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From history to convenience, from great terrain to great seasons and in many contexts in between, we’re lucky to live where we’ve chosen to. Here’s a savory set of reasons why.
Whether you’ve lived here all your life or just arrived last week, you owe it to yourself to take a few moments, sit back and relish in why we love this place.
1. Roanoke has a (Mill) Mountain within the city limits. Where else can you leave downtown on foot, climb a series of trails to a summit with a panoramic view of the city, and get back to work within the space of a long lunch break?
2. For any A-to-B trip across Roanoke, motorists can find numerous alternative routes. The late Beth Handley, a longtime Roanoke Times editor, often told new reporters that Roanoke had three barriers: Interstate 581, the Roanoke River and the railroad. Learn their crossings, and you can get anywhere really fast.
3. Roanoke elected a black mayor when many other southern cities still struggled with the question of civil rights. As pastor of High Street Baptist Church, Noel C. Taylor played an important role in helping to peacefully integrate Roanoke businesses in the mid-’60s and was elected to city council just a few years later. He was appointed as mayor when Roy Webber died in 1975, then consistently won re-election and served until 1992. Although a Republican, he was never challenged by a Democrat and only once by an independent.
4. Who would have thought a graduate of Cave Spring High School would become basketball’s most hated man? Yet that is what J.J. Redick did, first at Duke University and then with a series of teams in the NBA. But he has improved his stats every year in the league, to the point that that he’s outlasted the hate and achieved a grudging respect among fans.
5. Roanoke has extensive connections with Elvis Presley, the acclaimed king of rock’n’roll. He played the Star City early in his career in the ’50s on a bill headlined by Hank Snow. It would hardly be his last visit. He returned to Roanoke numerous times, contributing to his commemoration by Mini-Graceland, a tiny replica of his Memphis home at the bottom of Mill Mountain. After a show in 1976, a year before Elvis died, Roanoke Times reviewer Russell Leavitt wrote, “When he’s up there—giggling more these days than gyrating maybe—you just can’t take your eyes off him.” Roanoke never did.
6. Roanoke has become a hotspot for presidential politics. That can be a blessing and a curse—who really wants more campaign ads on TV?—but it does give the region an up-close look at the candidates. In 2008, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin all made campaign stops here. Four years later, Obama and Biden were back, the former making his famous “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that” pseudo-gaffe and the latter buying a stack of huge Benny Marconi’s pizzas for campaign volunteers, and they were joined by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, multiple times. It’s not just candidates—journalist Gary Younge of the UK Guardian spent three weeks in Roanoke during the ’08 election and returned for an update in 2012. With Virginia still a key battleground, expect to see presidential candidates yet again in 2016.
7. Exploring the museums clustered in downtown Roanoke will take the better part of a weekend or even a week, depending on how deep you dig. Just within a few blocks you’ll find the Virginia Museum of Transportation—an underrated kid pleaser—as well as the O. Winston Link Museum, the Taubman Museum of Art and several different museums (pinball!) within Center in the Square.
8. Roanoke is close to everything. Four hours to Washington, D.C.—and if you don’t like the drive, you can take a train. Four hours to Asheville. Four hours to Charlotte. Three hours to Richmond. And minutes from thousands of acres of public land for hiking, hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation.
9. It’s just far enough away from everything. Roanoke remains a largely undiscovered gem, and while plenty of advocates are trying to change that by marketing its upsides to a national audience, the rest of us can enjoy the relative anonymity and privacy. There’s nothing better than knowing a great secret before everyone else discovers it.
10. Roanoke’s size and distance from major cities means that residents freely choose their pro sports allegiance without geographic concerns. Sure, there are lots of Redskins fans, but also plenty of Steelers, Panthers and even Patriot backers, too. The same goes for baseball and the rest of the pro sports panoply.
11. The Roanoke Valley’s freshwater fishing can’t be beat. Whether pulling rainbow and brown trout at a bevy of stocked streams within an hour of the city, searching for striped bass in Smith Mountain Lake or catching a record muskellunge in the New River, there’s plenty of opportunity to get your line wet.
12. Hockey returns to Roanoke for the 2016-17 season. A team in the Southern Professional Hockey League will play at the Berglund Center for the first time since the woeful Roanoke Valley Vipers lasted only a single season. Even during Roanoke’s decade-long pro-hockey drought, amateurs kept the flame burning. Hockey fans can still watch Virginia Tech hockey at the Berglund Center, as well as the annual Guns & Hoses game between police officers and firemen—which at least once devolved into raucous fisticuffs. For a taste of Roanoke’s pro hockey past, search YouTube for minor-league journeyman Dave “Moose Morissette,” who starred for the Roanoke Express in the ’90s—then watch out for that killer right.
13. Carvins Cove is home to the United States’ second-largest municipal park, and it’s one that Roanoke is constantly improving, adding new trails to an existing 60-mile network and providing boat rentals for visitors to float and fish on the reservoir.
14. Roanoke developers have consistently challenged conventional wisdom. Sometimes they should have listened—we’re looking at you, South Peak—but other times their willingness to ignore long-standing stereotypes has paid off, transforming downtown’s west end from a sea of vacant warehouses into refurbished apartments chock full of lively millennials, and the corner of Tazewell Avenue and Williamson Road from a parking lot into the site of downtown’s first new construction in decades.
15. Richmond claims iconic civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill, but he grew up in Roanoke’s Gainsboro neighborhood. Hill represented students in Prince Edward County in one of the cases that eventually was wrapped into Brown vs. Board of Education. The 1954 decision in that case by the Supreme Court of the United States integrated schools and did away with the concept of “separate but equal.” Hill never forgot his upbringing in Roanoke, and he returned numerous times to speak up until his death in 2007.
16. You always see someone you know at the grocery store.
17. Danny Karbassiyoon grew up and played soccer in Roanoke—right up until he was signed by international powerhouse Arsenal, an English Premier League team familiar to anyone who’s read Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch.” In his debut game, Karbassiyoon came off the bench and scored the game-winning goal over Manchester City.
18. Any time there’s a refugee crisis, Roanoke tends to receive a dose of international migrants. They come due to the concentration of services and support within the city, and they add to the city’s international diversity. It’s not surprising to hear several different languages spoken in as many blocks. Much of Roanoke’s heritage came from migrants, including a significant number of Lebanese and Syrians who arrived early in the 20th century.
19. Many of those migrants have brought international flair to Roanoke’s restaurant scene. You won’t find just Mexican and Chinese food, but kitchens cooking fare from Thailand, Lebanon, Vietnam, Brazil and more.
20. If the city collects diverse nationalities, then Roanoke’s numerous community gardens are the melting pot. They offer the chance not just to grow food in a shared space, but to rub shoulders with your neighbors, who may have traveled to western Virginia from the other side of the world. The Hurt Park garden is known as especially diverse, a place where Bosnians work next to Somali Bantu, who work next to Hondurans and native Roanokers. Contact the Roanoke Community Garden Association for more.