JUST THE BEGINNING
Deena Hayes-Greene and the Gorrell Street revival
On the corner of Gorrell and Martin Street, one of Greensboro’s oldest neighborhoods, sits a large two-story house that has become the catalyst of rejuvenation in the neighborhood.
You can tell that someone has taken the time to pour love and dedication into the antique structure. The lawn is immaculately landscaped while chairs beckon you to sit on the front porch and stay a while.
The same thing can be found down the right side of Martin Street. The majority of the homes are fixed up nicely with flowerpots out front. Neighbors speak to each other, asking about a granddaughter or spouse.
There’s an obvious sense of community on the block. A fleeting concept in 2016 but one that John Greene and Deena Hayes-Greene have invested in and are working hard to bring back to the historic Gorrell neighborhood as they breathe new life into the once drug-infested and blighted community.
In 1998, John and Deena Hayes-Greene decided to pack up all of their belongings and move their family from the prestigious Jefferson Wood area to the Gorrell Street neighborhood.
The couple had always advocated for social justice and decided that if they were to really make an impact they would have to do it in the areas that needed it most.
“We moved in the neighborhood for strategic reasons. We were pro-black. We talked about black issues but we were staying on the white side of town. We understood the value of moving back over here so we did,” John said. “We didn’t want our kids to grow up shaped one way when things in the world were another.”
When he thinks back to how the home was at that time, he lightly chuckles.
“It didn’t quite look like it does now when we got here,” he said as his wife Deena laughed in agreement.
The couple purchased the home from local community leader Skip Alston. At that time, it was a crack house, like the majority of the homes in the area, and in need of some tender love and care.
“Since this was our first home that we bought together we said that we’d up fix it and do what we could and we tried all kinds of things,” John said.
It’s interesting that the Greenes would end up in a home that a black man was forced to vacate. In 1913, William Windsor acquired the home for $1,300. He would end up putting another $1,300 in the home for electrical and cosmetic upgrades. Then the neighbors found out that he was black. At that time, a petition was filed with the city and an ordinance adopted that said if you’re a member of one race then you can’t move into the neighborhood of another race. He wasn’t able to live there and he lost money on the sale of the home. He eventually become the superintendent of the Black Greensboro City Schools and remained in that position until he retired. The Windsor Recreation Center, on East Gate City Boulevard, is named after him.
“I think it is really ironic that I was the first black female elected, Alma Adams was appointed, to the school board and moved into the house of a black educator who wasn’t allowed to live here. It’s always been something really special to me,” Deena said.
The home, which is over 100 years old, was in need of major rehabilitation but nothing that John, a general contractor and owner of JCG and Associates, couldn’t handle. The couple converted the parlor rooms, equipped with pocket doors and low hanging ceilings, into the living and dining room areas.
“They didn’t have a lot of outlets because they didn’t have a lot of electricity back then so we had to do a lot of electrical upgrades,” John said. “Once we took all of the low ceilings down, we found the original high ceiling and added crown molding.”
During renovations, the couple worked hard to maintain the integrity of the house by keeping original woodwork, doors, flooring and fireplaces.
“We wanted to maintain the integrity of the home. They don’t make houses like this anymore. The neighborhood had a lot of shotgun houses,” Deena said. “Our home was turned into a boarding home in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The dining room was somebody’s bedroom and I think they sold alcohol and drugs on the street for a while. That was the case with most of the homes on this street.”
As you continue walking down the hall, you catch glimpses of the Greenes personality, family photos and African- American culture. As you step into the granite covered kitchen you’ll find yourself surrounded by the mammy caricature, a southern archetype for a black woman who worked as a nanny or general housekeeper for white families, with a “Coloreds Only” sign and the Separate but Equal book nestled on a kitchen rack.
“One of the things I do when I see Aunt Jemima or “mammy” in a consignment shop, I buy her back out of respect to say ‘you don’t have to do that work anymore. Just rest.’ It’s really important,” Deena said. “The Separate but Equal book speaks to a lot of why we’re here. It’s a book about a lot of the culture and independence of African-American communities. It was about wanting to create that kind of community again. We have a lot of romantic ideas and thoughts about the kind of communities that we used to live in when we lived next door to each other and looked out for each other’s children.”
The couple fixed up another bedroom and gutted the downstairs bathroom, equipping it with granite counter tops using resources from an old job. John said that the couple slowly made progress with the renovation, using the resources available to them, taking almost 10 years to get the home where they wanted it to be.
“We tackled it a little bit at a time.
When you demo a house like this it’s just not a regular demolition. This isn’t just sheetrock but old school plaster walls,” John said.
“Don’t forget the silk wallpaper underneath” Deena said. “We work on this house every year. We paint something, pull something out or expand something.”
That mindset has worked well for them.
One of the best examples is where John transformed the living room closet into a stairwell and converted an unfinished attic into a master suite complete with a man cave, office space, vanity nook and an ensuite bathroom.
“The kids ride by on their bikes and say ‘Mr. John’s here’ because they can see the TV from the street. So they know exactly where he is,” Deena said of the large window in the man cave area. “The kids are always asking John to fix their bikes.”
The two agree that making the move was one of the best things they could’ve done for their kids, who they describe as studious, social and environmentally conscious.
“All of them did that while being a part of this community. It’s not a lot of glamour and it’s not gated. Everybody’s lawn isn’t mowed all the time and they also know the structural reasons that people are suffering,” Deena said. “They see peoples’ condition over here and know there’s something much bigger than the people themselves that’s responsible.”
Once the Greenes bought their house, they began buying into the community by purchasing houses as they became available, even purchasing a church across the street from their home. The other homes are on the right side of Martin Street towards East Gate City Boulevard. The first person that they moved in was John’s mom who was previously living in Durham. At the end of the street, you can find their three sons living in a home as well.
According to Deena, because no one really wanted to live in the area, the homes range between $10,000 to $35,000 dollars. They are currently working on restoring a home but are unsure who will end up occupying it. After someone buys the property, the Greenes turn it over.
“I don’t want to be my brother’s or my sister’s landlord but we want to make it affordable for them to own a home,” John said. “If we can secure the house we’ll just sell it to our children, a family member or someone that’s interested in what we’re trying to do in this neighborhood.”
“We just want to promote homeownership over here,” Deena said.
Monica Walker has reaped the fruits of that promotion after Deena talked her into moving into the neighborhood.
Walker, a good friend of Deena’s and Guilford County School’s diversity officer, moved from the Jamestown area.
“She was debating for a long time about moving over here because she struggled with those ideas surrounding safety and now she’s thinking ‘what took me so long?’ after getting here,” Deena said.
Walker said that she knew exactly what the Greenes were inviting her to, but she was torn between what was expected of her, which was to graduate and move into a nice manicured home and neighborhood. Even her mother questioned her decision to move to the Gorrell Street neighborhood.
“I could tell that she liked my house but she didn’t like my neighborhood. It’s a real interesting experience to have with your mother,” she said.
Walker said that she’d lived in the manicured communities but never felt comfortable. She said at her new home, it’s liberating to not have to change herself and behaviors because of cultural differences.
“I was doing that in the other communities I lived in,” she said. “We didn’t always get spoken to. Every now and then somebody would speak to us but a lot of people felt ok with not speaking to us.”
That’s not a problem at her new residence, which is surrounded by flower gardens. Her home, built in 1935, was an established crack house in the area. So much so that guys would pass by and tell her that they used to do crack in her house.
“And you won’t anymore,” she responded to them.
Walker’s house was renovated by John to accommodate her vision. Roughly 1,000 square feet was added onto the rear of the home so a pantry, laundry room, eating nook and master bedroom could be added to the home. He also enlarged the hallway bathroom and expanded a closet in the guest room.
“It’s an old house but I love it. I love old-fashioned houses. I think they have charm. It fits me,” Walker said. “It’s perfect for what I need and I love being in the neighborhood.”
Walker’s experience has been such a good one that her daughter and son-inlaw recently moved into the area. She said that the block has changed tremendously in the last three or four years and she wouldn’t live there if she couldn’t already see how great the entire block will look soon.
“When we realize that we can come back to a community that’s ours, salvage and save houses to live in, it’s an amazing experience,” Walker said. “Those are things that are just invaluable.”
The Greene family doesn’t just buy into the homes in the neighborhood but those looking for work as well.
“When I get a project this is where I spend my money at. Right in my own neighborhood. I did a project over here a Bennett College building four new buildings. Everyone who worked on that project with me was within a five-mile radius of that project,” John said.
“Black businesses hire more Black people. They hire them for longer periods of time and they hire them with certain barriers like credit issues, criminal records, or no driver’s license. That’s good for our community. It gives people financial resources,” said Deena.
They are also hoping to bring some amenities to the neighborhood. Right now they’re looking at the structure on the corner of Martin Street and East Gate City Boulevard to act as a community center. The building has been a former drug treatment center and family shelter.
“We’re trying to buy it because a lot of people in this neighborhood who are self employed don’t have a place to meet so when they want to have a meeting they have to go to a coffee shop or something like that,” Deena said. “There would be a computer lab for the kids, a library, a meeting space.”
Deena said that it’s a step in making sure families are strong and therefore strengthening the community.
“If we want stable schools and healthy people then we have to be a part of creating that ecosystem,” she said. “Here people look out for your home, take your trash around back and pitch in. We have cookouts, borrow lawnmowers and pick up stuff at the store for each other. It creates a balance in our lives and allows our kids to grow up in a place that we used to hear about. We tell people that our communities have always been built from the ground up by us. When has the system or municipalities created a community for us that wasn’t public housing?” In 1990, the City of Greensboro began to revitalize the Gorrell Street Neighborhood, according to the city’s website. Revitalization efforts focused on relocating businesses and supporting nonprofit housing.
Other residents would say that the city stopped at the bridge over Murrow Boulevard on Gorrell Street. The Greenes said that they couldn’t wait on the city to make the changes that they were seeking in their neighborhood.
“We can’t just put all our eggs in the city basket. We do good to have someone come over here to check our lights,” Deena said. “I don’t think there will be an investment for us here. I think if it’s made it’s going to be because there are other people that the infrastructure is built for. When things are built over here the community doesn’t get to do the work.”
ORGANIZER, NOT AN ADVOCATE
Deena is no stranger to standing up for what she believes in. As Managing Director of the Racial Equity Institute, she is constantly educating others with an in-depth analysis of systematic and historically constructed racism and its impact on contemporary systems and institutions across the country.
After moving to Greensboro at the end of her junior year, she graduated from Page High School and worked a variety of jobs like a flight attendant and as a personal assistant for Muggsy Bogues for 10 years. Following that, she applied to Guilford College’s evening program where she was introduced to a lot of racial and justice events and organizations.
“Guilford College is just so fertile with those kind of programs. I was just so intrigued and drawn to that work so I stayed at Guilford for 10 years,” Deena said.
Within those 10 years, she obtained a degree in African American Studies, Psychology and Justice and Policy Studies.
She said she became most interested in the issues surrounding social justice and inequality because she had a lot of questions and the answers she was given never sat right with her.
“Why did we have such racial gaps and gulfs? Why was northwest Greensboro predominantly white and well manicured? Why was east Greensboro predominately black and not so well manicured? People would give me answers that didn’t sound right. They were mostly individual pathologies and it just didn’t make a lot of sense,” she said.
It wasn’t until she was working on the city’s Human Relations Commission that she attended her first Undoing Racism workshop at Westover Church in Greensboro.
“It just changed my life. I just heard and learned so much in that workshop that I thought I wanted to hear it again. So I went up to the trainers and asked ‘when’s your next workshop’ and they said ‘when you organize it’ and I said ‘how do you organize a training?'” Deena said. “They supported me in becoming an organizer. I define an organizer as somebody that builds a capacity of people where ever you are, where you work or live, that are operating with a shared understanding. Collective approaches of problem solving come out of that.”
She began organizing the workshops and inviting everyone she knew and cared, including members of the school board, the school system and teachers. Once she became a trainer, there were some changes she wanted to make but didn’t want to disrespect their curriculum, so she branched off and created the Racial Equity Institute in 2008.The organization has taken off with monthly workshops scheduled throughout the state and beyond. The group doesn’t advertise or solicit business and instead relies on word of mouth.
That knowledge comes in handy as she sits on the Guilford County Board of Education. She was elected in 2002 and currently chairs the Achievement Gap, School Safety, and the Historically Underutilized Business Advisory Committees. She also serves on the Ole Asheboro Street Neighborhood Association, the Guilford County Gang Commission, and as board chair at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
GCS Board Chairman Alan Duncan called her a “strong and articulate voice in support of equity” for all of the district’s students.
“She supports her points with analysis of data from our district and from other districts around the country. Rather than simply seeking to point out inequitable treatment through anecdotal stories, she uses data that is disaggregated to show that there is an objective basis for the concerns being expressed and that a concentration of effort to rectify these inequities is required,” Duncan said.
Data that Deena is especially passionate about is the achievement gap. She said that putting timetables on initiatives that address the problem shows that there’s no respect for the problem. She hopes that she’s been effective in bringing awareness and consciousness to the underlying problems.
“It’s very complicated and I think I’ve spent my 14 years trying to get down to the root cause. We don’t understand structural issues, arrangements and designs versus individual student achievement. I couldn’t imagine serving without this information. I’m not an educational expert but I’m very proficient in race analysis. Guilford County Schools has a race problem. That is extremely helpful to me in the same way Alan Duncan brings his legal expertise to the school board, that Nancy Routh brings her history and experience as a principal to the school board, that Ed Price brings his real estate expertise to the school board.”
She said that while her mission of shedding light on the inequalities and disparities in the school system hasn’t changed, her strategy has over time.
“I remember just talking about race with our board but we didn’t have the shared language and there was some political inflammation about it. When they would talk about it I could look down the dais and they would just look straight ahead and not say a word and when I was finished they would just go on to the next thing,” Deena said. “I mean just totally paralyzed, incapable of trying to figure out where we go next with this. I think the progress has been made. We’re not anywhere close to closing the achievement gap but we’re disagreeing less about the root of the problem and that race is an issue.”
She said she doesn’t like being thought of being controversial or even having her name in the paper, but it’s critically important to deal with complex issues and how to make it better for the children involved.
“People think it’s just about poor children versus affluent children but we have a huge racial gap between poor white kids and poor children of color. So if it’s about poverty why is race the biggest indicator among poor kids. Why aren’t poor black kids and white kids not having the same experience? Why are they still having a racial experience at that level? And then we have racial gaps at the more affluent schools,” she said. “So this isn’t my passion, this is the system’s problem. I’d love not to talk about it, but I can’t not talk about it when it’s the biggest problem. If race is what’s wrong than we need a race analysis to solve it.”
JUST THE BEGINNING
John and Deena don’t have any plans to stop their grassroots effort any time soon.
“We’re eager to continue and get it moving. We’ve got businesses and infrastructure to work on now that we have people here. We did this organically,” Deena said. “We didn’t have a big blue print laid out; we just knew that we wanted to be a part of rebuilding our community and trying to encourage our professional friends and other black friends to move here.”
Deena has been researching communities across the nation like the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Ok., LeDroit Park neighborhood in Washington D.C., Hayti outside of Durham, and Sedalia where the Charlotte Hawkins Brown museum and Palmer Institute can be found.
“We have hospitals, churches and schools,” Deena said. “We’re about nation building. We want to build something for ourselves. We don’t want our community to constantly have its hand out. This is a start at some generational wealth because we don’t have a lot of that in the African American community because of racism and other barriers that prevent us from building that.”
They’ve received a lot of support from their friends who are white and people of color as they hope to build an affirming culture. Their daughter is also looking to do something similar in East Durham where she lives.
“We want to be the anchors. We want to encourage more of our friends to come over here. They’re going to get a lot more house for a lot less money. You’re going to be in a community,” Deena said.
As for those who would say they’re attempting to segregate themselves, they point to other cultures and the fact that in some areas the lines have historically been drawn by highway and freeways.
“I think true multi-culturalism is when people don’t have to give up who they are to co-exist. That dichotomous thinking is not useful and that’s something that we’re not going to get distracted by because it just doesn’t have to be either/ or,” Deena said. “There were public policy decisions that went into destroying a community. That was drawing lines. What we’re trying to do is to rebuild what was here. What our community had already established for itself.” !