The story below is from our December/November 2015 issue. For the DIGITALLY ENHANCED VERSION, download our FREE iOS app or view our digital edition for FREE today!
The Goldilocks principle doesn’t apply better to many things than it does to downtown Roanoke. C’mon along for a stroll through a perfectly sized urban area.
The mayor of a small southern city once told me that the health of any metropolis can be found in the pulse of its downtown. It is what people will feel for when deciding whether or not to move to an area.
I love downtowns. Downtown is where art, music, history, food, shopping and open spaces become threads of a story. From the hands of citizens with vision, the threads weave into a beautiful tale unique to the region and its residents.
As I’ve measured the mayor’s words against my own experiences, I see that not all downtowns tell their stories well. The only way I can think to explain how this happens is through the eyes of the discerning little Goldilocks, whose impeccable tastes drove her to search and search until she found that which was “just right.” That which made her want to stay.
You see, some downtowns are just too big. They are too loud with too much traffic. The buildings are too tall causing claustrophobia. They are expensive, causing one inner turmoil about the efficacy of paying $15 to park so you can go pay $15 for a museum’s new exhibition. And then have to buy lunch at the museum’s cafe (overpriced fast food) because of all the extra time you will spend driving, parking and walking to the far end of the museum on the third floor to see the exhibit…some downtowns are just too big.
But then, some downtowns are too small. The stores are too few and spread too far apart. Each one might be filled with the right measure of chintz and kitschy to fresh and pop, but probably not. Even if they are, they will inevitably be seven blocks apart with five pawn shops and three nightclubs positioned in-between. And forget about museums. The downtown is too small.
Then there is Roanoke. Downtown Roanoke is not too big. Nor is it too small. I can shop from the Taubman to the end of Market, or Williamson to Jefferson and the many blocks between, all before noon. Or, I can spend an entire day (usually a Saturday) following multiple threads of Roanoke’s tale. I mosey between street vendors and storefronts. I visit the Taubman’s new art exhibit and on my way, I look for some interesting piece of architecture or painted wall sign I haven’t yet noticed. I enjoy an outdoor lunch (probably at City Market) while I watch people and listen to live music. I might even walk through Elmwood Park and admire the outdoor sculptures—though I’ve seen them before—on my way to sit under the Japanese Magnolia that has been growing in downtown Roanoke since 1856—before Roanoke was Roanoke or downtown was even downtown.
I will sit in the magnolia’s shade and notice the knots and hollows in the elderly tree’s trunk and branches. I will imagine Roanoke before earth movers and concrete. I will watch more people and notice they move faster than those at the Square. They are part of the downtown scene and story, but in a different way. I will have time to think about this and appreciate it, because downtown Roanoke is not too big, and it is not too small. As far as size goes, downtown Roanoke is just right.