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Downtown north to the city limits.
Every town has a strip. Williamson Road is Roanoke’s strip, and it’s a doozy: a highway ribbon chock-a-block with car lots, restaurants, service shops, ethnic grocery stores, churches, neon signs, junk stores, schools, banks, a civic center, a library, you name it.
Ah, but it used to be such a mess. Some might argue that it’s still a mess, but they wouldn’t have been here in the ‘70s and ‘80s to see Williamson Road at the height (or rather depth) of its ugliness.
Williamson Road has made a lot of progress toward respectability in the past 25 years, thanks to its residents and businesses, and a commitment of millions of dollars from the city to improve the streetscape, alleviate storm-water flooding and crack down on the elements that made a trip down Williamson Road in the ‘80s a true walk on the wild side. Porn shops, X-rated movie houses, strip joints, adult book stores, tattoo parlors (before ink was in for everybody and her mother), massage parlors and other dubious businesses. That was Williamson Road in the 1980s.
The area through which Williamson Road passes was settled in the first half of the 18th century by pioneers moving down The Great Road from the northeast to Virginia and North Carolina. Some of these pioneers stayed in the Roanoke Valley and settled on large farms northeast of what would become Big Lick and then Roanoke. Their names have become part of our history: Mark Evans, William Watts, Gen. James Breckinridge, plus Reads, Garsts, Harshbargers, Moomaws. This scenic land remained rural and in the hands of just a few owners until the 1850s.
Until 1912 there was no Williamson Road. What is now Tenth Street was the only road of consequence in the area. Residents petitioned Roanoke County for a road that would lead to downtown. Several residents provided the funding, land and machinery to build the road and the state provided prisoners for the labor.
To gain the right of way, the state had to condemn farmland belonging to a family named Williamson. Apparently the family wasn’t too keen on the idea of losing their land or their consolation prize of having the road named for them. The city got Williamson Road north of Orange Avenue in 1949 with a massive annexation from Roanoke County which included 12 square miles and 16,000 people.
According to the city’s Williamson Road Area Plan developed in 2004, the era following World War II is when the real building boom came. Between 1940 and 1960, more than 3,500 lots were developed. Postwar prosperity, housing shortages, new mortgage-lending practices, and the automobile all combined to make the area both accessible and desirable to people seeking suburban home ownership.