Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Before Greensboro Destroyed My Home

I live in the community once known as Bessemer. My family bought our home in 1958 when I was 2 years old. My first memory is of driving to our home on an oiled gravel road in Daddy's black '56 Pontiac and my mother telling my younger brother and I, "This is our new home."

As an unincorporated community, Bessemer had no city limits but it was generally assumed that Bessemer was the community between White Street to the north to McConnell Road to the south. To the west, Bessemer shared a border with the City of Greensboro and the eastern edge would have been near where the Sears/Kmart Distribution Center sits today.

Bessemer High School stood on East Bessemer Ave as a pillar of the community, on the site where Erwin Elementary School stands today. The gym at Erwin is all that remains of Bessemer High School. When Greensboro annexed the area they closed our high school and bused us across town even before court ordered busing for racial issues began. That was when the continuity of our community began to fall apart.

Bessemer had it's own street gang called the Bessemer Boys. The Bessemer Boys were notorious throughout the rest of Greensboro but here in Bessemer they served as a quasi-police force that kept the rest of Greensboro's bad boys at bay. I'm not trying to pass them off as saints but the streets were a lot safer under their rule than they are today.

The Bessemer Community had it's own community center that was bigger than any Greensboro community center that existed at the time. The picnic shelter and basketball courts are gone but the building remains just south of Wendover Ave and west of Elwell. The Bessemer Community Center was jointly owned by Bessemer United Methodist Church, Bessemer Baptist Church and a Presbyterian Church on Phillips Ave at the intersection of White Street. As members left the neighborhood and those churches to flee to safer neighborhoods the 3 churches could no longer afford to keep the center open. Today, only Bessemer United Methodist Church-- home to the Blessed Table Food Pantry and former home to the IRC-- remains. Members tell me they doubt the church will remain open for another year.

We had our own baseball and softball field at what is now the location of Peeler Recreation Center across the street from the abandoned Winn-Dixie Grocery store that marks the center of the little green circle-- the site I've suggested for Greensboro's Performing Arts Center.

The Bessemer Swim Club was located in the King's Forest Subdivision. It was closed because the white community leadership wrongly opposed integration of the pool. Racism existed in the community in pretty much the same proportions that racism existed everywhere. As a child I couldn't understand why the black kids next door went to one school and the white kids to another but as soon as we walked home from school all the kids in the immediate neighborhood, black and white, gathered in my yard to play.

Summers were spent playing in the woods the City bulldozed to build parks where now abandoned basketball courts of broken concrete remain. Sometimes we swam in the rock quarry where the rock that built Greensboro was mined. Other times we fished in ponds that once existed inside the little green circle. If we caught Brim or Catfish, then my mother would fry them for supper and if we caught Carp, Mrs Pennix, the black lady next door, would feed us along with her sons and other kids black and white. Despite public opinion, Carp is good if you know how to prepare it but like too many white folks, my mother never learned the secret recipe.

And while they moved to better neighborhoods many years ago, the Pennix Brothers still visit from time to time.

In the late 1950s, the City of Greensboro expanded into the East Market Street area and began bulldozing the mostly black owned businesses that existed there. There was concern among white downtown developers that the thriving businesses along East Market were taking away downtown's profits. Their solution was a taxpayer funded and completely unnecessary widening of the entire length of East Market Street that took the parking lots and many of the buildings that were located there. Even then the project costs $Millions and only downtown Greensboro benefited. Of note: in the most recent wave of "downtown development" East Market Street has been narrowed. Again, at taxpayers' expense the cost running $Millions per mile .

In the 1960s an era of "downtown rejuvenation" swept the country and Greensboro was no exception. And while downtown Greensboro got $Millions in Federal aid, Greensboro's other neighborhoods like Bessemer got nothing. Bessemer had a number of small commercial areas where high end retailers, doctors, lawyers and others set up shop. Today there are none that I know of.

The area in which I live, the area inside the little green circle, was annexed circa 1964. Shortly afterwards, the City of Greensboro built Claremont Courts, a low income housing project that still belongs to the City of Greensboro. Later, because of public outrage, the City began "distribution" of low income housing projects "throughout" the city. Then they came back and built Patio Place Apartments-- another city owned low income housing project-- next door to Claremont Courts.

Greensboro's realtors, whose offices were downtown, spent the 1960s, 70s and 80s promoting segregation of blacks and whites by directing prospective home buyers towards the neighborhoods in which the developers wanted them to go. Roy Carroll Sr and other developers promoted and built-up Greensboro's urban sprawl while existing neighborhoods like ours emptied out. One now former Greensboro City Council Woman got $Millions to build affordable housing while existing housing that was even more affordable emptied out.

While our streets are all paved, many still don't have curbing and gutters or storm drains. Streets that were already paved before annexation 40 years ago remain narrow and dangerous in comparison to other city streets. And sidewalks... What are sidewalks? I live on a City Bicycle Route but there's nothing to remind motorists for miles on end-- never has been. More people in East Greensboro use bicycles as everyday transportation than any other area of the City and yet there is no safe place to ride a bicycle to get to those "downtown jobs."

Why not put the jobs where most of the people live instead of forcing us to travel what for many will be a hour or more each way? Those new commercial properties the Mayor is promoting outside the city limits along the county line to our east don't even have bus routes and riding a bus there would require we first ride a bus downtown before changing buses to ride right back through our own neighborhood. How many people living downtown have to live like that?

All through the late 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and until 2007, the City of Greensboro deliberately concentrated police efforts in more affluent areas of the city including downtown. East Greensboro residents often waited hours for police response to emergency calls while crime was unheard of in Greensboro's more affluent neighborhoods. Things eventually got to the point that victims no longer called the police, choosing instead to deal with it on our own. I remember one incident where I called GPD to report that my car was being broken into at that very moment and being told by the 911 dispatcher than an officer would be dispatched the next day. That's right, the next day. I won't say what happened next but the officer's trip the next morning was null and void.

Black and white, people got out as quickly as they could afford to leave. Most of the houses went to Greensboro's slum lords but in recent years even the slum lords are ignoring the 40 or so empty houses inside the little green circle, many for 10 years or longer.

GPD does better these days, response times are usually minutes at the most but but the neighborhood still isn't coming back. Building the heart and soul of Greensboro destroyed the heart and soul of Bessemer. I ran a two week write-in campaign for Mayor of Greensboro in 2007 solely because Johnson and Kern were denying Greensboro's gang issues when 200 members of the Bloods Gang were located in the house across the street from me. I knew I couldn't win but with some help from my 30 or so supporters we forced gangs into the discussion.

Downtown Greensboro is now enjoying its third wave of "downtown rejuvenation" in the last 50 years but Bessemer and communities like Bessemer continue to die because the Greensboro City Council has never become vested in East Greensboro or any other community outside of the 99 blocks that make up downtown Greensboro. . Building the Randall Jarrell Performing Arts Center inside the little green circle will force Greensboro, once and for all, to become vested in our communities.

It's the only right thing to do.

Some will argue that we should wait on the $20 Million economic development bond as proposed by Councilman Zack Matheny just yesterday but promises like that are too easily broken. We must demand what they cannot afford to forget, a gem the City will treasure and do everything in their power to protect.

Continue to article #50 More Empty Promises?