Sunday, March 27, 2011

Greensboro goes green, washes away sins of past, present

A friend posted this article on Facebook. As a native of Greensboro, I think it is both silly and unfortunate:

The Impulsive Traveler: Going green in Greensboro, N.C.

“This is Greensboro?” my partner, Melissa, asked with surprise, gazing up at the LEED Platinum-certified Proximity Hotel, its 100 solar panels gleaming futuristically back at the sun. “When I think of Greensboro, all I picture is the KKK massacring protesters.”

True, the city suffers from a long-standing image problem. On Nov. 3, 1979, local Ku Klux Klan members shot and killed five Communist Worker Party activists during a street protest here. The incident became known as the “Greensboro Massacre” and was examined in documentaries such as “88 Seconds in Greensboro.” The accused Klansmen, in the end, were acquitted by an all-white jury.

I tried not to think about Greensboro’s dark past as our bellhop escorted us through the Proximity Hotel’s sun-filled lobby, explaining that the furniture was locally sourced and that one-fifth of the concrete walls were made of fly ash from incinerated garbage.

The elevator to our room, remarkably, was self-powered, its downward motion fueling the upward lift. The bellhop enthusiastically told us that the hotel uses 40 percent less energy and 30 percent less water than comparable hotels. Solar panels heat well over half the water for the rooms and the restaurant. No wonder this place became the first American hotel to receive the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design system’s highest rating.

The surprises continued in our room. “Eco” certainly didn’t mean austere. Loft-style high ceilings allowed sunlight to warm our bed. A sliding door opened up the modern bathroom to natural light as well.

Later, down in the lobby, a cheery receptionist asked, “Ready for your bikes?”

“You rent them?” I inquired.

“They’re free for all guests,” she replied. “To provide a healthy alternative to. . .” Was it my imagination, or was she frowning toward the parking lot?

I gradually gathered that she was suggesting that we give our car a rest from gas-gulping. Before I could even mutter a reply, the concierge appeared out front with two new bikes and helmets. Melissa shrugged and dropped our car keys into her purse, where they would remain for most of our stay.

While gliding along Greensboro’s excellent bike paths, we learned that the city is busy constructing one of the country’s first urban greenway loops, complete with bike and walking trails, as well as a space for public art displays.

Our dark stereotype of Greensboro was further undermined at our first stop: a “living museum” called Elsewhere, housed in a half-century-old thrift store where the artists use only recycled material to create interactive sculpture. “You don’t see a gift shop here,” one of the artists in residence said to me. “Nothing is sold at Elsewhere.”

Ooooh, Greensboro's dark past! But look, see? All of these green initiatives make it all better! They're enlightened now, the racist troglodytes! Greensboro is a veritable utopia; why if this Elsewhere place is any indication, they'll all be sharing property communally before too long!

One isolated incident in 1979 in which one small group of whackjobs kills another small group of whackjobs is deserving of a "dark past" label? Places like Srebrenica have a truly dark past. What about the other 200 years of Greensboro's history? Wouldn't maybe the Battle of Guilford Courthouse come to mind? A really significant event? Or the sit-ins that occurred there in 1960? But I digress on this point.

Dinner was a tough choice. I craved Montagnard food. After all, we were in Greensboro, home to the largest number of Montagnards (a collection of mountain tribes from Vietnam’s highlands) outside Vietnam. But Melissa won out in the end; we hit a local bistro for some rabbit and Bibb lettuce supplied by local farms.

Over dessert, we probed our waiter on the subject of Greensboro. The city is part of the 1.5 million-inhabitant Piedmont Triad (along with the smaller Winston-Salem and High Point). The Triad grew first into a national textile and furniture-making hub and more recently added technology and biotechnology to the mix. Our waiter took pride in telling us that his city has developed a sensitivity to the environment, noting that in 2004, the Department of Energy awarded Greensboro entry to the Clean Cities Hall of Fame.

The next day, I was to give a lecture at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The university’s Committee on Sustainability had invited me to discuss my book, “Twelve by Twelve: A One Room Cabin, Off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream,” about an American physician and permaculturalist who lives Thoreau-style in a 12-by-12-foot off-grid house.

To be frank, I expected a small turnout. But again, the city surprised. The room filled up with enthusiastic readers who had chosen my book for their Green Book Club. When I asked, “What’s your 12-by-12?” they showered the room with ideas on ecological living. I learned that Greensboro was the birthplace of well-known environmentalist Thomas Berry, and that the late CBS news anchor Edward R. Murrow had grown up in a log cabin outside town.

After the book-signing session, I chatted with attendees in the lobby beside a glass case holding a trumpet that Miles Davis had donated to the school. Beyond the encased horn — the very one that the jazz great had used to record “Kind of Blue”— was a footbridge over a forest, in a spot where there had once been a paved road. A middle-aged man looked me in the eye and said proudly, “We took out the road and gave it back to Mother Nature.” If Miles Davis could see Greensboro today, I chuckled to myself, he might change his tune to “Kind of Green.”

Over lunch at the vegan cafe Boba House, a student environmentalist told me: “In my free time, I slay vampires.” She and dozens of other students dress up as “vampire slayers” to alert fellow students to “vampire energy” — like leaving a computer on when you’re not using it. And the entire university was undergoing a major energy audit.

That afternoon, local resident Charlie Headington gave us a tour of his urban permaculture homestead near the university. Wearing a smile, he led Melissa and me through a marvelous backyard brimming with lettuce and grape trellising. As I looked around, I thought: This is what utopia must look like. Luscious hues of kelly and peacock green — a mix of fruit trees — rose over a clean pool of water stocked with fish. Brightly colored flowers sprouted from their pots, and Charlie’s perky crops felt a little like a welcoming committee.

One thing I will say in defense of this piece: you can get really good Vietnamese food in Greensboro. For me, it has almost become a kind of secondhand regional cuisine. You can't get Vietnamese food where I currently live - Mississippi - but when I go home to North Carolina I always try to visit my favorite place, Binh Minh on West Market. But who craves Montagnard food? I mean, not that I doubt that Montagnard food would be good, but doesn't such a craving just scream decadent westerner?

The whole piece just drips with a kind of frivolity and decadence.

This piece does not portray Greensboro as it is, but rather as how a certain segment of its predominantly white, wealthy residents want it portrayed. As historian Bill Chafe wrote in his Civilities and Civil Rights, Greensboro has long been in the business of cultivating a progressive mystique, and I believe in a sense that this continues today. Greensboro is a community, like many southern communities, that remains fundamentally divided along racial lines. You have only to look at what has been going on in the Greensboro police department of late for proof of that. But you can also look at the extent of the city's greenways and bike paths and see that they primarily only benefit one side of town - the west - terminating at Elm Street, more or less the dividing line between areas that are predominantly white and predominantly black/latino.

There is still a very visible disparity between the haves and have nots in Greensboro - not that I advocate some kind of redistribution of wealth. But it's not a utopia. And it's certainly not populated solely by a mass of Cold Water Army enviro-acolytes (although there are many I know firsthand). Normal southern people live there who like to eat barbecue and drive big trucks. People who don't listen to Miles Davis and crave Montagnard food.

Thank God there are people who don't stay at the Proximity Hotel, drive Priuses, or get euphoric over grape trellising.


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