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Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

  • Deborah Block

In the United States, people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. People could walk from their homes to the shops and everyone knew everyone else.

But today, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. Located just outside Washington, D.C., Del Ray has a nostalgic feel with its unique stores and small restaurants.

Jay Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood, enjoys strolling down the main street, Mount Vernon Avenue.

“Everybody kind of knows each other in the neighborhood and they’ve always got something going on all the time,” he said. “It’s a really great place to live and visit.”

Tight-knit community

The wide variety of businesses range from a comic book store to a children’s clothing shop. Stacey Swartz, who opened “The Neighborhood Pharmacy” a few years ago, said she considers her customers as friends, “We not only know the patient but their family, their dogs.”

She and Reggie Johns, the local mailman, have a good time joking with each other. Johns, who has been delivering the mail in Del Ray for more than 20 years, said even though he doesn’t live there, he feels like part of the community.

Del Ray was founded in the late 1800's, a blue collar town where people commuted by train to Washington. Over time, the neighborhood became poor and neglected. Then about 20 years ago, people began to fix up the old homes and buildings on Main Street.

Shelly White owns the Amalgamated vintage clothing store that features women’s fashions from the 1920s to the 1960s. She opened her store on the main street because she wanted to be in a neighborhood that had architecture with a vintage feel.

Down the street, at the popular Dairy Godmother, Brent Trigg is sitting outside with his young son where they are eating cones filled with custard, which is similar to ice cream. Trigg likes how close all the stores are to his home.

“I like to be able to bike up here, and to do some of my shopping,” he said. We “especially the ice cream shop, one of our favorite places to come,” said Trigg.

And he’s not the only one. President Barack Obama and his two daughters got dessert there a few years ago.

But not everyone is fond of the changes on main street, including Dairy Godmother owner, Liz Davis, who said she liked it better when it was more artsy and affordable, even though it wasn’t as nice.

“This was a bad neighborhood. And that caused the rents to be low enough for small business to come in,” she explained. “The neighborhood feels less comfortable, and now you have to have a lot of money to live in this neighborhood,” she said.

Enduring Main Street?

There is concern rising rents will drive out the small businesses and more big chain stores move in, after a Walgreen’s drugstore took over a building that pushed out 5 small businesses. Walgreen’s is the largest drugstore chain in the United States.

But Pat Miller of the Del Ray Business Association said what is keeping most chain stores out is a limit on the size of businesses.

“We cannot allow anything larger than 20,000 square feet [1858 square meters] in, and that has worked,” she said.

But with a nearby shopping mall and an influx of condos and townhouses continuing to be built within walking distance of Del Ray, resident Craig Gomez fears it may be just a matter of time before the charming Main Street changes.

“I don’t think Main Street Del Ray is going to be anything like it looks now in 10 years from now. I think big business is moving in,” he said.

Others, however, hope that Del Ray's motto, "Where Main Street Still Exists," will live on.