The Hotel Dumas sits empty on a street of vacant lots, its remaining neighbors consisting of a few moldering buildings and the train tracks that once separated blacks from whites.

An entire community used to live here, years ago, and people old enough to remember will tell you how this place would bustle. James Brown stayed at the Dumas when he came for a show. So did Cab Calloway. So did Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Like many black communities founded during segregation, the one surrounding the Dumas has since vanished -- bulldozed to make room for what would become a six-lane highway, the Roanoke Civic Center, a post office and a McDonald's.

The Hotel Dumas has survived and now promises to do so for many years to come -- albeit in a different form.

A new generation of community leaders, trying to save what little is left of the neighborhood, last week launched a $2.4 million plan to renovate and expand the 87-year-old hotel, transforming it into a cultural center.

Construction crews will build a 260-seat performance hall on the hotel's second floor and a recording studio on the third. The Harrison Museum for African American Culture will take over the ground floor.

"I do believe the renovation of the Dumas, particularly into a center for cultural and artistic development connected with the African American community, can contribute to reestablishing their sense of place," said Ted Edlich III, president of Total Action Against Poverty, a community group leading efforts to resurrect the hotel.

When complete, the Dumas will offer after-school programs where teenagers can perform and record their own music. It will house the Dumas Drama Guild, a theater troupe for adults, and an acting program for children.

"We're gearing our programs to the arts, to theater and music. Our students are going to learn to think differently," said William Penn, a jazz pianist who is supervising the renovation.

City leaders envision the Dumas as one end of an arts district that they hope will transform the downtown from a railroad hub to a center for culture and technology. There already is talk of starting a culinary school across the street from the hotel, and putting office buildings nearby.

"The key to the future is diversity," said Earl Reynolds Jr., an administrator with the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority. "You can no longer hang your hat on one or two primary industries."

In its heyday, the Hotel Dumas was surrounded by barbershops and record stores, pool parlors and restaurants. The businesses along what was then called Henry Street formed the cultural center of black Roanoke.

Neighborhoods extended along the north side of the Norfolk & Western railroad, which employed many of the residents. Though segregated, black Roanoke was a marvel of diversity; the section included here were Greek and Lebanese families, Jews and Protestants.

Wealthy people lived around the corner from winos. And while white visitors tended to notice the outhouses and tin-roofed shacks, there also were the Burrell Memorial Hospital and a 22-room mansion owned by a prominent black doctor.

"It was one of the best-kept-up places," said Walter Claytor, whose father owned the mansion. "My mother kept us busy painting, washing windows or walls. She believed idleness was the Devil's workshop, and they believed in keeping them kids busy."

Beginning in the 1950s, Roanoke used new powers and money granted by the federal government to condemn blighted parts of the city.

Mary Bishop, a former reporter for the Roanoke Times who wrote extensively about urban renewal in the mid-1990s, estimates that 1,600 homes, 200 businesses and 24 churches were removed -- about a hundred of them set aflame, because that was the easiest way.

City officials deny that racism played a part in selecting neighborhoods, but Bishop said it's hard to see how it couldn't have -- Roanoke's poor white neighborhoods were left untouched.

"The city pretty much destroyed the cohesiveness of black Roanoke," Bishop said. "And so, any political power that they would have naturally developed after segregation began to fade out because they scattered all over the place."

It's hard to call the policy racist, Reynolds said. Urban renewal was meant to improve blighted areas, regardless of who owned them, and over time the city got better at helping people whose houses were condemned.

"If we knew what we know now, we'd do it differently," he said.

Roanoke's former Hotel Dumas, right, will become a cultural center.