The Singer sewing machine, fully functional with the exception of a missing belt, is a totem of hope in the anteroom of the spacious garment factory at the end of a downscale derelict shopping center on High Point’s East Green Drive.
“I learned to sew on this machine as a child,” said Jerry Mingo, who started Jerry Mingo Design Work Room about a year ago as a nonprofit to provide jobs for ex-offenders and other people facing employment challenges in the poorest swath of this city.
Garment production is woven into Mingo’s identity and history. He supervised the cut-and-sew area for Izod LaCoste, whose preppy alligator-logo shirts were ubiquitous in the 1970s and ’80s, before the company moved its production line from High Point to Honduras in the 1990s. Mingo worked another 13 years as a supervisor in the medicine department at Banner Pharmaceutical before he retired.
He was in his junior year of high school when his family moved into the Burns Hill neighborhood just across University Drive and on the other side of Green from the shopping center. When they purchased their home in 1965, the Mingos were one of the first black families to move into the otherwise all-white neighborhood.
“During that time we lived here we didn’t feel like it was a lot of poverty because people had jobs,” Mingo said. “Burlington Industries had a plant here. Slane Hosiery was hiring a lot of people. You could almost walk to the jobs.”
The 70-year-old entrepreneur gestured to the shopping center, noting that it was once anchored by a Big Bear grocery. There was a pizzeria and a drug store. Now, aside from Mingo’s nonprofit, the shopping center is occupied by two beauty supply stores, a dollar store, a tax-preparation business and a storefront church. Across the street, next door to where another church serves free meals under a large tent, there used to be a fish market. Now, two corner marts within a block of one another — mostly stocked with beer, sodas, cigarettes and snacks — function as an inadequate substitution for the neighborhood’s food needs.
“In the ’90s, when the older people started dying, it became a rental area,” Mingo said. “That was around the time the factories started moving.”
Burned out or vacant houses, often unsecured in violation of local housing code, are a common sight, both on Mingo’s block and along the commercial strip on East Green Drive where he works. Three adjacent houses on East Green Drive, including a former daycare center, have been fenced off, but the gate stands open and sheets of plywood that previously covered the doorways have been ripped down, providing a haven for drug dealers and squatters.
Mingo said people leave old sofas and other large pieces of furniture outside the abandoned houses rather than paying fees to properly dispose of them. The blight also undermines pride in the neighborhood, and he is quick to acknowledge that residents are also guilty of leaving litter in the street.
Derelict properties undermine property values for homeowners in Burns Hill and other distressed neighborhoods because the appearance of the surrounding area makes it difficult for them to resell their homes. And they impose multiple costs on homeowners.
“Homeowners that live in close proximity to vacant or abandoned properties often face higher insurance premiums because vacant properties may be considered by insurance companies as hazardous liabilities,” a recent housing market segmentation study commissioned by the city of High Point found. “Homeowners surrounded by vacant properties also report a lower quality of life that may manifest in many ways, such as social fragmentation, isolation and loss of aesthetic appeal. Childhood asthma, lead exposure and cancers have also been shown to be possible negative effects of living in proximity to vacant lots, boarded homes, high-density traffic areas and substandard housing.”
Mingo’s neighborhood and the East Green Drive commercial corridor are part of a 1,096-acre area designated as having an “extremely weak” housing market in the study, which was completed by the Center for Housing & Community Studies at UNCG. The study identifies five Census block groups stretching from Hines Street in east-central High Point through the heart of the furniture market district and into the southwest quadrant beyond Ward Avenue as being burdened with the highest levels of poverty and unemployment, the highest rental and vacancy rates and the lowest home values in the city. A sixth non-contiguous Census block group that hugs Interstate 74 between Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Lexington Avenue shares the same designation.
Residents of the core area subsist on less than a third of the median household income of the average Guilford County resident. Seven in 10 live below the poverty line, compared to 17.6 percent of county residents overall. Compared to a 5.6 percent unemployment rate across the county, the inner core of High Point is burdened with a Depression-level unemployment rate around 27 percent. Almost a third of the housing is vacant, compared to 11.2 percent citywide, and almost 90 percent of housing is rental, compared to 44 percent citywide.
The depressed housing area cuts a swath through the heart of the city’s central business district, which is populated by glitzy showrooms that teem with buyers from across the country twice a year for the biannual furniture market. The coexistence of blighted residential neighborhoods and the largest home furnishings market in North America might seem puzzling, but it’s explained by the fact that there’s little housing in the market district, with the notable exception of the condos at Market Square Tower, which are used by furniture industry executives to entertain guests during the market. There’s simply not enough housing to weight the statistics for the handful of Census block groups that carve up the central business district.
More than 80 percent of the residents of the inner core area, designated as an “extremely weak” housing market, are African American and 9.4 percent are Latino, with whites and Asians making up the rest.
The UNCG study explicitly acknowledges the linkage between race and poverty. All six Census block groups that received the “extremely weak” housing market designation are identified in the study as Racial and Ethnic Concentrated Areas of Poverty — a federal designation based on having a non-white population of 50 percent or more with 40 percent or more of individuals living below the poverty line.
“Many of the poorest neighborhoods have only limited access to amenities such as good schools, healthcare or affordable and nutritious foods,” the UNCG Center for Housing & Community Studies reported. “Access to retail shopping and high-quality child care is also quite limited in most of these areas. Combined with the relative lack of extensive public transit systems, persons living in such areas are greatly disadvantaged. Concentrated poverty itself becomes a significant impediment to fair housing choice because those living in such areas must spend far more time and money in order to purchase groceries or medicine, find opportunities for entertainment, or place their children in daycare while working. Since employment opportunities are also limited in such areas, residents must commute outside their residential communities for virtually all of their daily needs.”
Drilling into the linkage between race and poverty, the study says, “The areas under study in the core city are some of the most segregated and impoverished neighborhoods in High Point. Poverty plays a significant part in ethnic segregation. Geospatial analysis of the region shows a picture of concentrations of poverty which intersect with concentrations of race/ethnic minorities resulting in an intergenerational lack of opportunity and little chance of upward social mobility. For example, segregated and impoverished areas result in ‘zones of denial’ for mortgage applications, making it very difficult for those seeking to purchase affordable homes to obtain a mortgage.”
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