What's it like to live in Roanoke, VA?
January 14, 2017 7:09 AM   Subscribe

After spending a day in Roanoke, VA, and checking out housing prices, we've added it to our list of possible relocation towns. We are a white, middle age couple (no kids), and we both work remotely, so finding we don't need to find jobs there. We are very much attracted to part of the country for the weather and natural beauty. But what is it like to live there?

We aren't religious and we are progressives. I know that this is a very conservative area (I grew up in nearby). Would we be able to make friends and find community? Are there any progressive scenes (political or social justice) that I could be a part of? Are there interesting cultural things happening? Is there a music scene? What's great about living there? What sucks? We really liked the Old SW and Grandin Village neighborhoods... are there other walkable neighborhoods with great housing stock?
posted by kimdog to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have you thought about Blacksburg instead? A university setting will at least provide some progressive peers.

I was in Roanoke for a political campaign for three months many years ago. I found the people very racist, with open use of the "N word" in business conversation.

It is a beautiful area, though.
posted by jgirl at 8:22 AM on January 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

I don't know much about the area, but this was in the Times a few years ago and stuck with me.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:30 AM on January 14, 2017

Agreeing with the suggestion of Blacksburg. I lived there for 5 years and found it to offer more of what you described. I would move back in a heartbeat.
posted by Sunnyshe at 9:12 AM on January 14, 2017

A good friend of mine just moved there and she (white, childless, liberal professor type) basically doesn't leave the house. She says it's horribly, horribly ignorant and racist there. Of course, this is anecdata and her personal situation does come into play, but she moved there from a small town in east central NC so,.....
posted by PorcineWithMe at 9:25 AM on January 14, 2017

Check out Abingdon, Virginia which is nearby. Smaller, but artsier by a long shot. Possibly more kindred spirits.
posted by coevals at 9:28 AM on January 14, 2017

[Couple comments deleted. If you have specific info about Roanoke that's great; general slams on the whole state aren't helpful.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:22 AM on January 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

The only times I've seen racism at play in Roanoke have been from people over the age of 60. And it's slowly improving. I was always on the lookout when I lived there because a couple of my cousins are Black.

There is a great music scene. Another cousin is the president and founder of the Blue Ridge Blues Society. If you hit downtown Roanoke on any given night, there's music everywhere.

An acquaintance moved there for the vibrant LBGTQ+ community.

When I lived next door to Roanoke, in Salem, I had two tiny humans to take care of, so I wasn't able to be as involved in politics or music or culture as I would have liked. But I knew they were all there for the taking.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 10:46 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Roanoke definitely does have small but viable music, food, and art scenes, and there is a little bit of progressive politics, but it's one of a few chips of purple-ish blue in a sea of red in the larger region. To give you an idea of the political orientation, Hillary won the actual City of Roanoke with 56% of the vote, and Trump won surrounding Roanoke County with 61%.

One thing you definitely need to know to understand Roanoke is that it's been a company town its entire history: first for Norfolk and Western Railway, and now for Carilion Clinic. Fine that neither of you are looking for work, but definitely still understand that Carilion pretty well runs that town, and in addition to being the largest employer in the region, they also own half the real estate in downtown. There's a little bit of economic diversity in that Roanoke is also a regional hub for retail shopping and services, but what Carilion wants, it gets.

Southwest Virginia is interesting, and as you've seen, has outstanding natural beauty. Culturally, it's pretty distinct from the rest of the state. I once had a business client in Roanoke give me an unlabeled mason jar of applejack as a Christmas present; it was pretty good. Southwest Virginia is also the state's main marijuana growing region, and there's this weird but endearing subculture of hybrid hippie/moonshiners.

As far as what others are saying about the racism; you say you grew up nearby. If you have experience of other Appalachian cultural areas that have a sizable population of black people, then you may already know, but if not, you may be shocked by how extremely damn racist shit can get.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 2:26 PM on January 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

Blacksburg. Blacksburg’s downtown is very walkable, has great restaurants, some music scene. You would have to not mind the college population but that also brings in academics and progressive people.
posted by tooloudinhere at 2:40 PM on January 14, 2017

I grew up in Roanoke (age 8 to 18) and then went to Virginia Tech for undergrad and grad school. My parents still live there and I visited them for a week right after the election. Unless you live in a handful of neighborhoods (the two you mentioned) in Roanoke proper or Roanoke County you're going to be very disappointed and bored living there. Even living in those neighborhoods is going to get old after a while since there's very little in the way of "young professionals" in Roanoke since there are very few "knowledge management" jobs. It's just a sleepy railroad town that's always had a "brain drain" and likely always will.

Sure, Carilion and Virginia Tech are pouring a ton of money into the development of the new medical school in the area south of downtown Roanoke, but that will take years to see a payoff in terms of jobs and culture. You mention that you both work remotely. If those jobs went away are you interested in working in the medical field? If not, Roanoke is really not for you unless you're interested in making low wages for very low level work (think retail management or phone centers). I bring this up because, while things have gotten better in terms of non-retail employment opportunities, Roanoke is still a very low wage and low rent area.

You can own a really nice house there and make $15/hour, which is both a good and bad thing. That's great if you've got a GED or maybe a HS diploma and enjoy drinking a sixer of Bud Ice each night while watching mindless teevee. Not so great if you have intellectual curiosities outside of "what's going to happen on the next episode of 'Grey's Anatomy'" or would like to make more than $32,000 a year. There are a handful of fun things to do there (a couple of good restaurants, some good coffee shops) but very little in the way of culture. I love bookstores and there used to be a couple of great ones there but they couldn't stay open even with rent hovering around $400 per month. That says a lot. Same for the record stores that were there as well.

That said, there does seem to be a bit of an emerging music scene (mostly bluegrass and Americana), there are some new smaller venues that are bringing B- and C-list artists to town (something we didn't have when I lived there), and there's a growing microbrewery scene. However, those really don't take away from how overwhelming boring that area is the majority of the time and how a not insignificant portion of the Roanoke Valley is overtly racist and, well, not afraid to display their lack of worldliness. Tons of white trash. Tons of people not afraid to drop the n-word. Tons of people that have no understanding of anything outside of what the talking heads on the teevee tell them. There are also a ton of over the top Jesus people not afraid to get very aggressive with you on "finding Jesus as your savior". It's also not uncommon to see someone open carrying a handgun at Chick-Fil-A or the gas station.

There is a lot to do outdoors there but the Roanoke Valley is way too small minded and culturally bankrupt to entice most people to stay there long term, especially if you don't have kids. There's always been a large LBGTQ+ but it's insanely cliquey and, to be blunt, lame. The Park has been around forever and is currently run by a guy that I went to high school with that is the epitome of "big fish in a small pond." Friends of mine that still live there refuse to do anything associated with the Park or anything Park sponsored because of this person. That's what you have to look forward to in Roanoke - limited opportunities that are further limited by the people involved.

If you like southwestern Virginia I'd really consider Blacksburg, Radford, or Floyd. Blacksburg has changed significantly and is slowly losing the cool vibe and flavor it had now that the national chains have moved in but it's still a great town, though significantly more expensive than Roanoke. Floyd is a really interesting place (check out Floydfest) but it's a tad remote for a lot of people (myself included).
posted by playertobenamedlater at 2:58 PM on January 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

Thanks for the feedback so far. As a point of reference, my mother lives about 2 hours south in an even more rural and intolerant area. We are trying to find a place where we can be within a fairly easy drive from her, but has some amenities/vibe of a small city. So ignorance and racism isn't going to shock us... as long as we can find some sort of community to act as a respite.

My partner is a musician, and loves railroads (the eventual Amtrak connection is a big plus). I want to use my identity as a progressive Southerner and my background in non-profit management and organizing to work for progressive causes in a red area (as a volunteer, I don't have to make money from this work). In fact, this election has galvanized my desire to return to the South and work for change.

Our "jobs" are a collection of revenue streams, some more flexible and resilient than other. My partner is already semi-retired. So affordable housing and low taxes is the big draw.

It's also worth noting that we would be spending big chunks of time in the northeast (about 1/3 of the year). And we travel a good bit, so we don't want to be too far from a moderately sized airport.

Blacksburg is a great suggestion though. We'll check that out. I'm very familiar with Abingdon. It's just a little to far from a decent airport.
posted by kimdog at 3:29 PM on January 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would suggest not Radford if you want to do the college town thing because (and you probably already know this if you are from the area) it has a highly-deserved reputation as a party school and things get a little wild on the weekends.
posted by chainsofreedom at 8:30 AM on January 15, 2017

I grew up there as well and am now early 30s. Agree with brain drain -- anyone remotely career-oriented fled at 18 and never looked back. There are some solid medical career opportunities given the growing senior population.

NJ-native liberal members of my family struggled to find socially progressive friends until they intersected with the (tiny) Jewish community.

Not sure I'd agree that the Roanoke airport is "decent". It is/was often worthwhile for us to drive to IAD/DCA/BWI given the difference in fares. I once went to a large conference at VT that bused many European colleagues in from CLT.

It's nice for outdoorsy activities.
posted by ecsh at 10:21 AM on January 15, 2017

I live down in Blacksburg but have spent a lot of time in Roanoke over the last twenty years, so take all this with a grain of salt:

Outdoors first: Roanoke is well-located for a lot of outdoor activities. It's not quite as convenient for some things as Bedford or Blacksburg, but it's sort of right in the middle so rarely is it a bad haul to get to what you want. It's on a slightly boring section of the Parkway, but I suspect I wouldn't call it slightly boring if it weren't in contrast to the lovely sections north (Peaks of Otter, Thunder Ridge, etc.) and south (Rocky Knob, Mabry Mill, etc.). If you like road biking, there's a lot to do though you have to get a bit out of town. If you like mountain biking, there's a fair bit to do (Carvin's Cove, etc.) but maybe not as much as to the southwest down my way. If you like hiking, you have to drive a bit but not too far: most of the National Forest and AT and really interesting things are west into the ridges, though you do have a few charming hikes fairly close where the AT crosses 311 just past Salem. If you like canoeing or kayaking... well, pick somewhere more southwest.

Culture: Roanoke is still a city in fiercely rural southwest Virginia. It sounds like you know what you're getting into. There's night life and music and social event but sometimes they seem fairly narrow. Or just oddly-specific. It's definitely an older (population-wise) town so the things you can do often feel that way. It doesn't have anywhere near the bluegrass/folk/old time scene that, say, Blacksburg/Floyd does, but it seems to have more in many other (non-college) genres. It has some of the benefits of a city: walkable downtown, bus service, an arterial highway running nearby for fast road travel, a decent enough regional airport, real city politics, etc. But as you know, it's a small city, so each of those things has wrinkles: downtown is small, post-revival, and thus has a strange selection of businesses; the bus service often doesn't go where you want (but often goes where you need); the airport charges you a premium for saving you the three-hour drive to Raleigh / Greensboro; city politics seem to rotate around factions and feuds that are impenetrable to the outside observer.

People: If you've lived in the area, you know what you're getting into re southwest Virginia. It's the old south but the twist of being a southern city. The city proper is way more heterogeneous than the surrounding area in some ways. Compare Roanoke and Franklin county just to the south: 28% black or African-American versus 8%. That shows up in local behavior, attitudes, and politics -- sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad. There's going to continue to be hateful, stupid stuff like the mayor of Roanoke publicly being a racist asshole. Some of your neighbors will be appalled and some will nod.

Note that the Amtrak Northeast Regional (passenger rail line) is being extended down into Roanoke at the moment. The last I saw, it's supposed to open for service in 2017. It currently only goes as far south as Lynchburg, from which there are dedicated buses to Roanoke and Blacksburg/Christiansburg. But even that far away, it's already a super-convenient way to get into D.C., New York, Boston, etc. for cheap and without the hassle of an airport. A 4-ish hour drive to D.C. is a 1.5 hour (nice) bus ride and a 4 hour train ride. Once the train extends to Roanoke, let Amtrak do the driving...

If you want to talk details, especially about outdoor stuff and/or the Blacksburg/Floyd area, feel free to PM me. I'm also middle-aged, work from home, have family a couple hours away, etc.
posted by introp at 10:21 AM on January 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Blacksburg is getting a fair few retirees and older people as it consistently ranks well as a place to live. Virginia Tech is also in the process of expanding its enrollment, and the research center, digital businesses continue to attract people too. The town itself can be quite pricey, but outside the town limits much less so. I live there and despite having lived in the area for 20+ years, do not recognize the Roanoke that some are describing as (crudely) ignorant and racist, but that may just be the circles I move in. Due to gerrymandering the state representative is a Republican as is the Congressional representative (the utterly ignorant and stupid Morgan Griffith).

CLT is only three hours or so from Blacksburg, but Roanoke airport is a very cheap "Smartway" bus ride from Blacksburg too.

I think Roanoke has some interesting residential (re)developments going on downtown. My friends who live there, like it.
posted by idb at 8:34 AM on January 21, 2017

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