Downtown Petersburg, Virginia. Corling’s Corner. They used to sell slaves here to big tobacco. Don’t believe me? The historical marker facing the intersection of Bank and Sycamore says so.
Now it’s a small park, cut from the dense street grid like a slice of pie. There’s no other hints of its past, no podium for the auctioneer, no rope and no chains. It’s quiet, restful. Birds sing; what I think are myrtle trees cast shade on precast benches with Victorian flourishes; lowriders with big rims and air conditioned SUVs wait at flashing yellows and reds, the drivers confused.
Life has gone on here, but then, it hasn’t.
From the bridge on I-95, Petersburg looks out of place, out of time. Church steeples and old red brick buildings, most not taller than 3-6 stories, dominate the view. Off the nearest exit, all the faded white paint advertising tobacco firms and colas recalls a simpler world, a strange juxtaposition against the modern lofts and eateries that now occupy downtown.
And though Jim Crow is no more, Petersburg is still very much segregated. The city, south of the Appomattox River, is over 80% black. Neighboring Colonial Heights, north of the river, is almost 90% white. Not that it’s an unusual to see de facto segregation in America. In fact, it’s all too common.
But you know what? Petersburg knows how to eat. I wouldn’t expect less from a city that played pivotal roles in the American Revolution, Civil War, and civil rights movement. It has culture, history.
There’s Hiram Haines Coffee and Ale House, where the doomed Edgar Allan Poe honeymooned with the equally doomed Virginia Clemm. And they make sure you’re aware of it. The candlelit, over the top Poe theme lacks only the late author’s taxidermied body. Still, it’s all in good fun, and the food – mostly sandwiches, wraps, and salads – is rock solid.
About a half mile away, Saucy’s Walk-Up caters to the itinerant BBQ enthusiast, serving up tender, juicy meat from an old Conex shipping container. Pulled pork from a big smoker and homemade coleslaw? Please and thank you. It’s simple, but done right, irresistible. The sweet and tangy house sauce is the perfect compliment. Grab a seat at one of picnic tables in the empty lot and dig in.
Of course, that’s all downtown. Petersburg’s workaday neighborhoods are a bit different. Every house, it seems, has a covered porch with a Greek Revival-style roof, even if wooden posts are the only thing holding it up. And the restaurants – a revolving door of soul food joints and fast food – are simple, but more often than not, damn good. Dollar for dollar, it’s tough to beat well-seasoned chicken wings with a side of fresh ‘bread and mac & cheese.
I could write a book about Petersburg. This definitely isn’t the last time I’ll be covering “The Cockade City”.
If you’re ever on I-95 and see an exit for Petersburg, do yourself a favor. Take it.