By Tommy Hamzik
BURLINGTON, N.C. — Steve Huffman’s father, Dick, would see advertisements everywhere, whether it be the newspaper, on the radio, or on signs, that included the phrase, “Prestigious West Burlington.” And every time he saw those words strung together, he’d cringe.
“It always got on my father’s nerves,” Steve said. At the time, his dad was a booster for the athletics programs at Cummings High School and an employee at the Western Electric plant, both located in East Burlington. “It was like a slap in the face.”
Today, “prestigious” would not go far enough to describe the affluence of West Burlington in comparison to East Burlington. The two are opposites — one is the haven for business and neighborhoods with expensive homes and the other has much more modest homes and is a fairly dry spot for business in a town once dominated by textile mills. The socioeconomic divide seems to be deepening between the two areas, with the railroad tracks and Webb Avenue still serving as a border.
“When I was growing up, the east side of town was a great area,” said Huffman, who’s worked at newspapers in North Carolina for 30 years, including six spent full-time at the Burlington Times-News. “It is sad to see all this happening.”
The stereotypes exist, but aren’t always recognized by people on the east side. Rather, many people who live in East Burlington are fond of the area. In return, it becomes more of a perception problem.
Home can be ‘home sweet home’ for those who live on either ‘side of the tracks’ and pride lives in all
Jauron Holman, 32, has lived in East Burlington all his life, and that means something to him. His involvement at Cummings High School, his alma mater, is something he takes pride in.
He says he’s never felt like living here has held him back. In fact, he said he didn’t even realize growing up that he was in what’s perceived as an economically challenged part of town.
“I don’t know if the people in my neighborhood felt underprivileged,” Holman said. “It didn’t come up much. We understood there was a difference, but it wasn’t something we felt was a disadvantage.”
Holman graduated from Cummings in 2000, went to college and taught physical education at Broadview Middle School. He returned to Cummings in 2006 as an assistant football coach.
He took over last year as the head football coach. He also teaches physical education at Cummings.
“When I went to buy my first house, I bought it on this side of town. It’s comfortable. It feels like a community.” — Jauron Holman
Holman said the biggest change in East Burlington and at Cummings High School in this lifetime has been the demographics. The Hispanic population has grown considerably, while the White population has declined.
He said he was recently in a parent-teacher conference in which he needed a translator because the parents spoke Spanish and no English.
“Still, a lot of things have stayed the same,” Holman said. “As far as economic growth, I haven’t seen a lot of changes.”
He enjoys living, working and coaching in East Burlington. There isn’t anything that could change that.
“When I went to buy my first house, I bought it on this side of town,” Holman said. “It’s comfortable. It feels like a community.”
Real estate price comparison tells a story of people’s perceptions
Huffman grew up near North Ashland Drive, just off Graham Hopedale Rosd. He and a group of boys his age who lived on the same end of the street would peel off into the woods during the day and play games like army. When they got a little older, they acquired newspaper routes and would ride up to the 7/11 to get Slurpees.
The area around where Huffman lived is now a quiet neighborhood filled with brick houses. Areas just to the east of there, east of downtown Burlington aren’t as quiet, and many houses have boarded windows and unkempt yards.
Property taxes in Alamance County are among the lowest in the state. On the east side of the tracks in Burlington homes are smaller and have fewer bedrooms and bathrooms with extremely low taxes. Houses of approximately the same size sell for much more on the west side of the tracks, a reflection of perceived value.
Many of the homes for sale on the east side are real estate foreclosures.
Huffman recalls camping out near the Haw River with a friend in the second grade. “It’s a different world right now,” Huffman said. “We didn’t think anything of it. I had a real good time growing up there. It was a good place back then.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Huffman was growing up, a lot of companies started downsizing and the divide became increasingly sharper.
With booming Cum-Park Plaza as a prime shopping center in the county and many popular stores and shops located around there, East Burlington was a hot spot. Over the past few decades the business momentum, new home construction and other development has come on the West Burlington side and Cum-Park Plaza is fairly defunct.
“Nobody really has any reason to go over there to the east side to do business any more,” said Walter Boyd, a retired lawyer who grew up in West Burlington and is a historian of sorts for Alamance County. “There’s nothing to pull people from West Burlington.”
When you take a drive through neighborhoods in East Burlington, some yards and driveways feature cars without wheels, and abandoned buildings are more common than they are near Davis Street and Fountain Place just the other side of the tracks in the historic district of West Burlington.
When you drive down Church Street in East Burlington you can spot signs for businesses that are no longer there, places like Cox Toyota and Kirk’s Motor Court.
Burlington was a mill town even before it officially came into being as a city in 1893. According to Boyd, the booming textile mills straddled the line between the East and West parts of town. The mills, during their early years, employed only whites.
When some of the mills were moved or closed due to changes in the economics of the textile business over the past few decades and the impact of global trade, the workers had to move somewhere else to find work. Boyd said they moved West.
“The idea of East and West Burlington didn’t come about until after World War I,” Boyd said. “Most of the mill workers lived on the East side of the tracks. After World War I is pretty much when the suburbs came around. Most of the mill owners already lived in that area, and they started spreading out west.”
Western Electric opened a plant in East Burlington shortly after World War II, which brought jobs to the East side and provided a business boost to the area. But it closed its doors in 1991, further depleting the area.
The Williams versus Cummings high school rivalry began in the 1970s
When Cummings High School opened in 1970 on the east side of town, it seemed to have the potential to rival well-established Walter Williams High School on the west side.
It was a big deal around town the first time Cummings beat Williams in football in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 people. At the time, Cummings still played its home football games at Williams because it didn’t have its own stadium.
Holman doesn’t think the rivalry has the status it had back in the 1990s when he was growing up, partially because of the success of other high school teams in the county.
While Cummings won football state championships in 2002 and 2006, Western Alamance High School, located in Elon, went to the state title game each year from 2004–2007, finally winning it in 2007. Eastern Alamance High School in Mebane has made deep playoff runs each of the past three years.
“Cummings versus Williams doesn’t carry as much clout, it doesn’t carry as much excitement,” Holman said. “One of the big reasons is that Eastern Alamance and Western Alamance have been very successful. That rivalry has taken the place of Cummings and Williams.”
The Cavaliers have their own football stadium now, but the school isn’t on par with Williams in size. Williams trounces Cummings in enrollment, 1,187 to 874, and is classified as a 3-A school by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, whereas Cummings is a 2-A school.
In the latest school report cards assessed by the state, both Williams and Cummings received Cs, but Williams had a higher score than Cummings. Williams has nearly as many teachers with master’s degrees (34) as Cummings has teachers with bachelor’s degrees (39).
Huffman recalls that every winter at Cum-Park Plaza, a large area in the parking lot would be cleared out for people to meet Santa Claus. Santa would parachute in from the sky, and greet the crowds to a rousing applause. One year, Santa took a tumble and landed on a car hood. Another year, it was windy and he ended up landing in the woods surrounding the shopping center.
“They called the Burlington police, but they wouldn’t come because the plaza was the end of city limits,” Huffman said. “So they called the Haw River police, who brought a ladder out there.”
Now, the booming business that used to charge the area at Sellars Mill Road and North Church Street can be a dark, uninhabited spot.
Cum-Park Plaza doesn’t frequent the crowd it did when it opened in August 1963. The sign near the road isn’t lit up at night.
The shopping center, the first in Burlington, is named after its founders and two brothers-in-law, Carl Parks and Hugh Cummings. It’s less than a mile from Cummings High School, also named after Cummings.
Nowadays, Food Lion and Rose’s — the only original store remaining — are the most popular shops at the shopping center. There’s also a Cum-Park Grill, a Chinese restaurant and a Wendy’s.
Perhaps the biggest revenue producer in East Burlington is the Walmart Supercenter on South Graham Hopedale Road, not far from Cum-Park Plaza and right down the street from Fairchild Park and Burlington Athletic Stadium.
A number of fast-food joints — McDonald’s, Burger King, Biscuitville — and a Dollar Tree store are nearby, around the intersection of South Graham Hopedale Road and North Church Street. Most of East Burlington’s businesses are collected in this small area.
“They have pretty good businesses there, but not the level of Dillard’s, Belk or J.C. Penney,” said Don Bolden, editor emeritus of the Burlington Times-News. “Those stores aren’t over there. If some development could go over and put those stores in, it’d be a big boost to the area.”
The Holly Hill Mall, located on Huffman Mill Road in West Burlington, opened not long after Cum-Park Plaza, in 1969 and provided the other side of town with its own place to shop. It kept West Burlington residents on the west side of town, and was the first major blow to Cum-Park Plaza’s popularity.
Next, in 2007, Alamance Crossing opened in the far west part of Alamance County. Top national retailers, including Target and Dillard’s and later BJ’s Wholesale Club and Kohl’s, further diminished Cum-Park Plaza and the need to head to the east side of town for business.
“If you look at the history of the town, like many towns across the country, they grow from east to west,” Bolden said. “That happened in Burlington. You had downtown Burlington and Cum-Park Plaza. When downtown began expanding, it didn’t expand toward Cum-Park Plaza. It went toward Holly Hill Mall. Then Alamance Crossing came, and that was another move west.”
Today, Huffman lives just outside of Elon. His mother still lives on the East side, not far from where he grew up. Many of his former neighborhood friends have left. One ended up buying the house he lived in as a kid. “He was the only one who stayed,” Huffman said.
In a way, Huffman’s move is reflective of the Burlington story as a whole in the last half-century.
Burlington Mayor Ronnie Wall, a Cummings graduate of the early 1970s and an East Burlington native, has made an effort to help rejuvenate the area he used to call home, but no to avail thus far. But with the majority of businesses gone to West Burlington or extinguished entirely, it’s difficult to bring it to the level it used to be.
Bolden said the best way to improve the area is to add more businesses, which would in turn create more jobs. Holman acknowledged the economy could improve on the east side, but overall is satisfied with living there.
Regardless, reviving East Burlington is going to come down to one thing — money.
“The money has all gone to the west side of town. Everything follows the money.” — Steve Huffman
About the multimedia journalist:
Tommy Hamzik is studying multimedia journalism at Elon University in North Carolina. He is the managing editor for Elon’s student newspaper, The Pendulum. He also served as Pendulum sports editor for a year. He does freelance reporting forthe Burlington Times-News and is a 2015 sports intern for The (Newport News) Daily Press. He aspires to be a sports writer.