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‘Little Ellis Island’

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Standing on a balcony at the Cultural Arts Center to speak to the cheering crowd, Olympic gold medal speedskater Joey Cheek pulled the traditional Sudanese garb he’d been presented over his 6-foot-2 frame and had to admit:

His hometown — Greensboro — had surprised him.

Not that Cheek wasn’t used to the spotlight of international publicity after announcing in Turin, Italy, that he would donate his 2006 Winter Olympics winnings to help focus attention on suffering in Darfur.

But until his triumphant homecoming earlier this year , Cheek had never shaken hands with anyone from the region in Sudan whose plight so occupied his mind.

“This is the first time I’ve actually met anyone from there,” the Dudley High School graduate said after leaders from the local Sudanese refugee community presented him with a head-to-toe ceremonial costume. “And it’s here in Greensboro.”

For such natives as Cheek, whose childhood snapshots are of a monochrome city in black and white, 21st- century Greensboro is experiencing a Kodachrome moment — a mosaic of ethnic influences in Asian, Latin, African and eastern European hues.

In the sleepy white-bread town many recall from the pre-1990s, the changes crept up just under the radar — a wave here, an influx there. Taken together, however, they constitute a cultural change in Greensboro, the largest city in the Piedmont Triad and one The Washington Post in 2001 likened to “a little Ellis Island.”

Schools in Guilford County have experienced the sharpest rise in the southeastern United States in students who speak English as a second language. At Greensboro’s Smith High School alone, 80 plus languages are spoken.

Greensboro has the largest population outside Vietnam of Montagnards, a persecuted indigenous race that calls the Gate City its capital in exile.

St. Mary’s, historically east Greensboro’s Catholic parish and school for African Americans, is today the most ethnically diverse Catholic church in the nation, with equal parts Hispanic, Vietnamese and African emigres.

The ‘proximity’ factor

Due to the presence of experienced refugee resettlement agencies based here — Lutheran Family Services, World Relief, Jewish Social Services — each crisis that forces migrations around the globe has resulted in a corresponding pocket of newcomers.

Thus, Greensboro has a curious mix of cultures for a city of nearly 232,000 . The new communities range from Bahnar and Bosnian, to Sudanese and Russian Jews, along with Hispanic immigrants brought here not by the United Nations but word of mouth: low unemployment, moderate housing prices, a good climate and, most fundamentally, an atmosphere of welcome and openness.

“Other cities I travel to in the U.S., people keep their heads down,” said the Rev. Y-Hin Nie, the Montagnard pastor who arrived here in 1992. “Here, people say hello. I’m not a stranger.”

For people new to the area, the first clue to the immigrant mix is the most basic: food.

High Point Road and Market Street have become a patchwork of Middle Eastern groceries, Italian pork stores, Mexican tiendas, Korean barbecue restaurants. When the Baltic restaurant Adriatica closed, a Palestinian restaurant quickly moved in. Its owners simply kept the old name on the sign to save on overhead.

“We were very pleased when we moved here, to find Caribbean restaurants, Thai restaurants,” said Lori Lucek, a Chicago native who moved to Greensboro via Rhode Island. “My husband is Polish, and believe it or not, we found a Polish deli.”

Though many newcomers move here from large cities with long- standing ethnic enclaves, the difference is Greensboro’s small-town feel makes it more likely for people from one pocket to rub shoulders with those from another.

So not only is Greensboro a “10-minute town” — a city where, for the most part, you can still get anywhere in 10 minutes — but that 10 minutes can cover rather diverse ground. Civil rights and Quaker history. Buddhist temples and Middle Eastern mosques. African bazaars, gated communities alongside apartment complexes that are home to refugees.

“If you look, or move, just a little bit,” said Spoma Jovanovic, a UNCG communications studies professor who grew up in Los Angeles and moved here in 2001, “you’re going to encounter all kinds of people living in close proximity to each other. You don’t have to go very far to run into somebody who is not like you.”

For two Jewish brothers who 100 years ago moved to Greensboro to build a textile revolution, “proximity” meant weaving cloth close to the source where cotton was grown, rather than shipping the raw material north.

But for the town that grew up around Cone Mills, proximity came to mean something deeper: the need for different races and faiths to live close together. That quintessential Southern journey is embodied in the flash points that make Greensboro a key city in the civil rights map of the 20th century.

These moments are linked closely to the presence of six college campuses in Greensboro, including the Quaker-run Guilford College, the former Woman’s College (now UNCG) and two historically black campuses, N.C. A&T and Bennett College .

This last small liberal arts college — often compared to a black, southern Vassar — led a critical awakening in Greensboro to the need, and the means, to dismantle the Jim Crow system of segregation.

By the late 1930s, the Bennett women organized a little-known community boycott of downtown movie theaters. In 1958, a speech at Bennett by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired two of the four future A&T freshmen who led a series of planned, sustained lunch counter sit-ins at the Elm Street Woolworth’s. It is being turned into a museum to commemorate the protests that sparked a chain reaction nationally.

Finding truth in the past

On the flip side, there is no marker or exhibit to recall Greensboro’s next flash point on the civil rights map — the shooting deaths of five anti-Klan demonstrators, and wounding of another 10 on Nov. 3, 1979, at a street corner in a public housing complex.

However, in May, a private commission released a historical account of the event and its aftermath. This came out of a process that made Greensboro the first community in the United States to undertake a truth and reconciliation process similar to what South Africa went through after the end of apartheid.

Although a majority of city officials dismissed that process as being overly focused on the past, Greensboro has shown a remarkable, unofficial ability to integrate its past identity into the present.

Even with the continuing demise of three of the area’s biggest industries — textiles, tobacco and furniture — a group of private foundations and entrepreneurs have resurrected the long-neglected center city into a popular entertainment district.

Meanwhile, long-vacant warehouses are seeing new life as artists’ studios, and the massive, defunct Guilford Mills on West Market is about to re-open as an international mall leased to dozens of ethnic businesses, a major project itself bankrolled by a Korean immigrant with a rags-to-riches tale.

This isn’t the “proximity” that the textile barons seized upon at the opening of the 20th century. For Greensboro, the global shift is foremost local — not looking to bigger cities for answers that can be found right here.

“There’s not this darkness over everything you find in so many cities,” said Jovanovic, the communications professor. “Even in the poorest neighborhoods, there is this kind of joyousness.”

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