Camp Little Hope looks at South Elm through a different lens

by Jeff Sykes

| | @jeffreysykes

What would an alternative history of Greensboro look like and who would tell its story? Those were some of the questions asked, and ultimately answered, by a group of artists that created the Chamber of Commons and the South Elm Neighborhood Field Guides.

As part of Elsewhere Museum’s South Elm Projects initiative, the trio that makes up Camp Little Hope were invited to participate in the series of urban projects designed to give artists a voice in the $200 million of redevelopment taking place in and around downtown Greensboro. The artists””Aislinn Pentecost-Farren, Walker Tufts and Mary Rothlisberger””each had completed a stint at Elsewhere in the past. But just as the South Elm Projects were designed to take Elsewhere’s mission outside of the museum walls, the Chamber of Commons project allowed Camp Little Hope’s artist to bring that unique perspective to interpreting the past, present and future of the South Elm neighborhood.

The field guides are a set of three maps now distributed in Downtown Greensboro. You might find them in a restaurant, bar or small business, these official looking red, blue and green maps stationed in countertop kiosks. When the artists began researching the neighborhood, they soon discovered that most of the information available came from materials published by the Chamber of Commerce.

“These materials focused on the neighborhood through the lenses of business interests and classic economic development,” reads a project description. “We began to wonder what an alternative set of documents might look like. We envisioned publications focused on the many resources that escape notice when viewed through a traditional economic perspective.”

Thus, the Chamber of Commons was born.

Pentecost-Farren, Tufts and Rothlisberger visited Greensboro this past summer to conduct research. Much of that was conversational research and interviews with architects and professors, botanists and librarians. Tufts went through library archives, including flat files, newspaper articles, and yes, those Chamber of Commerce publications. One particular booster article stood out to Tufts: a 1970s article about how the Chamber of Commerce could help increase economic activity.

“We wondered what it would be like to create an organization, an imaginative institution, that would reflect a different set of values,” Tufts said. “What would it look like to explore, not even noneconomic values, just ones that we don’t traditionally look at: the importance of neighborhood cohesiveness and community, the role that ecology plays, things like green infrastructure, which is there in a lot of places.”

Pentecost-Farren said the group’s initial assignment was to examine empty lots in the South Elm project area and consider how they could be reactivated. Her instinct told her that the lots were far from empty.

“We wanted to get to the bottom of that and demonstrate that and show how full the empty lots really were,” she said. “We wanted to uncover the histories, the businesses that had been in them or beside them, and discover the ways that a so-called empty lot is actually functioning as a rain water holding area and filtering the system in a way that a paved lot wouldn’t. It’s actually part of the city’s water infrastructure.”

This different way of looking at what many consider an abandoned lot is what led to the larger Chamber of Commons idea.

“It just expanded from there,” Pentecost-Farren said. “We ended up talking about all kinds of histories of South Elm that aren’t necessarily all in the lots, but it’s in this very small area south of the railroad tracks and north of Bragg Street.”

The field guides are titled “Seeing”, “Lawns” and “Firsts”. Each contains an introductory essay and then dives into its unique subject matter. “Seeing“ focuses on property history as outlined in historical insurance and fire maps, tax records and redevelopment projects. The history of the Warnersville redevelopment and the impending Cascade Saloon project are detailed, as is the use of eminent domain to facilitate such initiatives.

Lawns“ examines the actual landscape of the neighborhood and attempts to catalogue the ecosystem found in each abandoned lot in the project area. The guide takes a look at the native soil and the city’s water supply, in addition to quoting from a 1962 progress report during the Warnersville redevelopment that mandated new lawns to be “a community asset.”

Lastly, “Firsts“ looks at several historical firsts in the neighborhood, including the first black man to be mentioned in city records. His name was Gill and he was paid $34 to plan American elm trees.

“Gill’s trees grew for 60 years, and Elm Street was named after the picturesque canopy they created over the street,” the guide reads. Research indicates that one of Gill’s trees survived the Dutch Elm Disease of 1962 in addition to modernization of the city itself. The group believes one such tree near Bragg and Elm streets “survived because of its location.”

The “Firsts” guide looks at the city’s first African American church, St. Matthew’s United Methodist, the city’s first railway, and the first invasive plant””the broadleaf plantain””which Native Americans called “white man’s footprint” since it grew up in the “damaged ecosystems that surrounded the sites of European colonization.”

Rothlisberger, one of Camp Little Hope’s artists, said that context was important to their research and to the finished project. The “Seeing” brochure takes the idea that we can never really look at things with a completely open mind.

“We are always looking at things through a certain perspective, so the guide looks at the neighborhood through some different perspectives, different ways of seeing, ” she said. In addition to the historical records and Chamber of Commerce publications, the Camp Little Hope crew sought out Native and African American leaders for interviews.

“We wanted to cast our net wide and have some really different perspectives for people to compare when they are learning how to see this neighborhood,” Rothlisberger said. “If you look deeper, past the storefronts, what else can you see through this new lens?” !