Marilyn Poole dreams that one day more of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive will look like the much-heralded Southside development near downtown — the end of the street bustling with business and new life.
On her end of the street, in the Ole Asheboro community and beyond, condemned and boarded-up houses still dot the landscape and prostitutes sometimes stroll in the daylight.
“It hurts me to see a great man like Martin Luther King and they name the street after him and stuff like this is going on,” Poole said, resting on her Julian Street porch after a long workday. “There should be stores and everything. This is a perfect place for businesses. It’s embarrassing.”
Soon Poole’s dream may become a reality. New Zion Missionary Baptist Church broke ground last month for a sanctuary and family life center as part of a $24 million development project that will include housing and businesses on a lot once overgrown with weeds. Church members hope it will become a hub of activity, with a gymnasium for neighborhood children and possibly a day care center for senior citizens. Another developer, also investing millions, expects to break ground in early 2007 on living and work spaces along MLK, with perhaps a corner drug store and a sit-down restaurant.
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All this construction is part of a partnership between the city and community to develop land bordering both sides of MLK, from the bridge over Lee Street, where Southside ends, to Douglas Street. It would complement exis ting businesses in the path.
For nearly a decade, the city of Greensboro, its Redevelopment Commission and Poole’s community have worked on plans to re-create one of the most blighted spots in the city. At the same time, New Zion outgrew its sanctuary on MLK near Florida Street and began looking for land, eventually finding out about one of the prime pieces of property in the Ole Asheboro plan.
“They certainly had high standards over the development proposals,” city planner Dan Curry said of the community’s involvement. “They told the church: ‘We aren’t just looking for a church. We are looking for an integrated development.’ The church came back with … residential developments, commercial developments, a very skillfully put-together proposal.”
The 108-year-old church, which moved to MLK in 1964, had plenty of options for land outside downtown, but members wanted to stay close by, where they had put down roots.
“We asked ourselves, ‘How many of our members who had been with our church from the start would not be able to attend because we were in McLeansville or northeast Guilford County or somewhere else?’ ” church deacon Anthony Jones said.
Dorothy Hyde, 86, grew up at New Zion. She helped create the church food pantry decades ago.
“Anywhere else might not have felt like home,” said Hyde, whose granddaughter also attends New Zion.
Church members continued to see Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, with its successes and problems, as part of their mission field.
“Primarily, we are in the soul-winning business,” Jones said.
With its decision, the church bucked a trend.
“A lot of those churches are moving out to the suburbs, abandoning the inner city. … Here you’ve got a church that wants to make a whole new investment,” Curry said. “I think it says a lot about the neighborhood, that they’re willing to invest many millions of dollars building a facility in that location.”
Even those who live nearby but haven’t kept up with the planning have a sense of what’s coming.
“It would be a big improvement,” Michelle Deberry said recently as she sat on her porch near Bellevue and Bragg streets, across from where the sanctuary will be built. Deberry’s neighborhood is a middle-class enclave surrounded by a hodge podge of restored homes and boarded-up houses still in need of repair.
A few streets over, Willie Henderson agrees. “I think we’re all happy about this,” he said.
Instead of waiting for a developer to buy land and build something it didn’t want in this area, the city began purchasing vacant and deteriorating lots more than two decades ago and working more closely with residents . The city has helped rehabilitate more than 200 homes in the area .
Fa rther down the street, New Zion had begun buying up old houses in hopes of expanding at its current site in the 1300 block of MLK. The church later found that with city regulations, the biggest sanctuary it could build there would be no bigger than the one it already had. Members, including Jones and the Rev. William Wright, the church’s pastor, began attending the Ole Asheboro Planning Advisory Committee , where they heard about the development plan for the area — which was even more high-profile with the success of Southside.
“With this ‘downtown movement,’ now everyone wants into the game,” Jones said .
C ommunity activist Nettie Coad said it was a long time coming. For years, people have come with promises and programs.
“They do what they do until the money’s gone, and then they’re gone and you are in the same situation as before they came,” Coad said.
New Zion had shown it was community-minded: When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People discontinued its after-school program, for example, the church took it over and subsidized the $25 weekly cost, though most of the children later left when the public schools began offering after- school enrichment programs. The church continues to operate its food pantry and holds community cookouts. Soon it will offer a flu clinic.
Yet, the church still had to overcome skepticism.
“Strangely enough, some groups ... felt the church had not been there for them,” said Wright, the pastor for 27 years.
Jones, the deacon, was baptized at New Zion in 1964 at the age of 13.
“We had to establish that we’d been there all the time, that we’d been there in the good times and the bad times,” Jones said. “A lot of people who are in that community now weren’t there in 1964 — but we were.”
Some questioned the church’s ownership of boarded-up houses, bought for the once planned expansion.
David Black, chairman of New Zion’s deacon board, says the church is in a holding pattern because the property eventually could be used as a learning center, and the houses could become part of that project.
Others in the community questioned whether it was prudent for the church, with no experience, to develop the residential and commercial properties along MLK. The church couldn’t just buy the plots it needed because the city wanted the property developed in larger parcels for continuity.
People also were apprehensive about so much of the land being used for a church campus.
“Some of the people wanted grocery stores, laundro mats, but as we continued in the meeting and people saw the spiritual side ... people said, ‘There’s also room for a church,’ “ Jones said. “That acceptance was important to us.”
In the end, both the community and the church got what they wanted, with the church reaching out to developer TND Partners of Durham to take the lead in developing the retail and residential portions .
“Instead of just building houses, what our company does is build communities,” said Benjamin Quinn, project director for the company, which turned around a once-dilapidated area near Duke University.
Coad thinks the church/community partnership benefi ted everyone.
“All of these things are working congruently — not isolated here and isolated there,” she said. “I wouldn’t necessarily call the church an anchor — I would call it a complement.
“The important piece here is that they became a part of the community process for revitalization.”
Contact Nancy H. McLaughlin
at 373-7049 or nmclaughlin