Muddling along on MLK

by YES! Staff

A seismic change is taking place on the eastern flank of downtown Winston-Salem, with the nascent Wake Forest Innovation Quarter (formerly Piedmont Triad Research Park) supplanting the historic campus of Reynolds Tobacco Co. The young, educated and high-earning workers anticipated as future hires are expected to prompt a wave of redevelopment in the areas to the east, traditionally the heart of the African-American community.

Enter Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. It’s a major north-south corridor on the east side of the city that runs past Winston- Salem State University and then curves to the west, crossing US Highway 52 and bounding the north end of downtown. Add $2.5 million in federal funds for a makeover. Stir in Creative Corridors, a communitywide effort to give the major thoroughfares surrounding downtown an iconic look. You would think all this would inspire a sense of excitement and opportunity.

Instead, the project seems to be muddling along, with little discernible leadership or engagement from elected officials and a sense of futility and low expectations from the commu nity. The involvement of the nonprofit Creative Corridors Coalition should have in- jected a sense of dynamism into the project, but instead its presence only seems to have muddied the lines of accountability.

It’s hard to find anyone to blame for the lack of spark in the project: The folks at Design Workshop, the private firm contracted to develop the design, are thoroughly competent and professional, but work within the parameters of their budget. The staff at Creative Corridors is enthusiastic, but it’s not clear what authority they have. City council members dutifully express platitudes of support, but remain noncommittal about additional funding. The architects appointed to review the design generously volunteer their time and expertise, but seem too preoccupied with figuring out their role to effectively engage with the particulars of the local landscape.

The designers have trumpeted ‘a big light piece’ welcoming motorists into the city.

The process has been rife with conflicting information, confusion and crossed signals.

The designers have trumpeted “a big light piece” welcoming motorists into the city. Meanwhile, the city’s point person for the project has said there’s no money in the budget for it.

The public has expressed a preference for art that honors the street’s namesake. But Dianne Caesar, a member of the design review committee and community member with a background in arts administration, contends that it should honor the historic Columbian Heights neighborhood. Community members have asked how to volunteer for a committee that would determine the design and content of the historic and cultural signage and have suggested a contest for young people to design the art pieces, but neither city staff nor Creative Corridors has given clear communication about how the public can get involved.

Milton Rhodes, a revered leader in the arts community, has urged community members to form a committee to advise the city on what they want to see come out of the unfolding changes.

That’s exactly what needs to happen. If the community doesn’t hold its leadership accountable, the dollars will be spent with mediocre and unmemorable results.

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