Entry #2: At Happy Hill

This entry is collective, and includes words and perspective from several seminar participants gathered here as a coherent narrative.  This post is collectively sourced because the meeting itself included several different vectors in complex relation, with unexpected origins and unknown (at the time) contexts.  To begin, the seminar chose to read the third chapter of Robert Korstad’s very insightful book, Civil Rights Unionism.  The book is a history of union activity in NC, especially among tobacco workers, largely focused on Winston-Salem.  The third chapter gives a detailed account of the political economy and political geography of WS from the late 18C to the mid 20C.   Among the chapter’s many insights is the role that private philanthropy played in developing and under-developing areas and infrastructure throughout the city.  Much of that philanthropy came from the members of the Reynolds, Hanes, Gray, and Bowman families, and it often had the function of circumventing municipal-based investments in the city (i.e., collecting and redistributing revenue through taxes).  As a result, Black neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals were established, controlled, or otherwise circumscribed by wealthy white residents of WS, and those neighborhoods could likewise be neglected, undermined, or simply dispossessed with a similar degree of control.  Notably, though industry patriarchs no longer dominate the city, they have left an enormous legacy in the hands of private trusts, land donations, and endowments, including major contributions of capital and property to academic and arts institutions throughout the city.   That those institutions now have major influence on real estate in WS brings us back to the topic of our seminar—how areas like Happy Hill are directly or indirectly impacted by our universities and affiliated institutions.

The seminar had intended to meet at Happy Hill because that neighborhood is exemplary of much of what is described in the book chapter and because it is proximate to two of the universities represented in our seminar.  We arranged to use the picnic shelter in the local park for our meeting, because we prefer to meet outdoors when possible.  Finally, Dan arranged for a resident, Mr. Allah, to speak with our group about his experience in and concerns for the neighborhood.  We had understood that Mr. Allah would sit with our group for some portion of our meeting as resident-expert on our topic, and we agreed that he would receive an honorarium for his presentation.

The meeting did not go as planned, and it remains somewhat unclear as to why.  When the seminar members arrived, we found that the Happy Hill Neighborhood Association had assembled to convene with us.  It seems that they gathered before our starting time and had spoken among themselves about a number of concerns they had for their area.  We infer that they expected us to arrive and engage with them in some sort of planning session to address their concerns.  Our seminar was not at all prepared for that sort of meeting, however, so what proceeded was halting, at times awkward, deeply insightful, but also—for some of us—frustrating.  The frustration resulted in part from the sense that we were unprepared to meet the community on the terms they wished to engage, and from the concern that we may have lost an opportunity to listen, learn, and collaborate.

Mr. Allah began by relaying some history of the neighborhood, especially its dispossession over the last fifty years.  In this presentation and throughout the afternoon’s discussion, two topics stood out.  Happy Hill residents have been dispossessed of property and rightfully fear being displaced from the neighborhood as developers prepare empty lots for future housing; and the rich, textured, and deeply moving history of the neighborhood has all but been erased and remains largely unknown beyond the residents themselves.  Lamentably, those two concerns converged at the many empty lots Mr. Allah pointed out, areas where a historic building, residence, or park complex once stood.  Many of those sites were leveled as part of so-called “urban renewal” projects.  Now, empty lots are controlled by people other than the residents of the community, and they rightfully fear that the properties will be developed, with residents eventually being priced out of the market (it’s worth adding, members of the community were unsure of what percentage of residence owned their own homes in comparison to residence who rent; this seems important to document).

Following Mr. Allah’s presentation a difficult conversation commenced, with residents frankly asking our seminar what we were doing there—what did we want, what did we intend, and what were we prepared to commit?  Taken off guard and unprepared, we mostly had little to say other than to continue to listen and learn about the residents’ concerns, chief of which is their relative lack of property ownership within their own neighborhood.  It became clear to us that the residents had previously met with people representing various institutions to discuss these very problems, but it wasn’t clear with whom and with what intent.

Here is how one participant in the seminar puts it:  I am grateful that the people who live [in Happy Hill] took the time to go to our meeting, welcomed us, informed us and were even a little contentious when they asked why we were there. They anticipated what we were doing; go to study the situation and then leave and do nothing; go back and remain in our ivory tower. A Ph.D. in literature means nothing to them, and that is how it should be. To them, we matter as people that are willing to get involved and help. I absolutely understand their frustration because they have seen a lot of talk but little or nothing done.  I saw the hesitation on our part –Wake Forest Faculty—because we know we are part of the problem.  Wake Forest has a huge role in the dispossession and gentrification of Winston-Salem.  Wake Forest has a long history of being in [collaborative relations with] Mayor Joines; we have gotten tax breaks, perks, we have been able to build whatever we want, we are becoming richer at the expense of Winston-Salem minority residents. We also know that even if we approach our administration, nothing might change.

Only after the meeting did some of us learn that the neighborhood association had in fact already participated in a collaborative project with the Thomas S. Keenan Institute for the Arts at UNCSA on a Happy Hill Cultural Restoration Project, linked here.  The project is largely about cultural preservation, asset mapping, and future planning.  I encourage people to check out the link to see the breadth and scale of the project.  Notable is the tone of accomplishment on the website, which is entirely opposite of the tone expressed by the residents at our seminar meeting.  The disjuncture is staggering, in fact.  Also notable are the Arts Action Plan’s four goals, including “[l]imit gentrifying impacts of new development.”  That line is a bit of a giveaway:  there will be new development, there will be gentrification, and there will be impacts of that gentrification on the community, albeit somewhat mitigated by the arts plan.  No wonder the residents are suspicious of do-gooders coming to their neighborhood!   As one seminar participant puts it, the system is working; it’s doing what it is designed to do, which is increase profit for developers and landholders.  If you aren’t a landholder, you may well be priced out of the market.  And the arts action plan seems more a working part of that system than an intervention into it.   The claim here is not that the Keenan Institute or UNCSA more generally has designs on the neighborhood—In fact, UNCSA is a “no growth” and low-endowment university—but that the cultural preservation project may have some beneficial impacts for the neighborhood even as it occupies a role that would more effectively be undertaken by material (property) oriented neighborhood advocacy.  One seminar participant puts it this way:  I think the Arts program—funded again by grants  [NEA, ZSR Foundation] that primarily benefit academia—is a way to pay lip service to the community about the importance of art while the powers that be prepare to take the real important asset away from the community, i.e., land through gentrification.

If we were understandably caught off guard by the convening of a community meeting around our seminar, it is less understandable that we didn’t even know about the UNCSA project.  Everyone in academia will be familiar with the way our institutions operate beyond sight of even its most attentive members, but in this case, a project is presently underway more or less in the exact grain we’ve been tracking, and we knew nothing about it—that’s a lamentable oversight for our group.  It points to the way a key-term of our seminar, “the university,” atomizes when looked at closely:  faculty, students, administrators; trustees, donors, affiliated partners; athletics, arts, and above all, public relations and communications teams—all comprise “the university,” and even as we work within one ring of our institutions, there are so many other elements of the university operating all around us, in ways we don’t always know and in which we often have no say.

Other participants took the meeting as a challenge to reflect on our seminar goals.  One expressed feeling a degree of shame when it became instantly clear that the Happy Hill community had no interest in hosting a group of academics from institutions that have preyed upon it—if we were there to learn and study, we were going to be held to account. We weren’t going to get away with dropping in, learning a bit, and moving on. I also very much appreciated being held to account. One of the “terms” of our HI seminar is that we are here to study and no further action is required of us. Clearly, that condition isn’t going to pass with the communities who are being negatively impacted by the change that we are studying.

So, what is our role as academics?  We have two significant assets:  We teach and we research.   How can we use these assets for neighborhoods of which our universities are a part?  One seminar member explained that they teach a history course and could work with students to continue the historical preservation projects already underway in Happy Hill.  This is very much one of the aims of our seminar, in fact:  steering our research and teaching toward our local area communities.  A public history course on Happy Hill has the potential to research, document, archive, and disseminate knowledge about the area to a broad public, which can be mobilized for political agency.  Some of us in the seminar research and teach on spatial justice, while still others are engaged in activist teaching outside of the frameworks of their institutions.  This all helps!  We also recognize that we have leverage within our institutions.  We might think of ways to highlight the negative impacts of WFU, UNCSA, and WSSU’s long shadows over Winston-Salem. By bringing attention to the dispossession that our employers have inflicted, (motivated in part by a recognition of how we ourselves have profited from it), we can start calling the institutions to account. Perhaps we can also begin to build support within our institutions for what we might provisionally call “The Happy Hill Pledge”—a commitment by all three institutions not to engage in any development in Happy Hill that increases the dispossession of its residents and cultural heritage. While it’s doubtful that university administrations would sign on to this, with enough of an educational campaign, we can increase awareness of this problem among students, staff, and faculty, and help get these concerns more prominently into public discussions.

We are obliged to understand the shadows our ivory towers cast and the harm they do in the city, and we are obliged to use our position as members of the institution to help end that harm.

Categories: Uncategorized