I Would Live There: Roanoke, Virginia, edition

Melody WarnickGreat towns, I would live there, Placemaking, Virginia2 Comments

When people from, say, New York City ask me where I live, and I tell them “Blacksburg, Virginia,” sometimes I’ll add, by way of clarification, “Our nearest big city is Roanoke.” Then they sigh with relief and say, “Oh, I know where that is.”

But they don’t. They hear “Roanoke” and their brains waddle to the mental card catalog and pull out “Roanoke, Lost Colony of.” This is not that Roanoke.

This Roanoke is a city of about 97,000 far, far away from the Virginia cities you have heard of. It’s 3 hours from Richmond, the state capitol, and 2 hours from Charlottesville, where University of Virginia lives, and 4.5 hours from the beach and from Washington, D.C. I’ll admit it: since I’ve moved to this part of the state, I’ve been ever so slightly annoyed that this was our big city. With its rinky-dink, four-gate airport and expensive flights. With its boring, sad mall. With its itsy-bitsy zoo.

But a couple weeks ago, I went to Roanoke’s CityWorks Xpo, a big-ideas placemaking conference downtown, and after a diet of solid inspiration for three straight days, I had a completely different view of the city. It looked like this:

Roanoke from City in the Square

Beautiful, right? Inside that light-brick building, the City Market building, is this little indie food court, with beautiful salads and sweet potato fries from Firefly Fare, and dumplings from Marco and Luca. That spiky building in back? That’s the avant garde Taubman Museum of Art, designed by a guy who used to work with Frank Gehry. In the square below, they hold regular farmers markets. On Saturday, near the tractor display, a crowd cheered on a troupe of cloggers.

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Thursday night, skaters from Roanoke’s roller derby team, the Star City Rollers, led the way to Kirk Street, where snaky lines were starting to form in front of the food trucks. This is the street where Quinn and I saw our folk rock idol Dar Williams perform at Kirk Avenue Music Hall last fall—one of the best music experiences I’ve ever had. We were shoehorned into this tiny brick storefront so it felt like Dar Williams was performing in my living room. Afterward, she sat out front and signed autographs, at which point I got to gibber unintelligibly to her about how seeing her in concert knocked a prominent item off my bucket list. (True.)

FullSizeRenderThen on the last day of the conference Beth Macy spoke about her new book Factory Man, and I got to gibber unintelligibly to her as well. She’s a Roanoke-based journalist whose book, about globalization and the offshoring of American businesses broadly, and the Bassett family of furniture companies specifically, hit the New York Times bestseller list. Tom Hanks wrote, “I give it 42 stars. No, I give it 142 stars. Yeah, it’s THAT good.” Then he bought up the rights, with plans to make an HBO miniseries out of it. So yeah, she’s famous. I was so wowed that I could barely remember my own name when I talked to her. (Also true.)

During CityWorks Xpo, I heard a professor from Hollins College, in Roanoke, talk about dramatizing the works of some of their most famous grads. (Annie Dillard went to Hollins; Tinker Creek is nearby.)

I heard a guy talk about revitalizing a sad neighborhood in Roanoke by living there.

I met a woman who started a nonprofit to teach kids how to cook and love healthy foods. After moving here from Maine she briefly thought, “What have I done?” Now, she says, she loves it. The city has changed in the past couple years. People are energetic. Things are happening. Everyone can feel it.

I can feel it now too.

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2 Comments on “I Would Live There: Roanoke, Virginia, edition”

  1. Great article. My wife and i moved to Roanoke area from LI last year and would like to meet some NY’ers that live here now. Any idea how we might do that?

  2. Joe, great question, late response. (I blame the chaos of the book-writing process. Sorry.) Finding your tribe in a new city is one of the keys to feeling attached–and something I talk about in a bit more detail in my book. If you’re focused on connecting with other former New Yorkers, I’d ask for introductions at places known for being community hubs, like local coffee shops or restaurants, or go to the places New Yorkers would go. (A Yankees game at the bar?) Failing that, you could try organizing and advertising a Meetup group. But you might try focusing your socializing efforts on where you live now, rather than where you used to live. Like, start a neighborhood group, volunteer in the community, join a sports league, find a church, or show up for town events. You’ll meet all kinds of people, transplants and long-time Virginians, and those social connections will help you feel more attached to your new city.

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