by Dean Franco
This weekend’s fanfare for the opening of two new bridges across Salem Parkway is an occasion to reflect on how our city leadership’s stated values contrasts with reality. The two bridges — one at Green Street, the other parallel to Liberty street as part of the reconstructed Strollway — are part of the Creative Corridors Coalition project which seeks to “distinguish Winston Salem as a place of accomplishment” (according to the Coalition’s Mission Statement). Whatever vagaries are implied by “place of accomplishment,” one thing is clear about these two bridges: They are not terribly creative, and they hardly accomplish their intended function as corridors. Given their cost of about $2.8 and $1.4 million respectively, residents of Winston-Salem should consider whether we really accomplished anything worth the price tag, especially given that the city continues to underfund transportation resources for low-income residents, and the largely Black neighborhoods divided by University Parkway and segregated by Highway 52 remain cut off from the much lauded downtown development projects. We need real creativity and actual corridors in this town, not two show-case bridges.
The Green Street bridge bears noticeably glowing green arches, putatively echoing a Moravian theme, but the graceful curve is marred by industrial mesh fencing that lines the pathway. That fencing, however is, more in keeping with the aesthetic experience of crossing the bridge itself, which originates amid abandoned houses and a crumbling motel, crosses the freeway and deposits pedestrians in the parking lot of Bee Safe Storage facility. I’ll leave it to the reader to consider how many trips to the storage facility are accomplished on foot). There is the ballpark below, accessible through the parking lot, but there is really nowhere else to go. If you walk straight ahead along the nominal corridor beyond the bridge, you end up at First Street, with one-way traffic zooming past at high speed on the way to the Peters Creek Parkway. If you crane your neck, you can see where Brookstown Ave used to connect to the historic West End, now blocked by a construction project for a parking structure. Or you can wander through the storage facility parking lot over to a spotty section of Broad street, still an uncomfortably exposed walk over to the West End or downtown. Whatever idea the designers of the Green Street bridge had about corridors, was there any consultation with city council about the development nearby?
The new Strollway bridge, which aspires to be like New York’s High Line, according to its designers, is creative enough, but redundant, running parallel to the Liberty Street bridge just a few dozen feet away. The pathway to the bridge originates behind the old train depot at Brookstown and between Cherry and Liberty streets, but its winding path up the embankment leading to the bridge leaves a pedestrian feeling far more exposed than the old Strollway, which ran under the highway rather than over it. For a good quarter-mile of walking, you just sort of feel like you’re nowhere, and it’s a relief when, finally crossing the bridge, you descend down to First street and its familiar streetscape. Even so, you’re deposited at a corporate plaza which has never had much civic life to it, and hardly any seating. It must be said: Business real estate is rarely friendly to public use in this town.
After crossing over on the Strollway, my wife and I crossed back on the Liberty street bridge, which we found to be perfectly pedestrian-friendly, with a wide sidewalk that runs parallel to the Strollway path only a dozen feet away. We couldn’t stop laughing, in fact, when we realized that for a good portion of the walk, you could practically jump across the grass that separates the Liberty Street sidewalk from the Strollway path. Why wasn’t the Strollway simply routed over to Liberty street? It would have saved a lot of money and deposited pedestrians just block from a truly pleasant stretch of Main street, with its historic buildings, lovely shade trees, and actually useable public space.
My point here is not to mock the bridges but to observe two faults which illustrate a larger problem in this city. First, there seems to be no coherent plan for development in this town. This is a town where new strip malls proliferate even as old ones die, new downtown apartments are built even as affordable housing stock shrinks or becomes so derelict as to be uninhabitable. Now, a multi-million dollar transportation project is completed largely to flatter the city’s vision of itself while continuing to leave the town physically divided by class sequestration and racial segregation.
The premise of Creative Corridors is that the original construction of Business 40, now Salem Parkway, divided the city, and that the bridges will reunite it. However, the real divisions exist along axes of income and race. And that is the second problem.
Winston-Salem is a national leader in income immobility: If you’re born poor here, there are no corridors out, and no creative investments by the city exist to help you. We invest in recreational greenways when we should be creating more useable pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods along University Parkway, and adjacent streets on the North-South axis and along Waughtown Street and adjacent roads on the East-West axis.
We underfund our bus service, when we should be making it easier, cheaper and faster for wage earners to get to their jobs. The city’s rose-eyed focus on downtown development comes at the cost of clearly seeing the very real problems of housing, schools, hunger and transportation that too many of its low-income residents face.
It’s true that this city’s vast income inequality and racial segregation are the result of the built environment, but slight changes to the landscape create no real improvements for residents continually pushed to the margins of by the self-flattering development under the banner of creativity.
As one local economist puts it, the best move a poor resident of Winston-Salem can make to improve their economic prospects is to leave the city entirely.
Dean Franco is the Winifred W. Palmer Professor in Literature at Wake Forest University