Friday, March 19, 2010

A Cold Day's Photo Ramble

Old Towne Panel - 3, 2007

One winter day last year I went over to call on a friend in Olde Towne in Portsmouth, Virginia. Olde Towne Portsmouth clings to the western shore of the Elizabeth River and is one of the largest collections of continually occupied Colonial and Revolutionary War-era residences in the nation.

The temperature was in the teens. But the sky was clear and blue and the light made everything shine like crystal. After I visited with my friend I parked the car and went for a walk. It was a perfect day for taking pictures.

In a lot of cities, a neighborhood like Olde Towne would have been bulldozed long ago to make room for modern development. But the neighborhood survives mainly because time forgot Portsmouth. White flight in the 1950s and 1960s emptied downtown of many of its residents and businesses. But they left all the buildings behind. Most of them are still standing because no one valued them enough to want to come in and do something else on their land.

Today many people are rediscovering downtown Portsmouth. There are shiny condos overlooking the river. The Olde Towne neighborhood is home to an interestingly diverse array of families, couples and singles. They don’t treat it like a living museum. They treat it like a place to live and care for.

You might argue that renaming the residential neighborhood of downtown Portsmouth “Olde Towne” was a bit pretentious. When I was a kid, Olde Towne was just known as “downtown.” There are local boosters, of course, who would probably like it to take on more of the more gentrified feel of, say, Charleston. You can tell them by the banners hanging in front of their homes and the little gardens that look like they were pasted right out of the spring gardening issue of Southern Living magazine.

There’s an edginess, though, about Olde Towne Portsmouth, a louche feeling that’s more like Savannah than Charleston. There are pristine blocks and gorgeous family homes. Doctors and lawyers live there, but also students, painters, shopkeepers, photographers and antique dealers. Some people live in houses they grew up in. Others are relatively new and transient, drawn by the charm of narrow streets and close neighbors.

But Olde Towne’s edges are frayed and inconsistent. The crime rate’s a little high for some people’s taste. In classic Richard Florida creative class fashion, downtown Portsmouth’s retail renaissance, such as is, stems from a large inventory of inexpensive and available retail space and tolerance of a wider range of lifestyles than you might find in your typical Southern Baptist suburban subdivision.

None of this mattered on that cold January day, when all I wanted to find were striking contrasts between the bright colors of some of the Olde Towne homes and the cerulean sky.


  1. The kind of place I love to wander around with a camera. Great color on these, as usual.

  2. I don't know that I've ever really seen that area--you're making me want to head there sometime. Sounds like a neat place. Your photos are wonderful! (And speaking of gardening, I'm planning on getting out there tomorrow to weed and clean up and get things ready. I'm primed.)