Wednesday, February 14, 2007
A squabble of historic proportion
- TOP expects to survive state budget chop
- Early learning stars
- Independent voice is silenced in merger
- TOP takes a hard knock
From the RoundTable blog
I was walking with a young friend last month in New York City, enjoying an after-dinner stroll to Rocco's bakery and thinking about Roanoke's Old Southwest.
Since my last visit, my friend had moved from a pricey efficiency apartment in the West Village to a somewhat less pricey efficiency on Manhattan's Upper East Side -- also known, she tells me, as Ambulance Alley for its numerous hospitals. She is a nurse.
She's a student again, too, working toward becoming a nurse practitioner and earning a third degree. The move was an economy. She is homesick for the old neighborhood.
Her parental units, the source of a lot of financial support over the years, are unsympathetic. Ditto her hospital co-workers. And she accepts their judgment.
We strolled from a chichi restaurant in the Meat-Packing District up Bleecker Street. The old industrial cityscape turned to brownstones and red brick rowhouses and shopfronts. The sidewalks, lit by black iron streetlights, teemed with people dressed not for work or a night at the opera, but casually. For life at home.
"I can see why you miss this," I said. Here was the hustle-bustle city on a warm, human scale. "This is a wonderful neighborhood."
"Oh, you understand," she said, amazed, and she put her arm through mine and gave my elbow a squeeze. We walked along like that for a while, just letting the city talk.
"When I come here," she finally said, "I feel like I'm home."
On the inside, her current quarters are almost exactly as her old, except the kitchenette appliances are newer and nicer and she now has a view, of the East River.
Outside is different. She lives in a skyscraper that rises from the sidewalk and the streets as if all were cut from a single chunk of concrete. It stands amid similar buildings. The whole appears modern, safe, clean.
She pointed out a newly built minipark nearby -- paved completely. Why, she asked plaintively, didn't they put in something green?
Lots of New Yorkers prefer life on the Upper East Side to living in Greenwich Village. No one, I submit, can claim the two districts have the same feel. Each is distinctive largely because of their architectural features, from structural design to building materials to accents like black iron lampposts.
Roanoke's Old Southwest neighborhood resembles no part of Manhattan that I know. It, too, is distinctive, though -- different from modern McMansions or 20th century suburban tract houses or even other old city neighborhoods built up just beyond the inner-city ring.
The people drawn to live there are drawn to that distinctiveness.
Old Southwest's historic district designation and zoning overlay protect it. Roanoke's Architectural Review Board protects them. The board helps to enforce the architectural rules that define the place.
No rules, no place -- not as it once was and is working at being: a neighborhood of pretty Victorian homes, many with stunning features that won't be found in more modern replicas.
Now the board and planning staff are updating rules that are more than 10 years old. Mainly, city planner Anne Beckett said Tuesday, the revisions will take into account building materials that weren't in existence then.
What? No wholesale overhaul, given the neighborhood brouhaha one resident raised when he razed his old tin roof without consulting the ARB?
No, she said -- to my relief.
The city would be foolish to change dramatically a program that has come so far in reclaiming one of its neighborhoods and, despite recent griping, remains popular.
That tale is told quietly, in the acceleration of investment in historic rehabilitation in Old Southwest last year and the above-average increases in property values in the last three years.
Rules cause consternation, now and again. But long-time residents know the restrictive zoning overlay came into being almost 20 years ago because residents wanted it.
"And they still want it," Beckett said. But "they want you to modify it." Sort of.
"They like the guidelines. They just don't want it to apply to them."
Ah, well. They're human.
Strother is a member of The Roanoke Times editorial board.