A tale of two cities: greed vs. preservation

by Ogi Overman

The irony was inescapable. On the way to work Monday morning, May 23, I joined what seemed like 50,000 fellow citizens and curiosity seekers to watch the demolition of the Burlington Industries building. Certainly no irony there, merely a feeling of melancholy tinged with bitterness over a community’s shortsightedness. No, the irony was that once I got to work my assignment was to begin this week’s cover story on the Greensboro Historical Museum. A story on the effort to preserve and honor our past, juxtaposed against the reality of something with historical significance being obliterated in a matter of seconds. A story on a progressive city that is proud of its heritage and seeks to make others aware of it, contrasted with a shadow city that is run on greed and ruled by developers, with nary a moment’s concern over what they perceive as an empty building whose time has come and gone.

Walking toward the Sears parking lot, binoculars in hand, I felt like a citizen of Mayberry, joining my fellow townsfolk to greet the gold truck as it stopped to gas up. ‘“Aw, this is big, Ange, This is big, big!’” I thought to myself. Except on this day I wasn’t chuckling like I do every time I watch that episode.

Then, once the deed was done, I flashed to another episode, this one where the Hollywood producer wants to make a movie in Mayberry and Mayor Pike wants to spruce up the burg by cutting down the old oak tree in the middle of downtown. Only this was real life and Sheriff Taylor wasn’t there to tell us what a bunch of idiots we were for wanting to destroy a part of the town’s heritage.

Where’s Andy when you need him?

The moment the structure went down, a huge roar went up from the assembled masses. I wondered how many of those cheering had any idea of what that building had represented, both historically and architecturally. Did they have any sense of an era not so long ago when textiles were our bread and butter, when BI was a strong international player, when the building caused a rather large controversy by being built on that particular tract? And I wondered why, a mere 34 years later, there was so little outcry over its demise.

No sooner had the huge plume of dust and smoke begun to rise when I got a lump in my throat. I honestly thought I was going to be sick to my stomach. As those about me cheered, I felt like crying. I actually felt dirty, not from the debris cloud, but for being one of the gaggle of gawkers. I felt like a looky-loo at an auto accident. This wasn’t history in the making ‘— more like history being nonchalantly ignored, relegated to’… well, the museum.

In another touch of irony, the previous week when the museum’s public relations director, Taneka Bennett, was giving me a guided tour of the exhibits, we came upon some old photos of the O. Henry Hotel and the King Cotton Hotel. I remarked to her that tearing down these fine old landmarks were two of the biggest mistakes this town ever made.

So now the museum will have not only photographs of the Burlington Industries HQ but also plenty of video footage of its destruction. Progress, eh?

I wondered how all the dads and moms who brought their kids to the event or who saw it live on all four local networks or on the subsequent newscasts explained it to them.

‘“Daddy, why’d they tear that nice building down?’”

‘“Well, Son, they wanted to put a shopping center there.’”

‘“But there’s a shopping center right beside it. Why do they need another one?’”

‘“Uh, it’s kind of complicated, Son. They’re going to make it better and more modern.’”

‘“What was wrong with the building, Daddy?’”

‘“Well, nothing, really. The company that used to be there just didn’t need it anymore.’”

‘“Couldn’t somebody else use it?’”

‘“Uh, I suppose, but nobody came forward and wanted to buy it.’”

‘“Did they ask anybody?’”

‘“Er, I’m not sure, Son. I’m sure it would cost a lot.’”

‘“Well, why couldn’t the people who own it now turn it into something else?’”

‘“Like what?’”

‘“Like maybe a shopping place.’”

‘“But I just told you, they want to build another shopping center.’”

‘“Why couldn’t they make this part of it, then?’”

‘“Son, it’s a little too complicated for you to understand.’”

‘“Tell me anyway.’”

‘“OK. People make business decisions based on a number of factors, primarily maximizing profit. The corporation felt they could make more money by tearing down the building and putting something else on the property, because the property itself is more valuable than the building.’”

‘“It sure was pretty, though.’”

‘“Yep, it sure was.’”

Ogi can be reached at and heard each Tuesday at 9:35 a.m. on WGOS 1070 AM.