Dying downtowns

South Boston, Va: Faded history
South Boston's "Historic" downtown

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.

It wasn’t.

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.

The homes of Halifax
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4 thoughts on “Dying downtowns”

  1. My mom used to live down there and it was still reasonably busy in the mid 90’s, but as tobacco really began to fall off in the SoBo area, things tanked. There used to be a plethora of shops in South Boston, but I watched several close as people flocked to the Wal-Mart. I haven’t been there in a few years now, but the factory my mom used to work at closed and moved overseas, as did a lot of the jobs down there, taking the money with them, and people like my mom moved away to find jobs.

  2. As I’ve said before, this is one reason I am so appreciative to everyone who puts time, money or energy into the town of Floyd. For such a small town, we pack it in. I am continually amazed.

  3. While I agree that downtowns and other commercial historic districts are struggling, it has little to do with the fact that the area is historic. Typically, traditiional downtowns (historic or otherwise) are populated by locally owned small businesses, which are going under at an alarming rate due to the economy. Small businesses can’t compete in price or variety with places like Walmart, and people tend to vote their actual preferences with their pocketbooks. Residents and visitors may well say they want to see more small businesses and locally owned businesses, but it is little more than lip service to the ideal of community when they choose to financially support big box chains with little tie to the long term health of the community. If you want to see historic districts and downtowns survive and thrive, then support them with more than words.

  4. The problem I run into with most downtown areas, especially in the NRV, is that the shops don’t carry anything I would want to buy. Downtown Blacksburg has a lot of nice shops, but I don’t like or wear the clothing that is sold there, have no use for jewelry or a new tattoo, and I don’t wear VT garb. I could get a few knick-knacks or decorations, maybe an expensive kitchen utencil…but not much else. And generally, I’m not going to go to downtown specifically for a knick-knack, I’m going to go first for a lunch or dinner, or a show at the Lyric, or some other purpose and the shopping is secondary. Plus, I’ve run into a problem that many retail shops in a downtown area are only open while I’m at work, and by the time I leave work, go home, change, and get dinner, they’re all closed. If the operating schedules are that way, I’m going to Wal-Mart because they’re open. It’s just how it is…I can’t leave work to patronize a downtown shop that’s only open 10-6 M-F.

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