PetersburgBy Peter Galuszka

Petersburg has been a special place for me.

Years ago, when I’d pass through, I always felt I were driving onto the set of a 1950s or 1960s movie set in the South such as “Cape Fear” starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. A somnambulant ease pervades the place as does the down-home friendliness you don’t get in pretentious Richmond 30 miles to the north up Interstate 95.

I got to know Petersburg a lot better when my two daughters went going to high school there at the Appomattox Regional Governors School for the Arts and Technology. Drawing from localities from Richmond to Isle of Wight and Franklin, the school body was bright, diverse and creative.

Driving my children if they missed the bus from Chesterfield was a pain but the effort was worth it since they had some fine teachers and avoided the White Toast trap of entitlement one gets into in more affluent suburban schools.

That’s when I was introduced to Petersburg’s nascent arts community. I went to plenty of “Fridays for the Arts” celebration and hung out at Sycamore Street with the kids.

Returning again recently, I found that the arts scene is really taking off. They  seem to be at a sustainable critical mass.

It is due primarily to the city’s policy of remaking itself by setting up an arts district that is nationally recognized as historic and offering tax credits and abatements for newcomers to renovate properties they buy from the city. The big expansion at the Fort Lee military base in 2005 really helped (although it’s due for a cut).

I wrote about it in a cover story in Style Weekly. The heroes and heroines are far-sighted city officials, arts willing to risk a lot remaking some truly historic buildings and the next wave, restaurants that aren’t owned by franchises, coming in.

Not everything is wonderful. Petersburg still has a weak public school system and a poverty rate of 28 percent, a point higher than Richmond’s. But it also doesn’t have the in-fighting among powerful interest groups that far bigger Richmond does. There’s no endless debate over building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom (to line pockets of developers) or keeping it at the Boulevard.

There’s no high level brinksmanship about where to put a Children’s Hospital.

In Richmond, you see, ball fans and sick children are the last ones to be worried about. What matters is Mayor Dwight Jones, Bill Goodwin, Michael Rao, the Timmons Group and the editors of the Richmond Times Dispatch. They are important and you are not.

You don’t get that in Petersburg. The little city (population 32,000) that has a historical richness than rivals Richmond’s doesn’t think it is better than anyone else.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


5 responses to “Petersburg’s Renaissance”

  1. Peter – I cannot find any academic performance information on that school – not in the SOL build-a-table or the DOE report cards…

    or perhaps I’m looking in the wrong place…

    Wiki says the school is run by Chesterfield …

  2. Petersburg has been down so long, it’s heartening to see that it’s on the rebound. Hopefully, the artists will create a “cool” factor to the city that attracts others.

    Another factor, related to the revival of the historical core, is the rise of walkable urbanism. Petersburg had walkable urbanism before walkable urbanism was cool. For someone who’s looking for that kind of environment, Petersburg offers some of the cheapest real estate in the state, if not the country.

    1. not if you have kids to educate unless your kids can get into GS:

      Assessment Statistics
      School Year
      Subject Area
      Pass Rate
      2013-2014 Petersburg City English:Reading 51.53%
      2013-2014 Petersburg City English:Writing 52.49%
      2013-2014 Petersburg City History and Social Science 67.05%
      2013-2014 Petersburg City Mathematics 55.39%
      2013-2014 Petersburg City Science 61.76%

      one of the key fundamentals to urban settlement patterns – is education.

      if the education system is inferior – people do not want to live there so you end up with great swaths of what-would-be-ideal – affordable, walkable urban living except it’s rotting from the core because of the education system – that, in turn, breeds unemployment, poverty and crime.

      You cannot have true “smart growth” when the education system is dumb.

      you can spend all the money you want on sidewalks, parks, bike trails, etc but if you don’t ALSO invest – EFFECTIVELY in the K-12 education system, it goes for naught.

      it’s truly ironic that the Gov School in urban Petersburg is run by exurban Chesterfield.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I can’t find the SOLs for ARGS but then I can’t find them for Maggie Walker either.

    ARGS is run financially by the Chesterfield school system which replaced Petersburg. The actual governing of the governor’s school, as far as I can remember, is done by a board drawn from the 14 or so school districts that are members of the ARGS system. You have kids rom Powhatan, Franklin, Richmond, Chesterfield, Petersburg, and so on. The school is in marked contrast to the troubles of Petersburg’s school system.

    But then, you could say the same of Maggie Walker which is in Richmond’s likewise weak public system but is run by a polyglot of directors from different districts.I am always amused how pompous Richmond-centric folk refer to Maggie Walker as THE governor’s school when the state has more than a dozen run according to the same system although all may not be four-year.

    Jim, agree that Petersburg is walkable but I’m not sure exactly how relevant your point is. Obviously, the downtown dates back, what 200 years? OF COURSE, it’s walkable. It’s like praising New York City for being walkable.

    The trick is how to make the post WII cul de sacs walkable.

  4. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    Just show us on the doll where Richmond touched you…

Leave a Reply