In honor of Election Day in the United States, I wanted to post this reflection of the political climate of Greensboro, where I live and work and inspired to be a placeist most of all. It’s written by my friend Graham Sheridan, a 23 year old Greensboro native and a graduate of Grimsley High School and Washington and Lee University. He is currently a Master’s student at Brown University in Providence, RI, in public administration. We met last year on the campaign trail for city council. My candidate lost, his won. We both love Greensboro with all of our hearts, so campaigning and making sure good people got on city council, was personal. Also, as Millennials, we have a very different view of some of the old struggles of our hometown. Without further ado, I’m giving you Graham’s letter, which outlines this different view:
An Open Letter on the State of Greensboro
This is the sort of piece editors usually write on the eve of an election – a sort of “the choice before us is clear” piece. But the choice is not clear, or, more aptly; I am not sure what the choices are. Instead, I intend to look at how Greensboro is doing today, examine what trends push our town, and see not who, but what ideas, can put our city on the best course for the next ten years.
When I was campaigning for Councilwoman Hoffmann, people would balk a little at how much money and effort went into her election. I would always answer that Greensboro, especially Mrs. Hoffmann’s district, has graduated from being a Big Town to being a Small City. We ran a Small City campaign in order to win. In Charleston, SC for example, city council and county commission candidates spend big money on staffs and field offices. In 2009, Mayor Johnson learned the hard way that Greensboro has grown to be a small city. She is a politician of the Big Town era, and a lot of the people who voted against her were newcomers and neighborhoods that were annexed into the city, people who did not grow up in Big Town era Greensboro. Nonetheless, almost everyone on City Council today is a holdover of the Big Town era or still clings to the Big Town power structure for support. The old structure proves hard to shake off.
The Big Town model was based on four quadrants – professional class white people, working class white people, professional class black people, and working class black people. These quadrants dominated economic and social life in Greensboro for many years. The professionals had white-collar jobs at the mill or at Jefferson Pilot, or were lawyers, doctors, shop owners and the like. Working class people worked on the floor in the mill or in the rail yard or some such. These divisions were easily seen and completely understood. On occasion there were a couple of exceptions made, for example, some Jewish people were worked into the system. Now, things are a much more mixed up in Greensboro. We live in a multi-ethnic, multilingual city. Jobs are spread around more companies. Unlike previous eras, we lack a monolithic all-controlling employer who can dictate and bankroll what happens in town. For example, when people in Greensboro wanted to start a golf tournament, the Bryan family just wrote a check. Notice how many places and institutions in Greensboro are named for the same few people, people who dominated their quadrants. These quadrants no longer describe our population, and Greensboro’s economy no longer centers on one or two huge employers.
I wonder if even what we have left of the Big Town power structure would still be in place if so many of Greensboro’s new citizens were not immigrants without voting ability. When I go to the Super G International grocery I wonder how different city council would look if even 15% of those residents voted in municipal elections.
Most of the Super G’s customers, however, are left out of the Big Town power structure, because they do not fit any of the quadrants.
A few factions dictate the opinions and votes of the people within the Big Town power structure. The Country Club and the African-American Church get notoriety as the two most noted and visible. These still dominate the conversation in Greensboro, and tend to get their people elected. However, these organizations are starting to show cracks. Especially in the 2009 election, when the Tea Party, organized locally as Conservatives for Guilford County (C4GC), was able to get several of its people in office. Or in 2011, when some of the African-American groups tried to unseat Councilman Jim Kee, who still won handily.
De Tocqueville worried in the mid-1800s that democracy would fall to the tyranny of the majority, that the rights of smaller groups of citizens would not be protected. In Greensboro we do see this in votes like Amendment One[our ballot initiative to amend the constitution to define marriage in North Carolina]. But what we really live in is a tyranny of the participators. Some people have outsized influence because they participate and pay attention and lobby. Others, who may have real concerns, because they fail to participate, never get heard. Some companies and groups that that employ a lot of people do not participate very much in local politics. This does not fit the definition of tyranny per se, because anyone can enter and start participating at any moment, but the political circles take effort and time to break into.
This self-selection creates some of the conundrums of connecting with voters for Mrs. Hoffmann, especially our experiment with public office hours, when we post a place and time on her Facebook for the public to come speak to her and voice their concerns. Most of the people who have something to tell city council can just pick up the phone and call Ms. Hoffmann whenever they want. She knows what they think, because they show up and tell her. So they have no need to come to the public office hours. Other people, who do not pay attention, would not know to look for Councilwoman Hoffmann’s office hours, and probably do not know their councilperson’s name. Thus, we have a huge self-selection problem. So very few people show up to have coffee with Councilwoman Hoffmann. The people who self-select to care about politics, and by extension to run for office, are not necessarily the best people to do the jobs, or lobby city council. But what should those public officials really be doing? What actions could they take to bring serious positive progress to Greensboro? Or is Greensboro okay?
To me, most of our civic issues come back to the same core: the dissolution of Greensboro’s Big Town Institutions, and debate surrounding what Small City institutions our citizens and businesspeople should create to take their place. The Big Town institutions and Big Town civil society were demolished by a one-two punch: the closure of the Big Town economic drivers, and integration.
In Richard Russo’s Empire Falls everyone in the small town of Empire Falls, Maine waits in vain for the old textile mill to open back up. It was the center of the town, and with its passing went the beating heart of livelihood in the little town. You can see that desperation in the News & Record sometimes. People imagine that some company (Dell, Citi, HondaJet) is going to come to town and employ 4,000 people. This, of course, is not going to happen. But people are upset, because the old institutions – the mills: and Jefferson Pilot – no longer exist at the scale they once did. Lorillard still makes cigarettes in Greensboro, but a few engineers run an automated factory, not thousands of people hand-rolling cigarettes.
The Performing Arts Center debate, too, has Big Town/Small City groups at odds. Some of the more progressive voices in town, and many of the Small City young people, see this as a straightforward choice between progress and stagnation. A lot of the Big Town politicians see it as West Greensboro spending money on their pet projects rather than on East Greensboro. Those Big Town politicians, however, ignore what really happened to East Greensboro.
The second blow of the one-two punch knocking out the Big Town institutions, integration, has changed much of Greensboro’s landscape. You can tell this especially in our debates about grocery stores in East Greensboro. The ones that used to be there packed up and left because some of the old, beautiful, neighborhoods around A&T that used to be Black Gentry neighborhoods have been abandoned. What were once mixed-income areas are no longer. Wealthy black families moved west or to black gentry suburbs along Alamance Church Road. Jonathan Franzen recently wrote in the New Yorker about “the obliteration of all social distinctions by money.” Many members of the Big Town power structure have a hard time accepting this. We celebrate every citizen’s ability to choose where she wants to live and go to school without fear of discrimination. Still, now that these changes have come, we must examine how to protect and reinvigorate neighborhoods left behind by social change. The old quadrants (professional white people, professional black people, working white people, and working black people) no longer apply geographically as they once did. Those raw economics, rather than public projects such as the Aquatic Center, are to blame for many of the problems in East Greensboro.
Integration has also taken a toll on two of the major institutions of East Greensboro – NC A&T State University and Bennett College. Just as wealthy African-Americans have been integrated into white neighborhoods, high-achieving black students have been integrated into white schools. We have our first black president and he went not to Morehouse and Howard Law but to Columbia and Harvard Law. The collapse of the black gentry neighborhoods and the openness of UNCG have made Bennett an ever-less appealing place to go to school. A&T has the advantage of being a state school, but I worry about its place in culture and its status among employers. NC State has the advantage in recruiting and placing the best black engineers now. We may be seeing the last generation of black leaders who were educated at HBCUs. In the face of this distress, A&T is expanding. It does still admirably serve well its function of training African-Americans in the sciences. Maybe the leadership hopes that being North Carolina’s backup engineering school will prove a worthwhile niche. Equality and choice are exactly what Jessie Jackson fought for, but it takes a toll on his alma mater NC A&T SU.
Technology, globalization, and integration have blown open the old Big Town economy and Big Town power structure. Many of the institutions that brought Greensboro through the 20th century are no more. Our town needs new ideas, entrepreneurs, and energy to be a part of the 21st century economy. Additionally, the new citizens of all types contribute to Greensboro’s energy and excitement.
We have great opportunities that come from the cracks in the Big Town power structure. Activists can get more done, because they can cross quadrants and build alliances based on common interests. They do not have to worry about angering the man who employs 15% of the town. The mill town and company town Small business owners have more of a say, and, for example, when M’Coul’s Public House worries about how noise ordinances will affect the St. Patrick’s Day party, powerful people listen.
However, the trade-off of the erosion of the Big Town structure is that civic life is ever more important. In the Performing Arts Center debate, we hear people scream, over and over, “find private funding!” These people hearken back to the Big Town days, imagining that a Joseph M. Bryan will come along and throw in $10 million and a Performing Arts Center will happen. Those days are over. Greensboro’s society grows more meritocratic and more based on activism, mutual respect, and a cosmopolitan mix of people of all sorts. Instead of living under a rich benefactor, we must come together and make public decisions of what to do with communal money. The democratic process takes longer, just ask the members of the council-appointed Performing Arts Center Task Force (full disclosure: the author’s mother is on the task force) but the process is necessary for decisions concerning large amounts of public money.
The Performing Arts Center debate, really, just illustrates the new normal in decision-making for Greensboro. Good old-fashioned community organizing will be the rule from now on to affect change in the town. It worked for the opponents of the White Street Landfill being re-opened. The Big Town people on City Council, who thought they could pit one quadrant against the others failed to see the new Small City mentality. Groups, especially the Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro, were adept at crossing quadrants, and getting people who lived far from White Street interested and activist on their neighborhood’s behalf.
To sum up, we no longer live in the Greensboro of the 60s. We see that everywhere; from how many people line up to live in CityView to political organization of night club owners. The Big Town structure endures, but in a weakened state. The power has spread to more people. The question now comes: what do the people want to do with the power? What kind of town do they want to live in? We must ask them.