I hesitate to tell you this story.
We may not know each other very well, you and I, and so this requires a small leap of faith on my part.
That’s because, in a way, this is a story about an endangered species, one that very much belongs in the wild and not suffocating in a zoo, or taxidermied and shoved in the back corner of a museum. And while telling you about it may, as I hope, lead to a greater understanding of its importance and ultimately its preservation, it could also encourage you and yours to want to come claim a piece of it for yourself.
Do not consider this as such an invitation.
The community where I live is not a neighborhood by traditional standards; it doesn’t have a name or a neighborhood association, and it’s truly not big enough to be considered a neighborhood in its own right.
Mark Purvis, a 47-year-old who’s spent most his life in the area, calls it “Cedar Street Estates.” Six years ago, when I moved into the apartment next door to him, my roommate Lamar Gibson and I dubbed our second-story home “Cedar Estates,” oblivious to Purvis’ moniker. It felt like the right calling card for our 800-square-foot apartment on a hill, a modest and cheap two-bedroom unit that in most respects is wholly unremarkable but to us warranted a sort of elevated and dignified status.
Most people don’t call it anything. Our neighborhood along the western boundary of downtown Greensboro is more of a transitional area, not quite center city and yet at arm’s length from the Westerwood neighborhood, where the use of the term “estate” could be taken more literally. When giving directions to the house she owns across the street from Purvis, Liz Fitzpatrick often mentions the liquor store at the corner of Cedar and Friendly; if she just offers the street name, the other party will generally bring up the ABC store anyway. When people ask where I live, I usually say near the Grasshoppers stadium downtown.
In a 2005 strategic plan generated for the area, the city plainly refers to this as the Cedar Street/Bellemeade area. That’s the last time the powers that be took a serious look at our community. For the most part we go unnoticed, and that’s just the way we like it.
I moved into my apartment upstairs from Purvis’ parents in 2010, just a couple months after graduating from college.
When Gibson moved out a year later, the neighborhood had already settled beneath his skin, and he found a duplex across the street and a couple doors down from Cedar Estates. My friend Michael Daye, like Gibson a Greensboro native, quickly claimed his old room, and we lived together for three and a half years until Michael decided to challenge himself and picked up for Atlanta. I couldn’t imagine replacing him as a roommate, but when I looked at one-bedroom apartments in the city, I realized staying put would actually be cheaper.
After six years, I’m still here. And so is Gibson. But when my girlfriend Kacie and I decided to live together, it seemed that my Cedar Street era would come to a close. We needed more space, we figured, somewhere that felt like a new beginning. We seriously considered Winston-Salem, but later narrowed our search to a few satellite neighborhoods in downtown Greensboro.
But as our intended May 1 moving date drew closer, Kacie said she wasn’t ready to say goodbye to this apartment. And summer is the season for Cedar Estates, she said. It’s not time to leave, she said — not yet.
Now there are boxes of her books, winter clothes and kitchen supplies stacked up in my bedroom, our bedroom come Sunday. On the other side of the wall, I can hear painters finishing up a fresh second coat in the bathroom.
As I recommit to the Cedar Street area, and start a new chapter here, I can’t help but think about the changes I’ve witnessed in the last six years. I worry, and always have, about what this area will become. Someday, we’re told, the Downtown Greenway will run alongside the property I live on, claiming part of it for a wider sidewalk and blocking the Cedar outlet onto Smith Street, creating a cul-de-sac in our front yard. As breweries, a restaurant, grocery stores and, maybe most significantly, new apartments change the face of the lower Fisher Park area, or LoFi, I fear that the high percentage of renters in this area will be priced out. Fitzpatrick, who bought her home in 2003 as a college sophomore, is concerned, too, pointing to development in what’s being called Midtown on Battleground Avenue creeping towards the LoFi area. Will North Cedar Street be squeezed in the middle?
This is so much more than a typical story of affordable housing vs. gentrification, of winners and losers or “the greater good.” It’s about a pocket neighborhood that is akin to an endangered species, a refuge, and fertile ground for the most beautiful aspects of the city as a whole.
What is the Cedar Street area?
The November 2005 Cedar Street/Bellemeade area strategic plan defines the area as within the bounds of Friendly and Battleground avenues to the south and north and Eugene Street, and the train tracks running by Westerwood Tavern to the east and west. But to me it’s much smaller, defined by the tracks, Friendly Avenue, and Spring and Smith streets, a more heavily residential area. Spring and Smith are too busy thoroughfares for this little neighborhood to jump over, in my mind. Instead, 200, 300 and 400 blocks of North Cedar Street form the core of the neighborhood, with one-block spurs on Bellemeade Street at the center and another on Guilford Avenue. Other residents confirmed similar confines, often remarking that they’re unfamiliar with the 500 block of North Cedar, which is on the other side of Smith Street.
I’ve been trying since I moved here to pin down what it is about the Cedar Street area that makes it magical, that illuminates our community’s character. So I asked my neighbors and friends what our neighborhood means to them.
To community organizer Wesley Morris, who worked at the Beloved Community Center until he moved to New York a couple years ago to attend Union Theological Seminary, his Cedar Street apartment was the first place that really felt like his own. He put up Brazilian and African liberation flags on his wall, and often walked across the hall to hang out with his co-worker and proverbial big brother Joseph Frierson. The two would invite friends over for cookouts, leaving both their doors open for a free flow of people between their apartments. Other times, Morris would sit on the front porch of the building, looking at the trees on the street or talking to neighbors who’d already tied one on as they walked back from the liquor store a few blocks south.
Morris left an apartment near the intersection of Battleground Avenue and New Garden Road in northwest Greensboro seeking proximity to downtown and people.
“I was missing a bit of community that I really desired,” he told me as we sat in his apartment shortly before he moved. “When I came here there was just a vibe.”
He described the neighborhood as “a judgment-free zone,” an outlook that helped him in his own life. Morris would play his ukelele outside to a positive reception, take regular morning walks with Gibson, see a local weatherman walking his dog down the street and ask neighbors for leftover magazines to cut up for his annual vision boards.
Morris, who moved to Greensboro to attend NC A&T University and who lived in a couple places around the city, said the Cedar apartment was the best place he’d lived in town. He quickly found the community he sought, both from work colleagues — besides Frierson, organizer Cherrell Brown briefly lived down the street, and Gibson and I met while interning at the nonprofit as well — and unexpected neighbors. Joya Wesley, the first person Morris met after moving in, brought him some fresh strawberries, he said. They traveled in similar circles and knew of each other, but weren’t friends yet.
Wesley rented an apartment across the street from Morris, on the east side of Cedar, for almost 20 years, ending last summer. When she showed up in 1996, Wesley worked as a part-time copy editor at the News & Record.
“That apartment was like a News & Record legacy apartment,” said Wesley, who now lives in Mobile, Ala. “There was another copy editor who was living in the other side [of the duplex].”
To her point, Wesley learned of the apartment opening through a note in the office. She was going through a divorce and needed a place, and Cedar Street offered a walkable starting point to downtown and UNCG. When she rode the bus, there were four to choose from going westbound, “which is unheard of” in Greensboro, she said.
Wesley described the neighborhood as “bohemian,” a term of endearment that other residents echoed. Eclectic, some said, or tolerant. Most, like me, struggled to articulate exactly what defines our space, instead telling stories about the eccentricities of our neighbors. We point to a house where a flock of plastic flamingos clutter the porch, to the front-yard gardens like one at Fitzgerald’s house; we tell stories of walking down the middle of the street or gazing at downtown from rooftops.
Former resident Aaron Lake Smith offered one of the best descriptions of the neighborhood, which might not be surprising considering he’s a writer, working for Vice and until recently Al Jazeera. Reached on Monday while in a Swedish airport after being there on assignment, Smith described Greensboro as a place halfway between a city and the country, a transitional place that’s small enough that you can bike down the main street and feel like you own the town, or at least could put a dent in it in some way. He might as well have been talking about the Cedar Street area.
As a UNCG student, Smith lived just off Cedar on Guilford Avenue in a punk house affectionately known as Fort Asshat. When they started the house around 2003 or 2004, Smith said they came on the heels of an older generation of anarchist punks at the Cedar Street House, an imposing cube of a building on the corner of Cedar and Friendly, directly across the street from the liquor store.
There’s still an anarchist circle-A scratched into the sidewalk in front of the former Cedar Street House, then a hub of the seminal anarchist publishing collective CrimethInc. The building sat vacant for years, but now an unassuming family has taken over. Fort Asshat around the corner also went unoccupied, later becoming a collective house called the Maxxipad full of queer anarchists. When the residents left town, it appeared to be taken over by Greensboro College students who briefly used it as an informal frat house, and now looks to be empty again.
Smith placed his former home in a timeline of successive waves of collective houses and spurts of radical politics in Greensboro, suggesting that efforts carried by students seemed to last three to six years after gleaning some inspiration from a slightly older wave. Like Roman candles, small groups would flare up “but they never quite penetrate the inertia of the place,” he said, adding that this is likely the fate of college towns such as Greensboro.
In a place like this, he said, creating culture and entertainment for yourself is deeply appealing because otherwise there’s not much else besides going to the same coffee shop and dive bar. And that, paired with the affordability of the city as a whole and Cedar Street in particular, is probably part of the reason that a DIY and punk attitude has often prevailed here.
A Mormon anarchist, a homeless guy crashing in the living room and people recovering from ailments and addictions learned to live together at Fort Asshat, which is the sort of thing that’s unique to cities like Greensboro, said Smith, who now lives in New York City.
“In New York, you get to choose the people you live around and you choose the people who are closest to you,” he said. “In Greensboro, part of what’s special about it is you learn to get along with and work with people who are deeply different than you.”
The more Smith described his former city, the more I realized that the Cedar Street area appeals to me for the same reason that Greensboro does: It’s a microcosm of the diversity, the community, the affordability, the space to stretch your legs, a mix of city and open green space, the unassuming and unpretentious quality.
Cedar Street appealed to young punks who came after Smith, too, including a house of musicians that packed up for Portland, Ore. a few years back and several others — many of them newly minted Guilford College grads — who threw punk shows in their basement. I remember one where a band called the Body seemed to be shaking the foundations of the four-bedroom home. Now graduate students live in the former, and a family has nestled into the latter.
The neighborhood is also defined by several rundown apartment buildings, including one next to the former Cedar Street House owned by a notorious slumlord and another up the street across from Gibson. Tenancy here is even more transient than the students and recent grads, and it isn’t uncommon to see a mangled pile of possessions on the curb that looks like the detritus of an eviction.
But not everyone on the street is transient. When Eleanor Motley’s parents brought her home from the hospital after she was born in 1942, they took her to the house between where Fitzgerald and Gibson now live. She remembers a mass exodus of families from Cedar Street and the surrounding area to more suburban neighborhoods like Starmount in the early 1950s. After that, the neighborhood grew more racially diverse in the mid ’60s, she said, and over the years has often attracted artists, students and associate professors.
Motley still lives in the same house, and is brimming with stories of people who have come and gone who were incredibly friendly and helped open her mind, including a closeted gay man who lived across the street. Knowing him helped prevent any prejudice that might’ve taken root in her mind, Motley said, adding that when she attended UNCG, classmates were often surprised at how forward-thinking she was.
“I grew up in a neighborhood that was ahead of its time, in some ways,” she said.
Motley still lives in that same house, though she’s embarrassed by it because she believes the exterior could use a paint job. She’s been going through old photographs lately, and recently found one of “a whole raft of kids” sitting on the front steps for her birthday party, probably at age 4, the same front steps that are still there.
Mark Purvis, across the street, has a similar story, though he’s from a later generation. Purvis grew up in the house I live in; 15 years ago, the landlord for both properties relocated the house from an adjoining lot on Prescott Street, bringing it up the hill to the corner of Cedar and Smith streets, Purvis said. By then, Purvis and his siblings had long since moved out, and landlord Mahlon Honeycutt turned the second floor into a separate apartment. Charles, Mark’s father, still lives downstairs, Mark’s brother lives around the corner in the only residential property on the stretch of Prescott this side of Smith, and his sister Connie used to live in the other half of Gibson’s duplex. (After she left, former Triad City Beat sports writer Jeff Laughlin moved in before taking off for New York.)
Family is, not surprisingly, a big draw for Mark Purvis. He owns his own home-improvement business, and often brings his dad along with him for company. But he also enjoys the closeness to downtown, adding that there’s nowhere like it that is as quiet and as central. Plus — importantly — it’s affordable.
In 2004 and 2005, neighborhood residents started to worry that encroaching development threatened to overrun the character of the neighborhood. Condos erected on Bellemeade Street on the corner of Spring Street could’ve been a harbinger of demolitions and high-priced replacements, residents feared, and nearby rezonings could also jeopardize the neighborhood’s character.
Joya Wesley, who lived right by the condos, helped spearhead a push for the city to create a strategic plan for the area to preserve its character.
“We had some neighborhood organizing activity going on because we were worried about gentrification when they built the condos on Bellemeade,” she said. “There was some concern that would be the end of the bohemian feel of the neighborhood.”
Motley recalls that she was “extremely concerned” about the future of the neighborhood at the time, and residents correctly feared that the outside perception of their community didn’t align with their own. People described the Cedar area as blighted, and the subsequent city plan noted that residents felt a strong sense of community that outsiders didn’t pick up on.
Residents in neighboring Westerwood, where property values are higher and people appear to be a little pickier about their lawns, feared what would happen in the Cedar Street area too, because — as then Westerwood Neighborhood Association president Marsh Prause reflected — “they realized if the entire Cedar Street area fell, development would be next on Westerwood’s doorstep.”
After city staff completed the neighborhood strategic plan in November 2005, Wesley said residents felt like their neighborhood stood on more protected ground. And it helped that the economy flat-lined, grinding development to a standstill. The western side of the condo building remains blank to this day, looking almost as if part of it were ripped off by a tornado, but instead construction halted halfway to the corner with Cedar Street.
Wesley spent the better part of her remaining time on the 400 block of North Cedar on the road as the manager for her father, famous trombonist and former James Brown band leader Fred Wesley. When she moved in 2015, Wesley left notes from the 2005 neighborhood organizing efforts with Liz Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald initially lived in the house with other college students, paying the mortgage by waiting tables. Later she lived there with her husband, and then various roommates after the pair split. For the last six months, her mother has lived in the house with her and two dogs.
As Fitzgerald and I sat on her wraparound porch last week, shortly after she cut her dog Bacon’s hair to look like a lion, she said her concerns about protecting the affordability and spirit of the neighborhood persist.
“That plan sort of made me feel like this area is up for grabs,” Fitzgerald said.
Motley later chose similar words.
“I think right now it’s just up for grabs with all the development happening around, and we’ll have to see what happens,” she said. “It’s been a place that people like me can live…. Let’s hope Cedar stays an interesting place for people of various incomes to live.”
While I’m embarrassed to say that after six years this interview served as my first full conversation with Motley, she verbalized my concerns. With new apartment complexes built within sight of my home, what will happen to rents on this street? How will the Downtown Greenway affect the desirability of this area, especially because Cedar Street is inside of the greenway loop? What about developer Marty Kotis’ property grabs in his Midtown commercial district nearby? Or what about the contiguous, vacant lots on the 500-block of North Cedar Street that will supposedly house a new commercial complex? With a high percentage of renters, is this area a prime target for yuppies looking to own or for house flipping?
“Everything around it is being financed from really deep pockets,” Fitzgerald said.
And ours, well… let’s just say the money in most of our pockets is spoken for, if it’s there at all.
Sue Schwartz, the city of Greensboro’s planning director, loves the Cedar Street area.
“It’s the cool and funky part of downtown,” she said. “What a treasure it is.”
City planners talk about “the missing middle,” meaning the gap between traditional, single-family homes and denser apartment complexes, Schwartz said. In several ways, this area is that middle, a transitional area between downtown and Westerwood with four-plex apartment buildings, duplexes, single-family and other housing options. She helped collect feedback and design the neighborhood plan, and even though it was 11 years ago, she still remembers the area as a “charming” and “eclectic place,” adding that it has a “unique funk” and charm.
“Every city needs one of those, at least one of those,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite places and I’m actually kinda glad the recession helped it.”
Schwartz easily picked out several attributes that bolster the area’s character — the collection of architecture, large trees, a portion of younger residents, a good sidewalk system and closeness to downtown and the baseball stadium.
“Downtowns can run the risk of becoming an upper-income enclave,” Schwartz said, adding that people who are priced out of certain areas but prefer more interaction and style than apartment complexes offer will land in areas such as this.
Some of the changes are welcome. Mark Purvis can remember a junkyard in the community, and Deep Roots Market’s relocation to the north end of downtown thrilled Joya Wesley. Purvis had his concerns when the greenway cornerstone — a gazebo at the corner of Prescott and Smith streets — was under construction, but now that it’s finished, he’s happy with it.
“I never thought I’d see all this up here,” Purvis said, gesturing over his shoulder towards the Greenway at Fisher Park apartments and the complementing complex across Smith Street. “It’s growing, but it’s still taking its time.”
Schwartz said the city’s growth rate is around 2 percent, adding that “we’re moderately inching up” but that Greensboro is still growing at a third of the rate of Charlotte and the Triangle. That snail’s pace can be a good thing for areas such as Cedar Street, she said.
“I think the steadiness works in our favor too, because there’s not a panic,” Schwartz said, elaborating that people aren’t snatching up properties and jacking up prices.
If that ever does happen, or if Cedar Street changes considerably in price, the neighborhood won’t be the same, Fitzpatrick said.
“I think the affordability of this neighborhood is what makes it so eclectic and unique and diverse,” she said. Without that, it would be just like every other neighborhood around it, she said.
But that doesn’t mean developers won’t try and cash in on Cedar Street’s cachet, and Fitzgerald is worried that they are “just waiting to pounce.”
That’s why I was hesitant to tell you about my neighborhood. We’ve got a good thing going here, and I’m afraid you’ll ruin it.
There are downsides to the neighborhood — occasional crime, piles of unwanted belongings on the curb, empty airplane bottles along the sidewalk, frequent car wrecks at nearby intersections on Smith Street. Most people I talked to agreed that it’s a safe area, though a friend recently left her Cedar Street apartment after several years when her neighbor across the street, apparently struggling with mental health, admitted to sneaking onto her back porch and stealing her spare key.
The same day Fitzgerald closed on her house in 2003, she heard about a shooting at the brick apartments on the west side of the street almost across from her. Former neighborhood residents told me that people once found a body behind the former Cedar Street House, and called it the “Dead Body House.” As far as I can tell, there’s not much veracity to the story, and at the very least Aaron Lake Smith knows nothing about it. But if I see you walking down the street with some surveying equipment, I’ll probably tell you the story anyway.
But if I think I can trust you, I’ll share other stories about bounce castles, a nerd house that takes its annual party so seriously that it turned me away a couple years back because I didn’t have a wristband, a prank war taken too far and all manner of cookouts. My neighbors might share theirs too, about playing hooky under a nearby bridge decades ago, the time police caught a vandal for trespassing after he fell asleep on a rooftop, underground anarchist literature distros or a motorcycle ride gone wrong.
I agree with Fitzpatrick — it’s the affordability that makes all of this possible. She, and everyone else I talked to, agreed that one man more than anyone is responsible for the neighborhood staying intact — my landlord, Mahlon Honeycutt.
Purvis rents from him, and so does Gibson even after relocating down the block. Wesley did when she lived here, as did several other residents including whoever lives in the Zenke house that Honeycutt brought here just before the new jail went up downtown. Not only does he keep it affordable, but he’s responsive and affable. Without him, Kacie and I wouldn’t have decided to stay here. Indeed, many of us on the street likely wouldn’t have had a choice.
There’s been plenty of talk over the years of altering the face of Cedar Street and the surrounding area. Purvis and other longtime residents easily rattle off ideas that never came to fruition, and for his part, Purvis doesn’t know if the greenway cul-de-sac will arrive. Not that he’d mind, as long as people don’t tear up our shared gravel driveway by trying to use it as a cut-through, and his partner Dawn is dying to put up a basketball hoop in the dead end once its completed.
The fact that the street is chopped up into many smaller properties, and the fact that Honeycutt owns many of them on the core 400 block of North Cedar, may prevent large-scale development, some residents said. But there are still scattered vacant or under-utilized lots, particularly on the 200 block. Prause started talking about one that would be ideal across Prescott from the greenway cornerstone, and I quickly realized he was speculating about my extended backyard. As infill projects continue downtown, including Roy Carroll’s massive development and the hip LoFi area, it’s hard to imagine that those empty spaces will remain unnoticed.
But despite my fears, the more I talk to my neighbors the more I realize that we’re all maintaining a vigilant watch, keen on protecting this community that represents our desires for the city at large. Talking to them eased my mind, especially when I played back the tape from my interview with Wesley Morris, his things piled up in his living room before his move a few years ago. When I asked him about his hopes or fears for this neighborhood’s future, he offered a reflective and nuanced response that’s typical of his nature.
“I think Cedar Street has its own life,” Morris said, “that I wouldn’t want to put my own hopes or my own fears on.”
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