On Feb. 6, Winston-Salem City Council voted to approve the demolition of three historically Black-owned buildings on North Liberty Street. 

During the meeting, East Ward representative Annette Scippio asked if there was any way the buildings could be saved.

“These buildings are the last remaining structures in the African-American community that were for commercial use, owned and operated for Blacks,” she said. “I actually understand the fact that they have decayed dramatically. However, we are a community that celebrates preservation. They are the last vestiges of Black commercial enterprises, original buildings owned by African-Americans. We have no other buildings in a commercial district like these. It saddens me that we find it prudent to demolish structures and not to try to save them.”

The three items were originally placed on the consent agenda during a Dec. 13 meeting of the Community Development/Housing/General Government Committee where the demolition of the buildings was unanimously recommended by members of the voting body: Chair Denise D. Adams, Vice Chair Scippio, and councilmembers Kevin Mundy and Robert C. Clark. 

During the Feb. 6 city council meeting Planning Director Chris Murphy told councilmembers that the matter had been brought to the city’s attention after it was discovered that an unhoused person had been living in 1409 N. Liberty St. — the home of Silver Front Dry Cleaners and Laundry Service, a local business owned by Maxie Durant who passed away in 2008 at the age of 86. Other addresses on Liberty Street that are set for demolition include a structure at 1411 N. Liberty St. along with 1415, 1417, and 1419 N. Liberty St., a building that once housed landmarks like Good Times Lounge and other establishments. The three buildings were built between 1910 and 1940.

While the items were scheduled to be voted on during a Jan. 3 council meeting, they were removed from the consent agenda in order to have a public hearing at the Feb. 6 meeting. During the Feb. 6 meeting Scippio attempted to pass a substitute motion to delay the demolition but the vote failed 2-6. Ultimately council voted 7-1 in favor of demolishing the structures at 1409 and 1411 N. Liberty St., with Scippio casting the lone dissenting votes. Both Scippio and councilmember John C. Larson voted against the motion to demolish 1415, 1417, and 1419 N. Liberty St.

Murphy informed the council that the now-dilapidated properties presented an unsafe situation, adding that illegal activities such as drug use had been occurring on the premises. On Dec. 6 building inspector Jamison Roe sent reports to City Manager Lee Garrity declaring the buildings to be unsafe.

“Per city code and per the North Carolina general statutes, when we saw the conditions of these buildings we sent notices to the owners [and] held public hearings,” Murphy said, adding that the owners understand the conditions of the buildings. 

“Following those hearings we issued them a demolition order that they could appeal or they could demolish within a certain period of time, or we bring it to council for demolition,” he said. “They have chosen to have it come to council.” 

Historically Black-owned buildings on Liberty Street were approved for demolition by Winston-Salem City Council on Feb. 8 (photo by Gale Melcher)

Murphy added that the tax value of 1409 N. Liberty St. is $45,000, and the tax office’s estimate to reconstruct it is $350,000. Murphy said that the neighboring buildings have similar estimates as well.

Murphy told council that it was his understanding that the property owners “don’t even want to pay the cost to demolish” and that it would be up to the property owners to “come up with the money to bring these buildings up to current standards.” 

“It would be a substantial amount of money to bring these buildings back up to a safe standard,” he said.

“How did these buildings get into this kind of condition?” councilmember Larson asked, commenting that it looked like “years of neglect and deterioration” had taken a toll on them. Murphy responded that the buildings had not been occupied for a long time.

“It’s a shame that we’ve lost these buildings to neglect over [the] years,” Larson said, adding having a better system that would enforce code requirements earlier could prevent buildings from falling into disrepair and meeting the same fate as the ones on North Liberty Street.

Murphy responded that there isn’t a program that “monitors existing buildings for their condition,” to which Larson acknowledged, “Maybe that’s something that council could look at in the future.”

Years of disinvestment lead to demolition

The people who live in the community are disappointed too. 

“They’re historic; these buildings are older than me,” 66-year-old Melanie Martin told TCB in an interview outside the condemned buildings.

Still, Martin conceded it’s too late for them to be restored.

“It’s gone,” she said.

Mayor Pro Tem Adams reminisced on her memories of walks along Liberty Street while she was growing up and responded to Larson’s question about how the buildings had fallen into the state they are in today.

“When a community has been left for decades of disinvestment, this is what you get,” she said. “This is a community that never got the investment that the other side of town got…. It was just the fact of the systems in place that disinvested our community.”

“We are trying to redevelop [and] rebuild our communities across this country,” she continued, adding that there are likely “thousands of buildings that have to come down.”

Scippio likened the demolition of the buildings to the ways in which Black neighborhoods were destroyed during “urban renewal“ projects.

“I just wonder if we are sincere about preserving African-American heritage in this city,” she said. “We often demolish homes because the people are poor, and they can’t take care of their property, and so we expediently demolish houses. It just saddens me that we would automatically just demolish our Black community as it happened years ago with urban renewal.” Urban renewal is a process that includes the seizure and demolishment of property — both public and private. Gentrification can happen as aging infrastructure is modernized to make way for pricier housing, businesses and other developments. The displacement of low-income families and destruction of historic buildings are other examples of urban renewal’s consequences across the country.

Still, Adams said that the city is already working to improve other historically Black areas.

“We are going to change the way our communities look,” Adams said. “We all hate it, but think of the people that live in that community.” 

Adams said that the city is building “choice neighborhoods,” and investing “millions and millions of dollars down the street to put in stores” and to decrease crime and violence. 

Historically Black-owned buildings on Liberty Street were approved for demolition by Winston-Salem City Council on Feb. 8 (photo by Gale Melcher)

“I hate it just as much as the next person because I lived on this street growing up,” Adams said. However, she said she would support the demolition of the buildings because “the community has plans, and they have spoken as to what they want their community to look like.” 

Councilmember Barbara Hanes Burke stated during the meeting that council got feedback from both the community and the owners of the buildings before making their decision. Burke represents the Northeast Ward where the buildings are located. 

“This is my community. I’ve been here my entire life,” she said. “We engaged with many community members and business owners on Liberty Street.” 

She mentioned that city representatives had asked if the owners had a desire to rehab their properties but that they had expressed no interest.

“We had many of our homeless residents living on the sidewalk in front of these structures,” she said. “We had people living inside these structures and once we started to help the homeless in this area, we realized the conditions…” adding that the walls of these buildings were caving in and the ceilings were coming down. 

“The property owners are not in disagreement with demolishing these buildings, and I am not in disagreement with it either,” she said. “For years we have had disinvestment in this area. I am going to do something about it for the time that I am on this council.”

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