The story below is an excerpt from our Sept./Oct. 2014 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Cara Ellen Modisett
Roanoke’s architecture reflects its personality: brick marked with the patina of years, neighbors to contemporary glass asymmetry, all reflecting and surrounded by the green of trees and mountains.
It’s not every city that lends itself as readily as Roanoke to a long-time resident’s stepping out into it as a visitor. Our editor at large got to visit treasures she’s enjoyed for 16 years, and can’t wait to recommend.
Sixteen years ago, I moved to Roanoke, Virginia, from Harrisonburg, in the Shenandoah Valley. I knew two people. One was a fellow music major at James Madison University – she had grown up in Salem. Also a pianist, she introduced me to several musicians (who became long-lasting friends) and then almost immediately moved to Memphis, Tennessee for two years of graduate school. The other was Kurt Rheinheimer, editor of this magazine, whose accent was startlingly strong during my internship interview, and then blended into the southern soundtrack that would become familiar to me.
I was in my 20s, freshly graduated from college, and Roanoke was a bigger place than I had ever lived in (save for a semester abroad in London), a city with a growing downtown, deep history, kind people. I found an apartment just up from Grandin Village and loved that I could walk a few short blocks to the post office, the bank, a natural foods co-op, an independent hardware store, a vintage movie theater, an Italian restaurant, a used bookstore and a pub. My apartment was small, nothing fancy, half-basement, in a blocky brick building on a tree-shaded street. I moved in an upright piano (there was room for either that or a sofa), a computer desk I bought at a yard sale, the bed from my college apartment and chairs donated by my parents.
This summer, I’m the one flying to Memphis, to a new and inspiring job that, in mid-August, took me away from Roanoke full-time for a year. I love exploring my new, bigger city along the Mississippi River, with its kind people, its deep history, its different variation on a southern lilt. This summer, I’m spending two weeks there, three weeks here, alternating. On one of my return trips, when the U.S. Airways flight curves back into the valley, crossing green-covered mountains and the winding Roanoke River reflecting the evening light, I find myself wiping my eyes and hoping the man napping in the next seat doesn’t notice.
So this city, a stranger to me in 1998, has become home. I still live in walking distance of Grandin Village, though it’s a 20-minute walk rather than a five-minute one. The pub, the hardware store and the Italian restaurant have closed, and there’s now a yoga studio, a ballet studio, a dress shop and a bunch of other restaurants ranging from Mediterranean to locavore.
The proprietor of CUPS, the coffee shop, keeps individual mugs for patrons (mine’s there). The waitresses in Morrow’s Community Inn (owned by the same family since 1977) know how my husband and I like our burgers (single, with pickles, mustard, lettuce and fries for me; double, with mayonnaise, tomato and fries for him). I’ve seen a lot of movies in that theater, which over the years closed, seemingly permanently, and then re-opened, community-supported – everything from a midnight showing of “The Shining” to screenings of low-budget indie films to the recent “Hunger Games” blockbusters. Pop’s (which, as does CUPS, has a tall bookshelf filled with board games) serves Homestead Creamery ice cream from neighboring Franklin County. The husband of the couple that co-owns Pop’s plays bagpipes, and one summer night a few years ago I enjoyed an impromptu outdoor performance, following the sound of the music down the street and around the corner, where neighbors stood and listened while he and a few other musicians brought some of the Scottish highlands to the Virginia highlands.