I Choose the Possibilities in Life, the Beautiful and the Good

The title for this blog post comes from the latest podcast published today. I love creating the blog, Main Street Rocky Mount, and the podcast, Talking Main Street with Stepheny. These platforms allow me to talk about the preservation, restoration and repurposing of the commercial architecture downtown and the breadth of residential architecture throughout the Wards. The Facebook page with the same name as the blog is fun too. Each platform has its own opportunity to learn the language of Main Street. The theme, Honoring the Past, Building a Future, continues to guide the content of my efforts.

The #14th Episode of the podcast has now been published. The story-telling I weave through an episode comes from my reading life that began with the books of my childhood up to and including the last two books I’ve just read about James Baker during the Reagan, Bush years.

I have finished writing a 3rd novel that I can’t seem to release into the reading life of others just yet. Research, reading and the writing that follows brings me great joy. Along the way, it stills surprises me when someone tells me, “I read your blog.” There are times when I dare to hope that cheerleading for Main Street has reawakened an interest, even pride in the place we call home. We all have a part in the chorus, and my part includes stamping my foot from time to time, using my voice to encourage people to take a stand when it comes to the dodgy business that lines the pockets of those who work the system, and believing as I do, in the reimagining of Rocky Mount.

There are countless people in Rocky Mount that are the best kind of people anywhere. God-fearing, generous, talented, tireless, smart, and hopeful. Those brothers and sisters living in unacceptable housing, unsafe neighborhoods, are the focal point and the reason I write about Main Street. If you can take 5-minutes to listen to my point of view in this latest podcast, I hope you will agree about living peacefully side by side and the dignity of improved housing, pride in ownership, living the American dream.

Ward #1

Podcast Link: anchor.fm/stepheny-houghtlin

Save The Shotgun Houses of Rocky Mount With Hud Grant Money

These little gems are in Ward #4. I believe T.J. Walker, Councilman, has a heart for saving them. The more the Ward gets involved with their neighborhood housing, chances increase that others will join in the financial end of saving them. The possibilities of this significant housing has been ignored. The state of them proves this is so. Over the roofs of these small homes fly’s the banner of RESTORATION. Make saving the shotguns a priority in Wards 1-4 where the bulk of them are.

I’m all excited because $1.4 million in grant money is coming from Hud. These grants are used to build, purchase and/or rehabilitate affordable housing for rent or homeownership or providing direct rental assistance to low-income people.

What an opportunity to change the lives of people who have been living the reality of blighted and unsafe housing. I talk on todays new 5-minute podcast, Talking Main Street with Stepheny, about this grant money; the opportunity and my concerns. Hope you will listen in PODCAST Link:

https://anchor.fm/stepheny-houghtlin

PODCAST: anchor.fm/stepheny-houghtlin

Another Reason To Save Rocky Mount’s Boarded Homes

The backstory to this post is The Robert E. Lee Monument; the historic statue dedicated to Confederate General Robert E. Lee by noted American sculptor Alexander Doyle. It was removed (intact) by official order and moved to an unknown location on May 19, 2017. The monument was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. In my outrage over the editing of our American history and the taking down or destroying of these works of art, it hit me that in actuality, I knew little of substance about General Lee. Thus a new direction in my reading life; a form of an archeological dig into the famous people who have shaped my world. I loved what I was reading so much, it led me to a different time period and another public figure I had no in-depth knowledge about. I began reading about Franklin Roosevelt and the litany of names connected with this period. These fascinating books have kept me up at night. It isn’t a statue this time, but Dr. Suess who has me on another reading binge.

The people who have escaped the insane asylum have declared that the Dr. Seuss books must be eliminated. The keepers of the asylum have yet to put a foot down to stop this insanity telling us what we can read. I have put aside my English mysteries and am once again reading children’s books. Kindle Prime gave a free download of The Borrowers, a children’s fantasy novel by the English author Mary Norton, published by Dent in 1952. It features a family of tiny people who live secretly in the walls and floors of an English house and “borrow” from the big people upstairs in order to survive.

The Harpsichords lived in the drawing-room, they moved there in 1837, to a hole in the wainscot just behind where the harpsichord used to stand. They lived on Afternoon tea. In the old days, it was better — muffins and crumpets and such, and good rice cake and jams and jellies. They had to do their borrowing in such a rush, poor things. On wet days, when the human beings sat all afternoon in the drawing-room, the tea would be brought in and taken away again without a chance of the Harpsichords getting near it — and on fine days it might be taken out into the garden. There were days when they lived on crumbs and on the water out of the flower vases.

If you regularly read this Main Street Rocky Mount blog, you know that I write about the Preservation, Restoration, and Repurposing of Rocky Mount’s commercial architecture. I write about saving our at-risk neighborhoods, saving the shotgun and bungalow homes in Wards 1-4. While reading The Borrowers, I have a new reason to champion this cause. You will join me, I’m sure. I didn’t know about the little people who live under floorboards. If a house sits empty, the Borrowers have to emigrate.

When I check on things downtown and in the neighborhoods, I now guess the houses where the Borrowers have lived. Learning about them has increased the urgency to restore our housing assets that are boarded-up and left to further deteriorate. Go and find a house in Ward 1-4 to care about, to think about, have ideas on how to save it. Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

If you see my newest bumper sticker, you will understand what it is about.

Save The Borrowers’ Homes

Pausing at the Threshold of a New Year: A Reflection From Stepheny’s Bench On Main Street

I found  a quote of Alfred Lord Tennyson that I used on the Main Street Facebook page,                                

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.”

The word threshold holds a deeper meaning after I began to read the books of Esther de Waal. She wrote a small treasure called, To Pause at the Threshold – Reflections on Living on the Border. She writes about a traditional saying of ancient wisdom, ‘A threshold is a sacred thing,’ of the importance of honoring thresholds from that perspective.

After a dreadful year of consequences, the reasons too long to repeat, we need to pause before we step across the threshold into the New Year.  It is our life’s work to learn how to hold the losses and changes that occur in our lives, integrating all that has happened into who we become. The year 2020 will be like Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter’s world, the one who shall not be named.

We have been living with the uncertainties of life in the larger world. If that isn’t enough, at home we have a litany of names we speak every day, while standing on one foot and then the other, waiting for those who are working the system for personal gain to reap the consequences of their actions. I always think of Kermit the frog who says, “It isn’t easy being green.”

Despite constant prayer throughout 2020, we have known anger, frustration, sadness, and great loss.  All things far more significant than gazing at Rocky Mount’s skullduggery captured in a snow globe that is always snowing about something. Small in scope perhaps, but huge in Rocky Mount’s world. Because of what we have been through, this threshold we are about to cross seems a big step.

Like the traditional monastic practice, we need to pay attention to this threshold moment. When the monk or nun enters the church for the daily offices, they make time to stand, to wait, creating a stillness that permits each one to let go of all the previous hurried moments of duty or obligation. We want to cross this threshold ready to find it happier. We want to focus on all the good and positive things happening in the revitalization of Rocky Mount. We cheer on The Repairers of the Breach that are hard at work preserving, restoring, and repurposing the commercial architecture while building a future. We’ve got to get intentional about saving the shotgun and bungalows houses that are boarded up.

Take my hand, let’s be still together, and then cross this important threshold with the Main Street Band all in place, small flags in everyone’s hand along the curbside, determined that nothing could keep a wonderful community like Rocky Mount from becoming a prism of light in Eastern North Carolina. Let’s claim all the ‘good stuff,’ and refuse to get bogged down by all the ‘bad stuff.’ 2021 is filled with possibilities. We seize them for our own lives, and those we love, for our neighbors, and for this good place we call home.

Mercy, Mercy Me – What’s Going On?

Since Usher is my favorite, we have his rendition of Marvin Gaye’s song, Mercy, Mercy Me.  I know the song is about the environment, but he kept singing in my ear as I considered writing this post on the impact of crime in Rocky Mount. Click on the song link above, and you will agree that the song is a soulful reflection of what we are asking. What is going on?

I wrote about the Carlton House in the last post and talked about Knox White, the mayor of Greenville SC.  If the majority vote on Rocky Mount’s City Counsel would get their priorities straight, the city manager could honestly repeat this Knox White quote. “We implemented a strategy to attract developer interest. By ensuring that downtown was clean and safe with emerging entertainment and dining options, people began to see it as a place to live and not just visit.”

Troy Davis and others creating living spaces downtown, indeed, every business, should be all over the leadership about the crime problem that will impact their ability to sell the quality apartments they are creating.  It will affect other services available in the downtown area. 

My favorite expression when considering the ‘My will Be Done’ agenda is a certainty that it is always bass-ackward. A Hotel, a parking garage, and low-income housing on ECC’s parking lots are the definition of putting the cart before the horse. It is the preservation, restoration, and repurposing of the significant architectural inventory in the historic downtown area that is the prioritity; core assets that have been allowed to deteriorate. The commercial buildings have long needed emergency triage and immediate protection. Is it any wonder there is the outrage over selfish schemes that are served up as necessities and payback?

I think of the older lady I talked to in the middle of Pine St. She said, “Honey, nothin’ gonna change until you get the crime out of here.” That is her reality, and she encouraged me to get along home before dark. The hotel and parking garage takes priority over the people who live with neglect and false promises at election time. I include a video made in 2013, a powerful visual link that has surfaced. It could have been filmed today. The video has Usher’s cry all over it. Mercy, Mercy Me-What’s Goin’ on?

Unless personal gain is your priority, it is not difficult to see how important controlling crime in the neighborhoods and downtown is to a successful outcome. If the ‘My Will Be Done’ folks would commit to zero crime tolerance, the emerging scene downtown will bear fruit. Short of a Damascus Road conversion, it is like the AA premise: you can’t reason with a person who still drinks and you can’t reason with people who have learned how to rig the system and like it. Let us continue to work towards the next election, where four seats are available. Each of these seats must have a commitment to Rocky Mount’s basic needs: significant crime reduction, safe neighborhoods, restored housing, education, and jobs. 

 

Troy Davis is a long way down the road from these photographs I took early on. He is creating 32 apartments above street level in two buildings on Main Street that were allowed to deteriorate because ordinances weren’t enforced on cronies who owned the buildings. The renewed concept of living above the store is a great step forward. The accredited cities I mentioned in the last post follow the Main Street program. The apartments I have seen, and written about, made me covet the convenience, and the lifestyle. Without crime reduction, Troy and others will suffer the consequences of potential residents and customers with safety concerns. This must not happen. This financial risk and that of other brave-hearts helping to save Main Street are essential. Those who are planting their flags around town are heroes. We have confidence in the men and women in law enforcement. Let them do the jobs they are trained for. Forget the latest bright idea, a revised development agency and a new hire to further the personal gain skullduggery. What is needed is leadership and a will to declare crime will no longer be tolerated. Clampdown, concentrate within an area with known crime until it is driven out and kept out. Let law enforcement prevail.

The Carlton House – A Second Chance To Get It Right

We spend a lot of time talking about Rockey Mount’s problems. We can name the people on the Council, and those with positions in City Government that are the problem. When another significant piece of the revitalization puzzle is sabotaged, it is of no consequence to the ‘My Will Be Done’ crowd. There is an enormous cost, however, to the community when this happens. With the Carlton House under contract again, we must get this right. 

 The Carlton House is a prime example that the only plan that matters is the ‘My Will Be Done’ agenda. It makes no difference that places like Elizabeth City, Goldsboro, New Bern, Tarboro, and Wilson have proven the point that following a program like Main Street, produces results that are tangible, evident, and impressive. The pace of Main Street is dictated by those who don’t care about proven research that states what works and doesn’t. The admonition in all I’ve read is to follow and stick to a plan that will require hard work, dedication, and vision. The downtown plan, commissioned and paid for, isn’t suitable for those who work the systerm for personal gain. 

I want to tell you a brief story about The Poinsett Hotel in Greenville. SC. Named after Joel R. Poinsett, the Secretary of War under President Fillmore, it was built-in 1925 at a cost of 1.5 million dollars. The Poinsett Hotel was designed by William L. Stoddard, a New York architect, and built by the J.E. Sirrine Company of Greenville. The hotel is a twelve-story skyscraper with a narrow rectangular plan and an L-shaped façade. As the hotel is to Greenville, a seemingly inconsequential place like the Carlton House, is essential to the success of Main Street for the same reasons.  From the opening of the neglected hotel, growth followed in the area. It became an economic driver, a place of importance in the life of downtown Greenville. 

Knox H. White is an attorney in his native Greenville, South Carolina, who has served as his city’s 34th and current mayor since December 11, 1995, a longer tenure than any other mayor of Greenville. Previously, he was an at-large member of the Greenville City Council from 1983 to 1993. He was elected on a platform of protecting neighborhoods, his legacy has become Greenville’s downtown revitalization.  

I hear people say, “Well, a mayor can’t do much. He cuts ribbons, is a recognizable public face that represents the City, and does what he is told by the City Council. Knox White didn’t get that memo. His strong voice and leadership should have been cloned and sent forth to other Main Streets. “Nothing said downtown Greenville was back more than the reopening of the Poinsett. It spoke to the older people in Greenville  who were the most skeptical about downtown redevelopment.”  The Carlton House is our answer to “Maybe they aren’t going to tear down all our memories, afterall.”

Because of the narrow focus on themselves, with no plan but their own, the value of the Carlton House has been ignored and derailed. Thinking about the money they could divert into their pockets, they sold the newest scheme on the fact that Edgecombe County deserved a hotel, never having had one before. We know now the kind of people the City Manager turned to in order to ensure this scheme paid off.  Never mind the significance of the Carlton House in drawing the local community downtown, and providing guests to the city a sense of place. When complete, this will be a major accomplishment.   

A number of you could write about growing up in Rocky Mount as Knox White writes, “Growing up in Greenville, I often took the bus downtown. Now when I see the Mast General, I think about the old Meyers-Arnold department store. I can see the old movie theaters in my mind. My brother and I climbed the stairs of the old Woodside Building  and did the same at the Daniel Building when it was under construction.”   The Carlton House can do for us what the Poinsett Hotel has done for Greenville.                                       

Leave a comment below about memories of chicken dinners on Sunday at the restaurant: The wedding parties, family celebrations, Mothers Day and graduation occasions. To have the Carlton House restored and vital will bear fruit. The area will be stabilized, it will offer hospitality to visitors, and welcome those who live here.

The so-called leadership that messed this project up with Jesse Gerstl, should keep hands off and let this be a win-win for the new owners and Rocky Mount.  Here on Main Street, I am ecstatic with the thought that the Carlton House will be making memories once again for all who cross their threshold.

A ‘before’ photo to build a dream on

A New Look For Main Street

This Main Street Rocky Mount blog continues to evolve and enlarge its point of view. (As the garden grows, so does the gardener.) I continue to learn from all of you and the special people who have taken me under their wing, the cheerleaders in my life.  I’m grateful!  With the publication of today’s blog,  I hope you find Main Streets’ new look a further promise of advocacy for preserving, restoring, and repurposing our significant commercial and residential architecture.  

A Bungalow To Love on Sunset

When I write the phrase, Saving Main Street, I think of it as a metaphor for our historic downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. We have been learning the language of Main Street and celebrating the emerging downtown scene where restoration is in progress. We now know that the word ‘incubator’  is where entrepreneurs gather in a shared space, dream their dreams and run new businesses. The word ‘anchor project’  refers to key projects at the edges of the revitalization areas like our restored train & bus station, Imperial Center, Douglas Block, and The Mill.  People want ‘Walkable neighborhoods,’ where they can go out the door and walk to work, to eat, and find entertainment. ‘The third Place’ refers to destinations where you don’t need to know anyone, but are welcomed, feel safe, and have the TV series, Cheers, kind of experience. These are pieces of the revitalization puzzle that are happening on Main Street. 

Main Street Rocky Mount

I write in the spirit of the Peter Varney years of leadership in Rocky Mount. Peter showed a will and passion on many fronts for the preservation of  historical architecture.  We have Peter to thank for the round knobs along the fence next to the tracks at the train station that were commissioned to the exact specifications of the original knobs. Seemingly a small detail, but the heart of preservation.

Let us be thankful for Main Street and those involved in its revitalization. 

Main Street – Marked With An X And A Bottle Of Rum

Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwrecks.               ~Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m sure you remember Treasure Island, an adventure novel by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson.  The book influenced our perceptions of pirates, including treasure maps marked with an “X,” and one-legged seamen with a parrot on their shoulder. It was first published on 14 November 1883 by Cassell & Co.  A lovely read audio link to Chapter One. will make your heart smile.

Jim Hawkins is a young boy who lives at his parents’ Inn, Admiral Benbow, near Bristol, England, in the eighteenth century. An old sea captain named Billy Bones dies in the inn after being presented with a black spot, an official pirate verdict of guilt or judgment. When Jim and his mother unlock Billy’s sea chest, they find a logbook and a map for a treasure that the infamous pirate Captain Flint has buried on a distant island. 

When I came across the Stevenson quote above, “Some places speak distinctly…” I thought of Rocky Mount’s treasure map which has drawn upon it, Main Street and beyond. It has a distinct sense of place and story that is being preserved. The following Stevenson quote identifies those who are preserving, restoring, and repurposing significant commercial and residential architecture. It refers to the business people downtown who are apart of the new emerging scene and to the investors who have come aboard to help save our treasures.  

“We got together in a few days a company of the toughest old salts imaginable–not pretty to look at, but fellows, by their faces, of the most indomitable spirit.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

In 2020, we are contending with our own plundering pirates.  Stevenson writes in Treasure Island about the ‘pirates who sail on laden with crimes and riches.’ Those who continue to plunder the taxpayers shall have the black spot, their own verdict of guilt and judgment, turned back upon them. The decisions that continue to be made by people who pay no price for being wrong, must stop so we can get on with all the exciting possibilities drawn on our map. Seats on the City Council, city management, have their own map. It is the MY WILL BE DONE agenda that continues to steer us into turbulent seas.   For all the tough old salts uncovering our buried treasure,

“We must go on because we can’t turn back.”  Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

We Have To sing together, Ho, Ho, Ho and a bottle of rum.

Goldsboro – An Accredited Main Street Program – I Have Things To Show You

Sitting on the corner of Elm and LaSalle Streets in Chicago you will find The Church of the Ascension. It is an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parish (high church) that is one of the threads in my life tapestry. It is candle-lit and filled with holy music. Facing LaSalle Street, mounted on the front of the church, is a bronze sculpture of Christ on the cross. Written below are the words, “Is It Nothing To You -All Who Pass By?” From the first moment, I saw this piece of art, its beauty, and starkness remains powerful and moving. Today, I am still captured by this image.  I mention this when starting to write about Goldsboro because I want the revitalization of Rocky Mount to mean something to you.   

“You can ignore a piece of sculpture or a painting hung on the walls of the Art Institute, but architecture is the inescapable art.”                                                                                 

Blair Kamain, Why Architecture Matters, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Blair Kamin is the architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune, a post he has held since 1992. I’m expecting a used ‘like new’ copy of his book from Amazon any day. I’m hoping to find a new teacher/friend while reading this book. I’ll let you know. 

Welcome to Goldsboro: Note the widened sidewalks, the street lighting, the green space and trees, the pattern brick sidewalks, awnings, the beautiful restoration of each facade. Historically correct upper windows, a unified streetscape.

How this corner building once looked and then…below… the restoration…my photo a few days ago

Once Upon a Time and Today

Don’t miss the sidewalk brick pattern throughout the historic area…everywhere!

Our Main Street Streetscape is beautifully designed as well. Benches, the medium planted with trees all nestled in now. It was a great decision to start implementing our street design. We lag far behind with our commercial buildings, their restoration, and repurposing. When you visit Elizabeth City, Tarboro, New Burn, Goldsboro, all accredited with the NC Main Street Program, you will see that we have paid dearly for having our Main Street affiliation sabotaged. It calls for accountability, record keeping, and citizen participation. The “My Way” agenda is not interested in any of that. Drive over to Goldsboro and see for yourself how economic development within the context of Historic Preservation looks. Wouldn’t you like to see our Historic Downtown back on track with the Main Street Program?

The photos other than mine were featured in a great article. Here is the link.

The Old Neighborhood – 700 Block Arlington Street

By now, the morning sun was just over the horizon and it came at me like a sidearm pitch between the houses of my old neighborhood. I shielded my eyes. This being early October, there were already piles of leaves pushed against the curb—more leaves than I remembered from my autumns here—and less open space in the sky. I think what you notice most when you haven’t been home in a while is how much the trees have grown around your memories.         – Mitch Albom

705 Arlington Street

A block of homes on Arlington Street in Ward #3 provides another look at the heart of Rocky Mount; its neighborhoods. Walking the block with my camera in hand, it was an ‘if only’ moment when I wished I had the money to invest in Rocky Mount’s neighborhoods. I treated myself to some leaf-kicking while sauntering along. I refrained, however, from picking up leaves here and there as I once did on the way to school.  

There is always a favorite find on a block where the trees have grown around it as if protecting a secret jewel only the neighborhood is privileged to see. I must say the house seems mysterious viewed through overgrown “stuff.” (731 Arlington Street will soon be featured on the Main Street Facebook page. Hope you’re following.)

It turned out to be another “Honey, what you doin'” moment. I made a new friend, Keith Graham, who lives and is restoring his home at 727 Arlington St. Mr. Graham is a tight bundle of strength; his energy makes him appear bouncing on his toes as he showed the work he has already accomplished. Lucky for Rocky Mount, he owns some other rental properties that he is working on with the same enthusiasm. Mr. Graham showed me the small tree he has planted in the front yard for a nephew who has died. I listened to several other family stories that I felt privileged to hear. Image what an example this would be if this one block of homes on Arlington Street, a major artery, was restored. The revitalization of neighborhoods for our housing needs is a necessity and the answer to many of our problems.   

Mr. Graham’s House 727 Arlington
711 Arlington Street
715 Arlington Street
719 Arlington Street
723 Arlington Street
727 Arlington Street -A Different View
735 Arlington Street

One of the payoffs of revitalization in Rocky Mount is people being able to say, I am living as a person who is Somewhere and not just Anywhere. I encourage you to drive through downtown and through the Wards, to reconnect with  Somewhere!  I often say, “Wow, look at that…or with dismay, “Oh, my goodness, how can this be?”  Neighborhood after neighborhood, there are homes like these on Arlington Street. With a plan, ingenuity, investment, neighbors helping neighbors to even rehang a shutter, things can change for the better. Community Buy-In is my newest bumper sticker. You have to Believe!