Tuesday, October 14, 2014

At The Altar of Shiny and New

I left off in yesterday’s essay by noting the irony that some cities sacrifice sense of place at the altar of fantasy and things “shiny and new” while others even nearby fight hard to preserve it.

Last week, while attending an awards banquet in a Winston-Salem hotel, I had pause to reflect on how emblematic that non-descript, designed to be “Anywhere, USA” 1980s structure and its 1970s twin are of that community’s struggle to hold on to sense of place.

Invariably, unless a community’s advocates succumb to the demons of the “shiny and new,” the latter will always eclipse the former because research shows that the distinct sense of a particular place is ultimately more appealing, even to those visitors and newcomers seeking fantasy.

When I arrived in Durham, NC twenty-five years ago, part of its appeal to me as its newly hired guardian was that the importance of sense of place was apparent here but even so it has been besmirched here and there by those worshipping the “shiny and new.”

Startups are incredibly intense but indispensable is taking time to interview those with ties to the founders who had helped perpetuate and protect it.

One of the questions I had learned to ask during these interviews was, “Which community in the state had done the best job leveraging sense of place?”

Invariably, during my first few months in Durham the answer always came back, “You’ve got to study Winston-Salem.”

So even before visiting nearby Raleigh, which even back then seemed intent on surrendering sense of place to the “shiny and new,” I targeted Winston-Salem for my first excursion while familiarizing myself with North Carolina.

En route, I took a swing through Greensboro, which confirmed what my sources had noted would be more in the mold of Raleigh when it came to undervaluing sense of place.

Winston-Salem’s “sense of place revolt” occurred in the wake of WWII nearly three decades before one similar in Durham, 1948 to be exact, less than two months after the first flight aboard a DC-3 of W-S’s home-grown Piedmont Airlines, now folded into American Airlines.

In April there was a union-organized civil rights protest but it was a zoning request in July for a supermarket that kindled Winston-Salem’s “sense of place revolt” (coincidentally also my birth month/year.)

Back when Durham was just emerging as a crossroads, Winston-Salem had just been “Salem,” the administrative town for a 100,000-acre tract the immigrant Moravian Church had purchased and named Wachovia in the early 1750s. This also included several other settlements, some slightly older.

For the next hundred years, the church owned the land and members owned their own structures.

But by 1849 the church transitioned away from that model, turning over administration of the town to residents and setting in motion the sale of land parcels to each respective structure-owners with some acreage remaining as community “commons.”

This was occurring just as the newly created Forsyth County was eyeing Salem as the natural county seat. Passing on that opportunity, the Moravians instead sold some land just upland for creation of the new gentile-friendly town of Winston for that purpose.

Like Durham, Winston became an industrial powerhouse, quickly tripling in size as Salem declined.

Fast forward fifty years and the U.S. Postal Service created the name Winston-Salem for as the name for newly combined postal facilities.

By 1913, just as the iconic Camel cigarette brand was created, the two towns merged but one had already become more of a neighborhood.clip_image002

Gradually over the next two decades, non-Moravians moved or established businesses in Salem including Krispy Crème Doughnuts, founded there as a wholesale operation in 1937.

Symbolic, nearby was a brothel.

To put this in context, this was the period when the Wake Forest School of Medicine, then an extension of a small Baptist college north of Raleigh, opened in Winston-Salem thanks to a trust set up by RJR executive Bowman Gray.

Some historic Salem structures had tragically been torn down and replaced by incongruent structures that certainly didn’t fit or belong. But it was plan to plop a supermarket in the midst of the old village that sparked a community-wide “sense of place revolt.”

Within a year, an architectural design overlay, only the fifth in the U.S., was created to protect Old Salem. A Boston firm whose two principals had helped create Colonial Williamsburg was commissioned to conduct a historic survey and propose a plan for preservation.

But a young WWII Navy veteran and antique collector named Frank Horton had already been busy combing through the meticulous Moravian archives to identify which buildings were truly historic.

He accompanied the survey team and in late 1949, the findings were presented to Winston-Salem leaders in the 1920s-era Robert E. Lee Hotel, a contemporary of the Washington Duke in Durham.

While even older landmark hotels are still in service in many communities across the country such as Spokane, where I served, both the Robert E. Lee and the Washington Duke would soon be imploded by the forces of “shiny and new” in favor of generic substitutes.

Mayor M.C. Kurfees had just been elected and moved quickly to form a commission to oversee preservation, headed by James A. Gray III, the scion namesake of the then head of R.J.R Tobacco and nephew of Bowman Gray.

The long-serving Kurfees is as crucial to Winston-Salem as his contemporary, the equally long-serving Mayor of Durham, E. J. “Mutt” Evans. But as sense of place advocates rallied, so did disciples of the “shiny and new” a few blocks away.

Without due process and against Kurfees’ caution, officials listening to chamber types fired the city manager there and replaced him with a relative newcomer, a former FBI agent who had recently been Police Chief.

The manager soon became a spearhead for commercial boosters of the “shiny and new” there pursuing an expressway and setting in motion destruction in the guise of urban renewal.

Significantly, not only was Gray connected to the power structure in Winston but his mother was also a Moravian with deep ancestral roots in historic Salem.

Together with Charles Babcock, a newcomer with connections, and Frank Horton as officers, Gray, a newspaper executive, founded Old Salem Inc. to implement the preservation plan.

Gray and Babcock, also related to RJR by marriage, raised the funds to implement the preservation plan for the old town of Salem, while Horton took on the challenge of buying and destroying 120 intruding structures.

In 1954, Horton was joined for two decades by another vet, Frank Albright, as director of research, who in real life was one of The Monuments Men, a special unit made famous this year in the acclaimed George Clooney film.

Already Horton had begun reclaiming Salem artifacts that had slipped away and began reconstructing the story of Old Salem. Albright, an archeologist by training, soon began excavations.

As I first walked through Old Salem in early 1990, Horton, Kurfees and Gray had retired as legends, but the results of their four decades of work on Old Salem was incredible to see including several restorations serving as museums, clearly distinguished from reconstructions.

Gardens were also being restored and Horton had founded the adjacent Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, populated in part with the meticulous collection he and his mother had assembled.

Making sweet irony, its home was a former Kroger Supermarket.

Within a year of my first tour of Old Salem, Hobie Cawood, with whom I would then work on state-wide tourism issues, retired from a three decade career with the National Park Service to head Old Salem for a decade.

On our morning walk after that awards banquet last week, we headed down the hill through Old Salem, my first visit in over two decades.

It is a “real” and authentic place. No Disney-ification here. It is now managed and programmed by more than 200 employees and its historical research and archeology continue.

It is clearly the temporal heart and soul of Winston-Salem and the enduring symbol of its sense of place.

The area had been re-branded before I retired from a four decade career in destination marketing as Old Salem Museums & Gardens and the village as the Historic Town of Old Salem, but at its heart remains Old Salem Inc.

The 1950s were heady times for Winston-Salem in other ways including relocating the rest of what is now Wake Forest University there. But panic set in as its manufacturing heartbeat quietly began to lose steam.

Leaders had been stung by criticism during that 1947 “sense of place revolt that the town wasn’t new and modern enough and that its flair for the fantasy arts a joke.

Next came a new convention center followed by implosion of the old Robert E. Lee to make room for two equally incongruent formula hotels without the character or the bones of the old hotel or its connection to sense of place.

Little more than a decade later Durham would make the same fatal decision, an incongruent testament to the “new and shiny” in violent contrast to the state’s first commercial district on the national historic register.

In the 1960s, in part because the first arts council had also been created there in 1949, leaders pursued the new UNC School of the Arts which protects the southern approach to the Old Salem Museums and Gardens as does green space along Salem Creek.

UNCSA saved and restored a 1929 silent movie theater from the forces of “shiny and new,” and restored it in 1983 as a 1400-seat performing arts center. Now the acclaimed school has plans to add a 3,000 seat performing arts center downtown.

Experts note that most performing arts centers are in “the assembly-line business” rather than being actual creators. But in Winston-Salem, the new center for performing arts will be both.

As such, it will leverage rather than put sense of place at risk as most large-scale venues do. But advocates for the “shiny and new” are impatient with growing indigenous festivals and culinary arts.

Downtown advocates there have sought instead to try and lure away name restaurants and festivals from other communities such as Durham, failing to recognize that sense of place would not come with them.

A new visitor’s center at Old Salem is now linked from the west by a state DOT pedestrian overpass in the form of a recreation of an old wooden bridge.

Pinned down by those obsessed more with the “shiny and new” when I visited Winston-Salem in 1989, its much longer established destination marketing organization lagged behind until recently, so beholden only to the solicitation of the 10% of national visitation drawn for conventions and meetings that it didn’t even have a visitor’s guide at the time.

So Durham was able to rapidly eclipse Winston-Salem by adopting data-driven holistic community marketing and fulfilling the customary role as guardian of sense of place.

Beginning in 1982, Durham was also first to begin adaptively reusing millions and millions of square feet of its old factories and warehouses, but still lags behind Winston-Salem and other similarly sized destinations with only an avatar of a local history museum, more than 60 years after residents and officials embraced it during its centennial in 1953.

But many community leaders in Winston-Salem have never lost sight of sense of place as a as a priority. In the 2000s, a New Winston Museum was created (a museum of local history distinct from Old Salem – get it?)

Plans are for a new facility downtown, along with a new Carolina Air & Auto Museum along the north edge of downtown. RJR buildings are now also being adaptively reused, one as the state’s first Kimpton Boutique Hotel.

But Winston-Salem has also learned from that near miss in 1947. It is careful to define districts and works hard to guide developments and architectural styles into those where they will coherently belong.

Durham has design guidelines but proponents of development often sell out for fear of losing, even with the community’s own public facilities.

Durham is better at community branding, understanding than an overarching personality is about what a place really is, not what you strive to be.

Still stung by those 60-year-old criticisms, Winston-Salem has proclaimed itself the city of arts, now adding on innovation. But this isn’t where the city is distinctive, falling far below many other cities on indices for these traits, even in North Carolina.

Communities such as Winston-Salem and Durham, where sense of place has been preserved, are still torn by the forces of fantasy lobbying incessantly for things “shiny and new” things that make them the same rather than distinct and threatening to hollow out sense of place.

The less rooted in these communities should take heed from a famous 1952 quote by Frank Horton as work on Old Salem began:

"There will be no window dressing.

We plan to restore the old town as it was and not as we imagine it should be.

Whatever is done in the name of history must be honest, authentic, and accurate.”

Communities such as Durham and Winston-Salem cling to sense of place while others long ago gave up and became merely commercial replicas in pursuit of “edifice envy”, forces from which no community is ever immune.

Thanks to those with ties to founding generations but when each community was still 90% North Carolinian, they set a standard for sense of place.

Now it falls to more recent and often unfamiliar generations as well as newcomers to take up the torch.

Hopefully Durham and Winston-Salem are still learning from one another and can tame the forces of “shiny and new.”


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