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An Interview with Evelyn Bethel

Celine  Anderson

Evelyn Bethel is a 80 year old resident of Roanoke. She runs the Gainsboro Neighborhood Preservation District.

How well do you know your neighbors? Aside from the occasional wave, I very rarely interact the people who live next door. While not true for everyone, this is the case for many Roanokers. Matt Ames and I sat down with Evelyn Bethel to talk about the development of a local community and particularly the Gainsboro Neighborhood Preservation District’s involvement with urban renewal and maintaining the Gainsboro area.

Evelyn graduated from Lucy Addison and spent most of the 1950s and 60s in Washington D.C. While she had not been in Roanoke for the entirety of its urban renewal, she was witness to several events. She describes her experience: “I would come home, visit, and notice the place had changed.” Evelyn described what she saw of the eviction of Roanokers to us as “They said, ‘you move, we’ll clean it up- build new houses, and you can come back.” That statement is where a lot of people were manipulated. One specific day, when Evelyn was much older, one of these “changes” moved her in a great way. Evelyn was reading the newspaper, like any other day, when she was struck by an article that announced the realigning of Wells Ave. After seeing the astonishing article, she went on a long drive around Historic Gainsboro. She described to us in detail how she drove by the school, the library and thought “If they come through Gilmer with that four lane avenue, they’ll take our whole neighborhood.” It was this event that moved Evelyn to found the Historic Gainsboro Preservation District.

Evelyn called her lifelong friend, George Heller, who was an active researcher and investigator for the organization. Together they arranged a seven person meeting. The Historic Gainsboro Preservation District started out as a group of elderly Roanokers. At age 61, Evelynn was their youngest member. As a group, they have since then participated in clean-up projects, voting campaigns, requested more trees and sidewalks in the area and had a say in the design for the extension of the Gainsboro Library. They were able to put four new stop signs to stop speeding around the Roanoke Catholic School area. Basically their job as a group is to keep Gainsboro out of danger and make sure that nothing unjust happens to the community. As for Evelyn’s initial concern ¬†about the realigning of Wells Avenue, the Gainsboro Neighborhood Preservation District was able to get them to re-rout straight. If they had not, the south side of Gilmer Avenue would have been lost.

Thanks to the Gainsboro Neighborhood Preservation District, a lot of potentially tragic projects have been avoided. Evelyn talked with Matt and me about the great significance that Historic Gainsboro has to of Roanoke. She explained that it is really a shame when people forget to acknowledge Gainsboro. She shook her head and stated “people refuse to admit that Gainsboro is the seat of Roanoke.” Evelyn explained that this kind of recognition is really important, suggesting that the neighborhood should have some sort of sign or post, describing its significance. A lot of Evelyn’s work is to prevent the disintegration of the community, and one of the things she hopes for is that young people start to get involved. “The reason people don’t pay attention to the history is they always think of history as being dull,” she said. “They grow up and they have no motive to come home, do anything, be anything- because they don’t see anything.” Evelyn was referring to the lack of community and the lack of neighborhood bonds visible to youths.

One of the hopes Evelyn has for the Historic Gainsboro Neighborhood Preservation District is that young people begin to get involved. To learn more about the organization or to volunteer, follow the link