Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Big Lick, the Magic City

Roanoke, Virginia was first and still sentimentally called Big Lick. The name derives from the massive salt lick that attracted local animals to the Roanoke River for which the city was later permanently named, today the home of nearly 300,000 people in the metro area.

My daddy's daddy brought six children in to the world here as a railroad porter before moving them to southern Illinois where the last four were born. My parents met in Roanoke, where my mother had moved to from her home in the country about 80 miles away. My older sister was born here while I was less than a year old my association with Roanoke began.

In a pattern already established in my family, dad was on his way to Germany with the military and moved his young family from Kansas where I was born to stay in Roanoke until he could get base housing for us to join him. Prior to leaving, however, and knowing he might not witness me taking my first steps he insisted on carrying me to the family barber for the ritual of my first haircut, which my mother says my unruly hair and tender headed self needed even if I wasn't quite a year old at the time.

Other early memories include "Mama Nell," my oldest aunt caring for me when I was about four, having just returned from our tour of Germany, and later listening to Al Green on the radio, all the rage in the early 70s and still today one of her favorite artists of all time.

My mother's family are country people, tobacco farmers while my father's family were city people, children of the railroad which Roanoke was famous up and down the coast for as a major center connecting Pennsylvania and Ohio with the Carolinas and Tennessee.

As I was driving to the area for a family visit with my mother I pondered Roanoke the same as I do many towns across the country: What is it that keeps people in the area after the original industry has gone?

Built around wood furniture, textiles and coal mining from nearby West Virginia, each of these industries have faded since the 1960s, gradually reducing the rail volume to the point of not even passenger service after 1979. Why, then, are so many people still here?

Roanoke was named the "Magic City" in 1884 shortly after being incorporated because it seemingly sprang up overnight. Today the main employers are in health care and education although most jump ship for Washington, DC, Charlotte and Atlanta for much of the upper end careers. Where Eastern Airlines and Piedmont once controlled the skies over the city it is now UPS that has picked up where both airlines and the railroads have left off.

On a recent tour with my mother she showed me the areas of town that were thriving and central to her life while she was just starting out on her own, including the house where she stayed and those of her friends and relatives in the area. She pointed out where the good clubs were, including the old Dumas Hotel along old Henry Street, literally across the tracks from "proper" society and how the tracks divided the city between white and black neighborhoods. The Dumas saw Count Basie, Ethel Waters, Satchmo and Nat King Cole back in the day.

Today all is hidden away from the larger nation as Interstate 81 carries trade and traffic about five miles outside of town to the west, a handful of exits pointing to the proud history and culture of the area, a part of the country where evangelists rule Sunday morning programming and pre-paying for gasoline is not quite the norm it is elsewhere. Few people stop in Roanoke on their way to parts elsewhere as other towns that straddle I-81 have captured much of the transient traffic. History, culture and pride nonetheless keep the city alive, vital and hopeful.

Roanoke is not quite a place where only the locals tend to go but it deserves to be more than a place few other than locals know exists.

Gotta go.

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