Old or new, it’s home to all here
Published 8:35 pm Tuesday, February 18, 2020
I thoroughly dislike the phrase “come here.” By simply being used, it implies a person who has not lived here very long may not have the same values, or perhaps be interested in the same things, as those who have “been here.”
And there is another word much in vogue these days that I find equally troubling. It’s “locals,” the catch-all designation of folks who have lived here many years — in some instances a lifetime — and it often implies that said “locals” have certain quirks, quaint little habits that visitors like to admire as they pass through our quaint little town.
“The locals always eat here. The locals always do this, they like that. Isn’t that special?” Baloney.
Both words tend to classify and divide, and if there is one single thing our society needs today, it is less division. All of us — or certainly most of us — love this community. Whether our roots run deep in Isle of Wight’s soil and history, or we moved here during one of the recent housing booms, this is home, and we all want to see it prosper and, in various ways, protect it.
The values and interests of our residents do differ, but they always have, and the differences have more to do with upbringing and life’s experiences than with the tenure of our residency in a particular place. Regardless of those differences, we all have a contribution to make.
Recognizing the contributions of those persons who have moved into our community isn’t difficult. Old Smithfield’s charm took a couple of centuries to develop, but the town was declining severely in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many long-established families moved to new homes because they found living in drafty old houses no longer to their liking, and as businesses moved out of downtown to try and capture the changing needs and wants of customers.
Almost overnight, however, there was something of a new awakening to what was being lost, and it was largely new residents who saw in the old federal and Victorian houses a gem waiting to be re-polished. Retirees and young professionals moved to Smithfield, bought the old houses and began rejuvenating them. Some longtime residents were also among those who made a commitment to the old town, but the wave was largely led by newcomers.
That didn’t mean longtime residents didn’t care. When Smithfield Foods President Joe Luter — a native — offered a matching grant to begin the revitalization of Main Street in the late 1980s, a quarter of a million dollars was raised within a couple of months, the bulk of it from lifelong residents who were determined to see the downtown they had always loved spruced up for the future. “Old” money poured into a nonprofit and from there to the town to brick the sidewalks and bury the utilities along Main Street. It became the only commercial street revitalization in Virginia, so far as I’ve been able to determine, that was funded largely with private money.
One lifelong resident, a retiree who lived humbly in a garage apartment, contributed a $30,000 CD, saying her family’s roots made her proud of the town and she wanted to help.
Since then, Main Street has become largely a tourist attraction, but it has remained viable thanks to the efforts of “locals” who cared.
Many of the town’s historic homes have seen multiple owners during the past half-century as aging residents stepped aside and a new wave of history-appreciative homeowners came forward. Some of the new “wave” of owners are county and town natives, others moved here from far away. All share a love of the town.
Throughout Isle of Wight County, similar stories abound. Military and business retirees who come to live in the county’s suburbs have taken leadership roles in a number of areas, adding talent and vibrancy to the county.
Nor have longtime residents and natives shirked their responsibility for the community. They continue to lead in numerous ways, in churches, civic organizations, in politics, and just in their presence.
There will always be differences of opinion and attitude, and sometimes they may seem to be more pronounced between long-established residents and newer ones. That’s just natural. But it can also be refreshing and rejuvenating, and more so if we can get past looking at ourselves as one category of resident or the other.