A Roanoke Street from Moshpits to Townhouses and Back Again
In 2003, I moved to Roanoke after seven years away from Virginia. As a night cops reporter at the Roanoke Times and editor of a zine in my off-hours, I spent a lot of time on Salem Avenue, which was home to both the newspaper and the punk club where I found my most engaged, enthusiastic readers. I knew it as the Iroquois Club in the ’90s, when I was involved in a high-school car wreck on the way there from our homecoming dance. It went through a series of ownership and name changes, and by 2003 was Factory 324, home to bands like PissAnt, Angry Youth, the Convicted, and the mighty Stations.
Several blocks west of the Market District, West Salem marked downtown Roanoke’s fraying edge; on every other side, downtown was framed by hard barriers such as Interstate 581, the railroad or a major throughway, but on the west end it faded more gradually into neighborhoods and industrial districts.
West Salem was more industrial than neighborhood, but it was home to a thriving variety of sub- and countercultures. Punks and metalheads congregated at the Iroquois/Factory. When I interviewed bands, though, it was farther up the block at the Backstreet Cafe, a gay bar that had existed since the early ’80s and was the site of a horrific homophobic shooting that killed one and wounded six in 2000. The Factory didn’t yet have a state permit to sell booze, so bands often visited Backstreet for pre- and post-show beers.
During my 3 p.m.-to-midnight weekend shifts, I often visited the Factory on my break to grab a burger, do a lap or two around the pit, and then head back to the scanners with my ears ringing. Sometimes I’d return to catch the headliner after my shift ended. After shows, a contingent of punks frequently moved up the street to the Park, a gay club that stayed open late and was the best place to go dancing in Roanoke, gay or straight.
That was the Salem Avenue of my mid-20s. The moment did not last long. In 2005, I moved from night cops to a local government beat. By then, Factory 324 had closed for good and was converted into condominiums.
In 2007, a photographer at the paper recruited me to become a referee with the local roller derby league, the Star City Roller Girls. The first bout reminded me of a circle pit, with the same chaotic violence but more athleticism. It hooked me. For five years I reported on city and state politics during the week and traveled to derby bouts around the Mid-Atlantic nearly every weekend.
Through derby I met my wife, who continues to skate with the league seven years after I hung up my ref’s shirt. Two of her teammates now live on Salem Avenue, which looks far different than it did in 2003.
On a Friday in late January, I drove down Bent Mountain to visit them and see what life is like on Salem Avenue in 2018. I parked and I walked onto a street brimming with light and people—both of which have markedly increased since 2003. A group of people spilled out of Beamers 25—a $10 burger restaurant named for legendary Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer. Just up the street, dozens of people milled about in the courtyard in front of Big Lick Brewing Company, a 15-barrel microbrewery that last year expanded into a new space. This stretch of Salem Avenue no longer marks downtown’s frontier, which has moved farther west.
Camille Leonard, 23, who skates as “Wedneslay Addams,” met me at the front door of the Fulton Motor Lofts and showed me through its narrow corridors, decorated in historic news clippings and photos from the building’s past. The building had previously been a 1920s-era automobile dealership before a Richmond developer converted it in 2008 into 22 loft-style condominiums and two ground-floor commercial suites. Camille mentioned her homeowner’s association and only then did I realize she owned her unit; I’d assumed she rented, since the vast majority of housing units downtown are rental apartments, not owned condos.
She paid $195,000 for her 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom unit at Fulton, where she often hangs out with teammate Emily Winters, a 34-year-old who has skated as “Massacre Marie” since I was with the team as a ref. The loft’s ceilings are about 15 feet high, and its floors are polyurethane-coated concrete. Camille told me that there are ancient oil stains from the building’s automotive days beneath the coating in other units. It feels modern yet stripped-down, an aesthetic that marks many of the adaptive re-use projects throughout downtown Roanoke. Leaving bare HVAC ductwork and pipes nods to the buildings’ various histories; it’s also a lot cheaper for the developers than installing new floors and walls.
Camille works on the far side of downtown, in the research and testing department of the railroad. Emily is a mail carrier who usually delivers in the adjacent metro of Salem, but during the Christmas rush she chipped in to deliver parcels in Roanoke too. She was struck by how prevalent apartments have become. They’re everywhere: tucked into alleys, lurking in the floors above retail shops and offices.
Camille and Emily enjoy living downtown largely for its convenience to Roanoke’s nightlife. They can easily walk to a bar and then walk home without worrying about driving or calling an Uber. And some nights they just climb up the spiral staircase near the middle of the living room to a balcony that overlooks the city.
“On the right, you can just barely see the top of the star”—that’s Mill Mountain Star, an iconic neon-lit 88-foot star that looks down on the city from atop Mill Mountain—“over the police department,” says Camille, “and on the left, during the day, you can see the mountains.”
Camille and Emily are among hundreds of new residents in downtown Roanoke, which had fewer than 50 people living in it at the time of the 2000 census. Now that figure is approaching 2,000, if it hasn’t surpassed it already. Downtown’s new inhabitants live in buildings that during the 20th century were warehouses, office units, gymnasiums, public health centers—pretty much everything but residential dwellings. Fueled by historic tax credits that encouraged the flow of operating cash even during the depths of the Great Recession, developers have completely reinvented downtown since 2006.
Combined with the marketing of the outdoor recreation opportunities in the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, a partnership between Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic that created a medical school and burgeoning research institute, and the arrival en masse of craft breweries, Roanoke has been transformed from a rusty railroad hub into a hip mountain city that has reversed a longstanding population decline by attracting young residents like Camille and Emily.
The growth downtown is not gentrification in the typical sense because there was no displacement; these units were created from other uses, and so no people were moved to make way for new residents. A couple of the more diverse neighborhoods around the edges of downtown’s outskirts are beginning to see the first signs of gentrification, but other sparsely populated neighborhoods are so, so ready for an influx of young, more affluent residents who might start to buy homes and put down roots.
For all the changes on Salem Avenue, there’s a lot that remains the same. The Park continues to function as an LGBT gathering spot and the best dance club in Roanoke. Emily said that if anything, the Park seems even more vibrant than it was several years ago: the music has gotten better and the venue has upped the quality of its drag shows, attracting nationally-known performers such as Cher impersonator Chad Michaels and other contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race.
My old punk hangout, Factory 324, was turned into housing, but its old spirit just moved down the street to the Front Row, which was the former Backstreet Cafe. It started booking punk and metal acts in 2013 before formally changing its name at the beginning of 2017. Sometimes Camille and Emily hit up shows at the Front Row to see bands like Rotting Obscene and Human Infection—which includes one of Emily’s co-workers—as well as scene stalwarts like PissAnt and Angry Youth.
I’m glad that, for all the changes to Salem Avenue, you can still hear punk and metal echoing through the neighborhood, and know that there are people thrashing in the pit.
Mason Adams (@MasonAtoms) has been covering Appalachian communities since 2001. He writes from Floyd County, Virginia. Mason attended Between Coasts Forum #2 in September 2017.