PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
May 20, 2003

Watching Norfolk Come to Life

by Jim Newsom

When I first started working in downtown Norfolk in 1981, I parked in a gravel lot hanging over the Elizabeth River. It was the cheapest parking available, cost a dollar a day, and made for a cold walk to the United Virginia Bank building. I remember windy winter mornings that were bleak and depressing, walking up a mostly deserted Main Street to work.

There weren’t many places to eat lunch downtown in those days. I used to grab a barbecue and fries in a dumpy pastel blue eatery called the Monarch Sandwich Shop. If memory serves me, it was located about where the revolving door entrance to the Waterside Marriott is today. The Monarch was one of a row of short, drab storefronts lined up where that busy hotel now stands.

Today, that gravel parking lot is Town Point Park, a beautiful green oasis in a thriving downtown that began a remarkable comeback in 1983. The comeback started with the opening of the Waterside for Harborfest of that year. I was there for the opening night pirate parade, and had dinner at the anchor tenant of that “festival marketplace,” Phillips Seafood Restaurant. I saw then-Governor Chuck Robb having dinner there with his wife during that first weekend.

I performed on the outside deck at Phillips in its early days, playing all the singalong acoustic songs and trying to sandwich in some meaningful originals along with a touch of Dylan and Woody Guthrie. That deck was a great place for a single guy to spend a weekend night. Il Porto, Waterside’s Italian restaurant, also provided a great Sunday afternoon Happy Hour.

Granby Street was a “mall,” but one with very little foot traffic. I think Frankie’s Got It record store was still open, and of course Bootsie’s news stand, but I couldn’t tell you what, if anything, else was there. You just didn’t want to walk down Granby in those days.

Ghent, on the other hand, was a wonderful place to live and play. The after-work happy hour at AJR Doubleday’s, just across the parking lot from the Giant, served up a feast. You could eat enough free hors d'oeuvres to make a satisfying dinner, and the place was packed. The Intermission was always alive with local personalities and a joyful noise, and Elliott’s hooked me on their spinach pasta as my side of choice no matter the entree. The Naro showed double features of classic films, and I spent many long evenings there. Mike’s Colley Deli offered the best subs and sandwiches, which you could take in and eat for dinner in the theatre’s balcony.

I don’t recall exactly what year Dan’s Hideaway became Kelly’s, but I’m sure it had happened by the time Port Folio first hit the stands in ’83. They still called their burger a “Dan’s Special” in honor of the greasy hole-in-the-wall that preceded it, a place where a burger, fries and a beer could be had for a couple of bucks as a prelude to a night at the Naro.

How many times did I perform at Cogan’s? Every Tuesday night was Open Mike night, and what an assemblage of musicians made their way to that stage each week. The king of them all was yodeling senior citizen Nate Pace, who knew three chords and a bunch of Jimmie Rodgers songs. Michelle Franklin did her bleach blonde version of Patti Smith, Ken Farrar sang his earnest folk songs, Patti Costis & Teresa Andrews blended their voices in heavenly harmonies, and Roger Sherman did a little magic and emceed with P.T. Barnum aplomb.

The Coach House offered a place for a singer/guitarist to play further up Colley Avenue, and the Wayfarer Tavern was a place to play for minimum pay at Ward’s Corner. Uncle Louie’s opened up sometime around the same period, and I hosted a weekly open-mike night there for awhile on Mondays.

After Town Point Park replaced the riverside gravel lot, the downtown place to park for us cheapskates became the massive empty space bounded by Freemason Street and City Hall Avenue, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Monticello Avenue. Everyone referred to that expanse as “the dollar lot.” It’s now called the MacArthur Center.

copyright © 2003 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.