I did this trip all in one day. I have been here before. Petersburg is twenty-three miles south of Richmond on I-95. It is about two hours from Chapel Hill, about the same distance from Chapel Hill as Charlotte. I have been preaching for fifteen years or more that Petersburg is the next best place. Of course, I have not made plans to move there. Nor do I want to walk around there at night. But the city needs to be adopted by someone. Back in 1860, Petersburg was population eighteen thousand, at a time when Atlanta was less than ten thousand, and Raleigh was less than five. Wikipedia claims
Its 1860 population was 18,266, half of whom were black. Free blacks numbered 3,224 (one-third) and had been attracted to the city for the opportunities in industries and trades. Petersburg’s population had the highest percentage of free African Americans of any city in the Confederacy and the largest number of free blacks in the Mid-Atlantic.
After the war, it again flourished as a destination for Freedmen. Petersburg was a notable focal point in the organization of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-20th century. In the late 20th century, the city suffered significant economic decline.
Petersburg has more beautiful pre-civil war houses than probably the entire state of North Carolina. You have to get out of your car to see this stuff. I did it on the bicycle, but walking around also works. Some parts of town feel much safer than others.
In some parts of town there is not enough demand to keep these old places from just being abandoned.
Some parts of downtown look considerably better than they did ten years ago, but there are mostly empty spaces. There are a few decent restaurants and bars.
On the south side of town, next to an abandoned KFC, was this nice piece of modernism
In the first half of the twentieth century, people started moving across the river to Colonial Heights. About ten years ago, on Amtrak I met an older white guy originally from Petersburg, then from Colonial Heights, who told me that Petersburg had been OK “until the blacks took over.” Right.
Colonial Heights sits on a hill overlooking downtown Petersburg. I glided down the hill back to Petersburg, then rode the bike out of town towards the south, where I had left my car. I was back in Chapel Hill in time for dinner.
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