The ‘Badass” Historic Preservation Commission or Not! – Part 1

Buying property in a Historic District comes with certain responsibilities. “We are only the caretakers of these houses, which were here before we owned them and which will be here after we are gone. They contain the wood from the old-growth forests, they are monuments to the skill of those who labored to build them, they represent our cultural heritage.” – Jane Powell


You may not think of yourself as a preservationist, but at heart, most people are. In simple terms, historic preservation means safeguarding the existence and appearance of historic elements of the community. It’s not only a ‘bricks and mortar thing’  but a safeguard that preserves the context of our stories. We’ve all heard someone say, “It broke my heart when that building came down.” Charles Dunn’s Facebook page, Rocky Mount Way Back When fills an insatiable need we have to remain connected to our past.

In our hands, we hold a two-sided coin.  There is often real tension between those who favor preservation and those who see rehabilitation as an acceptable way of dealing with historic properties. The increase in investor and homeowner sales in our Historic Districts is exciting, a cause for celebration as we welcome all our new neighbors. My concern is that we find a shared language that communicates Rocky Mounts Historic District guidelines as a worthy and advantageous endeavor to a burgeoning group of young, hardworking investors, flippers, and contractors. We’re all addicted to HGTV and when Chip & Johanna Gaines find a problem that is going to cost them money, we groan. We want Rocky Mounts version of HGTV investors to be wildly successful and save money where they can, BUT, when you invest in a Historical District property, you take on an additional responsibility. You have to know and accept this UP FRONT.  In embracing the long view, you will see that you have embarked on important and exciting work that leaves your thumbprint on the preservation of Rocky Mount’s past and future.

We trust our Historic Preservation Commission to hold the line in protecting the character of the neighborhoods where people already live and expect that protection. If you don’t embrace the preservation angle in your heart, the Commission becomes a group of ‘badass’ folks out to make life difficult.  (An unfair label to hang on a dedicated group doing the job we have given them to do – preserving the integrity of our historic neighborhoods.)

I have written a version of a compelling objection that illustrates how tough it is to find a response both sympathetic to a problem blocking a Certificate of Appropriateness while remaining steadfast to the task set before the Historic Preservation Commission.

“Why are you insisting on these rules and regulations, when I’m the good guy here. I’m fixing an otherwise over-looked house that is spiraling downward. I am willing to put money into the project to improve the neighborhood. There’s a boarded up house, for heaven’s sake, next door.”




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General Eisenhower and ‘The State of Things’ on Rocky Mount’s City Council – Part 1

Are you familiar with the term the borrowed view? This is a technique where a distant view is incorporated into the garden setting and becomes part of the design. (My 2013 Photo – Chicago Lincoln Park Zoo – illustrates the concept.) Though I am the eternal optimist, I’m not happy! Come and sit a spell on one of the benches along Main Street and let’s talk about the ‘State of Things’ on the City Council.  I’ve been looking for and found a distant view (in our case, a voice) to appeal to the better natures of the Council who allow business to be conducted in an angry and disrespectful manner. I have enlisted the help of the 43rd President of the United States to plead my case for a new commitment and direction in this matter.

I skipped church this past Sunday to continue reading Three Days in January – Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission.  My SON (in-law), the Rector of St. Andrews Episcopal Church, who has a great sense of humor, tells me there is a fiery burning lake waiting for me when I stay home and probably means it, but I had to read on. I have come to the conclusion that General Eisenhower’s leadership is needed to inspire Rocky Mount’s City Council to take action against bad manners and bullying. Fortuitously, there is a renewed public interest in Eisenhower, and he was available for consultation.

Here are a few words of wisdom provided by General Eisenhower and a caution from the citizens of Rocky Mount who are disappointed in the lack of leadership that indulges an angry and divisive environment in its chambers.  Eisenhower was magnanimous in his view that most people in government were at heart public servants, and while their immediate goals and philosophies might differ, their dedication to the cause of America was usually honorable. Ike said, “A man will respect you and perhaps even like you if you differ with him on issues and on principle. But if you ever challenge his motives, he will never forgive you. Nor should he.”

The City Council surely realizes that misconduct on the part of any Councilman casts a deeper judgment on the entire character of the Council.  This contentious atmosphere reinforces the notion that decisions are being made for callous, personal and political gain, in order to retain control over the process and constituencies.

Two major themes of Ike’s life and presidency were his leadership and collaboration. I encourage the Council members to ask themselves how they wish the history of Rocky Mount to judge their leadership role or lack thereof.  The first question on everyone’s mind should be, will the decisions under consideration be good for Rocky Mount or is there an underlying personal agenda here that has no place in the debate? At the expense of reputation and respect, am I willing to have my vote influenced by intimidation and fear rather than good conscience? 

Ike said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not leadership.”  He was a lifelong strategist and problem solver, who treated conflict as a management issue, not a crusade against a wicked and dangerous enemy. He advocated overcoming differences with “intellect and decent purpose.” This approach will be sorely needed in the days ahead as the Human Relations Committee of the City Council entertains the fate of our Confederate Monument.

Ike warned that ….. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought. A disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist unless we are willing to do something about it.

We will spend more time with General Eisenhower in Part 2 another time.









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A Day in the Life of a Rocky Mount Cheer Leader

With a wonderful friend, the day really got started over lunch at the Prime Smokehouse. I LOVE the Smokehouse!  There is a Prime Rib sandwich on the menu just now that is delicious. I LOVE the food, the people who own and run it, the customers at all the tables who never mind if you ask them what they ordered. I noticed a young couple eyeing our plates so I held mine up so they could see.  Only smiles were exchanged, but this is the Smokehouse way. The restaurant resides on an important historical corner in downtown Rocky Mount. As the reputation keeps growing, not only the locals, people from someplace else are coming. As far as I’m concerned, the Smokehouse represents what the revitalization of Rocky Mount is about.

After lunch, there was time to spend in my friend’s beautiful garden before a downtown meeting I was attending.  In this garden, spring was having its way again. New ferns were pushing their way into new life and tiny soft green leaves were miraculously emerging. The West Haven Historic District is awash with stunning dogwoods and azaleas that make life feel brand new again. Before leaving I was allowed a peek at my friend’s ‘babies.’ She’s into seeds this year and there are trays sprouting promising things, which like any good parent she monitors on a daily basis.

It was time to head to the first of a series of meetings that The Rocky Mount Human Relations Commission was hosting.  A doctor friend once told me that the medical profession doesn’t know why attitude is so important when it comes to healing, they only know that it is. When it comes to improving race relations in Rocky Mount, attitude is equally important. I went with concern in my heart because the newspaper made it sound like the future of the Confederate monument was all this meeting about. I left the meeting two hours later with a sense of peace I haven’t had over “things” in a long time. I had spent this time in the company of an unassuming, but charming older women…I notice age more now and how active and focused a woman like this is. Dr. Bertha Boykin Todd, a retired educator, community advocate and a leader in reconciliation, among other leadership roles, stood in the council chambers and told a story that took place in Willmington, NC because one of her premises is you must know your history.

In my judgment, some of the very people who should have been at the meeting to hear Dr. Todd great message weren’t there. Those in attendance must have left as I did, encouraged, hopeful, inspired by Dr. Todd’s remarks. As the Human Relations Commission goes forward with their important work, Dr. Todd armed them with principles to guide them. Moving Forward Together Goals, remembering that this is an evolutionary process, and how important it is to respect one another’s life experiences. She talked about judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. She encouraged the people becoming involved in these conversations to know one another first. Without examining our own prejudices, the committee would not expect to get very far down the road of reconciliation. If someone comes with issues of retribution or retaliation in their hearts, they need not get involved.  In Willmington, Dr. Todd has been in the forefront of matching black accomplishments with signage etc. alongside the stories already represented with monuments.   With a quiet grace, built upon the experience of her life’s work, prayer is Dr. Todd’s answer to moving forward together. Her lecture was a great place to begin this new attempt at what I call……Come, let us reason together!

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“Historic and Worth the Trouble” – Tap @ 1918 – A Preservation Success Story

What is deemed historic, and worth saving, often depends on whose eyes you are looking through. I like the definition “old and worth the trouble,” when applied to structures that are under consideration: should they be preserved or torn down? With each individual decision, we need to ask ourselves what part the structure has played in Rocky Mount’s story. Those buildings with a tangible past, that are preserved and restored, create opportunities for the future.

Tap @ 1918 is a fine example of the intrinsic value that old buildings have in maintaining Rocky Mount’s heritage while building a future. Originally the house, now a new restaurant,  was used as a community center for Mill residents. The house became a residence for Mr. Frye, one of the Mill managers. Later the house was used as the Personnel and Purchasing offices. In the 1940’s a health clinic was added. Now the story of this Millhouse continues on.

Built 100 years ago, owners, Lou Reda and Justin Gaines, have named their new restaurant, Tap @ 1918.  There is something reassuring about old buildings that hold our memories while meeting the needs of today’s community. Old buildings with materials like brick (ahh!) and heart pine, speak to tourists and longtime residents alike. Successful community revivals attract people because of their preservation efforts. The entire Mill project embraces historic preservation and has acted accordingly.

I am grateful to Lou Reda who took time from a busy day to show my friend, Polly Warner, and myself the fabulous restoration for the restaurant. My photographs don’t do the interiors justice, but the results are fabulous. There are beautiful old floors, original windows, interesting lighting, lovely paint choices and the porches are spectacular. I have yet to have a meal but am in awe of how this project turned out.


In my imagination, they are all there….the mill workers of the past, and their families, and the executives who looked out for everyone and everything. They are now joined by Capital Broadcasting and a staff of talented, creative people who will be remembered for their part in the reimagining of Rocky Mount Mills. The Mill project has fostered further investment in the community, is providing jobs and at the other Mill venues, safe and welcoming places to gather.  The restored Mill Village houses offer needed up to code housing. The residents are returning to a village-way of life that foster close neighborhoods with people looking out for one another. We owe Capital Broadcasting our ‘forever-gratitude’ for believing in Rocky Mount’s revitalization efforts; I call it taking a chance on love!  Congratulations to Tap @ 1918 and Rocky Mount Mills for this fantastic repurposing of an old building with a great future.

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Saving The Shotgun Houses of Rocky Mount – Part 1

We’ve lost our minds, you do know that, right? For instance, I feel strongly about the removal of monuments…. the editing of our history….but I’ve mostly banged my head on the floor like a child getting a lot of mileage from a temper tantrum.

I’m trying a new strategy when it comes to the preservation of The Shotgun Houses of Rocky Mount hoping to garner support and love for these structures.  I won’t ask you to carry a placard or throw your body across the threshold as I am considering.  Not unlike the monuments that mirror the complexities of our history, I hope to remind you that “The significance of the shotgun house rests not only on its unique architectural form but as an artifact of cultural memory.”  These Shotgun houses carry our stories. The nature and design of these homes helped strengthen the African-American community. Shotgun houses in close proximity and with porches helped build tight-knit neighborhoods. First erected in New Orleans, Shotgun houses have made a major contribution to the American architectural landscape.

Identifying a Traditional Shotgun house: long and narrow, one story high with rooms in a single row, with no windows on their sides. Rooms in shotgun houses are usually 14 square feet. A modified version of the shotgun house, the double shotgun, was later developed for larger families. These homes are the same style as the traditional shotgun house, except that the double shotgun is essentially two single shotgun homes fused together side by side. They share a single roof and doors that connect the adjoining parallel rooms. With a little basic information, we can now think about OUR very own inventory of Shotguns.

WATCH FOR  – PART  TWO                                                                                                                                      SAVING ROCKY MOUNT SHOTGUN HOUSES


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How Do We Look at Gentrification and Displacement in Rocky Mount, NC? – Part 2


Click On: It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?  -Fred Rogers

Please, don’t let your notion of Gentrification fall into the category of an unexamined idea. By that I mean, picking out the consequences of gentrification as it pertains to large urban areas and saying, “You see, this is what happens!” Gentrification coupled with smart urban policy is a powerful tool in reversing the direction of slowly dying areas. I hope we agree that here in Rocky Mount it is a good thing when neighborhoods are proactive for themselves and one home after another is cleaned up. It is a positive sign when investors, homeowners, and landlords, are involved with the restoration and preservation of their properties. We know rents go up, as they should when landlords keep up decent and safe places for their renters.  The aphorism “A rising tide lifts all boats” is associated with the idea that improvements in the general economy will benefit all participants in the economy. Take it up with John Kennedy, who is credited with the phrase, if you must.

Displacement is understood as the evil consequence of gentrification. Without the pluses of gentrification, however, a blighted neighborhood remains just that. Our historic districts already have neighbors with income and educational differences, and there is no reason to believe otherwise that revitalized neighborhoods can also retain their age, ethnic, and racial diversity. New arrivals are already blending in with longtime residents. One of the reasons we know the revitalization of Rocky Mount will be successful is because we offer exactly what researchers say is needed to draw transplants, investors, and new businesses. Villa Place and Edgemont, support the research:  historic! and architecturally interesting.  (Five homes have been recently bought in Edgemont, which is exciting.) We shouldn’t assume that longtime residents in areas that are attracting investment aren’t happy to have the services that spring up, a decent grocery store, adequate police patrols, and other upsides of gentrification….things that in our imperfect world they have been without. There is no reason why Rocky Mount should feel anything but enthusiasm and goodwill for gentrification, embracing the good that comes from it while at the same time staying sensitive to, and solving, any problem it creates. It is not an either-or decision. This is a win-win for everyone. This is a community filled with brilliant people who can solve gentrification and displacement issues because everyone wants to make HOME a better place.

Downtown Rocky Mount has iconic landmarks, distinctive features, and unique neighborhoods. Surely there is no other agenda in play. Everyone wants people living in safe and decent rental properties and sees the advantage investment in our neighborhoods brings. No one would put their own political gain before the good of the community. Dismissing that possibility, I say, let’s get on with preservation and restoration of our residential and commercial properties that represent the history, image, and character of Rocky Mount.


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How Do We Look at GENTRIFICATION and DISPLACEMENT In Rocky Mount NC? -Part 1

“It’s not about you and your pocket alone; let it be for the collective joy of your entire neighborhood and beyond.” – Israelmore Ayivor

Gentrification is a word that means different things to different people. It is a term used to describe positive community development that includes increased home values, new businesses and job opportunities, safer streets and neighborhoods, increased tax revenues. That’s one side of this coin, the other is the word displacement where current residents of a neighborhood may be forced to move because they can’t afford to live in the changing neighborhoods. In researching the impact of Katrina for a novel I am writing, I ran across, Richard Campanella, a geographer with the Tulane School of Architecture, who writes about New Orleans. I have taken up with him and subsequent related writers in an attempt to educate myself on the topic of gentrification as it pertains to Rocky Mount’s revitalization. Let’s sit down on a bench along Main Street and talk about a few aspects of this topic. I promise, it is fascinating….well, I think it is!

How are we going to look at gentrification? How do we mitigate the negative aspect of gentrification while pursuing the benefits?

There has been a reversal of the abandonment by the middle class of inner cities as young professionals rediscover (downtown Rocky Mount and our Historic Districts) in urban areas across the country. People today are abandoning their cars and long commutes in favor of walkable communities where they can live near their jobs in an “ambiance of urban authenticity.”

When I treat myself to a drive through the Historic Districts,  Villa Place and Edgemont, two of our greatest assets in support of economic development, I fantasize flashing signs that say to investors, home buyers….. OPPORTUNITY. Here we have housing with architectural credentials, great locations, and wonderful people that are restoring and preserving these amazing structures. We’re not the size of Brooklyn or other large urban areas where this topic looms large, but in our own way, we have to address the problems and celebrate the benefits of Gentrification.

Next Time: Join Me On a Main Street Bench For Part 2



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