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.