One neighborhood chooses a wall, another opts for foliage as new road comes through

by Jordan Green

Jihad Bay, a long-haul trucker who lives at the end of Diggs Boulevard near Vargrave Street will be out of his house by December, when construction begins on the southern section of Salem Creek Connector in December.

“It’s progress, I guess,” he said ruefully. About a dozen houses will be demolished on the north side of Diggs Boulevard to make way for the new road, which will link Winston-Salem State University to the nascent Wake Forest Innovation Quarter and provide a southern gateway to downtown in advance of the temporary closing of Business 40 for repairs.

Built in the 1890s for black professionals, Columbia Heights’ development shadowed the growth of what became Winston-Salem Teachers College and later the university.

In recent decades, the housing stock of what was once a neighborhood full of owner-occupied homes has steadily flipped into the rental market, and a wave of foreclosures over the past four years has further eroded home values. Today, the neighborhood is mix of elderly African-Americans and Hispanic newcomers. Some younger residents simply refer to the neighborhood as Diggs.

Bay said he has been told he will likely be relocated to an apartment after living in a house for five years sheltered by woods on two sides with a fenced-in backyard to keep a dog. He moved to Winston-Salem from Philadelphia seven years ago to get away from urban congestion, and figures if he’s going to wind up in an apartment he might as well move back to Philadelphia.

Completion of the connector is expected in December 2015, said Pat Ivey, Division 9 engineer for the NC Department of Transportation.

For those left behind in Columbia Heights, a masonry sound barrier up to 20 feet in height will go up, blocking residents’ view of the new road and the track and playing fields used by the university. The few residents and property owners who responded to a survey by the NC Department of Transportation voiced support for the wall by a vote of 11 to 4. Fifty-three ballots mailed out by the department remained unreturned.

“We got very poor response,” said Greg Smith, traffic noise and air quality supervisor with the department in Raleigh.

The new road will relieve traffic from concrete mixers, which currently trundle through the residential section of Diggs Boulevard every 15 minutes or so as they issue from Ready Mix Concrete Plant 71 to US Highway 52 and then return from deliveries. The Salem Creek Connector will also ferry stock-car racing fans from across the region to Bowman Gray Stadium.

George W. Clement, 86, has watched the neighborhood decline from a stable community of owner-occupied homes when he bought his house on Diggs Boulevard a half-century ago. He expressed apathy about the impact of the new road, surmising that he probably won’t be around to see most of the changes. He said he doesn’t bother to get to know his neighbors who are tenants because they come and go with regularity. Some of them are drug dealers, he said.

“The neighborhood has gone down,” he said. “A lot of the houses are empty…. I don’t care what they do.”

Clement said he supports the decision to build the sound wall.

“I told them the wall is okay with me,” Clement said. He added with a wry laugh: “It might cut down on a lot of that crime.”

Carlos Toribio, who has lived all of his 14 years with his family on Diggs Boulevard, concurred with Clement over all.

“As long as it don’t mess with my house I’m good with it,” he said of the planned road.

“They should put up a wall because too much traffic at night won’t let us go to sleep,” he added.

As Salem Creek Connector courses west through the intersection with US Highway 52 it will graze along the northeastern periphery of Happy Hill Gardens, another historically black neighborhood. At least three houses will be demolished at a bend in the planned road where it turns northward and bisects Rams Drive near a complex of maintenance facilities operated by the city of Winston-Salem.

The noise-affected area in Happy Hills Gardens hugs US Highway 52 from Mock to Humphrey streets, and for the most part is not adjacent to planned connector. Tenants, property owners and homeowners in Happy Hills overwhelmingly voted against the sound barrier, unlike their neighbors to the east.

“The question that many of the residents who live in the Happy Hills rental properties asked was: Who will be responsible for maintaining the wall in terms of cutting any type of kudzu that might grow over the wall, if there is any graffiti on the wall or trash might get thrown over the wall,” said Housing Authority of Winston- Salem CEO Larry Woods, whose agency owns several of the properties. “DOT informed us that any part of the wall that faces the road DOT would be responsible; but any part facing the community the community would be responsible.”

Ivey said the primary source of the noise for both Happy Hill Gardens and Columbia Heights is expected to be the interchange with US Highway 52, in addition to the highway itself, which bisects Forsyth County and connects Mount Airy in the north to Lexington in the South. Aside from the interchange, noise from the Salem Creek Connector is expected to be minimal, in comparison.

“Many of the residents felt that they were still kind of isolated once again,” Woods added. “The wall would serve as an isolated physical barrier. No one could see the improvements. Looking out their bedroom window and seeing a brick wall was not something they wanted to see. We would rather see the existing trees and shrubs that we have.”