Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

April 18, 2004. Reading the townscape.

Saturday morning I rode my bike out of Everybus and into Greensboro, to see what I could see. Cris, my friend in Chapel Hill, had described Greensboro as just more urban sprawl, so I wasn’t expecting much. The ride in was interesting, watching a gradual shift in the landscape from farms to individual suburban homes, to the first obvious subdivision, a few light industrial plants with huge parking lots and cows grazing next door, then strip development, a run-down neighborhood of boarded up houses, obvious attempts at neighborhood revitalization, new “urban village” construction, and at the center a very small revitalized downtown.

Years ago I traveled in Chad with a team of specialists in agriculture, forestry, and range management. They could read the landscape – tell from the vegetation the history of a particular piece of land, or from the height of the trees the tale of forest management in the area. The plants on the side of the road told them whether the area was degraded, the color of their leaves could tell of nutrient shortages. It was a foreign language to me, I was amazed by what they could understand from what I saw as a featureless field.

But I try to read built form in the same way. So the farms with their open fields, the lone homes and barns surrounded by massive trees, speak of land that has been cultivated for generations. The occasional home circled only by a modest lawn and neat flowers

looks like someone working away from the land, in one of the industrial plants in the region or in an office. An unexpected suburban subdivision, fifteen large homes on the side of a lake, tells of newcomers to the area, growth, or urban flight; people willing to drive ten or twenty miles to work so they could live in a large modern home. On the edge of town the houses that weren't actually boarded up had ripped screens, sparse tattered furniture on their crooked porches, and weeds in their yards instead of flowers. Folks here didn’t have time or motivation to care for their homes – renters, perhaps, in houses not maintained by the owners because the rents were too low to make it worth their while.

A mile further, the houses were smaller but neater, with well-kept lawns and tidy window fittings. These people had a stake in their homes and their neighborhood, they were working it keep it up. The city was too. The streets were paved with strips and curves of brick, passive devices to make traffic move more slowly in response to citizen concern about speeding. One

intersection was landscaped as a neighborhood “gateway,” neat beds of pansies planted around decorative signs proclaiming this to be Asheboro. Those streetscape improvements speak of both the city’s and the residents’ efforts to encourage neighborhood.

Past Asheboro, in the shadow of a few tall downtown buildings, a major development was in process. Several rows of new townhouses were fully built, and many more under construction. Banners hung from lampposts proclaiming this to be Southside. Several big old homes were undergoing renovation, also graced with Southside signs. The new homes were varied; townhouses, apartments, an elegant house with wide porches on the first and second floors. The signs made it clear that this was all one big development, but the design clearly showed that someone was trying hard to create an urban area on the southern edge of the city rather than a suburban community of big homes with wide lawns.

Across the street, I spotted a couple in front of a pair of older brick homes, and stopped to ask them what was going on in the neighborhood. I lucked out. Instead of thinking me nuts, they turned out to be in real estate and had grown up in Greensboro, so they knew and cared about the town. He had gotten into urban revitalization ten years earlier, renovating an old fire station that dated back to the days of horse-drawn fire coaches. He owned the two older brick homes; the Southside development was influencing the

adjoining neighborhood, and he had renovated them for upscale rentals. One houses what appeared to be a quite elegant salon called Wisteria, with a frosted glass door etched with a silhouette of bamboo. The other was still under renovation. With four fireplaces on each floor of the house and original wood paneling on the walls, they expected each of the two-bedroom apartments to rent for around $1000 per month. This was indeed part of an effort to revitalize the city’s downtown. They told me about other projects underway – one downtown building converted to loft apartments, another refurbished as offices with high-end wiring for computers and networks throughout. A new theater was operating on Elm Street, a new library, a coffee house, a day spa, a few fancy restaurants, a new YMCA, even a store selling nothing but hand-spun, hand-dyed yarns.

Clearly this wasn’t the Greensboro that Cris knows. I rode down Elm Street, where it was easy to pick out the new shops, the buildings being renovated, and those still available. There are a few fancy old buildings – a tall office structure housing an insurance company, a lovely art deco post office and federal courthouse, the former Kresge store. Someone had invested in public sculpture.

In front of a new office building was a sculpture of O’Henry (his nom de plume – I forget his real name) and another depicting a book of his work with a child slipping out of the pages. Plaques around town described the sculptures and mapped a walking route to see them. The town was quiet on a Saturday morning, but there was a surprising amount of traffic through the coffee house, where of course I stopped to drink a cup and read the local papers. It was a lovely place – if I lived in Greensboro I’d certainly be a regular. Alas, when I came back on Sunday with my computer they were closed – if I lived there I’d have to work on changing that!

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