Death of a Black City: The Rise and Fall of Petersburg
Located in the heart of Central Virginia is my hometown of Petersburg. A predominantly African-American city, Petersburg can also boast as being the hometown of actor Blair Underwood, basketball player Moses Malone and R&B pop star Trey Songz. From an outward view, the city appears to be like any other small city throughout the United States. Roughly a population of 32,000, Petersburg is a town in which people work, shop, play and try their best to have normal lives. Like many other native Peterburgers, I have great pride and love my hometown. However due to bad governance, the city of Petersburg is in the midst of dying.
There was a time when Petersburg was a jewel of the South. Positioned on the Appomattox River and thirty miles south of the state capitol, Petersburg quickly grew to become a major population center in the 19th Century and during the mid-1800s, Petersburg was a transportation hub for many of the railroads in the region. By 1860, Petersburg was the second largest city in the state of Virginia. Many migrants flocked to Petersburg because of the chances of opportunity that were there. Many of those migrants were free blacks fleeing the rural areas surrounding Petersburg. That is one of the main reasons why Petersburg has always have had a significant black population. Although the Civil War took a toll, the city continued to prosper into the 20th Century.
Unfortunately, the city began down a deep decline during the latter part of the century. Many would pinpoint the beginning of this decline to when the largest employer, Brown & Williamson, left Petersburg in 1985. During the next couple of years, there were some missteps by city government that cost Petersburg new jobs to replace the ones lost by Brown & Williamson. A new mall was opened in near-by Colonial Heights that pulled away several stores from Petersburg’s Walnut Hill Mall. Soon, many businesses of the city either relocated to Colonial Heights or closed down completely. Walnut Hill Mall eventually shut its doors as well. Therefore for the last three decades, the city has lost its appeal and instead of being a city in which attracted new residents on a regular basis, Petersburg has become the town in which many transplants to Southside Virginia are told to avoid.
Moreover, Petersburg has constantly faced the typical challenges of many impoverished areas. About twenty percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the crime rate has been abnormally high for years. On top of all of that, the school system has struggled with obtaining accreditation. Due to the fact that most residents are renters, the city’s tax base is considerably small.
Sadly, these typical challenges erupted into a full-blown crisis. The turmoil started back in February when the city began to mail out back-dated water bills. Some residents had not received a water bill in several months because of some unexplained issue with the billing system. In March, the city manager was abruptly dismissed for undisclosed reasons and three months later, the police chief was also abruptly dismissed suspected of misallocating funds.
Then during the summer, the interim city manager announced that there was a twelve million dollar deficit and it was also discovered that Petersburg had nineteen million dollars in unpaid bills. The situation had gotten so dire that some of the city’s fire equipment was repossessed and its trash collection company threatened to discontinue services.
Recently, Petersburg announced that they will implement a 10% pay cut for all city employees including emergency services. Facing that decrease in their salary, fourteen firefighters soon resigned. It is expected that many other city employees will follow including some teachers and policemen.
The city has obtained a loan that will keep things running until mid-2017 but there is no telling what may happen after that. If a city cannot maintain their police, firefighters or teachers, that is a sign of bad governance by the city council and public officials.
Adding salt to the wound, the city council and the public officials have not been completely transparent about the causes of Petersburg’s current crisis. Throughout this crisis, the city council has had several closed door sessions.
The citizens of Petersburg should demand that the accounting books be released to see that if overspending is really the root cause or if the root cause is more sinister, either more misallocation of funds on a wider scale or outright embezzlement. If the citizenry of Petersburg does not demand accountability from their public officials, their public officials would continue mishandling the city’s money.
Unfortunately, Petersburg is emblematic of many predominantly Afro-American cities and towns across the nation. Detroit is the prime example of a black city on the verge of dying because of bad governance. Afro-American voters must demand that their local governments be transparent and responsible to their citizens.