PRESENT ABSENCE

An Inclusive Public Art Project

 

Please check back often for opportunities for  image & story sharing as we build the content and design of a major work of public art to hold the memories and imagine the future of life along the MLK corridor of East Winston Salem.

Planning phase supported by Z Smith Reynolds Inclusive Public Art program

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Making History Visible and Futures Imaginable.

Our intent is to create Public Art that brings vividly to focus the stories of neighborhoods that built the city of Winston-Salem as it is today. Some of our most influential communities disappeared in waves of modernization that began in the 1950s.

Traces remain, still visible to older residents of our city, but not legible or knowable to the majority. Our project brings these stories to the fore, while also enlivening the broader story of historical erasure in the wake of urban renewal. Our vision builds on important community engagement work that members of our team have been part of for ten years—researching the stories of these influential neighborhoods— and newer initiatives—building programs in Public Art and Public History at two Winston-Salem universities. We appreciate the opportunity to share our project concept with you.

THE PROJECT – Present Absence

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, robust African American communities thrived along a central corridor of Winston-Salem and were instrumental in making possible the city we know today. Then in 1958, some of these communities were dispossessed and the homes destroyed to clear the land for the construction of Highway 52, creating divisions that continue to define our city today.

Presently, no permanent public art exists in our city that tells the stories of the predominantly African American families, individuals, and businesses that once richly shaped the landscape. These are stories of Present Absence. Their physical forms no longer exist in much of east Winston-Salem along the Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and I-52 Corridor.

These are the communities, now gone, whose men and women labored in tobacco factories and textile mills that grew Winston-Salem into a thriving city. In Belews Street Neighborhood, for example, gone are the restaurants, barber shops and schools;; gone are roads built so the tobacco and textile workers could walk uptown on a separate corridor from white collar workers who used Main Street;; gone are the porches that, as one county leader recently and laughingly recalled, had given him a place as a boy to peak at the fascinating comings-and-goings at the

liquor house across the way. These are the stories of everyday life of the people who built the city, on sites now inhabited by biotech firms, universities, roads and bike paths. In the communities with whom we are interested in co-°©creating, histories, collective sense of identity, homes, ways of life, and even the soil on which those lives were built disappeared beneath bulldozers, leaving vivid memories. The Winston Salem Journal published former resident Barbara Morris’s visual, visceral story of the one family who refused to move—

“who wouldn’t agree to the government’s demand to clear out. The bulldozers ripped up the ground around the home, and … the home was perched on a tiny island way up in the air, with the ground all around it bulldozed flat, 35 feet below. Of course, the family could not access their home, and finally, it came tumbling down like the rest around it.” This story is recorded in our newspaper’s archive, yet has otherwise gone untold. Like many stories from this area, it appears ready to rise into powerful, sculptural form. This project will resurrect the vibrant and significant stories of these communities and, through the collaborative creation of public art, provide a meaningful and productive space to engage with these histories of community, expressive culture, imagination, and resilience.

The human stories of these communities were relegated to the margins of the histories we tell about our city. Politics, crisis, and power shape the histories we tell. The embedded perspectives, interpretations, and systems of knowledge that marginalized and displaced Africana communities from their land and their homes to build Highway 52 are also the reasons histories have yet to be documented in a substantive way. We are working to shift methods of history in our classrooms and on our campuses, to move the research and telling of stories toward ways that honor the people in them and that indicate desire for equity and justice toward the people and families who in many cases lacked funds, options, or influence to successfully fight and resist dislocation.

A permanent work of art that reveals these histories, that makes these absences visible in the present, has the potential to impact many more people. Experiencing, via public art, the contributions of those who lived in absent or heavily-altered neighborhoods along the MLK Corridor can go far to building understanding that can grow bridges across the divides in our city. Studies have shown that decreased levels of residential and income segregation leads to increases in economic mobility. Building understanding and connections between segregated parts of our city can create opportunities to abate segregation.