Back to the future in Burlington

by Ogi Overman

Growing up in Burlington I had one goal in life – to get the hell out of Burlington. Looking around, it occurred to me that there were two routes out of Dodge: learning to play a musical instrument, getting an education, or some combination of the two. Taking no chances, I learned to play four musical instruments and sing, and stayed in college for seven years. While I was in college my folks moved to Greensboro, so other than an occasional run to Zack’s for the world’s finest hot dogs, I never looked back.

I wish I had.

There’s an old adage that says you spend the first 20 years of your life trying to get out of your hometown and the last 20 trying to get back. I’m in that latter stage. Oh, it’s not that I’m having a fit of nostalgia or yearning to re-create my misspent youth, but rather that the town I’ve called home since 1973 could learn a lot from the town in which I was born and reared. Lately, the town the truckers used to call “Nothing Town” has come back in a big way. And they seem to have done it the right way, not through unbridled development but through orderly, controlled growth. Pay attention, Greensboro – they’ve looked to the future by keeping an eye on the past.

I wish I’d kept up with Burlington city politics better over the years, but what I do know is that a combination of business – primarily Lab Corp (formerly Roche Biomedical) – and civic foresight took a textile town that was dying on the vine and turned it into a thriving community that clearly takes pride in its newfound prosperity without ignoring its small-town heritage.

And that’s the difference between Burlington and Greensboro. Greensboro in many ways is again on the upswing, but I see very little evidence that it cherishes its past enough to preserve it. Sure, there are pockets of enlightenment: Preservation Greensboro, led by Benjamin Briggs, is doing all a non-profit can; neighborhood activists like David Hoggard are fighting the good fight; former mayor Carolyn Allen is still an eloquent voice for conservation; and, believe it or not, there are a couple of developers who seem to understand that the big picture involves more than the bottom line.

But these Davids don’t stand a chance against the twin Goliaths of developers and government. In our excitement over reviving downtown and making way for FedEx – both legitimate endeavors, by the way – we seem to have cast a blind eye to our past. Not only are we willing to turn once-pristine acreage such as New Garden Road into another congested boulevard lined with cookie-cutter strip malls in the name of increasing the tax base (that phrase is really starting to get on my nerves), but we are also tearing down preservable buildings with no regard for their historical significance.

The most glaring example of this short-sightedness is the imploded Burlington Industries Building, its land soon to be home to – yippee! – an upscale shopping center. Then there’s the Arbor House, built by Gov. John Motley Morehead, demolished for – hot diggity – some condominiums, and the Ice House, which the city promised to restore but let fall into hopeless disrepair. One can’t help but wonder where the wrecking ball will strike next. (I’ll save that for another day.)

But back to Burlington; last Saturday I gave Janet a glimpse of my childhood. After doing a little retail therapy at JR’s and the BMOC Outlet, big spender that I am, I treated her to a bagful of Zack dogs, which provided our picnic lunch at City Park. The next time the city leaders feel the urge to go on a fact-finding junket, they need go no farther than Burlington’s city-owned park. There they will find a magnificently restored carousel with antique German hobby horses and Bavarian-sounding pipe organ; a fully functioning mini-train, complete with station, trestle and spooky underpass; a well-manicured softball field that hosts national tournaments; helicopter and train kiddie rides; romantic gazebos; picnic tables, some covered with brick ovens and grills; and a lovely creek meandering through acres and acres of evergreens and hardwoods. It’s a slice of pure Americana, not too different from the way it was in my childhood.

Now, I can’t prove this, but I’d bet that sometime in Burlington’s recent past, someone proposed that this prime acreage be developed. Located across the street from Williams High School and within easy walking distance from downtown, it would be perfect for a mixed-use residential project, say, along the lines of that thing out on Pisgah Church Road. But a bunch of backwardass Burlington rednecks (like me) probably stood up and pulled a Howard Beale and, as a result, became visionaries. Perhaps even saviors.

By holding on to its past, Burlington has paved the way for a bright future. And I’m sure its tax base is doing fine, thank you.

Ogi may be reached at