Quaint, Quirky and Cosmopolitan: Charlottesville

Though this city has attracted a diverse and sophisticated crowd and has a decidedly big-town vibe, it hasn’t lost any of its small-town charm.

When I moved to the Charlottesville area from New York City in 1993, I was looking for a kinder and gentler existence in a setting that was rural yet urbane. I had fallen under Charlottesville’s spell as a little girl accompanying my father, who earned his law degree at the University of Virginia in 1940, on his annual pilgrimage to Law Weekend. Held in early May—one of the loveliest times of year here—the weekends were the perfect introduction. The lilac and boxwood-scented air, Jeffersonian architecture and, most of all, the beautiful landscape made an indelible impression on me. The Charlottesville of my youth was a delightfully exotic departure from all that was familiar to this New York City girl; it was then sleepy, genteel and very Southern. Native Boo Barnett, 55, a writer, describes the city then as “so quiet, all the neighborhood dogs lay about in the street. You’d ride by on your bike, they’d open an eye, lethargically wag a tail and then go back to sleep.” I wasn’t exactly looking for that Charlottesville when I settled here—I knew it was long gone—but I hoped its vestiges remained.

Comprising just over 10 square miles, with a population of nearly 45,000 (closer to 120,000 when combined with Albemarle County, which is considered part of the greater Charlottesville Metropolitan area), Charlottesville is a far cry from New York. And while I was willing to downsize from a big city, I didn’t want to end up in a dull backwater. I needn’t have worried. Charlottesville’s mix of artists and writers, students and scholars, natives and entrepreneurs who live and work here speaks to Jefferson’s enduring legacy of creativity, coming together to make Charlottesville a happening place with a rich and varied cultural life and a sophisticated, big-town vibe. And there is that hard-to-articulate sense of place that so appealed to me as a child and which still seems to hover in the air—a combination of history, landscape, tradition and way of behaving that evokes, well, “Southernness.”

“For a small city, Charlottesville is doing a great job culturally,” says Deborah McLeod, 60, director of Chroma Projects, a changing exhibition space and collective of artist studios located on the downtown mall. The mall is one of the longest outdoor pedestrian malls in the nation, and home to a lively street scene and restaurants, theaters, art galleries and shops, including the recently renovated 1930s movie palace, the Paramount Theater. The mall also hosts the Virginia Festival of the Book in March, the Charlottesville Festival of the Photograph in June, and the Virginia Film Festival in October. McLeod has observed Charlottesville’s art scene for 25 years. “Charlottesville has been facilitating its artists in a more comprehensive way,” she says, “and I find more interconnectivity now.” Second Street Gallery, established in 1973 and the oldest contemporary art space in Central Virginia, is now located inside the City Center for Contemporary Arts building on East Water Street along with two other non-profit groups: Live Arts (a community theater) and Light House (a youth media organization). McLeod points to the new institutions that have popped up too, like The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative in Belmont, a small arts organization that promotes young and emerging artists, and The Garage on First Street, a multi-purpose arts and events venue, that have what she describes as fresh young voices that speak outside the established arts organizations and galleries. This, she says, “is the kind of healthy growth a good city should enjoy and encourage.”

And it does, not just in its arts scene, but in its music scene as well. Even before the home-grown Dave Matthews Band found national fame, Charlottesville was a music mecca with Miller’s (where Dave used to tend bar) on the mall and Trax on West Main Street. Today there are five state-of-the-art venues, including the Paramount, the Jefferson, the Southern, the Pavilion and John Paul Jones Arena. I catch up with Andy Gems, 43, owner of the Southern, as he’s setting up for the Friday night show. “For a town its size, Charlottesville has an amazing music scene—at times it’s a blessing,” he says, “other times it’s a curse. But the competition is good, because a rising tide raises all boats.” For top-shelf acts like the Rolling Stones, U2 and Lady Gaga, Scott Stadium and John Paul Jones Arena at UVA are the most accommodating of large crowds. Charlottesville’s taste in music runs the gamut, though, and the Tuesday Night Concert Series at UVA’s Cabell Hall throughout the academic year, along with the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival in September, feeds this community’s appetite for world-class musicians. Gems, who moved to Charlottesville from San Francisco in 2002, says he loves the urban yet small-town feel of the place. “It’s about restaurants, food, music and art. What more do you need?”

Indeed, Charlottesville is a foodie’s paradise. My favorite place to eat has to be the C&O Restaurant, which opened in 1976. Housed in a former railroad bunkhouse on Water Street, it is a Charlottesville institution. With appealing dining spaces, a cozy downstairs bar area, an imaginative seasonal menu (the veal liver in mustard sauce with garlic mashed potatoes is my go-to comfort food and definitely not your mother’s liver and onions), and pleasant staff, it’s no wonder C&O continues to be so popular. “I had a customer remark to me one evening in the restaurant that the C&O was one of the most honest places he’d ever been,” says owner Dave Simpson. “That made me feel great.” Simpson, 56, says that in the 32 years he has been at the restaurant, the thing that has kept him intrigued with the business is the relationships he has forged with his regular customers. He describes delivering food to families with newborns and catering those children’s graduation parties or wedding receptions years later. “It is astounding,” he says, “how one small corner of the world can attract such bright, funny, earnest and dedicated people year after year.”

Once a modest, working class neighborhood, Belmont, located just over the Belmont Bridge from the downtown mall, has attracted a young, hip crowd who have been gentrifying the area and luring top-notch restaurants. Chief among these is the superb MAS, which specializes in tapas. The Local, Tavola, Belmont Bar-B-Que and La Taza are all within a stone’s throw of each other on Hinton Avenue and Monticello Road. Michael Keaveny, 46, opened Tavola in “Little Brooklyn,” as he likes to call Belmont, in 2009. “Being in Charlottesville has exceeded all my expectations,” says the chef and owner who has worked in restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Napa Valley. “I like to think of Virginia as a region of Italy, considering how the Italians would work with the raw materials we have here.”

With its eateries, butcher, baker and chocolatier, the Main Street Market is all things to all foodies. Locally-sourced raw materials are a mainstay for many of the vendors here. From the famous pimiento cheese at Feast! to the breads, cakes and pastries at Albemarle Baking Company and the delectables at Gearhart’s Fine Chocolates, the market offers a bounty of comestibles sure to impress the most discriminating epicurean. On Saturday mornings from April to October, a bustling farmers’ market is in full swing downtown. Charlottesville residents also have Foods of All Nations located at the Ivy Square Shopping Center near the university, the go-to emporium for arcane and international ingredients like marmite or peanut soup mix. Foods (as it is familiarly known) is still going strong after more than 50 years in business. “Back when Foods opened, none of the big supermarkets carried the international selection we stocked,” says Butch Brown, president of the company. To keep competitive, Foods maintains a friendly atmosphere that’s big on service. “We know most of our customers by name and offer charge accounts.”

Somewhere along the way, Charlottesville became known as the “Hook” or “Hookville.” Some say the hook referred to a C grade; others say it arose because once you’ve spent any time in Charlottesville, it “hooks” you. Whatever the history, the “Hook’s” residents are just as interested in spirits as they are in sustenance. Robert Harllee, 53, opened Market Street Wine Shop, located one block off the mall, in 1986 and hosts Friday evening wine tastings that take on a party-like atmosphere. In addition to their vast selection of wine and beer, Market Street also carries a wide assortment of bread, cheese and other edibles. Tucked into a basement, it resembles an actual wine cave. It’s funky, fun and loaded with atmosphere. “Despite the growth, there’s still a small-town feel to Charlottesville, especially in the downtown area,” says Harllee. “There’s a real sense of community and local issues matter a lot. In the course of a day, I encounter poets, novelists, dancers, actors, visual artists—everybody seems to have something they do, some passion they pursue beyond their job.” One of those passions could include the business of wine-making: There are some 25 vineyards in the Charlottesville area, most notably White Hall, Barboursville, Keswick, Blenheim and King Family.

“I think of Charlottesville as laid back and kind of quirky,” says Amy Gardner, 40, owner since 1994 of shoe boutique Scarpa on Barracks Road. “It’s full of interesting and eclectic people who are bright and creative.” Gardner, who looks like a fresh-faced college student, embodies hip, young Charlottesville. She is just one of a number of shop owners who purvey goods to an affluent, plugged-in clientele. Yves Delorme on the mall sells luxurious bedding (a not so local secret is this shop’s blowout Thanksgiving sale), and Caspari’s flagship store on Main Street showcases (in addition to its paper goods) furniture accents with a European twist. The Warehouse District—a new area of shops in former industrial buildings bordering Garrett Street—includes stores like C&A Camp. Owner Carlin Stargill Camp, 47, describes her stylish international inventory as “classic luxury.” (I have my eye on a fabulous Cari Borja asymmetrical coat that Camp carries.)

“If I had only one word to describe Charlottesville,” says Carol Troxell, 63, owner of New Dominion Bookshop located on East Main Street, the oldest independent bookseller in Virginia, “it would be ‘smart.’” Troxell moved to Charlottesville in 1971, and though the city has changed dramatically during that time, she says its overall tenor has remained the same. “Charlottesville is still full of an interesting mix of people who are engaged with the world.”

That mix of people balloons by more than 20,000 when classes are in session at the University of Virginia. UVA, established by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, may be Charlottesville’s best-known institution, and with good reason. Ranked in 2011 as the number two best public university by U.S. News & World Report (tied with the University of California Los Angeles), UVA has earned the top one or two spots every year since the publication began ranking public universities 14 years ago. Additionally, UVA ranks in the top 25 of America’s best universities, both public and private. And its history is deep. Located on the west side of town, Jefferson’s Academical Village is the campus’ centerpiece. Known as the Lawn for the terraced greensward it overlooks, the U-shaped design is crowned by the Rotunda (based on Rome’s Pantheon) and features a long colonnade fronting the original 54 student rooms and 10 larger structures known as pavilions. Housing for professors and their classrooms, the pavilions are of unique design, intended to reflect the various branches of learning and to showcase different architectural orders. Nowadays, the rooms on the Lawn as well as the parallel Range (site of Edgar Allen Poe’s room) are highly prized.

My fellow locals occasionally gripe about the constant construction and endless expansion of the UVA campus. I must admit I enjoy the summer, when parking spaces at the Corner are plentiful and the lines at Bodo’s bagel restaurant’s three locations shrink. But all in all, people recognize the boon the university affords the town: UVA and its health system are the area’s largest employers providing over 17,000 jobs according to the city’s 2010 Comprehensive Financial Report.

Says Ida Lee Wooten, director of community relations at the university: “City residents do express concern about traffic in the university area, but in the past two decades I’ve seen the university and city of Charlottesville increasingly working together to build a strong community.” 

Charlottesville is “a progressive city that values education, the environment, social justice, the arts and our history and is a cultural, social and economic hub in Central Virginia,” says Mayor Dave Norris, 41, who has lived in Charlottesville since 1995. Norris points out that unemployment in the city is consistently lower than the national average. The small-town, big-university atmosphere attracts a cosmopolitan and diverse crowd, many of whom have been lured by the bevy of top rankings the city has earned. It has been named one of the Top “Brainiest” Metropolitan Areas by The Atlantic magazine, the Healthiest Place to Live by Men’s Journal magazine, and the 4th Best Place to Live in the Country by Kiplinger’s Magazine. Ric Barrick, director of communications for the city, says that the population increased by 8.5% between 2000 and 2010. Indeed, the floodgates may have opened in earnest when, in 2004, Cities Ranked & Rated named Charlottesville the #1 Best City to live in.

The town-cum-city continues to attract growth and development, especially downtown (where the current retail vacancy rate is significantly lower than the national average) and around the university. Martha Jefferson Hospital is expanding and will move to the Pantops area, completing a community-driven transformation to mixed-use development that will include office space, condominiums and a hotel. Worldstrides, an educational student travel company, will take up space on Water Street, bringing with it 375 jobs. The university, too, has several large projects in the works, adding to it the SoHo (South of Hospital) plan, which will bring in mixed-use commercial, residential and research space just south of the newly expanded University Hospital. And poised to bank on downtown development, City Walk, a 300-unit apartment complex, is set to break ground early next year.

Suzannah Fischer, 45, owner of gift shop O’Suzannah’s on Fourth Street, says, “I take huge pride in being a C-ville native. I think the city feels progressive and puts an emphasis on families and community. Once you make your home here, it’s nearly impossible to leave. There seems to be something that draws us back, not just a feeling of missing home, but the feeling you are missing out on something if you are not here.”

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