“I was working really late in my office on a Thursday night, and we had been closed for four days for snow, when my phone rang and this little boy said, ‘Lady are you going to open school tomorrow?’ I said, ‘I really don’t know, honey, but I’m going to make the call and it will be on television.’ He replied, ‘Please open. I am SO hungry.’ It was life-changing for me.”
👆 That’s Roanoke School Superintendent Rita Bishop talking about what goes into the decision to call off school for snow and other inclement weather. It’s a reason why city schools began opening cafeterias to students & their parents three years ago.
Buoyed by a USDA memo, other western Virginia school systems have increasingly been doing the same, including here in Floyd County, which twice this academic year have opened their cafeterias to the community on snowy days.
Read my story about that + how schools and non-profit organizations are increasingly partnering to feed children in economically distressed communities, at Scalawag Magazine.
At Between Coasts I wrote about how a stretch of Roanoke’s Salem Ave went from moshpits to townhouses and back again.
This story features a little more autobiography than most of my writing, as well as skaters from Twin Valleys Roller Derby + derby photos by Stephen Lowery/Kluster Flux + vintage punk pics by Kent Moore Photography.
Read it at Between Coasts.
In 1979, Roanoke was a blue-collar New South city built around the Norfolk & Western railroad. The city core was decaying as businesses and residents moved outward to suburbs and adjacent counties.
Today, the Star City has become what so many cities of its size, geography, and history want to be. It’s burgeoning, chock full of craft beer, and eminently welcoming to outdoorsy Millennials. As small cities struggle to retain young people, Roanoke is attracting them.
How did this happen? And what does downtown’s transformation mean for nearby neighborhoods like historic Gainsboro?
Read the full story at CityLab.
Roanoke has successfully reinvented itself from a gritty blue-collar railroad hub into a burgeoning, craft-beer soaked, millennial-friendly outdoor mountain town with a cool, freshly restored downtown.
In doing so it has become a model for small cities in Appalachia and the South looking to transcend outdated community narratives. But Roanoke still faces significant challenges in spreading that new prosperity to neighborhoods that have been hit by generations of segregation, deepening economic inequality, a powerful business class with outsized influence on city politics, & a legacy of disruption via urban renewal.
Roanoke’s challenges are those of many other New South towns that also struggle with historic economic immobility. I wrote for Scalawag about the Star City’s struggles, largely through the past and present of its public schools.
For more than three decades the Park + Backstreet Cafe were cornerstones of Roanoke’s gay bar scene. Hell, it wasn’t just LGBT folks, either: When I moved to Roanoke in 2003, punk bands would drink at the Backstreet, go down & play a show at then-boozeless Factory 324 (former Iroquois), and then half the crowd would go to dance afterward at the Park.
The Park continues to operate as a dance club, but the ownership changes there in 2015 + this year’s change from the Backstreet Cafe into the Front Row mark the end of a particular era for Roanoke’s gay bars, and the beginning of something new.
I wrote about the history & changes for Vice’s Munchies.
After years of building their regional economy around extractive industries, many Appalachian communities now are tapping into their bountiful outdoor assets to draw tourists—-and perhaps manufacturers and other job creators.
Places like Roanoke, Virginia, have created a new model for economic development, pairing traditional lures like workforce and infrastructure with an emphasis on livability and access to outdoor recreation.
Substantial challenges remain, however—-including President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which would gut a number of programs crucial to economic diversification efforts.
Read the story at 100 Days in Appalachia.
Donald Trump dominated Appalachia on Election Day, 2016, and he wasted no time in loosening regulations on the region’s coal industry. In the big picture, however, the regulatory shifts mean an extension of the status quo.
His proposed budget, however, which would gut the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, the USDA’s infrastructure budget and other programs crucial to economic development efforts, may well wipe out any job gains from the coal industry.
For Vice, I tried to sort out the impact of federal actions on Appalachia under Trump. Read it here.
Here’s a story for The Roanoker about the best story I ever wrote for The Roanoke Times. It led to the discovery, 41 years after it was lost, of a rare nickel that later sold at auction for $3+ million.
Ostensibly, the story is about the Walton Specimen, one of five 1913 Liberty Head Nickels. It’s really about George Walton, though, and his unforgettable contribution to Star City lore.
Read the story at the Roanoker.
Amtrak is running on schedule for its arrival in Roanoke next fall. Even as the Star City prepares to celebrate the return of passenger rail for the first time in more than 34 years, its neighbors to the southwest already are pushing to extend the service.
The service arrives as part of Amtrak’s extensions of its Northeast Regional service into Virginia. The commonwealth invests in state-funded train extensions that run to Lynchburg, Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News. The Lynchburg extension, which began regular daily service in 2009, outperformed expectations and sparked momentum that lead to the push westward to Roanoke.
Amtrak estimates it generates a national economic impact of $7.9 billion annually, supporting more than 110,000 jobs through its daily operations plus tourism and supplier impacts.
Local governments also desire the economic boost that goes with passenger rail, which tends to create a 3-to-5 percent growth in the number of annual visitors. While short-term construction and engineering jobs come with the line’s upgrades and related construction, that growth in visitors creates potential for a larger, more durable ripple, especially in the restaurant and hospitality industries.
Now, rail fans in the New River Valley and Bristol metropolitan areas hope to bring those benefits to their localities, too.
Read my story about their efforts at Roanoke Business.
Southwest Virginians know too well the downsides of globalization when it comes to manufacturing jobs.
For decades, they have watched long-running textile and furniture manufacturers shutter factories as their owners moved their operations to new locations with lower labor costs.
The 21st century, however, has seen a resurgence of manufacturing in western Virginia. New facilities and expansions of existing factories drive the region’s recovery from the Great Recession. In a twist, it’s largely foreign-owned companies driving this new wave of manufacturing as they look to establish footholds in the U.S. and tap into domestic markets.
From 2009 through 2015, the Roanoke region saw a 7.7 percent growth in employment within the manufacturing sector, more than twice the total non-farm employment change of 3.1 percent.
Read more about how manufacturing brought western Virginia out of the recession in Roanoke Business.