Part II: Character Studies

Like a shimmering oasis, Greensboro emerges practically out of nowhere. We turn the corner and could almost be in Williamsburg, except for the fact that it’s 2 PM on a Thursday and every store is already closed: Pie Lab on the corner, bamboo bike pieces in the windows, the beautifully furnished HERO building throwing shadows against the sun. As we pile in around a homey table, the brown rice, goat cheese, grilled vegetables, and greens that await us add even further to the surrealism, coming after five straight days of brisket upon pulled pork with a side of stuffed oysters.

The woman providing us with this nourishment is Pam Dorr, and this is what she does: nourishes.

Photo by Patrick Bresnan

Those stores, in this place so very far from Brooklyn, do not serve as icons of hipness. Rather, they are bringing this small Alabama town back to life, piece by piece. From a CBS article: “Dorr has created 11 small businesses and 50 new jobs. About $15 million in profits since 2006 have built affordable housing for hundreds of people in seven counties.”

And yet, those impressive statistics only barely capture what Pam and her incredible team and community members have built in Greensboro. That sort of hope — that tried and true American narrative of the comeback — that’s pretty much something you can only feel in the air.

Terrance carries the energy of someone who is planning something big, meaningful, and possibly a little risky. Coming from the heady buzz of bus logistics, I empathize deeply with his calm above the churn — that ability to take time out for a real conversation when there are a million little details pushing the revolving door in your head.

He is new guard: socially-minded, young, black, passionate about change. But he is also thinking diligently about how to engage the establishment in moving forward. This past Saturday, he and deployed the tool of imagination for the purposes of economic development, bringing together two dozen vendors in vacant buildings on Broad Street to paint a picture of a vibrant, viable downtown.

Listening. From left to right: Terrance DeShaun, Patrick Bresnan, Watson Hartsoe, A.J. Crenshaw

As he outlines the work ahead, Terrance is not naive — he knows that simply establishing a vision isn’t enough to peel back the status quo. Inertia is just so easy, particularly in a neighborhood that has been subject to the forces of withdrawal and urban disinvestment seen all across the country. But in learning from him during a gallery discussion on disruption, race relations, and more, it is clear that the pathway is already starting to take shape for him and the others in Mobile who are clamoring for change.

We walk up the ramp to Thomas Sayre’s studio in downtown Raleigh, and all of a sudden the world goes slow. The artist is playing in the dirt, something I can’t remember ever enjoying as a child (I always preferred to be inside with my books) — but now all of a sudden seems incredibly appealing:

Photo by Chris Chavez

I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I do know this: when you meet someone with a true connection to nature, who is able to talk about his incredible art without any hint of pretension, who speaks authentically about the disconnect between the people we want to be and the people we are, you sit down and listen.

Visual, physical art has always been outside of my immediate grasp. I am vehemently non-spatial, to the point of constant klutziness (seriously, ask any of my friends or family — they have endless stories). So when Thomas shows us around his workspace filled with metals, clay, and wood, it is like watching television in a foreign language.

But I do understand release and reflection.

I was a terrible sleeper as an infant. The only thing my exhausted parents could do to lull me into sleep was strap me into the carseat and drive up and down the hills of our Bay Area town — as soon as the tires settled into their rhythm, I was out.

As a slightly older child, I grew painfully shy. I hated loud sounds — which in the USA of the 21st century is somewhat unfortunate. One place I always felt at peace, though, was inside of a notebook: putting words together or saving up questions to be asked at a later time.

So, being on the road and writing. These things are my art; this bus trip a latest piece. It continues to grow as we go: messy, and wonderful.

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