Civic action: Irving Park to Glenwood

by Jordan Green

Saturday morning I run through Irving Park, rounding out my fourth mile and racing against an impending downpour, my growing fatigue and time itself. I’m fairly obsessed with this tight, exclusive world, where Cones, Bryans, Preyers and Vanstorys steered Greensboro through the 20th century, and where Perkinses, Hagans and DeJoys appear to have a tight rein on affairs in the 21st.

Geographically, it’s hardly a stone’s throw from my home in Westerwood, a leafy haven for students, working stiffs and UNCG faculty, and yet it may as well be another country, separated by several clicks of pedigree and income. The families from this elite village decided there should be hospitals, and they opened hospitals. Throughout the last century, business leaders whose houses lined the fairways of Greensboro Country Club got themselves elected to city council, and often as not quietly decided matters behind the scenes and then quietly imposed the will of business without controversy or public debate. Through World War II, according to Howard E. Covington Jr.’s authoritative Once Upon A City, a special district was carved out for the Cones to ensure their representation on council.

It’s one of the big days in the city’s bicentennial celebration with the Heritage Festival showcasing multiple music stages downtown, but you would hardly know it with two elderly gentlemen puttering in a golf cart across the intersection of Lafayette Avenue and Sunset Drive, and a few other runners huffing down the streets. I take a perverse pleasure in trying to decipher the power transactions in this largely closed world but after living in Greensboro for more than three years I also have come to see that I’m working out my own destiny.

After finishing my run, I head over to Glenwood, a neighborhood with impeccable working-class credentials, one of the most multiethnic demographics in the city and possessed of a gritty determination to maintain a positive self regard in the face of sporadic violence and crime. Some friends have organized a volunteer workday at the Hive, a community center where I’ve attended a punk-rock show, a film screening and discussion about street gangs, and a fund-raising banquet for homeless services.

It’s the final activity that bids me today. Our Food Not Bombs group received an invitation to cook and serve at the Hive rent free. Taking responsibility for installing the kitchen is our end of the bargain. These are family to me, or about as close to family as I have here, and the Hive just seems like the right place to be on this particular Saturday afternoon.

Initially, we’d planned to have a design class at UNCG lead the kitchen installation, but the new semester began and spring break came and went without forward movement, so we had to do something else. Luckily, an engineer named Fred has stepped forward. He’s created a whole packet of schematics that show the placement of appliances, shelves and food storage bins, compost buckets, lights and electrical lines, along with traffic flow patterns. He’s also developed this timetable in spreadsheet format that shows all the tasks that need to be performed, broken down into planning, procurement and implementation phases.

The most notable bit of progress is that we’ve found a concrete saw to borrow. It looks like a chainsaw, but with a blade easily twice the length. Bits of diamond dust encrusted in its teeth give it the sharpness to sever concrete, brick and steel rebar, while an attached water hose keeps it from overheating. The first order of business in getting this kitchen installed is cutting out a hole to let wastewater escape.

Fred and a handful of my Food Not Bombs cohorts – some of whom are homeless – work on excavating the hole. There’s not quite enough work to occupy my friend, Tim, and I, so we replace some water damaged ceiling tiles and hang dry-erase board instead. The excavation crew starts by cutting a hole roughly 2 feet by 2 feet in the brick foundation, then digging a lateral tunnel through the Carolina red clay running at a grade that opens as a trench through a hallway floor and connects to a hole chipped through an inside wall comprised of a cinder block and two layers of brick.

My Food Not Bombs pal Liz Seymour and I are talking about how the Hive might be a good model for the homeless day center some of us are working to open. It hosts events, provides office space to lefty groups such as the Fund for Democratic Communities and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, opens its doors to children in the neighborhood, all in a generally cooperative spirit and on a shoestring budget. Food Not Bombs also seems to thrive on these principles. We serve three meals a week without a paid staff or a budget, not counting a couple grand we’ve raised to pay for the kitchen.

We keep experimenting and finding ways to expand our services. We recently started giving away extra food donated by grocers like Deep Roots Market on Fridays at the Hive. Many of the people who cook, serve, clean and, as is the case today, rehab buildings are homeless or formerly homeless. I’m not sure how well this volunteer work prepares them to reenter the workforce, but it strikes me that most of the skills and resources needed for survival are in our own midst, and we don’t have to depend on outside charity.

During a break, I take one of the guys whom I’ll call L to the Hillary Clinton campaign headquarters on West Market Street because L wants to pick up some signs. L used to build and rehab houses in Orlando, Fla. before his wife became ill with cancer. When she died, he was so heartbroken he gave up. L’s supporting Clinton because he suspects Barack Obama of having some hidden agenda. I’m not with him on that, but I like to experience the political zeitgeist. Leaving Hillary HQ with a stack of yard signs tucked under her arm is Kay Cashion, my representative on the Guilford County Commission and a nice lady. She’s clearly trying to place me, but having a difficult time because of my disheveled appearance. She’s an eager conversationalist, which I suppose is first nature to an elected official. I possess enough of the political gene myself to seize the opportunity to talk up the day center. I also mention that L and I work with Food Not Bombs.

“I love Food Not Bombs,” Cashion says.

Her endorsement strikes me funny at first, but then it suddenly makes sense: In tax-averse Guilford County, providing services spending government money is good politics.

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