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Remembering Gainsboro advocate Evelyn Bethel

Published: Jun. 26, 2020 at 9:11 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - In a city with a history of strong neighborhood leaders, no one was more passionate than Evelyn Bethel.

A tireless advocate for Roanoke’s Gainsboro neighborhood, Bethel died this week at the age of 87.

“We had barbershops and beauty shops. We had a pharmacy here.”

Whether she was educating city leaders on the Gainsboro where she grew up or opposing plans she believed were not in residents’ best interests, Evelyn Bethel was a tenacious advocate for a neighborhood forever changed by urban renewal.

She led the opposition to the plan to widen Wells Avenue during the Hotel Roanoke renovation, fought for development on Henry Street that would serve the neighborhood and celebrated the victories, including the renovation of the YMCA in 2008.

“This is indeed a very glorious day,” Bethel said. “It shows that people are beginning to recognize Gainsboro as a community, and how much good has come out of it, and how much more will come out of it.”

Jordan Bell is working on a documentary about Gainsboro, and leads walking tours through the neighborhood.

He describes Bethel as a gatekeeper.

“She was very vital and persistent on keeping the history alive in the Gainsboro community,” Bell told WDBJ7, “and just making sure that the people who lived in Gainsboro had the determining factor on what came into Gainsboro.”

Bethel and her sister Helen Davis were less active in recent years. But they were still involved, supporting the community campaign to acquire the Dumas Center on Henry Street.

“And we’re doing our best to revitalize the area,” Bethel said in 2017, “but it can’t be done without you.”

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