If Maymont represents the elegance of Richmond, if the James River is its natural beauty, then truly Carytown is its personality. Sure, area shoppers may flock to Short Pump Town Center, but if it were to disappear tomorrow, would a single tear be shed? But Carytown, that's a place that people not only shop, they love.
That's because Carytown is Richmond in microcosm. Everything that Richmond is, all its contradictions — forward-thinking but stuck in time, stodgy but funky, creative and quirky, stubborn yet open-minded — can be found if you stroll along Cary Street. Feeling oh-so-proper as a Junior Leaguer? Pop into Merrymaker for the perfect engraved invitations. Dying to see and be seen? Grab an open-air window seat at Can Can. Are you an aging punk rocker on the quest for some obscure vinyl? Next stop, Plan 9. French-film/cult-movie/just-plain-cheap movie fan? The one and only historic Byrd Theatre.
Carytown's allure is in its one-of-a-kind, can't-find-it-anywhere-elseness. But for a few encroaching national chains, Carytown is roughly a mile of pure Richmond: homegrown stores that have defied the odds to stay that way.
That said, Carytown now faces a crossroads, not necessarily in terms of its growth or economy, but of its very identity. A Maryland developer has petitioned for a zoning change for the former Verizon office building at 10 Nansemond St. from office to commercial to make way for a possible "big box" retailer. Rumors are swirling about a Whole Foods grocery store, which would join Martin's, Kroger and locally owned Ellwood Thompson's as the fourth grocery store in a two-block radius.
The reaction has been less than enthusiastic, to say the least. Neighbors have created a Save Carytown Facebook page, and "Don't Big Box Carytown" signs are popping up around the neighborhood. Not that the neighborhood is hostile to national retailers. McDonald's, Starbucks, Subway, 7-11 and American Apparel (as well as Kroger and now Martin's) coexist peacefully with the homegrown shops and restaurants. But with this new proposal, the neighbors and businesses of Carytown seem to feel under siege like never before.
Maybe that's because on a gut level, people know that some huge shiny retailer, with its underground parking garage, increased traffic and chainy aesthetic is a step too far, too drastic. It is, quite simply, inauthentic.
It's as if Carytown is a woman wrestling with the decision to get a boob job.
The pros and cons are pretty much the same: Yes, I will get more attention. Yes, I'll feel more confident. Yes, I will definitely get more, um, traffic. But will people still like me just for myself anymore? Will it change who I am? Won't I feel a little ... fake?
"The whole chain mentality just doesn't fit Carytown," said Bob Broomfield, president of the Carytown Merchants Association, in a WTVR-6 report. Yet the Merchants Association is remaining oddly neutral about the rezoning issue, saying only that it will support any development that fits within the city's master plan for the area.
Apparently, diverging opinions within the 90-member group kept it from coming to consensus. Anne Kennon, association vice president, summed up the division in the Times-Dispatch: "One man's urban sprawl is another man's growth."
Personally, I don't want to see a drastic change in Carytown. I love its upscale, offbeat, funky vibe. I love that it has evolved organically over the years while stubbornly protecting its identity. If the Merchants Association wants to keep that identity, it had better pick a side, or else Carytown soon may be sporting a new pair of double-Ds.
And that most certainly will give a whole new meaning to the watermelon festival.