South Elm Projects preserve neighborhood in transition

by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

The first phase of a new era for Elsewhere wrapped up recently with the completion of the final works of art in the South Elm Projects, a series designed to help the museum extend its reach beyond the walls of the former thrift store and engage with its neighborhood.

Elsewhere won a $200,000 competitive grant from ArtPlace America in late 2014 that helped pay for the initiative, which had the stated goal to “activate four alleyways and green spaces in the vibrant, naturally occurring cultural district of its South Elm neighborhood in downtown Greensboro.”

First came the hopscotch that meanders from Hamburger Square to Gate City Boulevard. Next up was a series of subtle murals that enhanced the up and coming intersection of Lewis and Elm streets. A landscaping project in the alley that joins Elsewhere with HQ Greensboro, The Forge, and Gibb’s Hundred Brewing transformed an abandoned back alley into a living work of art.

When the projects were announced last year, Elsewhere cofounder George Scheer said one of the main goals was to have artists participate in the redevelopment taking place across Downtown Greensboro. The hopscotch, the garden and related downspout designs, a portable parklet trailer, all were projects designed to enhance the livability of the city.

But other projects brought a more serious analysis of the transitioning neighborhood.

“One of the most important subsets of the South Elm Projects,” Scheer said, are “those that bring a critical eye to the neighborhood, where it is now, and recognizing the transitional economy that we’re building and reflecting on those who are part of the community.”

George Scheer

Scheer noted that while excitement about the development taking place in Downtown Greensboro abounds, it’s important to note that many have fought hard to sustain downtown in the past when it was much less of a destination spot.

“When we talk about a dead downtown that we used to have, we are forgetting that there were people that were working here day in and day out holding down the fort,” he said. “Old and historic neighborhoods prove that people have worked and lived there for a long time and developed a culture. That’s one of the most vital and critical aspects of placemaking, recognizing the existing culture that composes our community before any new ideas or development can happen.”

Three projects unveiled in November helped to articulate that in a more permanent fashion. On the surface the projects may seem simple””three plaques, three maps, five picnic tables””but when unpacked, each provides an opportunity to set the tone for the development that is coming.

George Sheer holds a plaque to be installed in the South Elm area.

The first project is a set of “everyday history” plaques. While these are onedimensional objects, the stories reflected on the aluminum plaques provide a full glimpse into the lives of people with a long history on South Elm Street. The goal of artist Chloë Bass was to think about private lives and histories and to “memorialize private histories in the form of permanent public plaques.”

Three plaques were completed, two of which have been installed on buildings downtown. Mary Wells, a businesswoman who’s operated Mary’s Antiques at 607 S. Elm St. for about 40 years, is the subject of one plaque. Jerry Leimenstoll, who walked his dog Watson around downtown for a decade, tells his story on another. Walter Jamison, a man who grew up in the neighborhood, is enshrined on a third plaque, telling the story of how parts of downtown were off limits or dangerous when he was a boy in the early 1960s.

“These will offer a way of putting forward, in a very public manner, a private relationship in an historical fashion in a neighborhood that is changing very fast,” Scheer said. “It’s also a reflection on private memory. It’s like people’s personal memories, how the interpersonal is important somehow.”

On her website, Bass notes the Lunsford Richardson plaque on Elm Street near Cone Denim Entertainment Center as an example of how “unsung labor over time “” as much as, or possibly more than, important, change-making moments “” turn a place into what it is.”

Bass writes that Greensboro is an ideal place to examine power systems and “their impact on the creation and presentation of history.” When city council bogged down in an argument over the wording of an historical maker to commemorate the 1979 Greensboro Massacre last year, Bass took note.

“Who gets to write history, and how that history can be either manipulated or erased, is an essential question anywhere, but one that seems publicly foundational here,” Bass wrote. “Having my own opportunity to represent the everyday lives of a few local residents with the same aesthetic power and permanence of more publicly important events is terrifically exciting and completely terrifying.”

Scheer said the plaques were a direct response to the city council debate over the 1979 marker.

“Greensboro has a really hard time dealing with public memory,” Scheer said.

“Whatever you believe in it, the fact that our city council is fighting over the wording of a public plaque is kind of phenomenal. It’s kind of amazing.”

So far, the Leimenstoll and Wells plaques have been installed on their respective buildings. Scheer said Elsewhere is still in discussions to have Walter Jamison’s plaque installed on the old Blumenthall building.

Two other projects also helped to capture a sense of South Elm’s dynamic change. Brooklyn-based artist Heather Hart envisioned and designed a series of connected picnic tables installed at the corner of Arlington and Bragg streets, at the edge of downtown near the Union Square Campus project. A touring troupe of artists known as Camp Little Hope researched, designed and published a set of guide maps now placed around downtown.

The step team from Smith High School showed out at the unveiling of Heather Hart’s porch installation.

Those simple descriptions, much like the one-dimensional nature of the historic plaques, mask the depth of meaning hidden in each work of art.

Hart said she is often fascinated by liminal space, what’s between objects in established spaces. Her piece, The Porch Project: Black Lunch Tables, combined several areas of interest into one set of interconnected picnic tables.

“The porch was a logical form for me, between the house and the field, this place where we would meet up casually,” Hart said. “People would learn things. You hang out and get your hair braided.

You learn about your family history on the porch. The idea of doing a porch in Greensboro made a lot of sense.”

Her research in sacred geometry led her to develop the five-sided picnic table. Five is also an almost ideal number of people to have involved in a conversation at one time.

Heather Hart is pictured above in scarf.

“All of these things kind of just gelled together for me here based on my experience with the residency (at Elsewhere),” Hart said. “It houses conversation, basically, they can be used by people needing a place to set up for lunch, but I was able to program some there as well.”

Hart and collaborator Jina Valentine, an art professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, have worked on an oral history project called Black Lunch Table for more than a decade. The idea sprang from a residency during which the pair wondered how they could enhance the profile of lesser-known black artists. They’ve hosted hours long conversations in major cities across the country in which artists talk about their experience. The audio recordings will be compiled and transcribed and uploaded to a dynamic website in hopes of contributing to art history education.

On Nov. 8 Hart held a conversation with many local black artists in Greensboro at the site of the lunch tables project. Combining the porch space with the lunch table conversations was a natural fit.

“I thought it was a logical thing to bring in as a host for that project because it’s based on all these things that I’ve been thinking about,” Hart said. “Plus, it’s Greensboro, so there is the Woolworth lunch counter sit in that started here. Lunch counters, Black Lunch Tables, all those relations.”

Camp Little Hope members””Aislinn Pentecost-Farren, Walker Tufts and Mary Rothlisberger””researched city directories, fire insurance maps, and conducted field interviews with about 20 residents to create a series of guide maps that, though they look official enough, are anything but. The maps chronicle the natural history of abandoned lots, the history of redevelopment and ownership in Greensboro, and the neighborhood’s ecological systems.

The group published about 5,000 copies of the maps, which are available around downtown in a series of three mini kiosks inside area businesses.

Elsewhere’s Scheer said all three of the projects helped to take note of some of the neighborhood’s history, so that “we can know where we’ve come from and better attune ourselves to where we aregoing.”

In advance of $200 million of commercial development in Downtown Greensboro, that’s critical.

“We want to do it right,” Scheer said.

“We want to build a community that will recognize itself in five years. We want to, in fact, be unique and not generic. These are all reasons. Also, we want to be equitable for moral reasons. If we want to be an equitable community, then we need to not continue to make the mistakes that we’ve made over and over again.” !