Reported Essays: Downtown Winston-Salem

by Jordan Green

Virtually any comparison between the downtowns of the Triad’s two largest cities yields a superior rating to Winston-Salem.

Downtown Winston-Salem is a grid, while downtown Greensboro is a strip. Or so goes the conventional thinking.

Compare Winston-Salem’s celebrated Restaurant Row on West Fourth Street and Greensboro’s South Elm Street, which seems to be stuck in a continual identity crisis, and most people would give Winston-Salem the edge. Winston-Salem’s Downtown Arts District boasts a long pedigree, while Greensboro’s arts community seems to be playing catch-up.

Andr’s Duany, an internationally renowned leader of the new urbanism movement, gave the nod to Winston-Salem.

“The problem is that you’re not that large and you have two contenders to the north of you — the pretty darn good Greensboro and the pretty darn terrific Winston-Salem,” he said during a speech in High Point.

He might as well have said don’t even bother trying.

“One of the things we’d like to do is, yes, deliver some Main Street experience, but we don’t want to be a second-rate or third-rate Winston-Salem,” Duany said. “I think being follow-up is going to be fail. You can’t be, because they’re both accessible. If there are two and Winston-Salem is the best, and let’s say Greensboro’s the second best, and High Point is the third best, where are you going to go 90 percent of the time? You’re going to go to the best and the second best. That’s just futility. That’s throwing stones into the water. There won’t be a ripple left.”

Yet downtown Winston-Salem’s success is freighted with some troublesome baggage. Both natural and constructed boundaries have concentrated commercial and cultural vibrancy into downtown while making it a kind of glittering citadel barricaded against a sea of economic distress.

Compared with the expansive Piedmont that constitutes the geography of neighboring Greensboro, the lay of the land in Winston- Salem bears more of the features of the foothills of the mountains to the west. In Winston-Salem, the land slopes precipitously downhill to Peters Creek on the northern and western boundaries of downtown Winston-Salem while expressways cleave through low areas at the eastern and southern ends. In comparison, Greensboro’s downtown spreads more seamlessly along major streets shooting out from the center at the intersection of Market and Elm streets: west to UNCG and the Friendly Center, north to Cone Hospital, east to NC A&T and south to a possible university district.

Transportation decisions determine power relations in cities. Streets either connect or seclude people from each other. High access thoroughfares laid out along a grid draw people along and allow fluid movement from district to another. Low-access expressways speed people along and allow people to bypass areas considered undesirable.

With the exception of the expressways, which are designed to bring visitors and commerce into downtown from the suburbs and throughout the region, there are no streets in Winston-Salem that unite the city’s opposing ends equivalent to Market and Elm in Greensboro. Fifth Street provides a gateway from Business 40 on the east side, but it peters out amidst the winding lanes of the West End rather than continue westward. Fourth and First streets connect downtown to Baptist Hospital and, by extension of Hawthorn Road, to Forsyth Medical Center in the west, but only Fourth Street goes beyond US Highway 52 in the east, and then it quickly folds into a residential neighborhood after crossing Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

The two major thoroughfares on the affluent west side of Winston-Salem, Country Club Road and the ironically named Robinhood Road, originate far from downtown. Likewise, the major thoroughfare of northeast Winston-Salem, New Walkertown Road, branches from Martin Luther King Jr. Drive rather than aligning with a downtown street such as Fifth or Sixth. Similarly, Waughtown Street, the major corridor of southeast Greensboro, originates a mile south of the city center.

Another northeast arterial, North Liberty Street should ideally connect downtown to Reynolds Airport. Instead, it runs one way in a southerly direction through downtown. At the northern end of downtown, the street is interrupted by Martin Luther King Jr. Drive before it picks up again from Patterson Avenue and continues out to the airport.

Connectivity from north to south is also hindered. Main Street ends abruptly at the northern boundary of downtown and becomes a minor thoroughfare south of Old Salem. Cherry-Marshall Street/University Parkway acts as a surrogate main street heading north from downtown but drifts to the west to connect with Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Wake Forest University instead of true north. The major southern thoroughfare, Peters Creek Parkway, was grafted onto the city in the 1950s and does not have a northern counterpart.

Streets that connect diverse neighborhoods and commercial districts enhance interaction and chance meetings among citizens, encouraging unlikely friendships, productive flings between capital and talent, collaboration and innovation. Streets that frustrate direct travel with diversions and interruptions discourage random encounters between residents and calcify relationships while insulating the wealthy from the rest of the community and isolating the very poor from everybody else.

Eventually, the cul-de-sacs and limitedaccess lanes that the rich choose as a means of secluding themselves from the rest of the city set the standard of aspiration. As poor neighborhoods struggle to maintain a sense of security, they often trade an urban grid that once facilitated vibrant culture and commerce for a suburban overlay of meandering lanes and cul-de-sacs.

This pattern of seclusion plays out with Winston-Salem’s major inter-urban thoroughfare, Silas Creek Parkway, which runs along the western and southern ends of the city and connects many of the city’s middle-class communities. People need to get from one part of the city to the other, but they want to minimize interaction with each other in the process. Consequently, there are few access points on the fast-moving parkway. If a motorist unfamiliar with the area happens to miss her turn, tough luck; she may be driving another mile and a half before she finds the next intersection, and then she will probably be forced to make a turnabout in someone’s driveway because of the dearth of blocks that allow one to reroute.

Compare the inefficient and inhospitable layout of Silas Creek Parkway in Winston-Salem with Cone Boulevard, Holden Road and Vandalia Road, which link residential neighborhoods with outlying commercial districts in Greensboro and intersect frequently with major and minor streets that allow course corrections to be made with ease.

The meandering layout of Winston-Salem beyond the footprint of downtown was not accidental, and cannot entirely be explained by the city’s hilly terrain.

Winston-Salem is a company town based primarily on the Reynolds tobacco fortune and second arily on the Hanes textile and apparel works with the Gray family supplying capital. The interlocking relationships among those families established the foundation for the city’s layout in the early 20 th century. The massive Reynolds tobacco works along the eastern flank of downtown acted as the power behind City Hall, the courts and law offices scarcely two blocks to the west. To the east of the Reynolds complex, the black merchants, professionals and churches grew up to support the African-American working people who poured into Winston- Salem from South Carolina and eastern North Carolina to supply the factories with labor. While the factory complex initially demarcated the geography of racial segregation in the Jim Crow era, subsequent urban renewal programs that razed thriving black businesses and churches, along with the construction of US Highway 52, further set the pattern that exists today.

Meanwhile, the white manufacturing managers settled in the West End, literally at the opposite side of downtown from the factories. Reynolds High School and Hanes Park, named after two of the city’s most prominent families, stood at the center of a world of privilege in the Peters Creek valley between the West End and the newer suburb of Buena Vista to the west.

From this point on the periphery of downtown, Reynolda Road winds in a northwesterly direction. The estates of the three prominent families were built on what was once and continues to feel like a mannered country road. As the industries built by the three families built have declined, the fortunes they left behind have been transferred into cultural assets, with the Reynolds estate remade as Reynolda House Museum of Modern Art, the Hanes family’s English Hunt-Style mansion transformed into the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and Graylyn serving as a conference center.

Ironically, an area where the three prominent families once sought refuge from the city is now a cultural center and destination. To accommodate this development, the city improvised a kind of connectivity that the road was originally designed to resist: North Broad Street runs north along the west side of downtown and makes a dog-leg along West End Boulevard before it veers sharply into Reynolda Road.

By the mid-20 th century, traffic problems caused by early street alignments that were designed to reinforce social, racial and class stratification resulted in a decision to build intersecting expressways through the center of Winston-Salem – a choice that makes it unique among North Carolina cities.

From roughly 1955 to 1965, the city of Winston-Salem undertook a half-dozen major roadway projects, including the East-West Expressway (now Business 40), the North-South Expressway (now US Highway 52), Cherry-Marshall Street, Silas Creek Parkway, Peters Creek Parkway and Old Salem By-Pass. The new roads were built rapidly under the leadership of City Manager John M. Gold, who worked closely with the NC Department of Transportation, and with generous funding from the federal government.

A history of city government compiled by retired Winston-Salem Public Works Director Robert W. Neilson in 1966 reflected the conventional wisdom about urban planning of the era.

“Prior to the construction of these new facilities, studies made by traffic engineers indicated that the traffic problem in Winston-Salem was mainly related to local traffic rather than through traffic, and this led to running these highways through the city rather than around the city,” Neilson wrote. “The judgment of’ these engineers has been proven to have been sound and in the best interest of the city. Without these new highways, it can now be seen that traffic conditions in Winston-Salem would be chaotic and beyond control.”

While the two major expressways helped drive commerce into the center city and prevented capital flight to the suburbs, today many people recognize the harmful legacy of division they have promoted.

“When they decided to cut 40 and 52, they disrupted the fabric that tied East Winston into downtown and Old Salem into downtown,” architect Glenn Fulk told me. “I think that’s unfortunate and that’s something we should try to patch back together.”

Winston-Salem has the most dynamic downtown in the Triad. It has a renowned Arts District. It has the only entertainment district in the state – zoned or otherwise – where amplified music is encouraged at night. And arts and business leaders are pushing for a Theatre District that’ become the largest urban research park in North America.

Connectivity, diversity and inclusion are the watchwords of urban planning in the 21 st century, in Winston-Salem as elsewhere.

The official vision of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership is to promote downtown “as a regional destination that is a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly, urban environment that offers something for everyone.”

Notably, The Downtown Plan published earlier this year by the partnership articulates as a goal “to respect the historical boundaries of downtown (i.e. the area bounded by Business 40, US Highway 52, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Broad Street), yet establish new linkages with surrounding districts that add vitality and diversity.”

To Winston-Salem’s credit, the city has undertaken a major new road project with federal funding to link downtown to Winston-Salem State University through the innovation quarter. The northern section, named Research Parkway, is already open. Construction of the southern section, known as the Salem Creek Connector, is underway. Meanwhile, a new greenway for the benefit of both tech workers employed in the innovation quarter and East Winston residents who live across US Highway 52 is in the planning stages.

The Creative Corridors Coalition, a nonprofit group that explicitly promotes connectivity, pedestrian-scale streets and sustainability, has published a map showing Martin Luther King Jr. Drive extending westward to connect with Northwest Boulevard. The street is ultimately envisioned as an east-west connector, with Winston- Salem State University and Baptist Hospital at either end and with Kennedy High School and Reynolds High School in between. But Assistant Manager Greg Turner said the city has taken no action to move the concept forward.

Will the city be able to overcome its legacy of division to create a new era in which the vibrancy connected downtown ripples into surrounding area, stimulating new investment, restoring housing and providing new employment opportunities?

Or are we entering an age of trickle-down urbanism, in which downtown becomes a high-priced playground for young, highly educated and compensated talent flourishing in the middle of a sea of economic stagnancy, poverty and deferred dreams?

The choice is ours.