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Centerville certainly old, possibly historic neighborhood

by Amy Kingsley

It’s easy to overlook Centerville. The neighborhood, a collection of turn-of-the-century residences, sits in the shadow of the NC School of the Arts, not far from the larger and more celebrated Waughtown and Sunnyside historic districts.

Fortunately for the residents of the area, Centerville also happens to be one of the favorite neighborhoods of Winston-Salem Historic Resource Officer LeAnn Pegram. It is one of two south-side neighborhoods that she has recommended for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

With the addition of Centerville and the Sunnyside-Central Terrace District, the effort to preserve historic portions of the south side will have taken a significant step forward. The Historic Resources Commission already won national historic recognition for Waughtown-Belview in 2005.

“This area is important because it is a mixture of middle-income and workers’ housing from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century,” Pegram said. “With the industries that were located here, this was really an area where people worked, lived and went to church.”

Over time, some of the houses in Centerville have deteriorated from modest dwellings into ramshackle rental properties. But their historical characteristics remain.

Most of the houses are unadorned, one-story structures with shallow porches. Cottages and bungalows perch on small lots with narrow yards.

If the area earns historic designation, homeowners can claim tax credits to rehabilitate their houses. The listing offers some protection against construction projects initiated by the federal or state government.

“There are no restrictions against what a private property owner can do with his property,” Pegram said.

Centerville was originally settled in the mid-19th century and took its name from its location midway between the villages of Salem and Waughtown. Its residents took jobs at the nearby cotton mills and wagon factories, which were founded by early industrialists HE Fries and SJ Nissen.

Some of the wealthier members of the community built houses along Sprague Street in Sunnyside. Fries brought a streetcar to the neighborhood, and from the choice lots along its flank sprang a handful of high-style Queen Anne homes.

Some of those homes have been purchased by local preservationists and returned to their original grandeur, said Vicky Hallenbeck, an employee at Southside Baptist Church. The church, an imposing Gothic Revival structure, has served the spiritual needs of southside residents since 1925. But as the character of the neighborhood has shifted, the congregation has slowly moved out of the neighborhood. The church still maintains strong ties to Sunnyside, Hallenbeck said. The church, which was built in the era of carts and buggies, never installed a parking lot, a concession to its origin as a true neighborhood church.

“I would say this area is transitional,” she said. “There are a lot of houses in poor repair, then there’s an area where a whole street has been fixed up.”

The area’s biggest employer, Arista Mills, closed in 1970. The Carter G. Woodson School of Challenge, a charter school, operates out of the company’s old office building on Goldfloss Street.

“It’s a high-crime area,” said Hallenbeck. “There’s a lot of rental property.”

Southside Baptist provides outreach programs for neighborhood children, including the FROGS program, in which local grade school kids receive free meals and tutoring on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Every year the church organizes a live nativity scene that often features neighborhood children.

Most of the people who live in the Sunnyside-Central Terrace and Centerville neighborhoods are working poor, Hallenbeck said, although increasing numbers of homeless residents also wander its streets. The neighborhood has also seen an influx of immigrants.

Evelyn Terry, who represents southeast Winston-Salem on city council, has lived there for years, but had to learn about the significance of Centerville, Sunnyside and Waughtown when she won her first election in 2006.

“There’s a certain characteristic within the human spirit that values the past,” Terry said. “For some people, the past is very painful, and it’s hard to look back at it. And some people always want shiny, new, glitzy stuff.”

Terry praised the increasing diversity of southside, but said some of the new residents value the history of the neighborhood less than old-timers. She said she’s worried about the speed with which the neighborhood is declining.

“There has been massive deterioration,” she said. “It has been in proportions that just have me trying to get some focus on the issue.”

Preservationists and neighborhood groups have had some success saving the area’s historical monuments, Terry said. She cited the rehabilitation of an old Shell station and wagon works on Waughtown Street as successes. Increasingly, local historians and architects have turned their attention to southside and have begun lobbying for assistance to save the neighborhoods. But the area needs more than boosters, Terry said.

“We have a die-hard group of preservationists and conservations who want to save everything,” she said. “Somewhere in between them and the people who live here, you need a group with public policy know-how and investment dollars.”

Inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places wouldn’t provide a quick fix for Centerville or Sunnyside-Central Terrace, Pegram said. But the honor has helped turn some neighborhoods around.

“Over time people begin to take more pride in their neighborhoods,” she said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but I think it will be a real boost for them.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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