Three generations of car restoration in Roanoke (Inside Appalachia)

Appalachians have been tinkering for cars as long as there have been cars. The art of making moonshine and smuggling it from the mountains led to early stock-car racing and the roots of NASCAR.

Today, the Bennett family is sustaining the automotive tradition another way, by restoring vintage cars into pristine conditions, and sometimes by building them from the frame out. From Jack Bennett and his ownership of Perfection Auto Body, to his son Jeff Bennett restoring custom cars from the ’30s, to grandson Jeremy specializing in VW Beetles, the Bennetts are carrying on a family tradition.

Read and listen to my story on the Bennetts at Inside Appalachia, a program on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Or check out the full episode here.

On a related note, I’m honored to announced that Inside Appalachia has picked me up for a second year as part of its Folkways Reporting Corps, along with a number of talented individuals. Read more about the project and the other members who were selected.

How tying flies changed a veteran’s life forever (Inside Appalachia)

This story for West Virginia Public Broadcasting‘s Inside Appalachia program marks my first official foray into radio. I met Kyle Chanitz while writing a story for the Roanoke Times veterans magazine, and it stuck with me. So when I was hired as part of WVPB’s Folklife Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council, I immediately thought of Kyle and his flies.

Check out the story at Inside Appalachia.

If you dig these fishing flies, check out Kyle’s Instagram page at www.instagram.com/kyle_chanitz_fly_tying/

#folklife #realAppalachia

A new title: Southwest Virginia correspondent (Virginia Mercury)

Earlier this year I started writing stories for the Virginia Mercury, an independent, nonprofit online news organization covering state government and policy.

Check out my first half-dozen stories for the Mercury:

Southwest Virginia lawmakers push legislation to boost a struggling region

Southwestern Virginia’s economic struggles explain why conservative Republican lawmakers who might not otherwise carry bills that could legalize casinos and create new taxes find themselves doing just that.

Inside the furious social media fight over proposed I-81 tolling

As traditional media has fragmented and more people are turning to social media for their news, interest groups are using those platforms to lobby Virginians on state policy issues like tolling on Interstate 81.

Amid federal criminal probe and a state lawsuit, why hasn’t the Virginia DEQ stopped work on Mountain Valley Pipeline?

Fifty weeks after a governor’s press release heralding an expansion of Virginia’s ability to protect its waterways, the DEQ hasn’t once used those powers to stop work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, despite the fact that the DEQ and a state contractor recorded more than 300 violations of erosion, sediment control, and stormwater regulations on the MVP between June and November.

Division over bus station move exposes downtown Roanoke’s ‘growing pains’

An influx of new residents in downtown Roanoke have complicated policy decisions in a district that’s traditionally been home to citywide and regional public services. And as to the question of where to locate Roanoke’s Valley Metro bus service, many residents responded in a way that’s far older than the neighborhood itself: “Not in my backyard.”

Softer tone emerges in meetings between community, military over munitions plant pollution

What happened to smooth out relations between officials from the Radford Army Ammunition Plant and its neighbors in the New River Valley? A simple willingness to listen and share concerns. Also, $150 million-plus in recent and planned investments by the Department of Defense to build new facilities that will cut 95 percent of the plant’s emissions by 2023.

‘You’ve got to make your own:’ Rural parents struggle to access mental health services for kids

Parents who raise children with mental health challenges emerge with more wisdom and knowledge. Now, a growing number of programs seek to tap into that hard-won knowledge by utilizing these experienced parents to help other families dealing with the same issues.

A podcast about politics, culture, history & life in Appalachia

In late September, I soft-launched Blue Ridge Free State, a podcast about politics, culture, history & life in Appalachia. If you remember There’s Nothing to Do Here!, my regional zine 2003-05, it’s like that but with all the politics I’ve covered since then.

Since the launch, we’ve released six episodes, with more coming soon.

Subscribe on iTunes or on Stitcher.

Here’s a brief rundown on the first seven:

 

1: Our Nerds in Washington (w/ Amy Friedenberger)

In our first episode, we talk about why Donald Trump is campaigning in West Virginia. We also interview Amy Friedenberger, politics reporter for the Roanoke Times, about the 2018 midterm races in Appalachian Virginia.

 

2: Mountain State Melee (w/ Jake Zuckerman)

On this episode, we talk about Donald Trump’s recent swing through Appalachia for Republican candidates for US Senate, and why he’s trying to make it all about himself. We also interview Jake Zuckerman, politics reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail about the West Virginia teacher’s strike, Gov. Jim Justice’s recent PEIA presser, the Manchin/Morrisey race for US Senate, the Miller/Ojeda race in southern West Virginia, and how healthcare is playing as an issue.

 

3: Can Democrats win in a post-Trump Appalachia? (w/ Kyle Kondik)

On this episode, we talk with elections analyst Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, about a variety of House, Senate, and gubernatorial races in the Appalachian region. We consider how opposition parties have fared in midterms since the 1990s, with a focus on Appalachia.

We also hear an excerpt with Mason and Madelyn Beck of Harvest Public Media from Us & Them, a West Virginia Public Broadcasting podcast about political and cultural divisions in America.

 

4: MDC—Marcin Dishes Candidly (w/ Deanna Marcin)

On this episode of Blue Ridge Free State, we talk about punk and LBGT history in Roanoke, Virginia, and how those two came together at the Backstreet Cafe.

We interview Deanna Marcin about the recent controversy of MDC’s show, how it was cancelled, and how it was rescheduled. She also talks about her journey as a transsexual woman, how she landed in Roanoke, how she came to work at the Backstreet Cafe, the atmosphere there in the years that followed a fatal shooting rampage, how she started booking punk and metal, and what’s happened since then.

 

5: Under Construction—Trauma, Urban Renewal, & 25 Years of Activism in Roanoke (w/ Brenda Hale)

On this episode, host Mason Adams interviews Brenda Hale, president of the Roanoke Branch NAACP. Topics include childhood trauma, urban renewal, politics, activism, the Confederate invasion of the 2015 Roanoke Christmas parade, and much more.

 

6: 2018 Midterm Election Wrap-Up

On this episode, Mason looks back on the 2018 midterms and how they played out in Appalachia. And he looks ahead to the podcast’s near-term future.

 

7: Mountain healthcare, from VW Beetle to Drone Delivery (w/ Teresa Gardner Tyson of SWVA’s Health Wagon)

On this episode, we interview Teresa Tyson Gardner of the Health Wagon, a free clinic serving a vulnerable population in Southwest Virginia’s coal counties.

Teresa talks about the past, present, and future of the Health Wagon, the challenges to addressing healthcare in the mountains—but also how that need drives innovation and creative approaches.

Also, Mason talk about why a Roanoke city school superintendent gave copies of JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” to all of her principals ahead of the 2017-2018 school year.

Schools, snow days & hungry students (Scalawag)

“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.

From moshpits to condos and back: Salem Avenue’s transformation (Between Coasts)

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.

How Roanoke reinvented itself by bringing housing to a fading downtown (CityLab)

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.

A city torn between new prosperity and entrenched poverty (Scalawag)

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.

End of an era for Roanoke’s historic LGBTQ bars (Munchies/Vice)

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.

Appalachian communities hoping to build a new outdoor economy see threat from Trump (100 Days in Appalachia)

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.