by Jordan Green
A rail and regional bus transportation hub in downtown High Point, coupled with underutilized property, holds the distant promise of making the city a mecca for creative entrepreneurs.
A rainy Saturday that doesn’t fall within one of the biannual furniture markets is the last time you would expect to find action in downtown High Point. Even the stalwart Uptowne Market, a gathering of vendors and shoppers in the parking lot of the library north of downtown, canceled because of the weather.
Predictably, the street’s pedestrian traffic was sparse, even after a light afternoon storm lifted on Aug. 9. But a walk around the railroad corridor to the west of Main Street provides a sense of how the Triad’s smallest city might attract young creative entrepreneurs in a future in which the furniture industry plays a less dominant role.
For urbanists who value access to public transportation, High Point’s appeal is embedded in its history. The city’s name references an axis of transportation and commerce derived from the intersection of a plank road between Fayetteville and present-day Winston-Salem and the first railroad in the mid-19th Century. Unique among North Carolina cities, the railroad cuts a trench through the center of downtown, allowing automobile traffic to move freely above.
A charming multimodal transportation center includes a walk-bridge that leads down to a railway platform. The transportation center facilitates passenger-rail service to cities up and down the East Coast, hourly bus service to downtown Winston-Salem and downtown Greensboro through the PART network and bus service within the city via HiTran. A street grid operating far below capacity makes cycling a low-stress proposition and West Green Drive south of the railroad is equipped with dedicated bike lanes.
West High Avenue, which hugs the railroad for three-and-a-half blocks, showcases an appealing mixture of historic preservation, modernism and dereliction. While currently tied up in bureaucratic red tape, the excavated parking garage known as the Pit has captured the imagination of the city’s creative class as a hip gathering place across the tracks from the transportation center.
A block away, the impressive brickwork of the Tomlinson Chair Manufacturing Company Complex stands as monument to the city’s industrial past. Now owned by International Marketing Centers, the building is the largest North Carolina adaptive-reuse building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building houses the String & Splinter, an exclusive membership club founded by members of the city’s furniture and hosiery industries.
The nearby Market Square Tower, built in 1989, projects the current influence of the home-furnishing and textile industries over the city. The tower showcases upwards of 60 fabric manufacturers in showrooms on its lower floors. The top four floors are occupied by about 18 condominiums. A Salt Lake City LLC acquired the most recently sold unit for $89,500, two-thirds of its assessed value on the tax rolls, in 2012.
Further down the street, a stately turn-of-the-century bed and breakfast, an American Legion post, and two lovingly maintained houses owned by community leader Dorothy Darr line the narrow avenue.
Darr is the co-chair and executive director of the Southwest Renewal Foundation. As part of a larger mission of economic development through environmental enhancement, the foundation is attempting to attract entrepreneurs of all ages and encourage alternative transportation in the area. Darr said the foundation is interested in “making live-work spaces that are affordable and attracting creative people of all ages to the southwest, and people of all nationalities to be a true international city, starting with the southwest.”
The artist Brian Davis has rented a house that doubles as his studio and residence from Darr around the corner on Oak Street for about two years. As an example of creative entrepreneurship independent of the furniture industry, he is possibly the lone practitioner in the district.
Davis attested that residential offerings are sparse.
“In this area, talking about the southwest area, there are no apartments,” he said. “Maybe across the tracks. The showroom people are not going to let go of their stuff.
A painted wooden cutout of the children’s book character Waldo beams down from Davis’ porch while holding a sign that says, “I’m here.” Created with the intention of promoting businesses, it inadvertently suggests a sense of place in the neighborhood Davis calls home.
The cutout has recently been relieved of duty in front of the Penny Path Café on East Kivett Drive. The small type on the sign invites passersby to take their photo with the character and post it to Facebook.
“I just thought it was something I could do while we’re waiting on the big projects to happen,” Davis said. “I used leftover material and spare paint. I thought: There’s surely something I can do to change the landscape, the day-to-day gray matter of the city. You’re driving along and you see this recognizable figure smiling and waving, and saying, ‘I’m here.’”
West English Road, the main east-west thoroughfare that runs along the north side of the railroad, presents an odd assortment of vacant storefronts, empty lots and working garages. But between English Road and the parallel West Kivett Drive, a number of side streets within five blocks of the transportation center are lined with single-family homes and apartments advertising vacancies. A row of 1935-vintage garden-style apartments on Oakwood Street, three blocks from the heart of the city, resembled the new upscale Greenway at Fisher Park Apartments.
West English Road appears ready for reinvestment. The Caring Services agency provides recovery services from its facility on Chestnut Street and provides housing to its clients in several locations in the English Road corridor. It’s not hard to find adults publicly drinking alcohol on the sidewalk, and a number of vacant but unsecured buildings would seem to provide a ready inventory of sites for illicit drug use.
Ironically, proximity to the fringe of the luxe showroom district seems to be proportionately related to the number of vacant lots and derelict properties — a symptom of real-estate speculation in a declining market. A decommissioned Greyhound station owned by an Atlanta company, boarded up and stripped to its drab concrete skeleton, stands directly across the tracks from the preserved finery of Market Square and the modern tower that is its legacy.