ViBe. Such a clever name for Virginia Beach’s new-ish creative district. But what exactly is it? And where is it?
That’s a little less precise—but exciting—to try to pin down. Design districts or initiatives like Norfolk’s NEON District tend to be one of those know-it-when-you-see-it types of things. It’s sort of like the old philosophical brain-teaser: what makes a game a game? We all know what a game is and certainly play them from a very early age, yet try to cobble together a list of “necessary and sufficient” characteristics and it becomes readily apparent that there is no one quality that all games share in common. Ditto ViBe and its “creative businesses.”
Still, nationally, these vibrant creative and design districts are “a thing.” In fact, they may be the thing in urban and, in the case of Virginia Beach, suburban revitalization.
On ViBe’s website, the district is referred to as an “arts and culture hub” with that hub currently stretching from 22nd to about 16 ½ Streets and from Parks to Pacific Avenues. A little spur to the northwest takes in the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art. The Virginia Beach government’s website defines ViBe’s “creative businesses” as those who deal in visual and performing arts, architecture, historic preservation, culinary arts (to include coffee roasters), breweries and distilleries, tasting rooms, farming and antique markets, advertising and graphic design, design more generally (e.g. fashion, film, floral, interior and industrial), film and other media, software development, music, publishing and renewable energy technology.
The ViBe was long discussed but officially established as a legal entity in April 2015—extending a range of city incentives to qualifying businesses. With early and strong leadership from Laura Habr (owner of Croc’s 19th Street Bistro) and Andrew Fine (president of Runnymede Corporation and art enthusiast), ViBe includes a number of long-established businesses like Hardy’s / The Art of Jewelry and Zoës, as well as others for whom the ink is scarcely dry on their business cards. (See sidebar for a complete list.) With far too many businesses to spotlight—which is a very good thing—I asked Cindy Pennybacker of Chartreuse (“Revolutionary Finds for the Cultured Home” plus Creative Lab) to take me somewhere that would give me the flavor of ViBe in just a few adjacent bites. She led me to The Alley.
In many ways, the four businesses that comprise The Alley—Benevolent Design Co., North End Bag Co., Three Ships Coffee and Igor’s Custom—personify the spirit of ViBe. As individual as these four businesses and their owners are, there is a certain ineffable “whatness” about what they do and how they do it.
Visiting each appealing micro-space in succession, stepping over planks of wood, cords, sawdust (Three Ships was still knee-deep in buildout) and dogs, I was struck by a number of qualities. To a person, these business owners are warm, engaging and highly articulate, yet without pretention. They are clear about their tightly-focused missions—both what they are and what they aren’t—and passionate.
They are all hardworking artisans, and both their processes and custom products (furniture, bags, roasted coffee and hand-painted signs) speak to the value of authenticity and meticulous manual labor. Their particular spaces, with a certain earthy grit, are infused with the inhabitants’ deep and palpable respect for the way handmade objects and raw materials and ingredients were fashioned and processed in the past—or the way services were rendered—coupled with a commitment to carrying that forward. But it is filtered through their own unique and sophisticated visions. What emerges are finely crafted and refined products—I dare you to tell John Fay or Patrick Ryan of Benevolent Design that their furniture is “rustic”—and experiences.
Still, among the District’s some 35 proprietors (and as many more vendors at a trio of markets) ages, attitudes, appearances, aesthetics and, in all likelihood, political and religious affiliations vary widely. Tattoos, though prevalent, are not required. That said, in addition to what has been described thus far, there are at least a couple of additional values at the core of this district: a local focus, though customer bases may stretch nationally, and a commitment to sustainability.
What began as business owners joining forces to host a “First Friday” event (which, by the way, continues as First Friday ViBe) has grown into a district with an emerging and recognizable identity—one that will surely produce many good vibes to come.