The Boomerangers: A new generation is moving back to C’ville to start families and businesses

The Boomerangers: A new generation is moving back to C’ville to start families and businesses

As a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get out of Charlottesville. I wanted to travel, to prove my independence, and to test myself against challenges my hometown just couldn’t provide. If I didn’t leave right after high school, I reasoned, I might not ever leave. And the last thing I wanted was to be a 20-something, buying mallrats cigarettes and booze after spending the day lounging around at the Mudhouse talking about how one day my writing career would take off.

So in 1999 I packed my things and moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn. A lot of my peers did the same thing.

“I wanted to get as far away from Charlottesville as I possibly could,” recalled Kate Zuckerman, the 34-year-old founder of Common Ground and co-owner of Barefoot Bucha who fled to California after graduating from Western Albemarle.

The urge to spread your wings isn’t unique to us Generation X-ers who were born into the globalizing landscape of the post-Cold War 1980s. We inherited it from our parents, The Baby Boomers. Raised in the 1960s with an overwhelming pang to change the status quo, they set sail from their hometowns in search of greener professional and cultural pastures, largely setting up new lives in the process, far away from the worlds where they were raised. Throughout the 1960s about 20 percent of the U.S. was moving away from their hometowns, according to the Pew Research Center. But my generation is doing things differently. That number has dropped to under 12 percent over the last decade.

“When I left Charlottesville 12 years ago, I was 26 years old and there wasn’t enough going on here for me,” said Josh Hunt, 38, a Charlottesville native and co-owner of Beer Run who lived for years in Austin, Texas. “I felt like I had gone past what there was to do here.”

People have started to call us the Boomerangers, because we come back home. The story goes like this: The more often we came back to visit friends and family who had stayed put, the more we fell in love with our childhood home and began to see it, not as a small-town trap, but as a place that offers the community we once went looking for. We went in search of a scene and then realized we could actually start one. At home.

Generations change things, though. And Charlottesville has not been immune to that change. A major part of why native Gen-X-ers have been moving back to town is due to the fact that Charlottesville has become so much more than it was when we grew up. Being raised in a university town that was once home to our third president has its perks. Sure. But it can also be extremely hindering for a generation that wants to break out of the mold of tradition and dogma.

“It’s no longer simply governed by its association with Monticello and UVA,” said 29-year-old Caroline Horan, who graduated from Albemarle High School in 2002 and promptly moved to New York City. “There’s so much dynamic energy here. There’s a creative class here that I feel is being priced out of places like New York. There’s a capacity here for young entrepreneurs, whereas in New York you have to have a lot of money or funding to advance.” 

29-year-old Caroline Horan graduated from Albemarle High School in 2002, attended Parsons The New School for Design, and moved to New York City, where she worked as a wine importer. After suffering a serious riding accident during a vacation in Mexico, Horan dedicated her life to Ayurvedic healing, moved home to Charlottesville, and started Ahara Thrive, a health consulting practice. Photo: Elli Williams.

Up and out

Horan left Charlottesville twice before she decided to settle down. After graduating from Parsons The New School for Design in Manhattan, she came back home, became a Pilates instructor, and got ensconced in the wine industry, working at the Market Street Wineshop. It was 2005 and while she was glad to be back, she quickly got restless.

“I felt like Charlottesville still wasn’t nourishing or stimulating me in the way I needed,” said Horan during a recent interview at C’ville Coffee. “I still had more to do and discover.”

So back to the Big Apple she went, working for several years in the “dog-eat-dog” wine importing business, until her mom called and told her she seemed exhausted, convincing her to take a vacation to Mexico. Funny how life works. The trip wasn’t restful, but it did change her life.

During a horse ride through the Mexican countryside, Horan was hit by a dump truck, fracturing and dislocating her shoulder. In the weeks and months after her emergency surgery and recuperation, Horan reevaluated her life and decided to focus on her health and well-being, with an emphasis on Ayurvedic medicine. She enrolled in a school for the ancient Indian practice during the day and ran a wine bar in the evening. In many ways, she was doing what so many of us have done—pursue our true passion in every way we can while supporting the quest with a money gig that has nothing to do with our aims. We burn the candle from both ends.

Horan eventually realized the pace of New York City didn’t mesh with her new path. So last year, she jumped ship and came back to Charlottesville. She has since launched her own Ayurvedic consulting practice called Ahara Thrive, and gives talks on topics like digestion at Rebecca’s Natural Food, where she works part-time, and at Common Ground, the wellness cooperative started by fellow boomeranger, Kate Zuckerman. The two of them are part of a much larger movement to turn Charlottesville into a center for alternative health and well-being practices.

“It’s a budding energy. It’s not as though all of these people are becoming very successful right now, but there’s this growing energy and I think we’re on the brink of something,” Horan said.

There’s a generational divide that permeates health modalities like Ayurveda and holistic healing. The boomers put these kind of practices on the map in the ’60s and ’70s, but their efforts died with a whimper in the face of the rampant advances in medical technologies and specialties during the ’80s. As the health care industry expanded, people edged away from the more “hippified” alternatives. Now it’s the X-ers who are leading the movement back with the help of dogged boomers who never let go. The trick is to figure out how to turn a cultural movement that spans two generations into life-sustaining business practices, in short, to create a new local health economy.

“There’s not enough awareness yet for Ayurveda in Charlottesville, so my goal is to spread the awareness and create an Ayurvedic destination here in Charlottesville,” said Horan.

Horan said the younger generation is excited about learning alternative medicine techniques and that our parents’ generation is showing promise of reinvigorating a movement it once created. Having exhausted the promises of traditional western medicine, many Boomers are testing the temperature of preventative healing as they deal with a host of nascent diseases and ailments brought on with age.

Zuckerman is in the same boat, trying to breath a new energy into her hometown while attempting to bridge cultural and generational gaps by founding the egalitarian-based health and wellness center run out of the Jefferson School City Center.

After going to college in California, moving back to Charlottesville, and then living in L.A. for years, Zuckerman said when she finally boomeranged back to town for good in 2008, she was struck by how much Charlottesville was “a racially, economically, socially stratified city.”

Kate Zuckerman attended college in California and moved to Los Angeles after graduating. She returned home to Charlottesville for good in 2008 and started Common Ground, an alternative health cooperative located in the Jefferson School City Center. Zuckerman and her husband, Ethan, also run Barefoot Bucha, a Nelson County-based kombucha brewing company with regional distribution and a distinctly green footprint. Photo: Elli Williams.

So she opened Common Ground, offering sliding scale fees for a wide array of health and wellness classes, with the goal of attracting the poorest and wealthiest sectors of Charlottesville and putting them in rooms, classes, and scenarios where their commonalities are more apparent than their differences.

The accolades for Charlottesville as a quality-of-life town turn into a laundry list: Top 100 places to live, America’s smartest city, the No. 1 city to live in in the country, the seventh best place in the country to raise a family, etc. But what makes Charlottesville so attractive for young natives who are returning with aspirations of sparking progressive change and building a new generation of Charlottesvillians? It’s not that they buy into the hype, it’s that they don’t want to miss out on the fun.

For many of the boomerangers I spoke with, it’s not the hype of this town that has brought them back. They could care less about that. More, the answer lies in the quality of relationships that come along with the slightly oxymoronic fact that Charlottesville is a big small town.