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How Tricky “Automobile Love Affair” PR Buried Roanoke’s Treasured Past

Holiday-InnAmerica’s love affair with the automobile, as a recent Washington Post piece points out, is largely a fabrication.

Author Emily Badger recounts the myth’s origin in 1961 as the launch of a very successful public-relations campaign to, among other things, build support for massive infrastructure projects that were proposed in cities across the country – projects that would, in effect, tear many communities in half and obliterate historic neighborhoods, a process called “urban renewal.”

Roanoke, like most communities across the United States, is no stranger to urban renewal. A project undertaken by Matt Ames, an artist, teacher, and social geographer, has slowly been unearthing that troubling past.

Titled The Gilmer School Project, Ames’ effort has involved working with a local high school and the community at large to investigate a series of events that started in 1951 and saw the destruction of Roanoke’s predominantly African-American neighborhood of North East Roanoke.

Uncovering the Destruction of North East Roanoke 

“When I moved back here seven years ago, I was curious about the cemetery on Orange Avenue [Old Lick Cemetary] down the street from Sheetz,” Ames said. “I thought to myself, ‘Why is that cemetery in that no man’s land?’ Once I started looking for answers to this question I realized that it wasn’t always in a no-man’s land. At one time it was part of a bigger neighborhood, North East Roanoke. Once I realized that, I just became obsessed with this hidden history of the city.”

The street corner at McDowell and Kimball before urban renewal.
The street corner at McDowell and Kimball before urban renewal.

Beyond the cemetery, there is little evidence of the neighborhood that had once existed. The cemetery is tucked into a fold of the interstate on-ramp, a few dozen yards away from a major intersection bordered by the civic center and a car dealership. There are no homes or historic markers to record what had been lost. Ames’ first task was to unearth images of the Gainsboro neighborhood.

Ames’ curiosity led down two separate paths. He began his investigation with Mindy Fullilove’s Root Shockwhich has as one of its case studies Roanoke’s urban-renewal project, along with a series of stories and a followup (PDFs) that local journalist Mary Bishop wrote for The Roanoke Times. “They’re both amazing narratives,” Ames said. “But if you want to find information that’s not in those stories, it’s tough. I wanted to see if I could find more photography of the neighborhood, old hotels and stuff. But that was really difficult.”

What began with a cemetery ended in a closet: “I finally managed to find a bunch of slides in a closet at the Roanoke Housing Authority. They were color and were of the tail-end of urban renewal in North East, probably the late 1960s.”

Kids playing in a park that would soon be razed for urban renewal.
Kids playing in a park that would soon be razed for urban renewal.

The photos, many of which are available at The Gilmer School Project website, show the neighborhood at the end of a transition from clapboard row houses into dirt lots in the midst of construction. Very little of the photography shows the neighborhood before the change.

With the exception of a few shots of narrow streets, overgrown yards, and dilapidated homes, the available records concentrate on the transformation – the wide dirt grades that would become an extension of Williamson Road, the newly completed civic center, a city leader posing with a ceremonial shovel. Other photos show Roanoke’s earliest housing projects, most of which remain today, some of the buildings barely changed. These are the homes the North East Roanoke residents were forcibly relocated to as their neighborhood was demolished.

A map shows what part of this Roanoke neighborhood looked like before and after urban renewal.
A map shows what part of this Roanoke neighborhood looked like before and after urban renewal.

After gathering information, the second path Ames followed is leading community members on tours of the area, using maps both old and new and photographs of what the neighborhood used to look like. “I always mention on the tour that urban renewal was the only significant history that Roanoke had. We didn’t have a Civil War battle and we didn’t have a major civil-rights event. But we did have 10 years of urban renewal, the destruction of a neighborhood and the continual mistrust by blacks of Roanoke city government. It was like this weird quiet history happening.”

The Car-Centric “Urban Renewal” That Now Looks Antiquated 

Despite the interstate arriving in the back-half of the urban-renewal project, a bird’s-eye view of the area confirms, even without the highway, a major goal of the effort was to displace people to make room for cars. The earliest structures on the site were a hotel, the civic center, and a car dealership. Ames said that the intention of urban renewal was to draw visitors to the civic center on the brand-new, wider Williamson Road and surrounding connectors, and getting them to stay at the hotel across the street. At a time when automobiles were accelerating their domination of our roads and communities, Ames suggests that the presence of a car dealership was intended to show outsiders that Roanoke had made it.

One of the groundbreaking ceremonies.
One of the groundbreaking ceremonies.

The coming of the interstate probably made things easier for leaders undertaking this massive reconstruction of the community’s urban landscape. Ames added, “Interstate 581 came through in the middle of everything, 1961 or so. The area close to the Orange Avenue 581 interchange was the first part of North East to go, that was 1951 or so. They burned buildings down then.”

timeline on The Gilmer School Project website points out that, around this period, the city burned down more than 100 homes as a way to simplify demolition. “I guess once they knew the interstate was coming through, it must have made things a lot easier for the urban-renewal people. During the post-war interstate boom, I’m guessing an interstate never went through an affluent white neighborhood. That’s just the way the world works. It’s easier for people in power to take land from the powerless.”

The swath of land that once held Roanoke’s largest African-American neighborhood is now mostly paved. Just south of Orange Avenue sprawls the Roanoke Civic Center – renamed the Berglund Center in 2014 – three large square buildings surrounded by unbroken acres of surface parking. Across the street sits Magic City Ford, a mirror image of the civic center’s parking lot, only this one filled with shiny new cars.

A McDonald’s lies tucked amid blocks of industrial and warehouse buildings, each with a concordant gray slab of parking. Within the loop of an on-ramp onto I-581, an area that is now a grassy drainage slope, is the spot that once held Gilmer Elementary School. Traffic is directed through the area on up to six lanes of roadway. Despite the changes wrought to the city overall, this area remains largely unchanged from its urban-renewal roots, with the exception that the hotel was demolished years ago to make room for an expansion of Magic City Ford.

I-581 itself forms the western border of the district. Beyond that, the newly-vibrant downtown Roanoke gathers around the renovated Elmwood Park and its outdoor amphitheater, its historic farmer’s market and brand-new pedestrian plaza, and the 1,300 or so new residents who have made their homes in former furniture stores and car showrooms that have been converted into hip apartments. While Roanoke’s urban core has seen a massive revitalization that continues to spread west from downtown, its east side remains largely unchanged – perhaps because the urban landscape has been so radically transformed.

Distrust Lingers as the Past’s Mistakes Begin to be Repaired

Urban renewal completed.
Urban renewal completed.

Many of the city’s recent neighborhood-revitalization efforts have focused on the predominately African-American communities where the Northeast Roanoke residents were relocated. Efforts in what remains of the Gainsboro neighborhood have seen public-art installations and renovations of the local public library branch. The Hurt Park neighborhood saw a massive reconstruction and update of its housing stock, and in 2014, RIDE Solutions and the city’s arts commission partnered on a public-art project at a bus shelter on one of the most highly trafficked stops in Valley Metro’s network. In Roanoke’s West End, streetscape improvements and other efforts in partnership with the neighborhood, health groups, and private enterprise – including Freedom First Credit Union – are slowly bringing economic vitality back to the area.

Still, both Ames and Mary Bishop point out that a lot of distrust lingers between African-Americans and the city. Indeed, many of Roanoke’s black leaders are old enough to remember the Northeast Roanoke that used to be.

Ames is clear on his intentions in getting Roanoke to face this period of its history. “I know what side I’m on in this battle though. I think the destruction of the neighborhood, the way the city went about it, making promises they didn’t keep, was wrong. I’m sure some of that comes out in the tour, I’m not trying to be objective about it and I don’t think my partner on this project, Celine Anderson, is objective either. So, what would I like the impact to be? An understanding of who and what existed there once and a sense of outrage.”

The “urban renewal” we went through on the way to America’s love affair with the car suggests that the relationship borders on the abusive.

– by Jeremy Holmes

Jeremy is program director of RIDE Solutions in Central and Southwest Virginia. He also blogs for Mobility Lab where this article was originally published:

Photos courtesy of The Gilmer School Project and Matt Ames.

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