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Fixing Glenwood

by Dave Roberts

At the pot-luck dinner meeting of the Greater Glenwood Neighborhood Association, at least a fifth of the attendees are children. The older ones kick up an incredible ruckus at the foosball table in the entrance way while the younger ones scamper about, giggling and dropping crumbs. The noise comes to an abrupt halt, however, as a special visitor makes his entrance.

Dressed in the trademark crimson suit and hat with the full white beard, Santa Claus has arrived. The younger children are dumbstruck, and cautiously, respectfully, approach and each in turn take their perch atop his lap and convey their Christmas wishes. The neighborhood association hopes events like these will help bring the community together.

A middle-class neighborhood that has existed for a century, Glenwood comprises the triangular area bordered by Lee Street on the north, Freeman Mill Road on the east and Coliseum Boulevard on the west. For the most part it is a residential area, comprised of houses, mostly 50 years old or older, three parks, numerous churches of multiple denominations and faiths (including a mosque), Peck Elementary School and the Glenwood branch of the Greensboro Public Library. It is hilly and green with ample tree cover, retaining a suburban character despite being so close to downtown. What is more, two natural streams still run through Glenwood, though the recent drought has dried them up somewhat.

Glenwood’s reputation for crime is not undeserved; in the last 10 years its overall per capita crime rate has been roughly twice that of Greensboro’s citywide rate, with burglary, drug offenses and auto theft more than double. Due to drivers being robbed in the area in the past, some nearby take-out restaurants will not deliver food there, even to the closer homes in the north section near the UNCG campus. The reason, Tate Street Jimmy Johns manager Zach Chambers explains, is because “basically we just want to keep our drivers safe.”

While the area had served as farmland up until the late 1890s and construction of homes had commenced in 1906 in what was then known as Piedmont Heights (the portion of the neighborhood west of Aycock Street and south of West Lee), Glenwood as a neighborhood truly began to take shape in 1909 as a series of prefabricated homes built by the Carolina Real Estate & Investment Co. Around this time the company also offered the state of North Carolina 25 acres to move the state capitol to Greensboro in an attempt to drum up publicity and appeal for the area, an offer that was declined.

Further development continued in the 1920s when SJ Stern purchased the remainder of Piedmont Heights and continued construction of modestly priced homes. From then until the 1950s, commercial buildings were constructed in the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Glenwood Avenue as well as the 1300 block of Grove Street (now referred to collectively as the Grove Street corridor), housing groceries, drug stores, barber shops and other businesses. Currently Grove Street is home to printing companies and house cleaners, which do not attract the kind of foot traffic a commercial district needs to thrive. As such, the street is largely deserted during the day and even more so at night.

Carl Champion, owner of Champion Envelope and Printing Co., agrees the neighborhood needs help.

“I’m the only business that’s open nine to five,” he says. “It’s like a lot of poor neighborhoods. When you have mostly rental property, tenants aren’t as invested in it; they don’t take care of the property.” While not part of the neighborhood association, he commends their efforts, though he’s planning on moving his business out of the neighborhood. He places the blame for some of Grove Street’s ills on certain businesses that he feels attract an unsavory element, such as Andy’s Pantry down the street.

“Even though they’ve got signs prohibiting loitering, it’s a major trouble area,” Champion says. “[Some residents] come in and get their alcohol and come walking down the street with it, drinking it in public.”

While he’s had only one break-in in the last 20 years, he said he “doesn’t have much worth taking. It’s mostly a nuisance, nothing serious.”

Don Le, owner and operator of Andy’s Pantry for 17 years, is well aware of the trouble in the neighborhood. Unlike Champion, his business has been robbed several times over the years. In October Drameco Imes, 20, was shot in the store’s parking lot. While police maintain a minimal presence, Le says, “There’s not much they can do. You got all these drug dealers running around with guns and sooner or later they’re going to get mad at each other and start shooting and people get caught in the crossfire.”

He keeps a gun behind the counter but has never used it in a robbery. “If you’ve got a gun in your face you can’t really reach for it,” he says.

Like Champion, he commends the efforts of the neighborhood association, particularly its community watch program but, as he puts it, “If [criminals are] not scared of police, they’re not going to be scared of us.” As to assertions that his store is part of the problem, Le rejects that argument. “We’ve gone above and beyond our duty as a store. We have cameras outside and whenever someone’s hanging around out there we call the cops. And if you’re going to look at us you’re going to have to look at the [Kenneth Convenience Store] on Gregory Street. They just had someone get shot over there. There’s only so much we can do. If you think it’s going to be like Fisher Park, that’s just not going to happen.”

Another commercial tenant on Grove Street is April Gerald, who, together with sister-in-law Joanne Gerald, operates the Head to Toe Styling Salon. Gerald has been in this location for 10 years, and has seen it go from bad to where it is today: “Trying to get cleaned up and going back to what it once was.” Ironically, according to Gerald, the Imes shooting had the effect of reducing the amount of drug transactions on the street, at least for the last two months. Joanne Gerald agrees that while Glenwood has its problems, it is at least on the mend.

“What kept me from coming here was the neighborhood,” she says. “But seeing the shift recently made me want to come.”

Adjacent to a community garden on the corner of Grove Street and Glenwood Avenue, Early Scarbrough watches as workers lay concrete. The foundation will allow for the display of a smattering of works by the UNCG sculpture department. It’s just one of many features intended to spruce up the Grove Street corridor and the Glenwood neighborhood in general.

“Last year people planted peppers, corn, tomatoes, zucchini; we tried cucumbers but they didn’t work out,” says Scarbrough, a prominent member of the neighborhood association, watching her children fiddle with the lights in her car as they wait for her and UNCG students David Smith and Marie Cox to finish raking dried leaves from the garden, which is demarcated into sections by stakes and chain-link fencing. A 20-by-4-foot plot in the garden is available to Glenwood residents for $15 a year, and among its growers is the local Food Not Bombs chapter, which is one of the tenants at the Hive (an acronym for History Information Vision Exchange), a community center intended to improve relations and communication between Glenwood residents. Susan Burkholder, a volunteer at the center, hopes the Hive will become a resource for the neighborhood.

“We hope to branch out and see which needs in the neighborhood can be met.” She is more optimistic in her outlook than some of the other Grove Street tenants. “I’m really excited about the energy and projects that the GGNA has come up with. I think they’re on a great track. [Grove Street] has potential to become a hub if we could get a coffee shop or a small restaurant, a place where folks could connect and feel more rooted.” While Burkholder feels the other Hive tenants have high hopes for Grove Street and “a real willingness to bring it alive,” there’s some question of what to do or how to go about it.

On that matter Joanne Gerald and her sister in law each have their own ideas, some of which have been in place for some time now. Until recently April ran a step dancing team called Elements of Class out of the empty space adjacent to their salon. Originally composed of Glenwood high-school students, it eventually reached out to students from Grimsley, Smith and Dudley high schools, becoming the North Carolina co-ed division state champions this year. They have recently moved out of the space, however, as Joanne Gerald intends to open up a dance studio soon, offering jazz, ballet, ballroom and modern dance, with a scholarship program for Glenwood children. These and other child-oriented facilities and programs – such as the Sun and Moon Dojo which recently moved in next door – it is hoped, will help to bring the community together.

As to the matter of Grove Street’s business climate, the Geralds have ideas about how to improve that as well. More lighting, says Joanne, is a good first step.

“During the day it’s fine, but at night it’s dark. If we had more signage so people knew what was here, that would help.” Advertising in general, not just on the street level is part of the Geralds’ plan. While traditionally their customers have come from word of mouth (a matter of course in the hair industry) April plans to advertise to the community to attract more Glenwood clientele.

The city, for its part, has produced a comprehensive overview of the neighborhood along with a set of goals to help Glenwood regain its former glory. Produced by the Greensboro Department of Housing and Community Development and the neighborhood association, the Glenwood Neighborhood Plan was first presented to the public on Nov. 7 and 10, at Peck Elementary and is currently available for public review and comment. The neighborhood plan’s key findings indicate that Glenwood, while retaining comparable population levels from 1990 to 2000, changed significantly in several areas.

First, the median age of residents has decreased significantly, going against nationwide trends. This change seems to have increased its appeal for some. Larkin Carroll, a new mother, decided to move into Glenwood .

“I rode my bike all over Greensboro and liked this neighborhood best,” she says, “It’s affordable. There’s kids all over the neighborhood, which is nice.”

A more dramatic shift has occurred in terms of racial composition, showing a marked increase in the percentage of African-American and Hispanic residents (from 23 percent to 28 percent and 1 percent to 9 percent respectively) and a commensurate decrease in white residents (70 percent to 48 percent) in the 1990s. During this period Greensboro as a whole underwent a similar though less intense change in its racial makeup.

Given Greensboro’s rocky past when it comes to racial tensions, that many residents welcome the diversity is a testament to the progressive character of the neighborhood in general, as well, perhaps, as the more tolerant climate of today compared to previous generations,. As Burkholder puts it, “I’ve lived here fifteen years. There are younger adults moving in who have an interest in the neighborhood itself. Glenwood is diverse in a number of ways, racially obviously, but we also have class diversity – working class, middle class who can’t afford to live in a middle-class neighborhood – which makes it an exciting place to be but makes it a real challenge to cross some of those lines. The class line is actually harder to cross than the racial lines, I think.”

In addition to a businesslike approach to community building, the neighborhood association also serves as a forum for socializing among residents in the form of pot-luck dinners and holiday bazaars. The former is a genial event, much like one seen at a church or any other community gathering. At the Glenwood Recreation Center, residents gather to catch up on events in each other’s lives over homemade chicken and dumplings and delectable pecan pie. After a few community announcements of holiday productions at local churches, neighbors sample each other’s fare to joyous acclaim (the pie is a big hit). The residents need little prompting to wax nostalgic about Glenwood’s past, and to extol its virtues in the present and possibilities for the future.

Gene Ledbetter, a silver-haired gentleman in his late fifties who volunteers at the local Baptist church and whose parents and grandparents lived in Glenwood from the 1920s on, cites the decline in pedestrians as one of the key changes in Glenwood.

“We would come up and vacation [in Greensboro.] There was a candy store on Aycock and Grove and we would walk up to it from my Granddad’s house on Elwood Avenue. In the thirties and forties you walked everywhere. My parents used to walk to downtown.” Glenwood’s decline in later years has also affected Ledbetter on a personal level. His uncle was killed in front of his house, also on Elwood, in 1975. Despite this, he retains his affection for the neighborhood:

“If that house became available,” he says, “I would buy it.”

Kay Doost, of a similar age though a more recent arrival, has lived here since 1992. She chose it primarily for the price range.

“I also wanted something funky,” she says. “I was looking at the house and on the sidewalk there was one section where a cat had left paw prints in the cement as it was drying and on the porch there was a bird’s nest. I said, ‘That’s it.'” Doost is quick to point out the growing strength of the neighborhood association, gesturing to the crowded room: “Last year we barely had one table, so this is very exciting.”

A younger couple, Chris and Shelley Doolen, are similarly excited about the neighborhood association’s potential, but their conversation quickly resumes its focus on food, praising the spicy green bean casserole and remarking how Shelley has recently come around to liking black beans thanks to Chris’s quesadilla-making skills. Teachers at Sedalia Elementary and Lindley Elementary, respectively, they were similarly attracted to the neighborhood for its affordability and its character. Their talk turns to the neighborhood in general, something Chris is clearly passionate about. Crime is the subject of interest and they both agree that an increased police presence is necessary.

“It seems to me that when it comes to resources Glenwood doesn’t get its fair share,” he says. “A solution would be having a bicycle officer sitting on Grove Street. They’ve got them all over downtown and I understand that the business owners pay a part of the salary, but it doesn’t make sense that you’d have to pay more for a guy that doesn’t have a car.” He’s not alone in this sentiment. Among other recommendations, the neighborhood plan calls for the presence of bicycle officers to act as a deterrent as well as to increase the perception of safety which, it states, is actually worse than the reality.

“It’s definitely cool that there’s a plan,” Doolen continues. “When you’re talking about Greensboro you’re talking about a city that’s going to have a beltway and three interstates running through it, which is how Atlanta is now. You have the opportunity to decide how you want it to be.”

Jeff Sovich of Greensboro Housing and Community Development, and primary author of the plan, is optimistic about Glenwood’s future, seeing particular reason for hope in the level of cooperation between the city and the neighborhood association, as well as giving credit to Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small for her efforts on the neighborhood’s behalf. It remains to be seen, he says, how the council will respond when it comes time for them to consider adopting the plan in February. He is vociferous about the plan’s benefits, citing its ability to work within currently allocated funds and working mainly through the private sector and non-profit organizations such as the neighborhood association and Glenwood’s many churches, avoiding any additional burden on the city.

“The strength of a city is only as good as its neighborhoods,” says Sovich. “Glenwood is in good enough health that the city does not need to come in and redevelop such as what happened in the Southside or Willow Oaks. Glenwood just needs some TLC.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Dave Roberts at dave@yesweekly.com.

The Glenwood Neighborhood Plan can be viewed at greensboro-nc.gov/departments/hcd/planning/neighplan/glenwood.htm

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