Thursday, April 16, 2009
Greensboro, NC on a Tuesday afternoon is a quiet place even in the heart of its downtown. The business district is more or less strictly business with few if any residences, certainly no big condo or apartment buildings. The city is surrounded by huge stretches of commercial and mall activity on the roads leading in. The results of that commercial activity in the outskirts, and of the current economic collapse, are visible in empty shops and businesses that line Elm Street, downtown's shopping steet.
Greensboro’s heart is made up mostly of three and four story brick buildings that date from the late nineteenth century through the art deco 1930s. The styles should clash but live comfortably with each other as they do in towns all over the nation. There are one or two low-rise high rises including a very handsome gray granite insurance building with a tall pyramidal roof that overlooks a large and welcoming park with fountains and plazas. The streets weren’t empty, but there were very few people out and about in mid-afternoon.
One of the great icons of an earlier U.S., a huge Woolworth that occupies an entire city block, lies empty with its entire entrance area open to the street. Some demolition and the beginning of renovation can be seen inside, along with a large placard announcing its renovation into a museum of the Civil Rights Movement.
It was at this Woolworth’s in 1960 that four African-American University of North Carolina students began the very first sit-in at the lunch counter that would bring down segregation in the state.
But the renovation and museum may never happen—with funding difficult over the years, and totally unavailable now, the project has lain dormant for something like a decade. All along Elm Street, store windows may have one or two items in them to alleviate the sense of desolation (one was filled with stacks of law books, surprisingly) but a closer look quickly reveals empty darkness beyond.
At the foot of Elm, however, signs of life are everywhere. As in so many cities, as soon as a neighborhood begins to fail artists move in to take advantage of depressed rental rates, converting empty businesses into studios, renovating the store fronts with lively colors, lights, and their work in the windows. We saw a lot of stained glass, as well as paintings, sculpture and assorted crafts. There were also some seemingly thriving bars and cafes and a welcome sense of life and interest.
We walked back up Elm and explored the Cultural Center in a very modern building overlooking the big park in the center of town. Several art and performance organizations occupy the Center's large spaces. One gallery specializes in showing the work of black artists, another shows Native American work, and the Art Alliance provides big, well-equipped studios where parents can bring their children and work in a variety of media. The attached gallery was filled with the work of local artists of a very high quality. Standouts were potter Tom Suomalainen (witty, anthropomorphic pigs parodying human activities and pretensions); Bill Brown, an abstract sculptor whose warm-toned wood and metal Eclipse showed a lovely coordination of pattern and mass; and Lin Barnhardt who reinterprets houses and other structures (many from the paintings of Edward Hopper) miniaturized in slightly bizarre perspectives, on meticulously painted earthenware.
We ended our afternoon's exploration at the Public Library's cafe with tea and sweet potato pie.
Woolworth store photo from dbking's photostream on Flickr
Archival sit-in photo from upi/bwttman/corbis via the Encyclopedia Brittanica site
Suomalainen photo from the Art Alliance site