As surely as a play held at Willow Lawn’s Barksdale Theater, the venerable shopping center soon will shine the lights on its third act.
I’d call this production “Back to the Breezeway.”
Those who race west or south from town to sprawling, newer commercial districts may not recall the modernist triumph of suburban shopping that Willow Lawn heralded in the late 1950s and early ’60s. At best, for many of us, it’s been an everyday place we visit for a pair of underpants, a watch battery, a bag of groceries, a fifth of vodka or an ice-cream cone. Maybe all at once.
I won’t wax too poetic about the open-air era of Willow Lawn by evoking the way sunlight fell on the facades of Fanny Farmer Candies or S&W Cafeteria in the 1960s.
For that decade’s shoppers, there was something worthy in a single and rather humble location where you could both buy shoes and have them resoled. Back then, before we became a people quite literally shaped by continually sitting in chairs or car seats, lots of Richmonders enjoyed the common-sense fitness of walking to do the shopping. As bizarre as it sounds, people actually rolled little wire grocery trolleys from their homes to the supermarket, then home again, without burning an ounce of gasoline.
There: I’ve grown misty-eyed about the sort of place that, even then, we had no right to love. Willow Lawn was a scout in a relentless march outward toward those big boxes, at once garish and forgettable, holding transient chains ready to flee when the next “shopping destination” opened farther from the urban core. Gradually, ever more of the beautiful forests and farmland around our city morphed into commercial deserts apparently designed by sadists. Today it remains nearly impossible, in many businesses along West Broad or Midlothian, to walk from one commercial parcel to another. To wade on foot, across the river of speeding cars to the other side of the street, is to risk instant death.
The early strip centers, even Cary Court, helped birth this ugly and unhealthy nightmare, including the malls. Remember them, those hermetically sealed megaliths where the only sign of the outside world might be the drumming of heavy rain on the roof? Even with some nod to pedestrian comforts, suburban shopping helped to make us a muffin-topped nation, guzzling 19 million barrels of crude oil every single day.
In its last incarnation, Willow Lawn mutated into “The Shops at Willow Lawn” and briefly tried to go upscale with a central mall that looked like a leftover set from “Logan’s Run.” That plan flopped. It was a shame, because in local businesses Belle Cuisine, Chesapeake Bagels, and a few others at Willow Lawn in the 1990s, we had the seedbed for a Carytown West.
When that didn’t happen, only anchors such as Kroger and Staples held oblivion at bay. Meanwhile the central mall rotted one store at a time. I began fiddling with ideas for this column more than a year ago, in what my waggish friends came to call “The Rump Food Court” of Willow Lawn. Like the former Yugoslavia, it lost tenants until only Chick-fil-A remained, playing the role of holdout Serbia.
Then, as if by a whim of some mad consumerist god, my favorite blue-collar shopping center returned to its roots. It ripped the roof off the tiny, failed mall to reopen Willow Lawn’s geographical center to the wind and sun. The breezeway is back, even if we don’t get a cafeteria serving up steamship round roast beef with a side of Muzak.
How did this middle-class miracle happen? Shoppers wanted a synthetic version of my shopping paradise: an English market town with most cars banished to the car parks beyond centuries-old streets. I’m not very impressed by the results. After driving to prefab “Towne Centres” one encounters the same old chains. Our new-urbanist pretentions are to the Shambles in York, England, what Disneyworld’s Main Street USA is to downtown Ashland.
Still, a fatso’s waddle in the right direction is still a step. Willow Lawn now follows the trend, entering a third generation of American chain shopping by providing a somewhat pedestrian-friendly experience and fresh air. While it seems that Americans will give up their civil rights before their car keys, an aging populace and rising energy costs may get us back on our feet. Perhaps someone with vision will give the word, and a worker will rev up a stone saw. He will cut a new entrance in the Great Wall of Kroger. Foot traffic will again flow from one side of the store to the other, as it did when J.C. Penny occupied the space.
I pondered this future, and finished this column, from a patio chair at Dairy Queen, with the sun sinking over a romantic vista in the middle distance: a Verizon store and Jason’s Deli. While the sky grew orange and then purple, the light slanted just as it did in 1967 when I followed my father into Giant Food, at that very spot, to get unbelievable delicacies for Richmonders then: rye bread, Swiss cheese, chopped liver, Greek pepperoncini.
Maybe in Willow Lawn’s next act, we’ll replace the some of the most-central parking spots with ranks of stalls for local farmers and artisans. It won’t be the English Market in Cork, Ireland, but there might be enough local goods and produce to make those stalls groan under the weight of our ingenuity. There actually may be willows and a lawn, plus decent eateries with outdoor seating. With enough time and weathering, it could even become a place we love.
Come what may, scrappy Willow Lawn will be there for those of us who detest the far and frantic sprawl-scape of Henrico and Chesterfield counties. Going back to the breezeway and a pedestrian-shopper’s wire cart full of groceries might not be such a bad fate for a small, if tragically overbuilt, river city such as Richmond. S
Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond and is looking for a good grocery trolley.
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