From both sides of the bridge
Drive into Winston-Salem from either the east or the west, and your first impression of the city, your first glimpse of the downtown skyline is going to be from Business 40. US Highway 52, on the other hand, funnels visitors in from points north. A less salutary aspect is its effective demarcation between downtown and underdeveloped, impoverished East Winston.
Major roadways bring us together and hold us apart. Winston- Salem has the opportunity to repair some of the damage and revitalize its urban core with a $200,000 federal grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a $56.2 million project by the NC Department of Transportation to renovate Business 40 and replace bridges along its downtown stretch. The Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership and the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County deserve credit for getting this initiative underway and setting up a public input process through the Creative Corridors Coalition. Going forward, east Winston-Salem, Winston-Salem State University and UNC School of the Arts need to have a greater stake in this project to ensure that the built environment reflects the history, character and values of their communities.
One imagines that the new bridges, which will likely be in use for 50 years, will tell the world about a city of arts and innovation. At least some will probably reference the city’s Moravian heritage and complement the restored mills that house the Winston-Salem Visitors Center and the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts. But what about the intersection points where Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, East 3 rd Street, East 4 th Street and East 5 th Street bridge US Highway 52? Southeast Ward Councilman James Taylor says residents of the eastern and southeastern Winston-Salem want to the corridors to reflect an aesthetic expression of their communities.
The particulars of that history and the specific functions of architectural design that will effectively communicate the vision are yet undetermined. The money will be spent one way or the other, and this project needs the residents and business owners of the eastern Winston-Salem at the table or else this part of the city will end up being an afterthought. The clock is running: A consultant plans to present a master plan in late April for public review, and then submit a final plan to the NC Department of Transportation in August.
Bridges in a densely inhabited urban space are almost like the air we breathe — concrete and steel slabs scarcely noticed as long as they convey us from departure to destination. Bridges are functional, but should they not also be art? What use is art, you may ask. To rework a declaration by poet Diane DiPrima, communities and businesses die every day for lack of it.
A bridge can be either a forbidding border crossing or an invitation to enter. Aesthetically pleasing design and ample space for pedestrians is likely to improve circularity. That can only improve the fortunes of area businesses and shore up communities.
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