A Field Guide to
Greensboro, NC

South Elm Neighborhood


Our society privileges seeing over our other senses: seeing is believing. Yet sight is limited, we rarely see more than what we expect to see. Seeing what is before us is colored by our perspectives, beliefs, and expectations. The stories we hear and tell ourselves most often determine what we can see. Without this selection we would be overwhelmed by sight, lost in the movement of branches and paths of pedestrians, caught up in every advertisement and passing automobile.

Biology, language, culture, and memories become part of our individual identities and shape the way we see the world. In the same way that different individuals perceive the world differently based on their histories, different human institutions like academic disciplines, legal systems, corporations, and even nation-states have developed different frameworks for seeing the world. Each of these frameworks in turn shapes the way individual humans see and vice-versa.

An empty lot is part of the narratives a city tells itself and others, but its emptiness creates a space to reconsider sight. Here in the lot there is a stutter in the city’s story and the stories we tell ourselves about it. On first glance, an empty lot is weeds, litter, a gap in the productive activity of the city. This ‘unused’ urban space can recast and question all the city’s activities that occur around it.

See What I Mean?

A government must see in a way that helps it collect taxes, maintain infrastructure, enforce order and support itself. Legal systems must see specific situations in ways that allow them to apply general laws. Insurance companies must see in terms of risk and probabilities.

These different means of seeing give these different institutions their power but they also limit their ability to see holistically. What a developer might see a slum a resident might see a robust neighborhood with underfunded infrastructure.

With practice, we can ‘wear’ an institution’s ways of seeing, wearing different ways of seeing for different purposes, though our own perspective will always affect our sight. Careful attention to the limitations of our personal and institutional ways of seeing offers a deeper vision of the world and can help us avoid costly making decisions based on singular vision.

Bumblebee polinates clover in 527 and a half South Elm lot

Urban Ecologies

When we look at an empty lot from an ecological perspective we can see habitat, an oxygen producer, sanctuary for wildlife, carbon storage and its place in a larger network of living and mechanical systems (Points of Interest #2, #3, and #5 on site map). A bee might see a concentrated source of pollen, while a city might see an empty lot as underutilized land, a potential safety risk, a temporary greenspace and many other things. An empty lot acts as green infrastructure by absorbing rainwater which reduces the load on the storm drain system and helps prevent flooding.

1925 Sanborn Map of Greensboro 27 and a half South Elm lot

Sanborn Maps

The Sanborn maps were designed to assist fire insurance agents in determining the degree of hazard associated with a particular property. They show the size, shape, and construction of dwellings, commercial buildings, and factories as well as firewalls, locations of windows and doors, sprinkler systems, and types of roofs (from the U.S. Library of Congress website).

Our maps are made for the purpose of showing at a glance the character of the fire insurance risks of all buildings. Our customers depend on the accuracy of our publications, and rely upon the information supplied, incurring large financial risks without making personal examinations of the properties.
SANBORN MAP AND PUBLISHING CO. Surveyors’ Manual for the Exclusive Use and Guidance of Employees

Bank of Greensboro Historical Photo

Bank of Greensboro

When the Bank of South Greensboro (across Elm Street from Point of Interest #2 on site map) was built in 1903, many people still kept their savings in cash, hidden away at home. The front of its building (the building’s facade) at 524 South Elm, like many banks of the era, was designed to persuade: deposit money here instead, behind solid stone and imposing columns. The authoritative architecture advertised the safety of the deposits. Unfortunately, the appearance of protection was not enough to shield the bank from the Great Depression. When the Bank of South Greensboro closed it paid its clients 65 cents for each dollar they had deposited.

Photo of Warnesville from Greensboro North Carolina, Otis L. Hairston Jr.


Warnersville (Point of Interest #4 and #5 and on site map), is the first African American neighborhood in Greensboro. White Quaker Yardley Warner purchased 35 acres of land south of downtown in 1867, and then resold the land in pieces to African Americans who had just been freed from slavery and were looking for an opportunity to build their own lives. Over the next hundred years, Warnersville grew into a vibrant, mixed-income neighborhood with a thriving business district and hundreds of families.

When the Redevelopment Commission of Greensboro decided to declare Warnersville a blighted neighborhood and relocate the residents so that the land could be redeveloped, many in Warnersville disagreed. The historic community still has strong pride and a presence in Greensboro, but after the dispersal of redevelopment it was never the same.

Photo of Warnersville Houses

A Move Up: Final Relocation Report for Warnersville Projects, Redevelopment Commission of Greensboro, 1967

Photo of Warnersville Houses

A Move Up: Final Relocation Report for Warnersville Projects, Redevelopment Commission of Greensboro, 1967

Photo of Warnersville Houses

A Move Up: Final Relocation Report for Warnersville Projects, Redevelopment Commission of Greensboro, 1967

When you think about poverty, we in a sense were probably in a poverty area, but you never knew it. Never. Because you always ate good. You always had something that was there for you. You never worried about those things.

Courtesy of Warnersville exhibition, Greensboro Historical Museum

We didn’t want to move. You know, we all loved that neighborhood; everybody over there loved that neighborhood. It was like family, a community family.

Courtesy of Warnersville exhibition, Greensboro Historical Museum

It was a good thing because it improved the neighborhood. It made it more diverse. But you always missed the old neighborhood, and the camaraderie people had.

Courtesy of Warnersville exhibition, Greensboro Historical Museum

We really fought redevelopment. Because our history was being torn down.

Courtesy of Warnersville exhibition, Greensboro Historical Museum

The neighborhood overall is a good neighborhood. It’s really quiet. Nothing really happens here, it’s just really really really quiet and there’s, like, no one to hang around with. A lot of old people are moving in now.

High school student, ROTC member and current Warnersville resident

Warnersville Notice from 1962 Progress Report

The Warnersville Project

The Redevelopment Commission of Greensboro was incorporated in 1951 to conduct studies, formulate plans, and implement redevelopment projects for blighted areas within the city. It is established under and regulated by North Carolina General Statutes and the Greensboro Development Ordinance. They are currently working on a redevelopment project on South Elm Street to revive and integrate south Greensboro. (From RCG website at

The Warnersville Project Late in 1960, an ambitious plan for the renewal of a major part of Greensboro’s slums was drawn. The Warnersville General Neighborhood Renewal Plan, as it was called, was to transform 338 acres of land from a random agglomeration of dilapidated shotguns and worn out residencies to a brand new neighborhood, planned to last.

The Warnersville neighborhood contained nearly 40% of the City’s most seriously blighted housing. When the last project is completed, 980 substandard structures will have been replaced by new housing, churches, shopping and recreation areas, and streets.

Eminent Domain

Eminent Domain is the seizure of private property for public use. The United States has always had eminent domain but the 5th and 14th amendment, as well as several U.S. Supreme Court cases, have limited its application and insisted on compensation and that seized land be for public use.

In 1954 the Berman vs. Parker U.S. Supreme Court case confirmed an expansive interpretation of eminent domain that allowed the District of Columbia to take and raze blighted structures to remove slums from the city. This precedent lead to urban renewal initiatives across the South that often disproportionately affected African American communities.

In Greensboro during the 1950s and early 1960s the Warnersville Redevelopment Project displaced a community of mostly African Americans from a historic neighborhood. Today the use of eminent domain continues. It is rarely applied with the same boldness as the projects that destroyed African American communities across the South and more often used to acquire commercial properties. Greensboro recently used eminent domain to purchase the Cascade Saloon.

The Cascade Saloon

The Cascade Saloon at 408/410 S Elm Street (Point of Interest #1 on site map), built around 1896, is one of the oldest buildings in the Downtown Greensboro National Register Historic District, but has been empty and in a state of disrepair for some time. The building is inside the 200 foot right-of-way claimed by the North Carolina Railroad Co., who require that if the building is demolished, no structure can be rebuilt. To avoid a gap in the fabric of the growing downtown, the city purchased the building through eminent domain in August 2014 and has placed it in the stewardship of the Preservation Greensboro Development Fund, along with $175,000 to develop a plan for its restoration. As of July 2015, Preservation Greensboro has teamed up with Rentenbach Constructors to restore the building.


Benjamin Filene, UNC-Greensboro Director of Public History; Ann Walter-Fromson, Guilford Native Plant Society; Dr. Keith Debbage, UNC-Greensboro Geography Department; Ruth Revels, Greensboro resident and Chairwoman of the NC Council of Native American Affairs; Rick Oxenbine, Executive Director, Guilford Native American Association; The American Indian Center at UNC-CH; Greensboro Historical Museum, Warnersville: Our Home, Our Neighborhood, Our Stories exhibition; Warnersville:  Pioneer Venture in Home-Ownership by Means of Modest Charges and Long-Term Payments Started After the Civil War. Craig, Nell. 1941.  Daily News (Greensboro), June 1, 8-9, sec. A.; Greensboro North Carolina by Otis L. Hairston Jr. Black America Series/Arcadia 2003; Greensboro's Treasured Places,; Official Earth Science Polyconic Projection Map Showing the Indians of North Carolina. Hearne Bros., c1986.; Zion Starnes; Greensboro Millennium Committee Downtown Greensboro Walking Tour; Progress Reports (1962-present), Redevelopment Commission of Greensboro.

Extended References