Artists gather community input for downtown greenway cornerstone

by Eric Ginsburg

Threads. An orchard. Trains. Water.

Edward R. Murrow. A meeting place or picnic spot. Immigrants and the Civil Rights movement, but don’t whitewash it. Music.

Residents offered wildly divergent but in some ways complementary ideas for a cornerstone of the downtown greenway last week. As part of a site visit by Mags Harries and Lajos Héder, the Cambridge, Mass.-based artists selected to design the “tradition” cornerstone, Action Greensboro hosted two public input sessions on Jan. 9.

Located in the northwest corner of the greenway, which will loop around downtown Greensboro, the “tradition” cornerstone will be built on the site of a former gas station at the corner of West Smith and Prescott streets. Greenway Project Manager Dabney Sanders said Harries and Héder are expected to make a final proposal for the $200,000 project by the end of March, followed by more community input sessions before construction begins. Sanders said the greenway team hopes to complete the cornerstone by the end of 2013.

Last week’s meetings, which attracted several dozen residents, provided an opportunity for locals to learn more about the Harries/Héder Collaborative and the artists’ previous public art projects and gave the pair the opportunity to hear about what residents thought was important to include. Many of the topics generated overlapped with the other cornerstones, including transportation and education in the “motion” cornerstone, industry and textiles in the “innovation” cornerstone and civil rights in the “freedom” cornerstone.

“People who came were really engaged,” Sanders said. “[We were] really pleased with the turnout. The artists felt really positive about their experience [and] the quality of input.”

Residents in the morning and evening sessions expressed interest in what Sanders called “edible landscaping,” with discussions of a garden or orchard as well as a agricultural theme to the art. Charlie Headington, who has been working to create a community or commercial garden, or an urban orchard on a nearby site slightly further south along Prescott Street, talked with the artists before the sessions and attended the evening meeting. Residents talked about his plans at the morning meeting as well, and suggested the site could be a nice picnic spot just a short distance from the future Deep Roots Market site.

In addition to discussing the functionality of the space, residents expressed interest in historical and changing traditions, ranging from the textile industry to cultural and artistic events. Harries said she liked the theme of threads, and one audience member proposed the artists find a way to incorporate old cotton mill machinery into the art.

Harries and Héder began the sessions with a slideshow of their numerous other public art pieces, including one that included preexisting material to highlight water in Phoenix or another that utilized a city water map and piping in Cambridge.

“We’re really interested in traditions that are alive,” Héder said, “that are dynamic, present, contemporary.”

Several residents said they were impressed with the scope and talent of the team’s previous work. Others had previously expressed frustration that a local artist wasn’t chosen. Sanders said only one local artist responded to the request for submissions, and that Harries and Héder won in a tough process that narrowed a field of 35 applicants.

Greensboro and North Carolina-based artists will be incorporated in other parts of the downtown greenway, Sanders said, including 12 artistic benches throughout the loop and creative bike racks. Two locals designed the lights and gates near the southwest “motion” cornerstone, which was created by an artist from Providence, RI who ended up collaborating with a local. The Harries and Héder presentation touched on a library installation where they worked with a local poet, and Sanders said their interest in complementing Headington’s work was indicative of their desire for their art to be grounded locally.

Greenway construction near the cornerstone is expected to begin towards the end of the year, Sanders said. The path’s western edge will replace train tracks running parallel to Prescott Street, but construction isn’t anticipated any time soon because Chandler Concrete still uses the tracks and doesn’t have a timeline yet for when it will be able to relocate.

The northern leg of the greenway runs along Smith Street before cutting up Eugene Street to Fisher Avenue and heading east against traffic. Construction will take longer than initially planned, Sanders said, because more work will be required to make the trail flat enough to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act along Fisher Avenue.

A small park is planned for the corner of Smith and Eugene streets where a portion of Battleground Avenue will be closed. The greenway will be an expanded sidewalk along Smith Street, with work beginning around Jan. 1, 2014 that will turn the 400 block of North Cedar Street into a dead end.

The stretch from the “tradition” corner to Spring Street will run along the southern side of Smith Street, where it will cross the street to the northern side, passing the new Greenway at Fisher Park apartments. Deep Roots, a customer cooperative that plans to relocate to Eugene Street by the fall, will also be adjacent to the greenway.