by Henri Gendreau,
The Roanoke Rambler
Urban renewal first swept through Northeast Roanoke. Construction of Interstate 581 ripped neighborhoods apart. Firefighters watched as homes in the area burned to the ground. To make way for the highway, in 1961 the city dug up hundreds of bodies from the Old Lick Cemetery and dumped them in a mass grave outside of town.
In Gainsboro, urban renewal came in fits and starts. The construction of a conference center at the Hotel Roanoke required planners to bulldoze homes and reroute roads. In the 1980s, the city seized lots for a Coca-Cola plant on Shenandoah Avenue. Twenty-three homes and 21 businesses were destroyed. The city assured residents that the plant would hire “a sizable number of minorities,” says a 1992 article in The Roanoke Times. “About 30 were hired, but many were laid off soon after when the company fell on hard times.”
Today, there are in effect two Gainsboros, divided by the four-lane Gainsboro Road, which the city widened in the 1990s. On the east side, in “Historic Gainsboro,” elegant Victorian homes perch above tree-lined streets with glazed brick sidewalks. West of Gainsboro Road, more houses have fallen into disrepair.
Constance Crutchfield, president of Gainsboro Southwest Neighborhood Association, says the neighborhood suffers from neglect. Houses have been divided up into apartments. She says landlords or their tenants don’t take care of the properties. Lots are overgrown.
Crutchfield says Gainsboro desperately needs the amenities that once anchored a thriving business district as it once was. Residents point to Grandin Village as a model for how Gainsboro should look. In the 1940s, that’s how Gainsboro felt.
That decade, the prominent Claytor family opened their clinic. On the same property, across from the library, the Claytors lived in what was said to be the largest Black-owned homes in Virginia when it was built. Patriarch J.B. Claytor and his sons — two doctors, a dentist and an accountant — all worked out of the clinic. In 1972, the city labeled the area blighted, tenants of Claytor apartments moved out and the properties fell into disrepair. In 2005, Walter Claytor won a rare lawsuit against the city’s housing authority, claiming the threat of eminent domain prevented the family from being able to sell the property at a fair market rate.
A Virginia Tech architecture student created renderings of what a redeveloped Claytor Clinic might look like. Page says Claytor himself approves of the idea.
But for other community members, talk about community hubs and revitalization strikes them as a futile effort to recreate the past. While a proposal for a Gainsboro hub is largely focused on fostering a business incubator, the mistaken idea that a hub would be far more extensive, perturbed some members of a panel advising City Council how to spend the federal coronavirus money.
“I am still concerned about the possibility of where a hub may go in Northwest,” Bill Lee, a retired pastor, said at a recent meeting. “It sounds like Gainsboro has a lot of traction with some people. I am confused by that. I wonder if there’s a lot of guilt or sentimental value of what used to be.”
Some recent changes in the neighborhood — or the potential for change — has met with resistance, especially when those ideas are coming from outside the predominantly Black community.
A few years ago, Cecile Newcomb moved into a home on Gilmer Avenue in historic Gainsboro. Her partner, Don Langrehr, had already bought a couple plots of land in 2016, city records show. The couple, who both previously served on Blacksburg Town Council, bought a plot in 2019. (Since then, the couple has acquired two more adjoining lots, records show, for a total of eight plots.) Langrehr owns property in Southeast Roanoke as well.
At a neighborhood meeting, Brenda Allen, a member of Gainsboro Historic District, called Newcomb out. She accused Newcomb, who is white, of having ulterior motives in the neighborhood and questioned why she and Langrehr had bought up properties under Limited Liability Companies.
“I felt the need at that point to make people aware of who she is. And the reason why I did it is because we had people come to our meetings,” buying property and not being forthcoming, according to Allen.
“We’re running into those types of situations where people pretend like they want to know what’s going on, and then they’re just like raping our community,” Allen said.
“They twisted everything I’ve done with my life to sound like I was a racist developer who was going to run everybody out of the neighborhood,” says Newcomb, who moved out of the neighborhood shortly afterward.
Some of the couple’s critics also took issue with the name of one of their companies, called Enhance Gainsboro LLC, believing it struck a gentrifying tone.
Newcomb and Langrehr say there are many residents who have welcomed their presence in Gainsboro, and they count Page among their allies.
Now, with an unprecedented influx of federal funding, it is long past time to help Black Roanokers, who make up nearly 30 percent of the city’s population, achieve their potential.