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111605downtown2.jpgRoanoke, Virginia: My first home away from home. The first stop in a journey beyond what I then saw as the restrictive borders of Floyd County.

I arrived in the summer of 1965: 17 years old, fresh out of high school and ready to conquer the world. I had a plan: Attend college at the University of Virginia’s Roanoke facility on Grandin Road and work nights at The Roanoke Times. I moved into the YMCA on Church Street ($30 a month).

At the Times, entry level for someone fresh from the mountains of Southwestern Virginia meant the copy boy’s job – 6 p.m. till midnight five nights a week at $1.25 an hour – enough to pay the rent at the “Y,” junk food, gas and repairs for my 1957 Ford and college expenses.

The copy boy’s job turned into an internship by the summer of 1966 and, along with it, a chance to write about the city. I loved exploring Roanoke’s downtown – the hustle and bustle of banks and businesses along Jefferson Street, the winos and hookers of the Market area and the characters who hung out at Texas Tavern on Church Street. I learned the city and wrote about it. When the internship ended, the Times offered me a fulltime job as a reporter.

A newspaper reporter learns a city from the inside out. Like all cities, Roanoke sprawled beyond its borders and the burbs grew. But for me, downtown was the city. I moved into Jefferson Apartments, an old Victorian building just off Elmwood Park. The Jefferson rocked in those days. Fred Freelantz, the top jock at WROV, lived across the hall. The sounds of parties echoed through the halls nightly.

For residents at the Jefferson, life revolved around downtown. We ate breakfast at Texas Tavern and listened to the oldtimers talk about a Roanoke changing before their eyes. Most didn’t like the change. Lunch at the Shoneys on Church Street or the S&W Cafeteria. We got haircuts at the barbershop in the Patrick Henry Hotel, clothes at Davidsons and stereo equipment from Ewald-Clark. After work we drank in the bar in the basement of the Ponce de Leon Hotel.

Downtown provided subjects for the best stories I wrote for The Times: the teenage girl who had to tap into the city’s underground to get an abortion (illegal at the time); the homeless woman who slept in alleys and refused a warm room and bed at the shelter only to freeze to death one winter; the teen model wannabes who served on the “youth council” at Heronimous and the hooker who sold her body to pay her way through Hollins College. I told their stories in words and photos. All of the writing and photography awards I received from the Virginia Press Association while at the Times came from people and events downtown.

In 1969, I left Roanoke and headed for a higher paying reporting job in Illinois. The next three-and-a-half decades would take me to every country in the world for wars, news events, features and photo essays. Downtown Roanoke, where it all started, became a distant memory.

But those memories came back Tuesday. I dropped my mother off at her optometrist on Jefferson Street and had some time to kill so I parked the car, picked up my camera, and walked the streets of downtown Roanoke for the first time in 36 years. Oh we had been back to downtown since returning to the area last year but it was to shop at Market in the Square or have dinner. I hadn’t walked the streets that spawned so much of my journalistic career.

Like most downtowns, Roanoke’s has changed. The seedy market area where hookers trolled and drug buys went down is an upscale collection of art galleries, restaurants and trendy shops. Old Roanoke banking institutions like Mountain Trust, Colonial American and First National Exchange disappeared long ago, replaced by megabanks who call others cities home.

The Jefferson Apartments are long gone too, torn down in the name of progress. A sign for Carillion Community Hospital sits on the site. The Heronimous department store sits empty. I dated a girl who worked in the men’s department of the store. She still lives in Roanoke, running her family’s cabinet business. Ewald-Clark is gone too, swallowed up by the giant Ritz electronics chain which had no use for a downtown store that sold high end cameras and stereo equipment. A sign in the front window says loft apartments will soon be available on the upper floors.

Too many empty storefronts line Jefferson and Church Streets and Campbell Avenue. Finks Jewelers closed its flagship store on Jefferson and moved out to fancy new digs on Electric Avenue in the county. Davidsons hangs on, surrounded by empty storefronts. A homeless woman who says her name is Wilma pushes a grocery cart packed with her belongings down the sidewalk of Jefferson Street. Wilma says she’s lived on the streets of Roanoke for “oh, about 20 years I guess.” Roanoke, she says, “is my home. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

At the De Espresso coffee shop on Jefferson, the only customer is a man in a business suits who talks on his cell phone while typing on his laptop. A kid on the couch puts his magazine down long enough to fix me a medium size cup of the “house blend.” It tastes like crap.

But Texas Tavern still has the same strong, greasy coffee in standard white mugs. As I sip some real coffee, the old man on an adjoining stool tells me Roanoke just ain’t Roanoke any more. Others nod agreement. Most the places I used to frequent on Church Street are gone. You find lawyer’s and architect’s offices occupying spaces that used to house retail shops and restaurants. You get the feeling that this is a place where people come to work during the day and then head elsewhere on nights and weekends.

Today, when you pick up a copy of The Roanoke Times, the stories you read about downtown talk of revitalization, building and economic conditions. But I don’t get a feel for downtown because I don’t see stories about the people. Maybe somebody there is still writing about the men and women who make up a downtown but I haven’t seen them. I’d like to.

Maybe downtown Roanoke is no longer the pulse of the city. Maybe it doesn’t have a pulse. Perhaps life in the city centers around the plastic and neon of Valley View or the laid-back lifestyle on Grandin Road. Maybe sprawl has robbed Roanoke of a center. The Market provides some focus but that image seems manufactured or maybe I’m missing the point.

Or maybe I just need to spend some more time walking the streets of the city I once called home.