City Portrait: Roanoke, Virginia

Jennifer Causey
by Beth Macy - Virginia - October/November 2012

Forget what you think you know about Roanoke. These days the small city's rising culture might just win you over

More on Roanoke:
>Where to Eat & Drink

>What to See & Do

>Meet the locals

>Photos from the story 

In the pantheon of Southern cities, Roanoke has never been the part of Mr. Jefferson’s state known for putting on airs. (We leave that to our older and fancier cousins to the east, Richmond and Charlottesville.) We’re so friendly, in fact, that our grocery checkout clerks are apt to inquire, “What are you fixin’ with that?” But there are a couple of things you should know before you visit the Star City of the South, whether you’re toting kids, mountain bikes, or retirement community brochures.

First, don’t call us a “gritty industrial town,” as travel writers from Washington and New York inevitably do. That’s so pre-1982, the year our longtime sugar daddy, the Norfolk & Western Railway, became Norfolk Southern and sent the corporate headquarters packing to Norfolk. We love our rail heritage, as evidenced by our excellent train photography museum, named for and showcasing the images of O. Winston Link, and the railroad still has a presence here, with coal-bearing trains on the way from the coalfields to the coast, and downtown facilities that service rail engines and cars. But we’d love it more if the railroad would help bring passenger rail service back. (As it is now, you can hop a four-dollar shuttle bus to the Amtrak in Lynchburg.)

Second, it’s okay to make fun of our giant neon star perched atop iconic Mill Mountain in the heart of the city. The bright-white star punctuates the rolling Blue Ridge and overlooks a valley of 300,000 residents. Around the Fourth of July, they often turn it red, white, and blue. We called it tacky at first, too. Just know that, like Roanoke, the star has a way of growing on you, and before long you will be comforted by its glow. Roanoke can’t claim the state capitol or Monticello, and it’s five hours from the beach. But when the fog eclipses Mill Mountain at night, the star hovers as if suspended, a civic sentinel that nods: We’re a little different here, and we’re okay with that. 

 I’m not a native Roanoker, but I’ve lived here nearly half my life—long enough to incorporate “y’all” into my everyday speech but just short of ever “cutting off” the TV. Like many reporters at the Roanoke Times, I moved here shortly after graduating from college, thinking Roanoke a stepping stone to a bigger newspaper and big-city excitement. But a funny thing happened months after I landed here in 1989, at a gritty (oops) dive bar downtown: I met my husband at a David Bromberg concert and stayed. Had two kids and kept staying. Bought one house, then a bigger one. Bought so many groceries that the checkout clerk knows what I’m fixing for dinner and she knows my name.

I stayed so long that my dive bar turned into yuppie condos. In the past decade, more than 1,100 people have moved downtown, up from just 50 in 2000. They can walk to sample Thai, Indian, and upscale Southern food, and down-home chicken and waffles. There’s an open-air downtown market where farmers truck produce in from nearby hills and valleys, and, like the lady at Kroger, they also have ideas about what you’re going to fix. (Turnips roasted with olive oil and kosher salt? Who knew?) 

Along Williamson Road, our growing immigrant community is on display. There’s a Mexican carniceria, Cuban- and Honduran-run establishments, and bibambap (served in a sizzling stone bowl at Wonju Korean restaurant). Thanks to Roanoke’s refugee resettlement office, there are bus stops where you can hear more than a dozen languages spoken.