Business 40 Changing Lanes: A Painful Legacy
Planning for the Business 40 improvements project began more than a decade ago to modernize the aging roadway and beautify it with pedestrian bridges and scenic walkways. Next year, restoration work will begin on what was the very first segment of expressway to be built nearly sixty years ago. For many African-American residents, the initial construction was also the most controversial. For the third story in our series Business 40 Changing Lanes, WFDD's David Ford takes a look at the road's lasting impact on the black community.
"My Dream Is Gone"
Sarah Hill Carter’s home lies atop a small hill in the Wachovia Highlands neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from the ballpark downtown. Her cement driveway is steep, and the stairs leading up to her front door are even steeper. Carter makes the hike daily, and her energy and appearance belie her 75 years.
She moved to Winston-Salem in 1964 to work for Hanes Hosiery, saved her money, and bought a house with a fifty dollar down payment. Today she’s retired and living on a fixed income.
On a tour of her house, she takes pride in showing off the many home improvements she’s made, including new siding, roofing, and plumbing. Carter’s home is clearly well cared for, but a house across the street and the apartment next door are in disrepair. They’ve been emptied, abandoned, and prepared for demolition to make way for a new roundabout and exit ramp as part of the Business 40 improvements project.
Carter recently got the news that her home, too, would be demolished. In her living room, among the family photos on the walls and stuffed animals on the sofa, are boxes and plastic bags filled with her belongings.
“The thing that bothers me is I don’t know where I’m going,” she says. “I worked all my life [and] paid for my house. To me, it was the American dream to own property and now my dream is gone.”
This experience is not new to Carter. In the 1960s, her grandmother lost her house in nearby Lewisville, NC, to make way for Highway 421. Her cousin lost hers to ballpark construction downtown. Carter says they were each given small compensations for their homes and told to relocate.
They left behind what had been for generations affluent black neighborhoods. Since the 1920s, Reynolds Tobacco Company, Hanes, and other manufacturers had provided steady, good paying jobs for African-American workers downtown. By the 1940s, black-owned businesses surrounding those factories were thriving.
State Representative Evelyn Terry grew up in the Dreamland Park neighborhood of East Winston. Her eyes light up as she recalls taking frequent trips into downtown on the local Safe Bus.
“I remember the pharmacy. Our doctors’ offices were in buildings downtown, attorneys’ offices. I went to the dentist downtown. I mean, there were business people downtown, and the cafés," says Terry. "Between Chestnut and Patterson Avenue was a very entrepreneurial area. I mean, if there’s any such thing, I think that might have been our Wall Street.”
Terry says segregation forced the black community to become innovative and self-sufficient. Markets and other businesses sprung up downtown providing goods and services to African-Americans that were traditionally sold at “whites only” stores.
But beginning in the 1950s, many of these neighborhoods were cut in half and partially destroyed when major traffic arteries like Business 40, US 52 and others were routed directly through black neighborhoods. Then in the early 1960s, hundreds of acres of homes were razed and thousands of residents were displaced during the early stages of urban renewal programs that continued for more than a decade.
When Terry returned to Winston-Salem in the 1970s, she found a very different downtown.
“I really was angry,” she says. “My question continued to be: ‘What happened?’ It’s a feeling almost of — not hopelessness — but of not having the power to do anything to change what is happening.”
The changes that took place were truly devastating. In Business 40’s wake, money that had once been circulating in black communities began leaving; support systems that were developed over generations collapsed. The most vulnerable were left behind, and once-flourishing businesses were shuttered.
A Nationwide Problem
Salem College Professor of History Daniel Prosterman says issues of political representation factored heavily into highway construction.
“I don’t think it’s any accident or mere coincidence that the very populations that are restricted from access to the voting booth are the very same populations that are then negatively [impacted] by the policies that are created by people who don’t represent those populations,” says Prosterman.
He adds that Business 40 and roadways like Highway 52 that came later followed a pattern of urban destruction in America that has played itself out across the country for more than a century.
“From I-77 in Charlotte, to Business 40 in Winston-Salem, to I-75 in Atlanta, we see interstate construction that is facilitated in a way specifically to privilege certain populations and further marginalize others.”
But according to retired city planner Jim Yarbrough, the circumstances surrounding Business 40 and Highway 52 were complicated. It was a long process and analysts and other officials were brought in to assess the different neighborhoods, eventually passing on their assessments to city planners like Yarbrough.
“We had a lot of really poor housing in neighborhoods that were poorly served by public infrastructure that needed help,” says Yarborough. “[There were] dirt streets, very narrow streets, substandard water and sewer lines. There were places where the water line was not sufficient to provide the necessary supply of water to fight fire.”
Yarbrough says the engineers’ goals were simple: either level what they deemed to be blighted neighborhoods and replace them with new ones, or build a highway and move traffic through them.
“And I remember thinking at the time that the areas where we were purchasing and moving people — and businesses even — out of, sort of functioned as a pretty good neighborhood,” he says. “And there were corner stores that served the people in the neighborhood. And I thought, ‘There must be a better way,’ but I couldn’t think of a better way.”
Yarbrough says that was a different era. He can’t imagine urban renewal projects of the 60s happening today.
"Now It's Not Mine"
But for Sara Carter, the damage is done.
“I think highways have a lot to do with breaking up communities,” she says. “And the change has really damaged the black neighborhood a lot in 52 years. We’re not together... relatives helping each other like we used to, so I think we suffer sometimes from that. People that [are] not as fortunate as others sometimes are left behind.”
Carter says that compared to many in the neighborhood, she’s fortunate. She’s negotiating with the state about compensation for her home. Still, it won’t amount to much. But Carter is hopeful that she’ll have enough to get by.
Her spacious backyard lined with trees is filled with birds. She says she used to spend many hours sitting out back in the shade listening to the birds chirping. Carter says she’ll have 90 days to negotiate the value of her home. If construction for Business 40 stays on schedule, this will be her last summer here.
When asked if she plans to watch the demolition, she says, “No, I won’t.”
“If I come by, I’ll keep looking straight ahead. I won’t even look over this way,” she says. “Because I feel like now, it’s not mine. So, I won’t be back to look at — to see them tear it down. To me, it’s theirs.”