Friday, May 01, 2009

What ails Gastonia - one view

It's always been a mystery to me why downtown Gastonia hasn't economically revived like Salisbury, Mooresville, Concord and other downtowns around here. Last night I ran into a former Gastonia City Hall-type who gave me an interesting insight, as we were chatted over wine and hors d'oeuvres. Here's a paraphrase what the person said:
It's all politics. And its roots go deep into Gastonia's milltown culture.
A little history, in case you didn't live through it or know about it: That culture lured thousands of dirt-poor Carolinas farmers to towns to work at textile and cotton mills during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mill culture permeated this region, including large chunks of Charlotte. Workers made more money than at subsistence farming, but child labor was common. Whole families had to work in the mills to earn enough to live. Many of the mill owners pretty much controlled everything: They supplied workers' houses, owned stores and in some cases even told the workers where to go to church. Mill workers were despised as "mill trash." It wasn't as bad as slavery, but it was a lot closer to economic slavery than many people realize. When some workers tried to unionize or held strikes to push for better wages and conditions, mill owners in some cases brought in gunmen. Gastonia was the scene of one of the bloodiest strikes, when a police chief and a union organizer were killed. (Charlotte has its own bloody labor history, and there appears to be an unspoken civic agreement here to ignore it.)
How does this relate to Gastonia's downtown development? It's worth remembering that at one time, Gaston County boasted more spindles than any other county in America. Mill history runs deep. My City Hall-type companion opined that city government there was perceived by many Gastonians to be like the old mill owners: We know what's good for you, just do what we say. Rightly or wrongly, there's resistance and resentment among the citizenry. And there's an oblivion to that situation on the part of some city officials.
It's a shame. Gastonia has the makings of a great downtown. Maybe, by 2009, Gastonians can consciously decide to change the old patterns, put aside old resentments and biases, and focus – together – on reinvigorating downtown.


Anonymous said...

I agree with the author of this article. Although I do not go downtown a lot or should I say at all......this town is so "unattractive" I should say. And I say this for lack of a better wordage.
I oriinally moved from Charlotte because getting a house here was a lot cheaper for me. I do not participate in the Gaston County activities at all. I feel that many narrow-minded people live in this "Ghost Town" and they resent anyone who is trying to grow and prosper. I believe that if the views of the city changed starting with the city officials, maybe they could turn it around.
Being form a larger city initially this is just a quiet place to live for now.

max jolly said...

Maybe someday Gastonians will forget the bad memories from downtown. I remember my parents having to rush from work in the mill to the stores downtown because the stores all closed in the afternoon. My parents said the reason for them all closing early was so they could tell the millworker from the more prominent customers. They felt that they were treated as second class citizens and the probably were. Dad said that when the shopping centers came with their extended hours that things changed. People then had time to go home and shower and dress before going to the stores. Thus they felt that they were no longer being looked down upon by the store operators because it was harder to tell the difference between the millworker or anyone else.

TJ Stocker III said...

After growing up literally three blocks down the street from downtown Gastonia and being able to see the Rotary stage from my house, I must admit this was a problem I remember asking too. Gastonia's downtown is a hidden gem, a gold mine waiting to be discovered. What it needs to be successful is more than a weekly Downtown Alive! summer concert series (which by the way is a wonderful effort by Brian Bourne and the Downtown Development Corporation) or investment by local businesses (the City Dog was a wonderful business until its second owners ran it into the ground). It needs a city council that doesn't see it as a potential money maker and cash cow (closing off the parking lots behind Main Street and installing a fee service) and a citizenry that genuinely cares about seeing it succeed. It needs the love and pride that other cities have for their downtown districts. Its a shame the city council is trying to kill it with taxes and parking fees that no one wants to pay.

"TJ" Stocker III

Anonymous said...

Gastonia just hasn't found there niche yet, simple as that.

Anonymous said...

I worked in Gastonia for several years but lived in Charlotte. The thing that got me was the simple mindedness of most of the people. Their work ethic was great. They would do anything I asked without asking any questions. One of the men who worked for me explained that he was just glad to be working for a unionized company with great wages and benefits. He was from a family of textile workers.

Cato said...

Mill history runs deep. My City Hall-type companion opined that city government there was perceived by many Gastonians to be like the old mill owners: We know what's good for you, just do what we say. Rightly or wrongly, there's resistance and resentment among the citizenry.Interesting. On both sides of my family were independent entrepreneurs, with varying levels of success.

My attitude towards Charlotte's leadership (including its S. Tryon house organ) is pretty much the same as that of the descendants of those mill workers towards G-town's.

ason79 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Like Charlotte and other nearby communities, I'm afraid it takes people from the outside who are not burdened by the sins of the local past, to come in and make the change that is so desired by many. Gastonia has good roads, a cool radio station, the botanical gardens and lots of potential elsewhere. Unfortunately, an old guard mentality still hovers over this place like a black cloud.

ason79 said...

Yeah, I was born and raised in Gastonia. And yes, it really sucks. How can the east side, the closest to McAdenville and Belmont, look so attractve, at times, and downtown looks the same way it has looked since I was a kid? In my opinion, this city is one of the most non-progressive and racially segregated places in the piedmont region. Just look at the police departments throughout the entire county, there's no diversity whatsoever. And, it's not because people from diverse backgrounds aren't applying. Trust me, I know firsthand. The city is stuck in this mold. Also, as the years go by, this city is getting left farther and farther behind. How is it that Belmont understands this, but yet Gastoia doesn't?

Anonymous said...

Gaston County needs to attract more high-paying jobs. They need to stop relying on manufacturing jobs and try to build some Class-A office space to lure white collar jobs. Right now, there are too many poor people and rednecks and that does not make for a progressive city.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't help that the name of the city is "Gastonia". It just sounds like a crappy place.

Anonymous said...

Gastonia is a redneck refuge and the people there are content with that. That is the problem. Nothing is going to change if the people there like things just the way it is. Trashy people are going to live in a trashy place. They have to go somewhere, right?

Anonymous said...

I'm glad the author of this article chose to write about downtown Gastonia (because it really does need alot attention), but, in my opinion, her rationale for it's lack of success is completely off base. Sure, there have been some social/racial problems throughout Gastonia in the past, but downtown's continued demise really has nothing to do with these problems. Downtown failed with the expansion of malls and strip malls along Franklin boulevard. It's really more of a city planning problem and has nothing to do with the "good-ole boy" politics that the author suggests.

Of course there are some politics at play, but politics are influential in all towns and cities. Downtown Gastonia has failed because an almost complete lack of support. That huge railroad ditch hasn't helped either. From what I understand, they destroyed almost half of downtown when they excavated that monstrosity. On the bright side, plans are in the works to make downtown and the ditch more pedestrian friendly. This should help out alot in the wrong run. Additionally, things are beginning to look up and its possible that downtown will turn the corner within the next 5 years. Several new businesses and restaurants have moved into downtown recently, and 5-10 buildings have either been completely renovated or are scheduled for complete renovation in the next 5 years.

These are pretty "exciting" times (relatively speaking) in Gastonia these days, and I'm looking forward to witnessing downtown's revival. For now, it's not the best, but sure does have a lot of potential.

Thanks again to the author for writing about Gastonia. We aren't all rednecks by the way.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Gastonia in the 1950's when downtown was vibrant, especially on Saturdays. Downtown movie theaters--Lyric, State (watch out fot the rats), Temple and Webb--offered movies ranging from ten cents to twenty-five cents. There were THREE Tony's Ice Cream parlors, and an RO's competitor on Franklin Street called The Beacon.

Buses ran from all over town to downtown; you caught them for a dime and could get transfers to other routes. True, there were segretated water fountains at the Kress Dime Store and the train station and two separate high schools for whites and blacks. True, the owner of the Temple (by now the Center)Theater had black people arrested when they tried to enter his theater (he also owned the Webb), but the schools (Ashley and, by now, Hunter Huss), integrated peacefully.

The death knell for downtown began with the opening of the mall, carved out from M.A. Rhyne and Son's dairy land, and just behind WLTC. When Belk (then it was Belks) moved to the mall, you could feel downtown being put on a respitator. With the disappearance of Leon Schnieder's Department Store (233 West Main Avene, in the middle of the block..the first musical jingle for a downtore store), and the lamented closing of Sweetland's, and the eventual disappearance of three dime stores and four theaters, the maliase continued.

When the so-called Lawyers Building (I remember it as the National Bank of Commerce Building) and the red monster diagonally across the street emptied itself of all tenents, the stragulation was almost complete.

Yes, perhaps it's still the Mill Town culture that holds Gastonia back. But, I don't think so. It's just that our time came...and our time went. With stalwarts like the Penegars and others who maintain a strong face of hope, maybe downtown Gastonia will one day have some semblance of life. It's possible, but I'm not holding my breath.

rick b said...

I remember visiting Macrae, Georgia a few years ago and seeing beautiful little downtown buildings sitting empty while new strip shopping centers were springing up a mere mile away. I asked a local motel owner, whose family also operated motels in Monroe, why that was.

He told me that in Macrae, as in Monroe, a relatively small number of "old-timers" owned all the downtown buildings. These families owned the buildings "free and clear", and hence had little overhead and little financial burden from letting them sit empty.

He believed that they had an inflated idea of the properties' value, and were simply waiting for "the big score" rather than improving them and renting them at reasonable prices, or selling them. Meanwhile, the cost of keeping them empty was minimal.

Of course, the other big reason for the emptiness of some of these downtowns was mentioned by the last two "Anonymi": the idiocy of the monster strip shopping centers and "malls" built on easily accessible "bypasses" just a short distance from downtown.

It's happened in Macrae, it's happened in Monroe, and it's probably happened in Gastonia. I watch the Monroe City Council - a pretty good governing board, in my opinion - repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot by approving monster strip centers on Roosevelt Boulevard (originally built to be the "bypass"), not to mention one little strip center after another, incrementally further from downtown. I even watched them, a few years ago, approve a mega-strip-center with everything from motels to movie theaters at a future interchange of the new bypass (neither the strip center nor the "bypass" built yet) three miles from downtown. I can't imagine a better way to keep travelers on the bypass away from downtown: provide for their every need right at the interchange!

Mary has written frequently about the civic and economic damage wrought by this sort of idiotic "commercial sprawl", of course, and she gets bashed for it every maybe she just wanted to share an alternative explanation. The "Mill Owner" theory is certainly a valid and historically relevant possibility.

These problems with downtowns are usually not the result of just a single cause, of course. But I'd look toward the availability of alternative "big parking lot/big box" centers: the closer and more accessible they are to the residents who would normally shop downtown, the worse the damage they cause to downtown commerce will be.

Mary said...

Interesting how the history of a city influences its present; whether it be thousands of years, a hundred, or just four. It could be that the taxpayers of Gastonia don't want to spend the money and its elected leaders don't think they'd be re-elected if they spent the money anyway.

David McKnight said...

R. Gregg Cherry, the Gastonian who served as governor of North Carolina in the mid-20th Century, brought about dramatic improvements in medical and health care facilities across the Old North State. So there's no reason that Gastonia and the many diverse townships of Gaston County cannot contribute to the upbuilding of the Western Piedmont and the entire Carolinas region in the 21st Century.

As for the name Gastonia, it derives from Gaston, and the great North Carolinian for whom Gaston County was named was William Gaston, a distinguished judge who was from New Bern, the same town that is home to Gov. Beverly Perdue. Gaston also penned the state song, "Carolina."

Anonymous said...

The reason the “center” of towns large and small declined is because people demanded more product choices in one place as their income and mobility options (i.e. automobiles) expanded, and their free time contracted. The relatively tiny retail stores that had occupied “uptown” for eons just didn’t have the room to compete. Even a seven-story department store can’t out-convenience a one-story mega mart with plenty of free parking.

I grew up in a small village that was also a county seat. A very small number of old-time drugstores, diners, groceries, news rooms and small retail stores, located close to the courthouse, survive there to this day, thanks to the captive county government employees and jurors. But the rest of the original village has languished as residents one-stop shop at “bulk” stores on the outskirts of town. The town’s one-screen theater was the first to die. There were just not enough choices there for today’s consumers, and people forgot how to walk, so the quadrupaplex out side the town limits took advantage of the lack of appropriate uptown space.

Since, as Rick B notes, the owners of these white elephants have no incentive, business sense or foresight to address the problem, why not enable government to condemn the empty buildings en masse and buy the land? With acres of now vacant land for mega-stores and parking, give big box retailers an incentive to build "uptown". (And no, I'm not talking about high-end big-box boutiques like the ill-fated Home Depot in Charlotte).

The specialty strip-mall stores can then take over the buildings that haven’t been condemned and removed. Voila, we’ve now revived small-town “uptown” and saved valuable green space. And once again the surrounding neighborhoods are convenient, desirable places to live.

Of course, you just can’t recycle 10 acres of uptown and expect it to accommodate all the choices people demand, so it may be necessary to raze more than just outdated commercial structures. But that still presents the opportunity to develop denser housing close to the revitalized uptowns.

Problem is, we’ve waited too long. The stores that really attract throngs have already become entrenched in the ‘burbs.

consultant said...

History does indeed run deep.

I suspect it will take mostly new people and young people not from the area to turn the town around. This is not unusual. Often locals get stuck in a rut.

Anonymous said...

Yes Charlotteans have that same mentality. Except it is no longer mill bosses; they have been replaced by our city council and the likes of "center city partners".

As someone else mentioned, another problem is the small group of people that own downtown buildings (in that case Macrae, Georgia). That is also true of Charlotte. Look at the number of properties downtown, then look at the number of owners.

Alicia Demeny said...

The author of this article has failed to mention that there are over 8 bright, nice new businesses that have come to the downtown area,with more coming soon. Included in these great new places are restaurants and coffee shops, a cool new pub, boutiques and salons, nice office complexes and condos. A photography studio and event center...and more. Most of all of them doing major upgrades and renovations to the old buildings. These improvements are bringing out the beautiful old exposed brick, hardwoods and architecture of these once glorious structures. The author of this article also failed to use a photograph that is recent. The photograph used shows a building that no longer exsist and a lovely park is at this very moment is being built in its place. As an employee in the downtown area I am excited about the potenital and positive growth. As a women I feel totally safe walking down the street to the new restaurants and pub. Just last week the downtown area hosted an art crawl that included many of the businesses, live music on the street and wine tastings. The general statement by over the 300 in attendance was that it was a great event and that it should happen more often. If it's been six years or six months since you have been downtown you owe it to yourself to visit again before believing a bias article that simple focuses on the past and politics. Those of us downtown are focused on growth and the future.

Anonymous said...

Millworkers were the backbone for the growth of Gastonia. Without the mills and their workers and the
normal evolution of these people
Gastonia would be no larger than any other town in the county. Mill
people built the community just as
bankers, lawyers, educators, and service people. A community is no
better than the people who make it up. When we lost the mill villages
and the downtown we lost our sense of community. We have a lot of work to do to revitalize the downtown area and the spirit of
the Gastonia community.

Anonymous said...

i grew up in gastonia in the '50's and remember taking the bus downtown.
There was a wonderful bakery on main st.....

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