by Jordan Green
Utilities, streetscaping and marketing funds promise to raise the profile of Washington Street, High Point’s historic black business district.
For the past few weeks, Washington Street, the historic center of black commerce in High Point, has been reduced to one lane, as utility crews dug a trench down the center of the roadway to replace its aging water and sewer lines.
The replacements on Washington Street by High Point-based Breece Enterprises is only part of a $2.1 million contract awarded by the city for water, sewer and stormwater improvements across the city, including East Kearns Avenue, Tate Street and Sunset Drive. The portion of the grant allocated to work on Washington Street amounts to $803,680.
The utility work sets the stage for a larger aesthetic overhaul of the street approved by city council in December that includes street resurfacing, sidewalk replacement, decorative lighting and tree planting. In December, city council allocated $517,161 for the streetscaping project, and approved a $438,328 bid from Atlantic Contracting for sidewalk replacement, trees, curb and gutter. A report from the city’s engineering department indicates that the work will be coordinated with the electric department’s plans to place pedestrian-level lighting along the street.
“I’m really excited about the trees,” said Patrick Harman, executive director of the Hayden Harman Foundation, which has made substantial investments in the neighborhood. “I think there’s going to be 15 or 20 trees down the street. I hope they’ll slow down traffic a little bit. They’ll have some benches and trash cans.”
Even though Washington Street, with two lanes, is relatively narrow compared to the four-lane Main Street through neighboring Uptowne, motorists sometimes drive faster than the 35 mph speed limit, making it challenging for pedestrians to cross the street. Building on his hope that the new trees will encourage motorists to slow down, Harman also said he wants to see more people park on the street, walk around and spend money.
A number of cultural institutions dot the three-block segment of Washington Street between North Centennial Street and Penn-Griffin School for the Arts, including the locally renowned soul-food restaurant Becky’s and Mary’s, Jackie’s Place jazz club and the 512 Collective art gallery, which opened in 2013. Charity Jackson, president of the Washington Street Business Association and owner of Creative Niche gift shop, has been organizing a monthly open mic at the Ritz Theatre on Washington Street.
“We call it ‘Bring It,’” she said. “Bring your song, your poem, your book. We have poets, singers and dancers that all come out and share their talents for the open-mic night. It’s every second Saturday from 8 to 10 p.m. The next one is on Valentine’s Day. For anyone who doesn’t have a sweetheart, we’re going to be each other’s sweetheart. The focus is love in the community, and sharing our love for the community.”
Notwithstanding the temporary slowdown in traffic, Jackson said the public improvements on Washington Street are boosting the district’s profile.
“I know for a fact we’re getting a lot of visibility with the public improvements,” she said. “We as a business association are trying to recruit new business and spread the word about stimulating the small businesses. We really need all the support we can get.”
Jackson said her store is currently open by appointment only, but when the improvements are completed, she plans to hold a grand re-opening.
Jackson has been active in efforts to renovate a two-story brick building at the corner of Washington and Centennial that is known as the Visions Gateway Cultural Art Center. As president of the High Point Fine Art Guild, Jackson signed over ownership of the building to Community Builders Association, a nonprofit based in southern California. Jackson said Community Builders Association plans to renovate the building and occupy it as its North Carolina headquarters, while leasing out additional space.
“We’re in our strategic planning phase right now,” Jackson said. “We’ll be coming out with our brochure, and launching our capital campaign.”
Augmenting the public investment by the city of High Point, Washington Street also stands to benefit from part of a grant from Guilford County through CityProject. The $30,000 grant is designated to be split equally between Washington Street, the southwest inner city and Uptowne.
“There’s a little money allocated for a mural,” Harman said. “We might use the funds for our Jazz in June and Fourth Friday series, a grand opening for the businesses on the street, and for outdoor movies. There’s money allocated for branding, either banners or rack cards or some kind of internet presence, which we don’t have right now, or some kind of business outreach.”