Wandering Billy

Endings and Beginnings

A lost garden on market, skateboard heaven, and a revolutionary rebirth

By Billy Eye

“Against her ankles as she trod; The lucky buttercups did nod.” — Jean Ingelow

To neighbors and passers-by she was a mysterious, reclusive 85-year old spinster in a red hat puttering around an implausible oasis. Clipping multitudes of boxwoods, taming nandina, trimming azaleas, rounding off the pair of 8-foot high bushy yews standing like leafy sentinels barricading one of the city’s grittier retail corridors, Rosemary Barker had known these lush surroundings since childhood. Hers was a Gaian struggle against the inexorability of time and limitations of old age, preserving what greenery she could at Greensboro’s own Grey Gardens, the last elegant home and grounds remaining on West Market Street just beyond Starmount Forest.

Rosemary Barker grew up in the 1930s scurrying around these very hedges, celebrating birthdays with her brother and sister under the pitched-roof gazebo that still stands resolutely beside a stone fireplace in the backyard. Her extended playgrounds were the untamed woods, creeks and fields cradling the lovely two-story decorative Craftsman-style farmhouse she grew up in, situated as it was well outside city limits.

After her parents passed away, Rosemary continued residing here while becoming known to generations of school kids as Miss Barker, a stern but fondly remembered 5th grade teacher at Allen Jay, Elementary School in the 1950s before transferring to Bessemer and Erwin Elementary in the ’60s then Lindley Jr. High in the ’70s. The home remained hidden in plain sight while all around, grocery chains, auto stores and fast food joints paved paradise to populate West Market’s retail runway. As a result, her 4-acre habitat found itself boxed in by the razor-wired USPS carrier facility on one side and a sprawling Colonial Apartments subdivision to the rear.

Today, unrestrained bushes and shrubs, amassing in mammoth proportions, shield the property’s deep backyard. Trees of nearly every indigenous species form a canopy over the gravel drive leading to a two-story garage that pitches precariously forward, enveloping on all sides the weathered house, its paint peeling, its inviting wraparound front porch warped and worn but still sturdy.

I was unacquainted with Rosemary Barker, never heard of her until my unexpected Wednesday wandering skidded a bit too close to trespassing after noticing the first floor of this once-splendid home boarded up. Sadly, I discovered Miss Barker’s memorial service had been held just weeks earlier. Given the commercial possibilities of this lot — after every trace of the gentility and charm of a forgotten era is bulldozed and carted unceremoniously away — it’s perhaps inevitable that this verdant locale where breezes once whistled softly through the pines, and the air was honeyed with the scents of wisteria and flowering pears, will one day reverberate with the words: “Welcome to Sonic.”

It wasn’t so long ago when skateboarders routinely shared stories of downtown police officers strong-arming them while they were in motion, sending riders and boards flying in opposite directions. Today, there’s a newfound respect for the sport. Once construction taking place on Hill Street between Green Hill Cemetery and Latham Park Manor is completed, our city will be home to two of the most impressive skateboard parks in the state. One of them is an open-air courtyard with enormous, treated concrete bowls. A sister facility in Glenwood offers upward sloping ramps augmented by permanently mounted rails for grinding on.

In the planning stages for more than a decade, the project was spearheaded and brought to fruition thanks to photographer Fabio Camara, who sought design input from young enthusiasts such as  Chris Roberts, who tells me: “The people who are building those ramps are all skaters themselves so they know how to design them.” He explains that “when you’re a 10-year old skateboarder, you’ll have this super nice facility to practice on for years and years. We’ll have a lot of professional level skateboarders come out of the area in the next ten, fifteen years for sure.”

The Cone Mills Revolution Mill first spun into operation producing flannel in 1898 but after business began unraveling in the 1970s, the majority of the property began its long decent into ruin and neglect. So much so, that it was used for a rave I attended to usher in the new millennium; promoter Michael Driver selected a hidden portion of the mill to fire up a generator to run lights and turntables for the night. As the sun rose over the rubble, I swear I could hear ghostly footsteps of a thousand workers from past decades trundling to work.

Revolution Mill has been quietly undergoing an amazing metamorphosis, the beginning of what will very soon be an all-encompassing $100 million multi-modal complex with office, shopping, dining, and luxury living. They’re setting the stage for an explosion of art, music and commerce with open-air event spaces and spectacular studios adorned in exposed brick, original hardwood floors and massive windows where everyone from sculptors to furniture designers are already creating worlds of excitement as you read this. As you read this, Cugino Forno Pizza has opened in the mill’s former machine shop, and it promises to be a spectacular dining experience. You were looking for something new to do, right?  OH

Billy Eye is convinced no one reads this fine print; that makes you the exception that proves the rule, right?

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