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Colley Avenue: The Heart of Ghent

December 22, 20184806Views

Ghent's Colley Avenue is a microcosm of Americana where small, independent businesses coexist with the encroachment of national chains. Much of the neighborhood has stood architecturally unchanged over the past 90 years, but in recent decades the general hustle and bustle on the street has seen an uptick in traffic as the community has revitalized.

The street is named after early and notable Norfolk resident, John Colley. Colley served as a councilman and operated as a shipwright within the family business before he eventually fell victim to Norfolk's infamous yellow fever plague in 1855. His grave was relocated to Forest Lawn after development resulted in the tearing down of his family estate in 1960.

The early days of the thoroughfare were defined by the historic "Atlantic City" -- bordering where Brambleton now crosses Colley. Originally characterized by a thriving section of apartments, theaters, and local businesses, it existed as a separate township until annexed by Norfolk in 1890. Eventually, the area fell to progress in the 50s and serves today as the grounds for Norfolk General Hospital and its related support buildings. The original community of around 700 people was largely comprised of young people who were mostly born and raised in Virginia. As the first few decades wound on, immigrants from Europe began to filter in.

Colley Avenue at Princess Ann, 1938. -- Sargeant Memorial Collection-Norfolk Public Library. If you stand in this exact spot today, you'll note that it looks nearly the same.

Time exerts changes here, as it does everywhere else. The Do-Nut Dinette originated as a chain from out of Charlotte, NC. The Colley Ave location opened in 1952 with counter service for half a century before closing down in 2005. The spot reopened for about a decade under new ownership before changing hands again. It has since been remodeled and re-opened as "The Little Dog Diner" -- a subsidiary to the Red Dog Saloon, which is a few blocks down the street.

Further down the road AT&T Wireless occupies a space that used to sit next to Open House Diner, formerly known as "Steak and Eggs." It was a favorite spot for poets and night owls for years until its closure some time in the early aughts. There have been a few attempts at all night dining on the street since then, but none have taken root. When Open House went under, there was no notice given to employees and the building was torn down two days after closing, along with the small bank branch that used to sit where AT&T Wireless is now. Today, a ceramics workshopping business sits where the restaurant used to.

Built in 1922, James Blair Middle School was the first junior high school to be raised by Norfolk's education system. The original main section stands three stories tall, constructed of solid brick with limestone trim. The design from local architectural company, "Calrow, Wrenn, and Tazewell" echoes Beaux Arts architectural styling, which draws heavily on French neo-classicism. The school is named after one of the founders of the College of William and Mary.

Originally called "The Colley Theater," the Naro Cinema first opened its doors back in 1936 during an age where movie palaces reigned over the entertainment landscape. It boasts a unique Art Deco styling with appointed seating for 500. The theater thrived until the death of its founder, Norfolk resident William S. Wilder. Wilder came up working in many of the areas theaters, including the NorVa and the Wells. The establishment was renamed as the Naro by a new owner in the 60s, and stands today as the last operating movie palace in Norfolk.

In addition to the theater, the Naro curates one of the largest remaining collections of for-rent video on the eastern seaboard.

Many of the residential apartments in Ghent lack dedicated washers and dryers due to the limitations of historic buildings -- The Norfolk-Colley Avenue Laundry Land survives while many other laundry-mat operations have long since failed. The location is open seven days a week and offers drop off laundry services.

The Colley Cantina is a favorite watering hole in the neighborhood. Ownership changed hands back in 2014 and for a time the pub sat closed while the new management remodeled the interior. It was recently bought out by new owners at the start of this year, but continues as a bustling gathering point for many. One of the many open mics in the area runs here on a bi-weekly basis.

Rent prices have expanded greatly since I moved into the neighborhood back in 1998. Back then, studios could be had for as little as $400 a month, including utilities. Today, you're hard pressed to find anything in the community for less than $900.

The area is home to a community of artists, and you see signs of this all over. Higher costs of living make it harder every day for income challenged painters and poets to thrive, but there are always nooks and crannies where we've managed to find space.

The neighborhood would differ greatly if we were completely pushed out -- part of the charm of Ghent is the fact that you have well off citizens in half-million dollar homes living side by side with starving artists.

Ghent's oldest indie coffee shop carries on even though its founder has passed. Started by longtime Norfolk resident, Elliot Jurens -- back in 2001, Fairgrounds Coffee was a light and a haven in a day when Starbucks reigned unchallenged. One of the longest running open mics in the city -- second only to the Venue at 35th Street's weekly affair on Mondays, runs here.

Jurens led a storied life that included a tour of duty in Vietnam, a spell as a copywriter at the Virginia Pilot, and three decades behind the helm of a restaurant before retiring. Apparently allergic to rest and relation, he rebounded to start Fairgrounds, running it successfully until his final retirement in 2012. The current owner, Mike Dimirsky, stepped in to take the shop over in 2014. While Elliot passed in 2016, his spirit remains a vital presence in the venue. He was known as a man of quiet charity and mischievous wit, who gave service to others with no expectations. Ghent is poorer today without him.

If you want to see the unvarnished soul of a city, look to the backs of the buildings. Walk its alleys. The true stories remain there, even as the front facing facades are revitalized every decade or so.

This vaguely Colonial style of commercial architecture once dominated the rest of the city, before it was torn down in the name of urban renewal, or prettified under the guise of gentrification.

I've walked past this building thousands of times over the past twenty years without any clue as to what it's purpose is. The stained glass lancet windows call back to the architecture of gothic churches, and in writing this I finally decided to research what the purpose of this space is.

It turns out that the building originated in 1937 as the James V Derry Funeral Chapel, which served as a way-station for many notable Norfolkians before their final journey to the grave. Later it was purchased by the Twiford Funeral Home company as part of their expansion into Virginia from Elizabeth City, NC. This location was most notable for handling General Douglas MacArthur’s funeral arrangements.

In 2002, Rabbi Aron and Rychel Margolin, members of a religious organization known as Chabad, purchased the building as the new home for the Tidewater outpost of the group. Their outreach locally dates back to 1979, serving Jewish peoples in Norfolk regardless of denominational affiliation as part of a larger, worldwide movement. Chabad provides humanitarian aid, religious, cultural and educational activities as well as soup kitchens. The emissaries who run it today are highly respected as members of Norfolk's interfaith community.

On the opposite end of the busy thoroughfare, stands the First Lutheran Church of Norfolk, erected in 1929. The congregation officially dates back to 1894, originally meeting in Norfolk, Virginia. Reverend J. E. Schenck was the church's first pastor. The church originally met in the old Norfolk Academy building on Bank Street, which itself was built in 1840.

Over the years the church met in a hall on the corner of Charlotte and Granby until buying a house further down the road near Monticello Avenue. Sadly, that spot was lost too a fire in 1903. After a rebuild and another relocation, ground was struck for their current building. The pastor behind that, Reverend Luther Warren Strickler presided nearly four decades until his retirement in 1966. Today, this location is considered to be the "Mother Church" of Southeastern Virginia for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Prominent in the Church's design, one notices the repetition of an S throughout. I'm not sure what that refers to, not being of the faith myself -- but if you know holler at me. I'm curious about it. I mean.. Not curious enough to risk spontaneous combustion by stepping inside to ask anyone about it.. Mind you.

Encroachment from national chains is always a concern in this neighborhood. But wherever possible we push big corporations to hue to a certain panache and style. The Rite Aid here is an excellent example of big business blending in well with historic nature of the district.

Today, Colley Avenue serves a vital purpose as the beating heart of our neighborhood. It's where we gather to break bread and share a beer. It's where we gather for art and music. Where we sing. Where we laugh. Over the next decade the neighborhood will cross its century mark. What will we look like a hundred years from now? Will the trend towards insularization continue until the street is empty as we peer out from our individual fortresses of solitude? Or will the sense of community survive?

Time will tell.

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Words & pictures by Jeff Hewitt. Shot through on film with a Leica R8 and a Vario-Elmar. You can see more of Jeff's work at