The stars appear to have fallen into the trees that line High Street in downtown Portsmouth, commonly referred to as Olde Towne. Thousands of tiny white lights hug the bare branches, while a few hundred larger lights frame the marquee of the Commodore Theatre, the 1940s-style dinner theater where the show never stops and there's always a queue.
"People thought I was crazy when I said I was going to buy this old theater and restore it to the way it looked when it opened in 1945," says Fred Schoenfeld, who lives in Olde Towne and sometimes walks to work. "But I believed in the downtown area and I believed in the project, and now that it's open I can't keep people away."
The restoration of the Art Deco theater is but one facet of this city's ongoing renaissance. Founded in 1752 and modeled after British Portsmouth, this 29-square-mile town just off the Chesapeake Bay reflects its roots with streets named London, Glasgow, and Queen. The town's first intersection, at Court and High streets―chosen because of its proximity to a church, a market, a jail, and a courthouse―still remains the town's center. Though its history spans three centuries, Portsmouth has entered the 21st century with a plan to improve its infrastructure, revitalize its waterfront, and revive Olde Towne.
"We knew that we had nothing unless we had a strong downtown center and an attractive waterfront," says Mallory Kahler, marketing manager of the Portsmouth Department of Economic Development. "So we took an active role in renewing Olde Towne and establishing residential developments. We had a plan to strengthen the center and the edges, and work from there."
Portsmouth's "center" holds the largest collection of antique homes between Alexandria, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina, plus a bundle of early 20th-century buildings that either have been restored or are in the process of being renovated.
Portsmouth's "edges" include some 80 square miles of waterfront property along its many channels. Neighborhoods occupy much of the waterfront property, while retail developments such as the Renaissance Portsmouth Hotel and Conference Center and a new $13 million, 6,500-seat performing arts center enjoy prime riverside spots.
"The Elizabeth River both divides and connects Norfolk and Portsmouth," says Arden Pfeiffer, who moved to Portsmouth 25 years ago from New York. "We really are sister cities, only ours has the small-town feel and a closer-knit community."
Arden, who owns Pfeiffer's Books, Cards and Fine Wines on High Street, says Portsmouth gives its citizens a sense of belonging. "Of course, you have to get used to a slower pace of life here, but once you do, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you'll fall in love with the place. The [Navy] brought me down here, and a Southern belle roped me in, but the town itself has become a magnet, and I don't plan on leaving."
Portsmouth enjoys a central location in Virginia's Hampton Roads area, which encompasses everything between Williamsburg and the North Carolina state line. It's on the Intracoastal Waterway, which stretches from Maine to Miami, so the city sees its fair share of boats.
"The waterfront is the heartbeat of this city," says Richard Powell, a resident for 58 years. "The Naval hospital, the Naval shipyard, and the 5th Coast Guard District are all here, and we're close to the Norfolk Naval Base, so we get folks from all over the world. It's a melting pot."
Skip Novak, who joined the Navy and moved to Portsmouth from Green Bay, Wisconsin, 10 years ago, says he formed roots fast here. "I've always wanted to live in a place where history was important and diversity was considered a good thing."
Portsmouth also draws company from outside the community to the Children's Museum of Virginia, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, the Courthouse Galleries, and the Portsmouth Lightship Museum.
The town "has a little bit of everything," says Rebecca Cutchins, of the Portsmouth Convention & Visitors Bureau. "And you don't have to be obsessed with architecture or history to enjoy it. You might just want to have a quiet place to raise your family, or a house on the water, or a community with which you can become involved."
Or a velvet chair, a slice of cheesecake, and a good movie at the Commodore Theatre.