice cream parlor and deli on MacArthur Avenue. It’s now home to the mill on MacArthur, one of the most popular restaurants in the neighborhood.
It’s hard to believe that it was just under two years ago that Amy Foxworthy and Josh Carlton opened the mill: They have become that integral a part of the community. “We’ve had such success because of the loyalty of the people in the neighborhood and their willingness to try a new place and keep coming back,” says Amy standing behind the bar, filling orders as she speaks, never missing a beat. “You have over 3,000 residences within one mile and it works well for us.”
During her relatively short tenure Amy has already noticed palpable changes. She mentions the success of National Night Out and Christmas on MacArthur, both of which are sponsored annually by the Bellevue Merchants Association. “The merchants association has done a lot to improve the street and Chris Hilbert (Third District Councilman) has done a lot in getting the trees put in.” Amy also mentions the police men and women who regularly drop by the mill and other businesses on the strip. “The police officers have been absolutely amazing,” she says. “They come in all the time. They support our businesses. And they look out for us.”
Today you can eat at a different restaurant every day of the week in Bellevue, and Amy sees this as a very good thing. “I think it’s a healthy competition that brings people to our little strip of the world,” she says. “In the Fan it’s always worked and it has in Carytown. Those strings of businesses and restaurants bring people again and again to see what’s going on. That’s happening here now. Places that are doing so well, Dot’s Back Inn, Northside Grille, Tastebuds. Everyone does something that is slightly different. It gives people variety.”
Amy hopes that someday signs will be installed on Laburnum to let people know where MacArthur Avenue is, this business district tucked in the heart of Bellevue. “We have to do everything we can to let people know that this street exists because it is such a weird little street,” she says. “It kind of dead ends at Bellevue and Laburnum. It doesn’t go anywhere, and if you don’t know about it you don’t know about it. It would be nice to get signage at Laburnum and MacArthur.”
MacArthur Avenue is merely five blocks long and just one block of this stretch is lined with businesses. But that block has tremendous appeal, day and night. At night, all lit up, the street buzzes with activity. Restaurants packed, a honey colored light emanating from the storefronts, people buying wine and beer at Once Upon A Vine, Stir Crazy pulsing with a green aura. It’s a sort of cross between Mayberry and Carytown with a slice of Main Street, USA, and a sliver of Our Town.
If there is a mayor of MacArthur Avenue that title would have to go to Bob Kocher, owner of Once Upon A Vine, which celebrates its ninth year this May. Bob and Chris Egghart , whose wife Helen Campbell owns 4025 Yoga and Wellness, were instrumental in starting the Bellevue Merchants Association and putting together annual events including Oktoberfest, National Night Out and Christmas on MacArthur.
“When I got here there were four vacant shops down the street,” Bob tells me as we stand in his parking lot. “The street was a mess. It’s been cleaned and we got trash receptacles and trees planted.”
Before Bob Kocher opened Once Upon A Vine he had run a successful grocery store called Price’s Market for 20 years on Strawberry Street in the heart of the Fan. There he had helped create the Strawberry Street Festival back in 1979. It’s all part of his philosophy about community businesses.
“As I said to our merchants at our first meeting, ‘It’s nice to stand on this side of the counter and take that money in and pay for your car, your kid’s tuition, your insurance, your house payment, but sometimes you got to stand on the other side of the counter and give back,’” says Bob. “And when you give back it always comes back. It comes back two fold. This is a close knit community—Ginter Park and Bellevue—and when you show people you, as a business owner, care about them, they, in return wind up caring about you, too.”
Just around the corner from Bob’s, next to Rich’s Stitches (see article on page 6) is Stir Crazy, the neighborhood coffeehouse. Owner Jerry Bistline opened his shop a week after Bob Kocher opened his. Years before, back in the mid-1990’s Jerry would often eat lunch at Dot’s Back Inn (see article on page 14) and it was then that the seed for the coffee and sandwich shop was first planted.
“I remember looking out the window there and noticing this bank of storefronts across the street and how cool they were architecturally and how empty they were,” he remembers. A few years later he bought a house in Bellevue and then in September of 2003 signed a lease on the property that would become Stir Crazy. “Inside there were dead pinball machines everywhere and the place was dirty, but through the magic of a bank loan and city grants here stands Stir Crazy Café,” he says.
It took almost a year to get city permits in line, but he opened the following May and has seen changes on MacArthur that border on the unbelievable. “It has been amazing,” says Jerry. “When I opened Stir Crazy you could have parked an eighteen-wheeler on this street most days of the week and had some room to spare. Now when I drive down here even on a Monday or a Tuesday night I have to park out back in my parking place behind my store because you can’t park on the street. That’s what’s transitioned in this neighborhood. Our good friends and neighbors have helped with trees and bicycle racks (the bicycle racks were purchased by a local Girl Scout Troop and Bob Kocher) and everything else and now instead of having a nowhere land in the middle of our neighborhood we actually have a nice place to walk to. There’s anything you want on this street as far as edible goes.”
Jerry shakes his head. “It’s really exploded,” he says. “The old adage, a rising tide lifts all boats, is absolutely true. Every time you get somebody on this street that walks by here in the evening. Maybe they’re on their way to the mill or they’re on their way to Dot’s Back Inn. You see them stop and look at the place and perhaps make a mental note, ‘I’ll give this play a try tomorrow.’ It’s just a great place to be and a great time to be here, truly.”
Tastebuds American Bistro is just up the street and owner Andrew Wisniewski has a seen a lot of changes since he first opened in another building on MacArthur Avenue.
“It’s night and day from when we first came onto this street,” he says. “We bought Tastebuds, which was a catering business, in 2002 and even on a Saturday afternoon there wasn’t a soul out here.”
He noticed subtle changes in the neighborhood a few years later and began offering food to go. “When we saw all these new people moving in to the neighborhood we saw an opportunity to do a take-out business and we had dining for 12 patrons,” he says. Five years ago he opened Tastebuds American Bistro and his business is doing well.
He mentions his neighbor, the mill. “They’re doing a bang up business and bringing all sorts of new people to the street and that’s helping everyone,” says Andrew. “And that’s true with the coffee shop and the beer and wine shop, too. We’re a good business community. Everybody visits one another at their restaurants. If we have to turn people away we inform them that there other choices around the neighborhood and that helps all of us.”
One of the prime movers in the Bellevue Merchants Association is Chris Egghart. He’s worked tirelessly to assist in physical improvements on MacArthur Avenue. He helped secure four decorative waste cans from the Clean City Commission and helped with two rounds of tree plantings. The first, paid for through Councilman Chris Hilbert’s district funds, included five European hornbeams and two English oaks. An additional eight hornbeams were funded by the Bellevue Merchants Association and the Bellevue Civic Association. He also helped with a privately funded initiative that included the placement of wooden box planters with evergreen junipers along with large ceramic pots.
Chris’s wife, Helen Campbell, owns 4025 Wellness and Yoga, which conducts charity events, provides teacher training work study, offers discounts to the unemployed and disabled, and works to bring yoga programs to people with medical problems who can benefit from the practice.
Not long ago, the Ginter Park Residents Association presented the Bellevue Merchants Association with a check for $1,909 for the planting of additional trees along MacArthur Avenue. “We give this money each year to an organization in the community that is really making a difference in Ginter Park,” says GPRA president Rebecca Dodson. “Even though MacArthur is not in Ginter Park we consider it our retail strip. They’ve done so much in the past few years improving the looks on MacArthur Avenue and we wanted to be part of that.”
The city also wants to be part of the MacArthur Enhancement. Thanks to Third District Councilman Chris Hilbert, approximately $240,000 will be spent in the next year for the planting of crepe myrtles and the installation of ornamental street lighting, comparable to the fixtures on Hermitage Road.
“The numbers are out to bid,” Chris Hilbert tells me. “When the city gets those numbers back then they’ll award a contract and we’ll start to move forward. This is part of an overall city improvement.”
Like other area residents, Chris has watched the slow, but steady progress, on MacArthur Avenue. “I believe that it’s a real success story,” he says. “It’s becoming the gathering place for north Richmond. My wife and I have lived in Ginter Park for 17 years and the transformation has just been wonderful to see, and to have a small part in it is very gratifying.”
Chris Hilbert, as a councilman, has always been committed to the revitalization of commercial corridors and he hails the progress on MacArthur. Then he says this, and it’s good advice to follow: “I would just ask everyone as we’re out in our daily toing and froing to remember those local merchants because they are the key for our success as a community. Keep those merchants in mind because they are the ones that are building our community, day in, day out, and we’ve got to support them if we want them there in the long run.”