Fear and loathing in Greensboro
What would it take to make Greensboro a more prosperous, vibrant and just city? I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately. It’s a sobering thought: I’ve lived in Greensboro for more than four years, and for better or worse, the city has claimed me as one of its own. I find it to be a maddening place, but maintain a fierce loyalty to it above Durham, the other North Carolina city that I know from previous habitation. So more and more I want to propose solutions, identify people actively engaged in making this a better place to live, and constructively support positive endeavors. I know the track record of such boosterish efforts, whether officially sanctioned by the city’s leadership or undertaken by the daily newspaper. They’re typically maligned and treated with distrust, or more likely, roundly ignored. I have a nagging feeling that we’re a dying city — overbuilt with sprawling shopping centers and apartment complexes that cease to attract customers or tenants after five-year expiration dates; hobbled by latent racism; rejected by high school students and four-year degree earners, and consequently reliant on a growth industry of retirement homes. I went to hear a talk in Greensboro recently by Robert Jensen, a prophet of gloom who writes about the human species’ unsustainable ecological trajectory, the stark inequalities of wealth on the globe that should either shock our conscience or worry us with the prospect of worldwide insurrection, and the folly of US empire building. About 35 self-described progressives — people I hold in great regard — gathered to hear Jensen’s insights, and then to grapple together with questions of how to address challenges of global sustainability and equality in their own lives and their own community. I can appreciate the importance of tackling global warming and global poverty — and acknowledge how intimidating it is — but I found myself unable to fit my mind around any social construct with a larger scale than the city, specifically my city. So it was an introductory comment by Spoma Jovanovic, a professor of communication studies at UNCG, that lodged in my brain, rather than anything in Jensen’s worthy lecture. Jovanovic cited a 2008 report by Keith Debbage, Ruth DeHoog and Jim Johnson entitled “Long-Term Socio- Demographic Challenges Facing the Greater Greensboro Area: New Opportunities,” which reports that Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic group in Greensboro and Guilford County, that if the city and county “are to thrive and prosper in the years ahead, local officials must not only embrace this diversity but also figure out how to leverage it for competitive advantage in the 21st century global marketplace, and that non-white groups will propel the city and county’s economic growth in coming years. It’s really a stunning statement from a group of academics contracted by a major local foundation. Growing up in rural Kentucky, I was starved for diversity, and I naturally gravitated to cities. The excitement of urban centers has always been inextricably linked for me with their ability to harness and accommodate the dreams of immigrants — and outsiders like me. Encounters with immigrant cultures in cities are vividly inscribed in my memory: watching Mexican Aztec dancers in a parking lot in Greensboro, eating at a Honduran taqueria in Durham, grabbing a halal plate from a street vendor in Manhattan, seeing Algerian rai star Cheb Mami transfix an audience at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and partying at a Ugandan dancehall in London, to name only a few. The notion that anyone would not embrace these elements, and not want justice and inclusion for immigrants is strange and alien to me. But immigrants may as well be invisible in Greensboro. To the extent that they’re acknowledged at all, they’re mostly subjected to slander and hate. We have an established and staid gay community in Greensboro, but little of the flourish of expressive gay life that lifts other cities’ music, fashion and architecture to the level of fabulousness. We have some level of friendship and discourse between white and black Greensboro, but we still suffer from a racial discourse in which true feelings are smothered beneath the veneer of civility and any articulated grievance by black folks is blithely dismissed by the white majority as “playing the race card.” We suffer from a provincialism so acute that city leaders who travel to Charlotte to gather ideas are derided with a sense of fear and loathing. We have a seething blogosphere whose principals police the realm against ideas that fall outside their orthodoxy, draw up lists of heretics for demonization, and from time to time tear each other down. Beyond their ranks, the progressives and centrists, whether because of intimidation or a sense of superiority, rarely stoop to take part in the contest of ideas. There are exceptional stories of progress, of course. The success of homeless people pooling their resources to find housing for themselves, and, in some rare cases, starting their own businesses come to mind. So does the grassroots movement that restored the protest petition to Greensboro last month, and cadre of dedicated advocates that helped establish the city’s first homeless day center. The Dotmatrix Project’s showcase of local, original bands, sound engineering and videography, along with the 48-Hour Film Project deserve commendation. Increasing awareness of local food production and the growing number of people who are gardening and raising chickens are also inspiring. So, let’s put aside our fear and distrust, draw from our quite ample resources and make a great city, shall we?