The Battle for the Heart of [Downtown] Greensboro

Looking at a map of downtown Greensboro, it becomes apparent that something big is coming. The entire eastern side of the downtown is undergoing a major shift, and much of it is entrenched in public dissent tied to development choices being made by the City and local developers. This is apparent in various current projects in Greensboro, from the Tanger Performing Arts Center, controversy around Cafe Europa, and the great parking deck debacle occurring simultaneously with the City Manager’s premature retirement, to the sale of the Bardolph Buildinghome to many of the citys social servicesfor less than tax value to a local developer whose vision greatly strays from the building’s namesake. The entire eastern side will be torn earth between 2015-2020, with millions of dollars poured into the oft overlooked area.

For just under a year, I have been spending a significant amount of time in this strip as part of the work Ive been doing with the Greensboro Mural Project, a local mural arts group, installing a community-collaborated mural. The Greensboro Mural Project has been creating community inspired and powered murals since 2011, making a priority of engaging the people in the places where we paint.

In December of 2016, we started collecting love letters and poems to the city, tabling at many events to gather the thoughts and feelings people had about Greensboro. We anticipated the responses were going to be lovey-dovey affirmations of the city, though perhaps not that revealing. What we got was a series of complex emotions of both fondness and fraughtness with the city. The very first time we were tabling and collecting love letters we asked someone to write a letter and he said no, that he had fallen out of love with the city many years ago. Others just didnt want to mess with love. Some of the letters spoke of a love-hate relationship with the city, the fondness found only after being able to leave the city and return by choice, a love of the greenery, a love of the legacy of social justice, or even stating that Greensboro is culturally psychotic.Taking the messaging and meanings found in these love letters we created a design, and got permission to install the mural on a wall of the old News & Record building across from the bus depot and right in the middle of the above aforementioned section of the downtown.

A piece of our heart showcasing the vibrancy of Greensboro. Photo Credit: Alyzza May.

We came to call this mural Tough Loveas it portrays the tough love that residents from very different walks of life have for the city. Rooting in the notion that tough love is something you have for your family or those closest to you that you offer because you want to see them grow and improve. The love letters we received are tough love letters because we know Greensboro can be better for all of us. This brings us back to the what I am calling the battle for the heart of downtown Greensboro. In January 2018, the Greensboro Mural Project was notified by the property manager that our lease granting us the right of way to the building was going to be terminated in thirty days, six months earlier than our lease stated, and that the building will be demolished.

This news was a devastating blow, as we had not yet finished painting the mural, and we would need to break the news to the 400+ volunteers and the wider community. The irony of the tough love residents expressed about the city, growing in the creation and destruction of this wall, is not lost on members of the Greensboro Mural Project. In the past two months we have held an unveiling and launched a petition that is influencing the property manager. As of right now there is a six month delay in demolition, and preservation of the wall is being investigated. Of course, if you or anyone you know has $4 million and wants to make a sound investment in downtown Greensboro, let us know.

BBoy Ballet dances while Cakalack Thunder performs in front of the Tough Love Mural during the community mural unveiling. Photo Credit: Alyzza May.

This wall sits in the crossfire of downtown development: development that praises creativity and sees the economic value of murals, but only as placeholders before demolition and development. And while I do not feel like our project was targeted for our content or process, I do feel that our mural is caught by both the real estate speculation going on from the properties around it, and from the age old growing pains of a city with an identity crisis and superiority complex. The city is marketing itself for people who are not yet in the city, not those who are already building the city from the ground up, who stay during the tough times, and believe in the promise of the city. In trying to fix our identity crisis we are seeing a destruction of the very things that make us unique, that make us Greensboro.

As many medium size southern cities struggle to assert what makes them distinctly them, they are working against people, the communities that make them them. The role of public participation is more than at the municipal level, it is also at the street level where people are putting their own embellishments on the city. Where people are having a direct say as to how our cities are being developed.

Are cities meant for people? Are they meant for businesses? Are they meant for young people, or old people, or the wealthy, for houseless people, renters, recent immigrants, generational residents, artists, people of specific or varied racial identities, or any of the many different kinds of people?

In Greensboro we must ask ourselves this very question. Who is Greensboro made for? Who is it currently being made and envisioned for? Who is Greensboro? Part of the answer is connected to whom we ask this question, and who is allowed to answer.

We are in a critical place in the development of Greensboros identity, which will be formed and reformed whether intentionally, haphazardly, or with little consideration for all those it will affect.

When thinking about who a city is for, it is critical that we understand that we all have a right to the city, both in its physical space, but also in its creation. So I challenge each of us to go further, to demand of the city, and enact in our daily lives what it would look like to draw all sorts of people in to the conversation and creation of what we each want the city to look like. Were all responsible, but as I said everyone has to be allowed to answer these questions, to have their voice heard, instead of being pushed out by such haphazard planning practices. Greensboro, our heart is on the line, what will we do?

Featured Image: “Tough Love: Love Letters to the City” within the heart of downtown Greensboro.  Photo Credit: Alyzza May. 

About the Author: Alyzza May is an angelic troublemaker and cultural organizer in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were part of a team that worked to start the first participatory budgeting process in the south, co-founded the Greensboro Mural Project, and are committed to helping build the new economy. Alyzza is currently a Masters candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying City and Regional Planning with a concentration in Housing and Community Development.