When a street sign points to a community’s “Historic Downtown,” you can almost always be sure that business and development is — in itself — history.
“Historic” has become a metaphor for “dead” or “past its prime.” Historic downtown districts too often feature empty streets lined with empty buildings, fading facades and boarded up windows.
You see this a lot in Virginia’s economically ailing Southside: Downtowns in Martinsville and Danville are depressing to visit.
So I expected the worst over the weekend when one of my “no particular place to go” motorcycle rides took me through the “historic” downtown of South Boston in Halifax County.
I hadn’t been to South Boston since returning to the area after a 40-year absence and when I saw the sign pointing to the town’s “Historic Downtown,” I wondered if the downtown would be the bustling area I remembered from the 60s.
I parked my Harley on an mostly-empty street and found too many empty buildings. Trash gathered in the boarded up doorways of some spots. Dirt and dust covered the windows of a closed hotel. A banner proclaiming South Boston’s “Historic Downtown” flew over an empty street.
The Downtown South Boston web site tries to put the best spin possible on the area, proclaiming:
In Downtown South Boston, you can stroll tree-lined streets and walk through the corridors of South Boston’s past. South Boston’s history can be traced in the wonderful collection of Victorian architecture and the charm of a small town atmosphere. Some of the richest collections of original Victorian architecture in the country can be found in South Boston.
Spend the day visiting the wonderful shops in Downtown South Boston. Browse for hours in antique shops, get a haircut, select the perfect gift for someone special in specialty shops, take home a bouquet of flowers, furnish a home or wardrobe, do your banking, take a cardio kickboxing or yoga/pilates class, pick up the local newspaper and relax over a cup of cappuccino, grab a delicious lunch with some simple home-cooking or some eclectic fare at a New York style deli. Whatever your pleasure, Downtown South Boston has it all.
Downtown South Boston is filled with business professionals who call the heart of their town home. These professionals provide every service necessary, from shoe repair to the preparation of wills to financial planning.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t browse the shops described on the web sites. They were closed and some were empty. Something to eat? Couldn’t find a place open. On a Memorial Day weekend when shoppers flocked to other areas of the Commonwealth, I shared an empty street with a stray dog.
When you contrast a once-booming area like South Boston with the downtown of a smaller, but more vibrant community like Floyd you see a big differences. Visitors flocked to Floyd over the long Memorial Day weekend and town merchants reported good business for the start of the summer season.
Just north of South Boston, the county seat town of Halifax also has a “historic downtown” that has seen better days. Lavish, well-groomed homes built during the glory days of tobacco, furniture and textile industries still sit on Halifax’s quiet streets but the downtown is faded and a shadow of its former self.
Historic or just history? There’s a fine line between the two and one that is too easily crossed.
One local note: The county administrator of Halifax County is George W. Nester, former Floyd County administrator.