Exploring Downtown Beckley, WV

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Like so many downtowns across America, Beckley, West Virginia’s Main Street went on life support in the early 1980’s.  First the Raleigh Mall appeared on the north side of town, then the Crossroads Mall.  The locally-owned stores died off or moved out, one by one.  Ever since, Beckley has been trying to find some way to breathe some life into downtown.  In the process, though, it seems to me the city is repeatedly making foolish decisions, and ruining any chance of a downtown renaissance.

By the way, you might want to read my Beckley Disclaimer before continuing, since I’m bound to say something that will make someone upset.

Before I get to my rant, I’ll show you around.

The Raleigh County Courthouse stands at the center of town.  “Main Street” — in the figurative sense — is actually three streets: Neville, Heber, and Main.  All are one-way, and you have to zig-zag through downtown, making a left, then a right.

As you make the zig-zag, you’ll see Beckley’s huge, and relatively new, federal building.

Neville Street still has several historic brick-front buildings, standing side by side — something that’s becoming more and more rare in Beckley.

The Raleigh County National Bank clock hangs over the corner of Fayette & Main Streets.  My father once told me that decades ago (likely in the 40’s or 50’s), the clock stopped working.  Until it could be repaired, all four sides were covered with signs that read, “I will not show my face until I can tell the truth.”  During my visit, I was in town around lunchtime — not 4:50 p.m.  It looks like the clock isn’t as honest as it used to be.

Out of the dozens of neat neon signs that once hung around downtown Beckley, only one remains, at a one-hour dry cleaning place.  I think it’s quite remarkable that this one is still there (and the business is still open!).  Wouldn’t it be great if it was preserved?

Now here’s what has gone terribly wrong with Beckley.  While some of the old downtown buildings still stand, the city is quite regularly tearing them down.  There’s no place where this is more evident, than the corner of Neville and Heber Streets, seen above.  You’ll notice the parking lot, on the left.  That used to be a building.  Now it’s nothing.  No big deal, right?  Well, brace yourself, and turn to the right…

… and this is what you see.  Almost the entire block, bordered by Heber, Fayette, Main, and McCreery streets, has been wiped away.  This used to be the G.C. Murphy’s store, and other local landmarks.  But in 2007, “they” decided the old building had to go.  According to the Register Herald, the demolition process was so horribly mismanaged, they actually brought down a neighboring building that wasn’tsupposed to be torn down (taking with it, two businesses).  Then, the debris from the demolition wasn’t removed until the next month.

Why tear down the old Murphy’s store?  To build something new, of course: a government building.  A year after the demolition, work had yet to begin on the proposed Judicial Annex.  I’d be willing to bet, if it ever is built, it will look just as out-of-place as the humongous federal building (the second picture on this page).  The federal building was clearly built without an ounce of concern for the city’s architecture, and I would be shocked if Beckley does a better job this time around.

Why does Beckley need a new Judicial Annex building?  They need office space for judges.  Sounds reasonable.  So what’s a good price to pay?  How does $15 million sound?  This is, apparently, what Raleigh County expects the finished project to cost.  Doesn’t it make you wonder if the old G.C. Murphy’s building could have been rehabilitated for $15 million?

Beckley’s failure at preserving and promoting its downtown isn’t just evident at the corner of Heber and Neville.  As I drove through downtown, ten years after I had moved away, and five years after my most recent visit, I was reminded of that Pretenders song, My City Was Gone, which includes these lines:

…There was no downtown…
…My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces…
… Had been paved down the middle
By a government that had no pride…

When Chrissie Hynde wrote the song, she was upset about development replacing the past.  In Beckley, however, they’ve just torn down buildings, leaving gaps behind.

In some places, there’s a slight effort to make better use of the empty space.  The city built a water fountain and a small park in honor of city founder Alfred Beckley, across the street from First Baptist Church.  Sure, it’s a nice park, but it looks quite obviously like a building belongs here.

The building that used to stand here, on the corner of 1st Avenue and Neville Street, used to be a pie shop.  I believe a fire in the kitchen shut it down.  I had the chance to enter the old building in the 90’s, years after it had closed.  It wasn’t in great shape, mostly because of the pigeons that had found their way inside, and then pooped without discretion for years.  But, it had character.  There was a dumb-waiter running up to the third floor, and doors with frosted glass panels and transoms overhead.  I bet there was enough space for an office for every judge in southern West Virginia, and it probably would have cost less than $15 million to rehabilitate.

Looking on down Heber Street (from in front of First Baptist Church), you see more gaps left by missing buildings.  Wondering where Beckley’s old theater was?  I think it used to be in that parking lot on the left.  It may have been the building next to the parking lot that’s still standing, but of course, the marquee was ripped off and thrown away, and replaced with a blank beige front.  It’s been a long time, and I can’t quite remember.

That’s enough of my frustration.  Let’s keep exploring.

There’s one small road, Piney Avenue, that connects uptown Beckley (traditionally it wasn’t called downtown, because it sits on a hill) with the valley below and WV Route 16, also known as Robert C. Byrd Drive, or Valley Drive.  Drive down steep Piney Avenue, and about halfway down…

… you’ll cross a nice paved walking/biking trail, that was converted from an old railroad right-of-way.  The Lewis McManus Rail-Trail slopes down on either end, but it’s probably the flattest trail you’ll find for roller-blading or biking anywhere nearby.  The last time I tried to use it, though, I couldn’t find a trailhead or a good place to park to access it.  Maybe someone should tear down a building and build a parking lot.

Continue downhill from the rail-trail…

… and you reach Robert C. Byrd Drive.  When I was growing up, it was simply known as Valley Drive.  That was back before Senator Byrd funneled a ridiculous amount of federal tax money into West Virginia, and especially, his childhood home of Raleigh County.  As a reward, his name is on a lot of things, including this main artery through town — but it will always be Valley Drive to me.

As far as I could find, the only evidence that this used to be Valley Drive is the sign that still hangs in front of the barber shop, at the end of Piney Avenue.

From Valley Drive, I wandered back up into town, then out Kanawha Avenue…

… to the campus of Mountain State University.  I attended one year of classes here, back in 1993, when it was known as the College of West Virginia.  Before that, it was Beckley College.  Back then, it was also jokingly called SKU — South Kanawha University — long before it reached university status.

The university has added a lot to Beckley over the years.  While Shroyer Hall, the ugly round building pictured above, has been around forever…

… other buildings have sprung up in the area…

… including the Robert C. Byrd Library.  Senator Byrd was a student at Beckley College, around the same time that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Mountain State University has also taken over a grand old elementary school, that’s just down the street from the campus.  Student housing is available in one of the old downtown buildings, and in another storefront, there’s the campus bookstore (and a Chick-Fil-A, which gave me a boost of optimism for the city).

Downtown Beckley can be a bit hard to find.  The easiest way is to use Kanawha Street, which ends at US 19 (take 19 south from the I-64 interchange at exit 124).  You can also find Kanawha Street at WV Route 16, about a mile south of the shopping mall district (where Route 16 and US 19 meet on the north end of town).

After spending about an hour exploring downtown Beckley, I left town, and headed to one of the area’s most scenic attractions, Grandview.  (Take I-64 east)

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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