I was all prepared to say that Newport News had the ugliest most abandoned looking downtown area that I have ever seen. However, upon further study, I now know that it never was a true downtown. The downtown was and is a company town. Newport News was just a small fishing village when entrepeneurs in the late nineteenth century started the shipyard, which has since been for over a hundred years pretty much the largest shipyard in America. So downtown Newport News really is just the service entrance of a huge shipyard. The acres of downtown parking for shipyard workers are really part of the plan. The fact that there are a few decaying nineteenth century buildings mixed with vacant lots and mixed with bland seventies modernist municipal buildings now all seems to fit. Still, the whole feel of downtown Newport News on a Sunday morning is something that belongs in an apocalyptic Mel Gibson movie.
Newport News (population 180,000) and Hampton (population 130,000) pretty much function as one place, and I spent a Sunday driving four hours there so I could spend six or seven hours riding my bicycle around and between the two, and then drive four hours home.
The older parts of the combined area stretch on for miles. And much of it is picturesque, early twentieth century neighborhoods strung along the bayfront. There is, however, a grittiness to the place, a vestige of its shipyard and military base heritage. There were repeated Dollar General and Family Dollar stores but no Starbucks. All along I ran into names of places I had heard of on the radio, growing up thirty miles away in Virginia Beach. Many of these places names must be of Native American origin: Kecoughtan, Poquoson, Phoebus.
Downtown Hampton was quite lively. However, for a city that claims to have been founded in 1610, downtown Hampton has suprisingly few remaining old buildings. Most things look built in the past twenty years. On the other side of downtown Hampton is Hampton University and Fort Monroe. Fort Monroe being a military base is quite well preserved, nineteenth century buildings inside a moated wall, like something midieval.
Phoebus was formerly a separate town just north of Hampton, and its commercial strip is fetching.
Buckroe Beach was no where near as creepy as I thought it would be, just a stretch of sand on the bay; beach with no waves. Pretty much all vestiges of the former early twentieth century amusement park have been torn down. One aspect I noted is a really positive outgrowth of the military; for a very working class place, this crowd was completely integrated; whites, blacks, hispanics, and asians all playing together. You do not see this type of mixing in Chapel Hill, as diverse as we liberals think we are, or wish we could be.