Wiping your feet on the ‘welcome mat’

by Amy Kingsley

Rain moved in last Sunday, canceling an early spring and plans I made to walk the neighborhood where I’ve lived for three years – a place recently dubbed, rather pejoratively in my opinion, Greensboro’s “welcome mat.”

Now, for accuracy’s sake I should make it clear that I live on Glenwood Avenue, not on Lee Street. Lee Street, technically speaking, is what the city means when they employ the phrase “welcome mat.” Meaning, I suppose, that Lee Street is the surface – tacky and possibly consisting of composite synthetic materials – upon which visitors and newcomers scrape their dirty feet so as not to soil tourist attractions like the Greensboro Coliseum and, well, the Greensboro Coliseum.

Let’s face it: South Greensboro is not blessed with an embarrassment of tourist riches.        

Lee Street and I-40 encircle my neighborhood like a lasso. And although it isn’t pretty, Lee Street is in essence Glenwood’s business district. When the weather’s nice I’ll often walk up the street to get a soda or a beer from any one of a number of convenience stores.

And when I do walk on Lee Street I will, almost invariably, get mistaken for a prostitute. This has happened so many times I don’t really even notice anymore. After the fifth or sixth time I stopped telling my boyfriend.

And I swear it has nothing to do with the way I dress, a style best described as nondescript post-slacker. I don’t even own a miniskirt, leather or otherwise. Not that owning a miniskirt makes someone a prostitute.

Seriously folks, I could be wearing a burka. Some misguided cultural illiterate would probably roll up with a wink and a nod and ask, “Hey, do you need a ride?”

I’m not the only one with this problem. In fact, I think the very act of being female and on Lee Street makes you, in the eyes of would-be Johns, a pretty likely mark.

But I digress. The business owners and employees on Lee Street are by and large a decent lot. None of them deserve to be stamped upon by pompous out-of-towners or eager-to-please city leaders.

Which is why I take issue with the nickname “welcome mat.” If we’re trying to improve Lee Street’s image, let’s borrow a chapter from Greensboro city politics and fixate on terminology for a moment.

I propose that from now on we refer to the Lee Street corridor as Greensboro’s “foyer,” pronounced in the French manner.

I’ll be the first to admit that Lee Street is not the nicest foyer in the neighborhood. Industrial buildings loom over narrow sidewalks. Shade is more likely to come from a billboard than any sort of tree canopy. And yes, there are a lot of drug dealers, shady characters and perhaps even an actual prostitute or two.

I’ve complained often enough about the general unpleasantness of Lee Street. But I have to admit that this proposed incursion by the city rankles a little bit. When I walk or drive Lee Street, I see plenty of potential in some of its most derelict corners.

Architecture on the avenue ranges from the Italianate, such as Architectural Concepts stained glass shop across from the old Rose Spa, to post-war American like the old Best Barber College to classic fin de siecle prefab fast food joints and gas stations. If I had my druthers, I would like to see some of these old buildings preserved. A city plan would, in all likelihood, call for their destruction.

A few months ago I took my car to the Sprinkle Gas Station for an oil change. Most people recognize the Sprinkle by the giant orange safety cross out front. When the weather’s nice customers usually sit on plastic chairs under the awning while mechanics hoist their cars. You can listen to the traffic, the chatter of students at Leon’s Beauty School next door and the mild-mannered Christian radio that provides a constant Sprinkle soundtrack.

Last time I got my oil changed it was cold and rainy. The proprietors invited me inside where it was warm and dry. Above the boxes stacked high above my head were friezes in the upper corners, little architectural flourishes one might not expect judging from the plain exterior.

I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t want to lose these things, these little surprises and historical touches. No, if we’re going to fix up our foyer, I propose peeling back some of the tacky posters, the ugly art that generations of residents have pasted to her walls. Pull up the dated shag carpeting and polish the hardwoods underneath. Maybe invest in a couple of ficus trees.

Let’s not just toss it out, like a used up welcome mat, only to replace it with something else temporary, tacky and synthetic.

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