My wife, Caitlin, woke up with her eye swollen shut the day I drove four hours to Danville from our home in Western North Carolina. An hour-and-a-half into my trip, she called to say she was in Urgent Care and that she had pinkeye. 

“Apparently it’s been going around,” she said, which made me imagine a single devious person passing gas into pillows and smashing them into strangers’ faces. The doctor prescribed drops that could eradicate the pinkness within a couple days, but nevertheless I felt guilty, because here I was taking what amounted to a one-day vacation while my wife stayed at home with our toddler while nursing a weird eye. 

But did I feel guilty enough to turn around? Absolutely not.

“Embrace the solitude,” my wife said over the phone while I drove east on I-40, past at least two humongous Confederate flags flapping high above the interstate. I told her that one day soon she could enjoy a respite of her own from the endless demands of parenthood. Book a nearby hotel room and just do nothing. Rest. She said that sounded “lovely,” but in the meantime don’t worry about little old me with the monster eye and the demanding kid. Go have fun. “That sounds great,” I said. “Goodbye now!”

Why Danville?

My wife has called Danville the “butthole of Virginia” numerous times over the past few months, ever since I started trying to convince her to let me buy rental property there. Maybe there was once some truth to this characterization. If you consider the beach (three hours and forty five minutes awayVirginia’s underparts and the mountains (an hour and a half away) its breasts, then I guess that makes Danville the butthole. It certainly gets hot and muggy in the summer, and for years it seemed like no one wanted to move there, back when it was informally known as the murder capital of Virginia. From 2016-2018, there were some 800 reports of violent felonies like homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, spurred by what was apparently a serious but fleeting gang war. Since then, violent crime has dropped by 50-percent, and Danville’s reputation as a dangerous city has receded.

It wasn’t just crime that hurt Danville’s identity. Once a proud tobacco and textile town, this small city saw its legitimacy, and in many ways its pride, collapse when the last mill closed in 2006. In 1990, Danville’s population was 53,000. By 2020, it had shrunk to 40,000. It had been a dying city for years as domestic textile production became less and less viable, and the closure of the final mill ushered in an era of economic obsolescence. There’s no greater reminder of Danville’s storied history, as well as its bleak recent past, than the abandoned White Mill building, which sits monolithically on the shores of the Dan River like a rotten tooth. It’s a massive structure that can be seen from many parts of the city. Its presence is inescapable.

There’s no greater reminder of Danville’s storied history, as well as its bleak recent past, than the abandoned White Mill building, which sits monolithically on the shores of the Dan River like a rotten tooth.

If Danville would’ve continued down this ugly path, maybe the “butthole” moniker would’ve been accurate. But that’s not what happened. Danville turned itself around, thanks to some smart moves by city council that included a full-scale downtown revitalization and a branding overhaul. I won’t go into too much detail here, but for those interested, Grace Mamon of the Cardinal News has done a great job covering the city’s renaissance. Perhaps the best evidence of Danville’s turnaround was the influx of 2,420 people into the city between 2019 and 2020.

The biggest development, however, is Caesar’s commitment to build a $650-million casino at the site of the old Schoolfield Mill, south of downtown. Casinos can be divisive entities, especially when planned for a small town like Danville, but public opinion seems mostly positive about this one. Mainly, I think, because Danville doesn’t have much to lose. A casino could help put this place back on the map. And when visitors arrive in droves, they’ll find a town that has a lot more to offer than just a place to gamble.

The Tobacco Warehouse District is quickly becoming one of the hippest spots in Danville.

Much of downtown is populated with old brick tobacco warehouses. Like blocks and blocks of them. So many, in fact, that walking the streets gives one the impression of being in a much larger city. This makes sense, given Danville was once a prominent southern town. It was the last capital of the confederacy, not to mention the site of an important moment in the Civil Rights Movement known as Bloody Monday (it should be noted that I saw two gay pride flags and only one Confederate flag in Danville proper). The heart of downtown, a few blocks from the Tobacco Warehouse District, is Main Street, which rises steadily from the Dan River, up a fairly significant hill, until you turn around and notice the beautiful view behind you. In your field of vision is also the White Mill building, down along the river, still looking like a rotten tooth, though it won’t remain unsightly for much longer. It’s being converted into a mixed-use facility with 150 apartments and 150,000-square feet of retail space. The bad tooth isn’t being pulled, it’s being made to shine again.

As you’re standing in a parking lot near the high-point of downtown, gazing toward the river and the White Mill, you notice a four-letter word in huge red neon lights displayed on a nearby building: “HOME.” The warmth of that word flows throughout the town, down along the river and between the old warehouses. It’s a feeling of tempered positivity, like this city is some grand undiscovered gem that’s on the verge of becoming much more popular. 

To be clear, it’s not quite there yet. Poverty is still a real concern. Many of the warehouses, which have solid bones, still sit empty. The streets can feel kind of ghostly at times. Yet it’s this sense of burgeoning greatness that makes Danville an exciting place to visit and, I assume, live. The infrastructure is solid (did you know Danville has an airport?). The potential is immense. It’s easy to imagine this city becoming bustling within the next five to 10 years. The pieces are in place. It’s just a matter of following the vision that’s already been established.

The “HOME” sign is one of the most recognizable pieces of art in Danville.

My goal for my one day in Danville, beyond meeting the future tenant of our rental property, was to reignite my journalist persona, which had been slowly dying since I left the industry in 2019. I would take photos and write about my first impressions of this delightful little town. I’d do so in a form stolen from The New York Times. You know how that paper has the “48 Hours in Bangkok/Amsterdam/Pensacola” series? My goal was to do 20 hours in Danville, but call it a “One Day in Danville” because that just sounds way better.

Here goes.

Lunch at Nana Karen’s on Main

It was high noon on a beautiful 75-degree February day when I parked downtown, near the “HOME” sign, and hopped across the street to Nana Karen’s on Main, supposedly one of the best lunch spots in the area. The first thing that struck me was the trendiness of the space. Stepping through the doors, I could’ve easily convinced myself I was in New York or, God forbid, Los Angeles. There was a youngish dude in pink pants, a beige sweater and dress shoes waiting in line with a young lady in high-waisted burnt orange pants and high-heeled boots. They were, dare I say it, young professionals, that overgeneralized group of millennials/Gen Zers. “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar was blaring over the loudspeakers. The walls were decorated with AirBnB-ready (yet tasteful) art, including a canvas print of the Danville skyline set against a bright blue sky, and a gold-framed piece of paper with the phrase “good things are coming” repeated 15 times. This mantra seemed fitting, given Danville’s undeniably positive trajectory. It should also be noted that I saw an even mix of white and black people, which too was fitting, given that the city is nearly a 50-50 split between the two races (or 49-44 in favor of blacks, according to I ordered a jerk chicken wrap from the young lady behind the register and took a seat in a booth by the window. 

Some cool art on the wall at Nana Karen’s.

Then it dawned on me: I was actually here, in Danville. I’d looked at this city on Google Maps so many times I felt like I’d been here long before I’d actually arrived. I’d bombarded my wife with so much pro-Danville talk that she kept claiming I was “horny for Danville.” This was true. Being here for the first time had my heart beating out of my chest. I’m not sure why I get so amped up about seemingly innocuous things, like visiting a relatively unknown city in the South, but at any rate, Danville had become my latest obsession.

The jerk chicken wrap at Nana’s was great, especially considering it cost only nine bucks. After polishing it off, I asked the woman behind the counter where they’d bought that cool canvas of the Danville skyline.

She wracked her brain for a second while drying a glass.

“Etsy, I think? It must’ve been Etsy.”

I found it on Etsy a couple days later. I really wanted to buy it, but couldn’t bring myself to shell out $50. If I ever want to see it again, I’ll just go back to Nana Karen’s.

A Stroll Through the Warehouse District

I’ve already mentioned the ghostly beauty of the Tobacco Warehouse District, with its towering brick buildings and spirits of industry past. Beyond that, the area is full of surprises, not the least of which is the Danville Science Center, a stylish brick building anchored by the Digital Dome, which resembles a big silver golf ball (or, I guess, a dome) and shows educational movies for children about space, dinosaurs and other things children tend to like. It’s a cool spot I’d love to take my son once he’s old enough to understand pooping in his pants isn’t acceptable social behavior. 

The science center is located in Crossing at the Dana cluster of amenities that seems fit for a larger metropolitan area. There’s the farmers’ market, located in a long skinny converted freight depot. The indoor space allows it to be operational year-round. I saw a sign on the door advertising a market THIS SATURDAY, in the middle of February. Across the sizable parking lot from the farmer’s market is Carrington Pavilion, an impressive outdoor amphitheater that nuzzles in perfectly with its surroundings. A stroll along the perimeter of the pavilion leads you to a bridge over Dan River and into one of several entry points for the riverwalk, another local gem that I’ll touch on later. 

All told, Crossing at the Dan is the kind of outdoor space most cities wish they had. It’s walkable, stylish and seamlessly weaves itself into the pattern of the city. I would’ve hung out there longer, but I only had so much time to explore, and there was a lot to see. 

Walking back through the warehouse district, I noticed the looming smokestacks for the first time, as well as a rusty water tower with the Danville River District logo slapped on the front. This smart branding is ubiquitous, and it can’t be overstated just how important it is for making visitors (and locals) feel like they’re somewhere with identity, pride and purpose. The city’s slogan is “Reimagine That.” Maybe I’m just being cheesy, or overly horny about Danville, but I absolutely love that saying. Danville is one of the few towns in America where it feels like government is actually doing what it’s supposed to do. City council members, it seems, are working hand-in-hand to produce tangible change in the community instead of bickering over the partisan topics that divide so much of the nation. I’m sure a deeper dive into Danville politics would reveal drama, tension and the aforementioned bickering, just as a deep dive into anything human would, but from the outside it appears that a lot of good decisions have been made. Locals actually have positive things to say about local politicians around here, instead of immediately shouting “those pieces of trash are ruining this town” and other generic insults.

The Digital Dome is the pride and joy of the Danville Science Center.

It’s possible that things will become more complicated once Danville gets where it’s going, wherever it’s going. More people will inevitably bring more problems. But as for now, the city feels like the Beatles must’ve felt in the early 60s: cohesive, making all the right decisions and winning praise from basically everyone. 

There you have it. Danville is in its early Beatles phase. Who’s to say what’ll happen in the future, but right now the city focused on making its version of “Sargeant Peppers.” God bless it for that.

Riding the Riverwalk 

The moment I entered the 6.75-mile Danville Riverwalk Trail on my decent but not super-pricy hybrid bicycle, I saw a man who must’ve been in his 80s, donning all manner of head and arm bands while absolutely crushing it on what looked like the walker equivalent of a mountain bike. This was all the motivation I needed to finish the entirety of the trail. I saddled up and started pedaling.

Quality green spaces and recreational opportunities are such key, and sometimes underrated, additions to a good city, and Danville knocked it out of the park with its riverwalk. There was nowhere else I’d rather been on such a warm day, with the birds chirping and the frogs grunting and even a few daffodils poking up through the winter soil. I felt kind of like a fool in my spandex biking gear as I rode past families horsing around on bikes and middle school sweethearts walking hand-in-hand. Then I passed another cyclist in skin-tight apparel and immediately held my fist up in solidarity. Apparently I wasn’t the only asshat. 

The riverwalk starts (or ends, depending on where you start) in Anglers Park, a 44-acre  green space on the east side. The trail follows the Dan River past downtown, past the ol’ rotten tooth White Mill, before ending at Ballou Park on the west side. It’s a mostly paved trail, save one 360-foot section of gravel on private land. At another point, you have to hop onto a side road to meet back up with the sidewalk further down the line. It’s mostly flat, at least until the last half-mile before Ballou Park, where it’s essentially straight up. There are several access points along the trail for those who don’t want to start at Anglers or Ballou. I was determined to ride the whole thing, though, not only because I saw that old guy killing it with the walker, but because I was planning on drinking a beer at Ballad Brewing that evening. In my warped mind, I had to earn that drink. I had to punish my body so I wouldn’t feel guilty indulging later on. I’m not sure why I’m like this. My therapist has more work to do.

The White Mill sitting like an old tooth along the shore of the Dan River. This building, which closed in 1996, is being remade into a mixed-used residential and retail space.

The highlight of my riverwalk journey came on the ride back to the parking lot. The setting sun was casting beautiful golden light on the majestic MLK BridgeThe scene was begging to be photographed. I even said to myself “if you don’t stop and take a picture, you’ll regret it, you fool.” Yet I kept pedaling because I was in the zone, as it were, and here I am, expectedly cursing myself for not getting a picture. I did, however, get a nice photo of the White Mill, which will soon be Dan River Falls, so I’ll count that as a consolation prize. I tried to imagine that rotten tooth all shined up, bustling with people and glowing with light, the most obvious symbol yet of Danville’s rebirth.  Its refabrication will kickstart a new era, the emergence of Danville as something else entirely, something new and exciting, albeit less clearly defined than its previous mill town persona.

Maybe, then, the refurbishing of the White Mill will be Danville’s “Sergeant Pepper’s.” The metaphor would be more fitting if it was Danville’s “White Album,” but I don’t know what that would mean other than that Danville would’ve already created its masterpiece, which I don’t think is true. What I do know is that I’ve stretched this metaphor too far, so I’m going to stop. The point: the Danville Riverwalk is exquisite, and if you’re ever in town, check it out.

Dinner at Me’s Burgers and Brew

I almost walked through the back door into the kitchen of Me’s Burgers and Brews, but a worker on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette stopped me. 

“Whoa, buddy, where ya going?” he said, blocking the entrance with his arm.

“To…get something to eat?” I said confused about why I wasn’t allowed to enter.

“Front door’s around there,” he said, pointing toward a fountain with cement six fish heads spitting water.

I thanked him. He patted me on the back and said no problem, but I still felt very much like an idiot as I walked into Me’s, which is a literary-themed burger joint/bar. The sandwiches are all named after famous authors (a beef patty with bacon and hashbrowns is called The J.R.R. Tolkien). The wall near the front door is covered in framed book covers. The steps leading to the loft are decorated like spines of great novels, and there’s a shelf of typewriters to greet you when you arrive. Me’s is located just off the river and boasts a fantastic view of that bridge I should’ve gotten a picture of.

I set up shop at a table inside the window and pulled the latest issue of the local magazine “Discover” from my bookbag, immediately noticing a story about the White Mill. I dug in, excited to learn more of its history. This is what I discovered:

The White Mill was built in 1920 by Dan River Inc. and today is one of the last physical expressions of Danville’s role as a textile manufacturing powerhouse. The White Mill was first known as Mill No. 8, covering 18 acres along the Dan River in the city’s downtown area. The mill began operating in 1921 and continued until 1996, when it closed. At one time, Dan River Mills employed 14,000 people in Danville, and following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the company also began hiring black workers. Beginning in the 1960s, imported textiles began to eat away at the market share enjoyed by American textile manufacturers, including Dan River. Despite investing in new technology, a surge of imports from Latin America and Asia further eroded the market. At the same time, US policymakers enacted a series of free trade agreements with developing countries and by the 1990s and 2000s, the industry in the United States collapsed. As a result, Dan River Mills closed its factories in Danville in 2006.

In addition to the White Mill being transformed into a multi-use complex, the former Schoolfield mill site has been purchased by Caesars Virginia, which is in the process of building a resort casino. In a nod to the past, the three iconic smokestacks, nicknamed “The Three Sisters,” will remain. The city also transformed the former Dan River Mills executive building into a new headquarters for the Danville Police Department. 

There is, I think, a difference between what Danville is doing and textbook gentrification, which has perhaps rightfully garnered a bad reputation through years after running amok in places like Austin and to a lesser extent Asheville. One of the main arguments against gentrification is that it removes the soul of a place in the name of profit and quote-end quote progress. This doesn’t seem to be what’s happening in Danville. Those who pull the strings are actively seeking to preserve a sense of identity and history. They aren’t wiping the slate clean, they’re working with what’s already there. That’s completely different than an out-of-town developer moving in and leveling a bunch of low-income homes to build an upscale 100-unit apartment complex. Plus, again, what was the alternative? To let the White Mill sit empty? To not use all that empty warehouse space?  To keep downtown vacant and unappealing? I’m not saying gentrification won’t get out of hand in Danville’s future. That’s a real possibility. But so far it seems like city council has merely done what it needed to do to save this place from a grim future that wouldn’t have benefitted anybody.

One of the main arguments against gentrification is that it removes the soul of a place in the name of profit and quote-end quote progress. This doesn’t seem to be what’s happening in Danville. Those who pull the strings are actively seeking to preserve a sense of identity and history.

One of the main arguments against gentrification is that it removes the soul of a place in the name of profit and quote-end quote progress. This doesn’t seem to be what’s happening in Danville. Those who pull the strings are actively seeking to preserve a sense of identity and history.

Soon after I put down the magazine, a hip-looking server approached to take my order. I got the chicken sandwich (named: The Joseph Jacobs) and a glass of water, which the server had to refill at least five times because I was parched from my bike ride. The riverwalk had done a real number on me. 

The chic interior or Me’s, and its general aesthetic, is another example of a local business utilizing smart branding. I guess I was expecting Danville’s restaurants to be, I don’t know, behind the times. Perhaps a little less hip. This expectation was upended pretty much everywhere I went. Nana Karen’s. Link’s Coffee House. Golden Leaf Bistro. Ballad Brewing. It’s clear athese are places people want to be, not places they have to be because there are no better options.

The Joseph Jacobs sandwich was great, as were the sweet potato fries with boom-boom sauce (an in-house special the ingredients of which are unclear). The five glasses of water hit the spot, too. Around my third one, I thought back to something my realtor had said earlier in the day, after handing over a mess of keys for the new rental. She was talking about how the beauty of downtown Danville lies in its lack of chain businesses. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen a single mass-produced restaurant anywhere (downtown, I mean), and few chain businesses in general. This is all in the spirit of keeping things local, and I hope the city continues to embrace this aesthetic, because community gathering spots like Me’s make Danville a place worth visiting. Long-live locally-owned burger joints that name their sandwiches after literary legends.

A Hard-Earned Beer at Ballad’s/A Nighttime Stroll

Ballad Brewing on in the warehouse district was absolutely rocking when I walked in around 8 o’clock. There was some kind of mass trivia game going on, and the kids of craft beer drinkers were running all over the place, presumably sober. The space itself was phenomenal, a wide-open room in an old brick warehouse with massive wooden beams dicing up the openness. A guy who looked like Joe Walsh was playing darts with a dude wearing Wrangler jeans and a trucker hat that read “HULK” across the front. In total, it was the most lively scene I’d witnessed on a Thursday night in quite some time, mostly because I don’t get out much anymore. I ordered a Tropical Vacay IPA (7.1-percent) and sat at the bar, right in front of an electrical outlet with a small gay pride flag tucked behind it. This was the flag that gave gay pride a 2-1 victory over the Confederacy.

Ballad Brewing’s wide-open interior.

I sat there. I sipped a strong and delicious beer that I’d earned. I listened to the trivia host announce that cruel Valentine’s Day cards from the Victorian Era were known as “vinegar Valentines.” I watched sober (again, presumably) children run amok and Joe Walsh officially beat HULK guy in darts. A certain calmness fell over me as I stared blankly ahead, possibly looking a bit like a creep. I was trying to reflect on my day in Danville, what it was all about, and what the Danville Dream, as it were, meant for the city’s present as well its future. On my walk to this brewery, through the warehouse district, I’d seen these gas candle streetlights on the storefronts. It felt so anachronistic, like something out of revolutionary times. A flood of (perhaps) misguided and (certainly).alcohol-induced inspiration flowed through my veins, so I dashed off some notes about those feelings in my phone. To wit:

Gas-lit candles lining the streets. Makes it feel like the 1700s. Most American cities don’t strike me with a feeling of history, but there’s history here. Old history, by American standards. You can feel it walking between the towering brick warehouses and smokestacks. Not European old, but still. A town sustained by tobacco and textiles for centuries is now having to completely reinvent itself as…what? A hipster haven? A shopper’s paradise? A gambler’s getaway? Whatever the character of the reinvention may be, it’s inspiring to watch a city remake itself by working with what it already has, instead of tearing it all down and starting over. Here’s an old freight depot repurposed as a famer’s market. Here’s an old riverside mill being remade as apartments and retail. A nod to history while simultaneously accepting that said history is no longer viable. Make Danville Great Again not by returning to the past but by trailblazing into a new era. It’s creativity, it’s inventiveness, and above all else it’s art, playing out in public for all to see. 

No one can predict what the next century holds for Danville. The only thing everyone can agree on is that tobacco and textiles are not coming back. After those industries left, there was no reason to bet on Danville’s resurgence. Its population tanked. Crime was through the roof. It was (and, of course, still is) located in an awkward no-man’s land two-hours south of Richmond, right on the North Carolina border. The butthole of Virginia, maybe. It could’ve wallowed in its outdated golden past like other abandoned milltowns. That would’ve been the easy thing to do, the expected thing. Yet Danville found a way to break the mold. That’s why a guy with a toddler and a wife suffering from pink eye at home decided to drive there from three-and-a-half hours away. That’s why he’s taking his now pink eye-free family back there this weekend. He wants to show them what he’s seen, to expose them to the strange magic of this city, with the hope that they’ll feel it, too.

That picture hanging on Nana Karen’s wall was right. Good things are coming. You can feel it.

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