A city divided: The resurgent downtown and the abandoned urban core

Marquita Wisley (photo by Amanda Salter)

by Jordan Green // photos by Amanda Salter

For the residents of Cleveland Avenue Homes who live just across Highway 52 or the people who live in the Boston-Thurmond neighborhood a couple blocks north of downtown Winston-Salem, the glittering urban revival at Wake Forest Innovation Quarter might as well be a different world.

With BioTech Place as its centerpiece, the innovation quarter is rising from the bones of the old RJ Reynolds tobacco works, a visual manifestation of the new biotech and knowledge economy with a co-working space, luxury condos and new park with a stunning view of the skyline. Anchored by Wake Forest School of Medicine and the tech company Inmar, the highly educated, well compensated new-economy workers already have access to a burgeoning fine-dining scene just to the west on Fourth Street, and the completion of the Bailey Power Plant retail, restaurant and entertainment complex will soon augment the creative-class buzz around Krankies Coffee and its brace of kindred hipster enterprises.

“We say we’re the City of the Arts, and we have this biotechnology industry that’s fastly growing,” said Nakida McDaniel, a community organizer who works with the residents of Cleveland Avenue Homes and Boston-Thurmond through the nonprofit Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods. “I don’t think we’re really looking to see where people’s interests lie in terms of creating jobs. People don’t see opportunities. There’s all this growth going on, but the people I work with don’t have access to it.”

And if downtown and the innovation quarter looks distant and unattainable from East Winston, then from the other end the poor areas of the city may as well be invisible.

“They have no idea what’s going on, on the other side of 52,” McDaniel said. “It’s like a separate world. The poverty is concentrated. I work in areas where the children haven’t even been outside of East Winston.”

Downtown has experienced a stunning revival since 2001, when Mayor Allen Joines took office; BB&T ballpark, the burgeoning entertainment district on North Trade Street and the transformation of the Reynolds Building into a luxury hotel are but a few of the landmark projects that are either complete or quickly coming to fruition. But there’s a darker side of the story of Winston-Salem’s transformation from manufacturing center to vanguard of the knowledge economy — the explosion of concentrated poverty and deterioration of living-wage jobs for people without advanced degrees.

As Joines has acknowledged, Winston-Salem has the highest poverty rate of any of the five largest cities in the state, up to 24.0 percent in 2014 from 15.2 percent in 2000. While all three Triad cities share a history of transition from manufacturing, Greensboro and High Point have weathered the structural adjustment of deindustrialization and the shock of the Great Recession with somewhat less pain; Greensboro’s poverty rate leapt from 12.3 to 19.8 percent from 2000 to 2014, while poverty in High Point rose from 13.2 to 21.2 percent over the same period.

Growth in poverty in Triad cities

A July 2014 Brookings Institution study ranked Winston-Salem No. 2 in the nation for growth in suburban poverty. Beyond the headline-grabbing No. 2 ranking, the more important revelation in the study was that four North Carolina metro areas, including Winston-Salem, ranked in the top 15 for growth in poverty. Among the four, which also include Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro-High Point, Winston-Salem has the most concentrated poverty, with 16.2 percent of poor people living in Census tracts with poverty levels of 40 percent or higher.

NC cities income distribution, 2000
NC cities income distribution, 2014

“The challenges of poor neighborhoods — including worse health outcomes, high crime rates, failing schools, and fewer job opportunities — make it that much harder for individuals and families to escape poverty and often perpetuate and entrench poverty across generations,” the Brookings Institution report indicates. “These factors affect not only the residents and communities touched by concentrated disadvantage, but also the regions they inhabit and the ability of those metro areas to grow in inclusive and sustainable ways.”

A more damning No. 2 ranking for Winston-Salem came out of a April 2015 income mobility study by Harvard University researchers Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren that found that only one county in the United States ranks worst than Forsyth in helping poor children climb the income ladder. The study estimated that poor boys will lose $7,960 in annual earnings when they become adults just by virtue of growing up in Forsyth County, compared to a loss of $4,010 in neighboring Guilford.

It’s not as though Greensboro and High Point are a beacon of opportunity and economic progress compared to Winston-Salem. Look at any measure where Winston-Salem is among the worst and it’s a sure bet that the two other Triad cities aren’t far behind. But in one measure related to poverty, Greensboro and High Point do worse than Winston-Salem. Last year, the Food Research and Action Center ranked the Greensboro-High Point metro area the worst in the nation for food hardship. More than one in four people reported they didn’t have enough money to buy food for their families sometime during the past 12 months in Greensboro and High Point. Winston-Salem ranked No. 22 in the survey, with one in five people reporting they couldn’t afford to put food on the table at least once during the past 12 months.

A farmers market in East Winston remains an unrealized goal.

Mayor Joines announced an initiative to tackle poverty — a “thought force” — soon after winning reelection to his fourth term in 2013.

“Do you have an alternative to the suffering of the working poor?” he asked during remarks from the dais at City Hall in December 2013. “Do you have a solution to offer the single mom who works two jobs to make ends meet? Or do you have a solution for the couple that has been working every day but some catastrophic event has placed them in an economic situation that is beyond their control? To those who doubt this initiative, if you don’t have a solution, are you suggesting that we just continue on the present course and let these individuals continue to suffer? I’d say that is not an acceptable answer.”

Notwithstanding the soaring rhetoric of the mayor’s speech during the organizational meeting for the new term, the effort didn’t really get off the ground until almost two years later in late 2015. Chaired by Wake Forest University Provost Rogan Kersh, the Poverty Thought Force held two community meetings organized in a “world café” style format in February and March to gather input on four areas related to poverty: education and life skills, housing and homelessness, health and wellness, and jobs and workforce development. Joines said the thought force will analyze the ideas generated through the meetings and come up with a set of objectives that are “feasible and impactful” for reducing poverty to present for city council’s consideration this summer.

Joines, who is up for re-election again in November, said it’s too early to say what approaches to tackling poverty might hold the most promise.

“Because it is a complex issue, it’s going to take a comprehensive approach,” he said in an interview. “I’m encouraged that we had great turnout and good participation at the world cafés. We have good, critical thinkers involved with a strong commitment to move forward with recommendations for our council.”

Winston-Salem is Exhibit 1 for the story of how de-industrialization has coincided with an explosion in mass incarceration, functioning as a way to warehouse and control the surplus labor force, over the past 25 years in the United States.

Carolyn Highsmith emerged as a community leader in the Konnoak Hills neighborhood on the south side of Winston-Salem through a series of fights against commercial rezoning on Peters Creek Parkway and efforts to reduce crime. Highsmith’s interest in protecting the stability of her middle-class neighborhood eventually drew her into a coalition of other community leaders who pushed back against low appraisals in the 2013 tax revaluation that diminished residents’ financial assets and to advocate for investment in urban schools as the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board considers a bond referendum this year.

Reflecting the increasing economic fragility of neighborhoods like hers and rising poverty in Winston-Salem, Highsmith pointed to the loss of solid, middle-class jobs.

Blighted housing is a symptom of poverty.

“I don’t think we have a diverse mixture of employment opportunities in this city,” she said. “I base that on the fact that my parents experienced — Western Electric came here in the ’50s. You could walk in and get a job. We have a long history of RJ Reynolds, Hanes knitting and Wachovia banking. Starting in the late ’80s with the RJR buyout and the dissolution of AT&T, we lost Western Electric manufacturing. We lost Hanes textiles; they got bought out. We lost Wachovia bank. You’re talking about huge swaths of middle-class jobs that were lost since the late ’80s, and we really got hit in 2008. I guess you can blame NAFTA for part of that: Textiles went offshore to Mexico and China.”

One of Highsmith’s grandfathers worked for RJ Reynolds, and another worked for Vogler’s jewelers, a business that survived the Great Depression by catering to the wealthy. An uncle worked for Piedmont Airlines, and both of Highsmith’s parents were employed by Western Electric.

“There’s been a huge effort to bring in high-tech jobs and biotech jobs, but there’s only a small segment of the population that can benefit from those jobs,” said Highsmith, who is running for city council in the South Ward [see story on page 8]. “Then we’re bringing in these telemarketing jobs that either pay minimum wage or just a little above. They’re mainly marginal, low-paying jobs. If we don’t have enough people qualified to work in biotech we’ll be recruiting people to fill those positions. Do we really want our local people to be the janitors and housekeepers? You’re creating society of the have and the have-nots.”

  • Christen Lynch

    One of my great grandparents worked at Hanes Hoisery and one of my grandparents worked at Western Electric as a telephone/switchboard operator for many years before they went out of business. Also one of my parents worked at Hanesbrands Inc. packing hoisery into boxes before their massive layoff in 2008. Yes, these jobs need to come back into play and/or we (Winston) need more jobs like this that Winston had back in the olden days to avoid poverty.

    • Truth0312

      I had grandparents and an uncle who worked at RJR. I had an older cousin who worked at Western Electric. Those jobs are forever gone because the economy is in transition. Manufacturing and service jobs are in decline nationally and moving overseas where the labor is cheap. To be quite honest, the problem Winston faces is two-fold. There’s a a massive education/training gap that can only be addressed by government. They need to redistrict these school zones and the state government should provide relevant job training programs. Goodwill and other charitable organizations lack the resources to do all of the heavy lifting.

      I don’t expect private employers like Walmart to to start paying more than $10/hour any time soon, so the government is the only way to get this done. That’s another part of the problem, the kinds of jobs that Winston has to offer are low-paying. They offer a very limited road out of poverty. That wasn’t always the case when those manufacturing and service jobs were available in decades past.