My family moved to North Carolina in the late 1980s, having left a stagnant and hopeless West Virginia in search of greater economic opportunities. My mom and grandparents and I first tried Indiana for a few years, but eventually left for the greener shores of the Sunbelt. We came to Gastonia, a modest-sized former textile town (it once boasted of having “more looms and spindles within its hundred-mile radius than… any other southern city”) in the greater Charlotte metropolitan area. An aunt and uncle had already paved the way for us, in a sort of internal chain-migration, leaving WV for NC several years before. I once asked my mom why Suzy and Jim had settled on Gastonia as a place to live, and I’ll never forget her answer:
It’s about as far as you can get from Charleston on a tank of gas.
Gastonia became our home—wild, shabby, shambling Gastonia—the Gashouse, G-town. We moved to a neighborhood of stout, tiny mill houses in the shadow of a big brick monster known as the Firestone mill. It was working-class and trending poor at the time, with a mix of white and black families and a handful of new migrants from Vietnam and Mexico. There were rumors of crackhouses in the neighborhood (this being the early 1990s), though I can neither confirm nor deny whether this was just the fever dream of our paranoid, upstanding parents, but there was definitely violence in the streets. (I remember once a beaten and bloody man dragged himself onto my aunt’s lawn, as adults hurried the kids into the back rooms of the house. My mom was robbed six times in her job as a nighttime convenience store clerk.) Gastonia seemed like a dangerous place, even though it offered more promise than the places we had lived before.
I eventually grew up, went to college in Charlotte, and left for grad school in New York. It was not until I was in a course called “The South After Reconstruction,” taught by legendary ToM favorite Barbara Fields, that I began to learn something about where I came from. The Firestone mill had not always been a hulk belching rubber smoke; the iconic tire company had bought the facility in 1935, after it had experienced a tumultuous history as a textile plant.
In fact, the former Loray Mill loomed large in American history, in a way I had never learned before leaving my adopted hometown. (That’s “Low-ray,” by the way. Up to that point I’d only known the word to refer to the Loray Baptist Church a few blocks away.) Gastonia was the site of a huge and violent strike in 1929, when the Communist-affiliated National Textile Workers Union sought to organize the mill. Workers had resented an intensification of their work by management and declining wages, and voted to strike in favor of $20 weekly pay and a forty-hour week. The ensuing conflict was bloody, resulting in the killing of the local police chief and the murder of Ella May Wiggins, a single mother of five who had birthed nine, a union organizer, and an acclaimed folk singer who was shot in broad daylight by a mob of antiunion thugs. (Her killers were acquitted by a Charlotte jury in about half an hour). Wiggins’s songs were covered by the likes of Pete Seeger, and the whole violent affair even inspired a micro-subgenre known as “Gastonia novels.”
I learned all this after having signed up, quite unwittingly, to do the presentation for a week on Southern industrialization, which included reading the great James Cobb’s The Selling of the South (1982) as well as Liston Pope’s Millhands and Preachers (1942), a practically contemporary account of both the strike and the overall social structure of milltown Gastonia.
I was stunned to find out that the mill I lived two blocks from in my elementary school days was the site of such historic events, and yet no one had ever breathed a word about them. (My apologies to the wonderful Mrs. Clagg if she taught us this in 11th grade and I just don’t remember.) When I went home, I noticed a local bridge was named after the dead Chief Aderholt, but that was the only marker I could see of this history. Gastonia had always been antiunion, and the 1929 crisis was a remarkable interlude in the city and the state’s agonized encounter with organized labor. My hometown seemed shrouded in a conspiracy of silence, or maybe strategic forgetting. How could no one there know or speak about the one thing that made the city famous—or infamous, depending on your point of view? Do the residents of Scottsboro, Alabama know nothing of their own world-renowned history? (Don’t answer that.)
For a time I thought about writing my dissertation about the renovation of old, abandoned mills as housing and shopping areas, such as Loray, which was then slated for redevelopment, and I soon delved into the story of the seemingly quixotic quest to gentrify the rundown factory. What bohemians and yuppies would want to live on Gastonia’s generally poor west side, with only a derelict downtown nearby and the cultural amenities of Charlotte located twenty miles from the east side of town? The redevelopment effort had been going since at least 1998, when Firestone gifted the building to Preservation North Carolina, a nonprofit group, but plans to renovate the space had stumbled by the time I began to study the topic in 2004.
I eventually dropped the research project, and contemplated writing about other Gastonia-centric topics, like Wal-Mart, which I also fortuitously abandoned. (At the time, Nelson Lichtenstein and Bethany Moreton were already well on their way to covering that subject far better than I could.)
But I recently returned home to see a billboard on I-85 that promised housing, shopping, and dining at the Loray Mill Lofts. It seemed that the dream had finally become a reality. Gritty, working-class west Gastonia would finally attain the oft-derided yet elusive dream of gentrification. Numerous other big cities had seen mills rise from the ashes as hipster housing—think of Atlanta’s the Stacks project in Cabbagetown, or its rapidly developing Ponce City Market—but such a socioeconomic makeover happening in Gastonia would be a true coup. Who would live there? Who could afford to? What developer would plow money into such a fundamentally risky project?
The answer is a bit complicated, but it includes many of the usual suspects you’d expect to see subsidizing gentrification through various incentives and mechanisms. The Federal Housing Administration is backing loans to developers from California and Atlanta, and Chevron is in the mix somehow, taking advantage of tax credits for historic preservation. (To be fair, it’s not all that sordid or seedy; preservationists are happy to see the building retained, while some locals would have liked to see it go long ago.)
The result is the $39 million Loray Mill Lofts project, which launched in April 2013. The developers are collaborating with the Gaston County Historic Preservation Commission, and news coverage of the project has touched on the mill’s turbulent history, including the strike. But one wonders how much of the uncomfortable truth will seep through the developer’s hoopla. The New York Times noted in 2013 that the company intends to “play up the mill’s industrial heritage”—no big surprise there—but the picture it paints on its website is a rosy one:
Situated just southwest of downtown Gastonia, the neighboring area surrounding the Loray Mill is known as Loray Mill Village. It was established in 1902 after the completion of the Loray Mill. Life revolved around the mill. Families in the neighborhood worked together and knew one another personally. Their children would gather at the mill’s swimming pool in the summer, and parents could walk to the bank, the post office, or the grocery store, all within a few blocks. Through various ownerships, the mill and surrounding mill village finally was purchased by Firestone, Inc. in 1935 and life continued.
There are some big, gaping holes in that story. You don’t have to be Michel Rolph-Trouillot to read for the silences here: the families merrily skipped to the swimming pool and the grocery store, and then the mill changed hands and life continued. (“Yada yada yada…”) In fact, if you think about it, paternalistic mill owners practically invented the idea of live-work-play!
Naturally, a developer trying to sell rental units is not going to dwell on the historic abuses of the Southern textile industry, or the legacy of a deadly labor conflict. (“Come live where the local Sheriff was shot in 1929—only $850 for a one-bedroom/one-bath!”) But it does raise some officially icky questions about how the past is repackaged in the name of redevelopment and even historic preservation. If the good people of Gastonia swept this history under the rug when I was growing up, will the new denizens of the Loray Mill Lofts have any place for it on their Billy bookshelf?
I could not resist going to see the lofts’ progress over Thanksgiving, to see if the scruffy neighborhood where I’d once lived as a kid was already submitting to the bougie death-rays of our creative-class overlords. (They eat Citarellas, don’t they?) One early signal was decidedly mixed: the horse-shoe-shaped complex of tiny apartments where my mom and I had lived on Weldon Avenue had been comically rebranded “Loray Mill Villas,” though the condition of the units appeared to have changed little, and the sad-seeming sign did not exactly scream villa-tility.
My grandparents’ old home down the street, which they had worked tirelessly to fix up in the early 1990s, had fallen into ruins. My aunt’s place half a block away was soldiering on, eight years after they had decamped for a newer suburb near Spencer Mountain to the west. But most of the neighborhood—now re-known as Loray Mill Village—was about the same as before, if a little worse for wear. It certainly did seem to have been hit by a thunderbolt of bohemianism or generalized reinvestment.
Too often, gentrification seems like an abstract concept—at least for the liberals and academics who agonize about it online, if not for the poor or working-class communities most directly hit by its effects. But the Loray Mill’s redevelopment brought the issue home in a different way, one I could feel palpably for having more direct knowledge of the lay of the land in this particular place. Many homeowners in the area did eventually purchase their houses from their mill, gaining a stake in property ownership and getting out from under the heavy hand of the old mill village model. Indeed, as Liston Pope observed in his 1942 study of Gastonia, “The capitalist did not merely provide capital; he also established the facilities and set the norms for politics, morals, religion, amusement, and all other major amusements”—the mill village was a kind of popcorn panopticon, and homeownership looked a lot more attractive than selling your soul to “the company store.”
Few of the families who purchased these homes from the mill likely remain today, and many newcomers had already moved into the community by the time I lived there in the early 1990s. However, it remains true that the current occupants could reap a welcome windfall if the Loray Mill Lofts succeed in transforming the neighborhood—a significant jump in value for working people whose modest homes otherwise would not be worth as much. As always, gentrification privileges some and disadvantages others; some may not want to leave under pressure of higher property taxes, and renters in the Loray Mill Villas may have no choice but to leave as the landlord jacks up the rent. But a nontrivial number of local homeowners could actually get an unexpected gain if the development goes forward—which remains a big “if.”
Indeed, the Charlotte Observer noted that developers had planned to move in residents by March of this year, but then announced that the first units would not open until the end of May. When we visited the Lofts around Thanksgiving, it did not look like a place where people were already living. (An inquiry with management revealed that the first one bedroom-one baths would become available on December 27, 2014—“loft apartments as unique as you are!”) Some entrances in to and out of the development were still blocked, as Latino construction workers carried materials back and forth. It felt like the kind of place where I would get in trouble for taking pictures, but that’s a frequent enough occurrence for me. It was, in other words, very much a work in progress.
My wife and I left the site to visit Downtown Gastonia, which for decades has struggled to revitalize itself like many old central business districts in Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and countless other Southern cities. The department stores fled to newer malls to the east in the 1960s, and the old brick structures and parallel parking of downtown grew ever more desperate, despite the occasional attempt to insert a pizza place or coffee shop into a landscape dominated mostly by lawyers, bail bondsmen, and people paying electric bills and parking tickets. The district has started to get a bit of traction in the last five years or so, though; a Mexican restaurant, Tequila’s, has carried the torch for Downtown since 2001, at times seeming to stand alone athwart the forces of urban decline, and a pub or two has taken root more recently. We visited a newer place called Zoe’s, which offers coffee, craft beer and Sonic Youth in a rehabilitated old building across from the city’s commendably modest City Hall.
Bringing life back to Downtown has been a unicorn-level ambition as long as I’d ever known there was a Gastonia, and the artists who worked at Zoe’s confirmed that it continued to be a slog. Indeed, some resented the fact that the Loray Mill project threatened to sap interest away from concerted efforts to reinvest in Downtown: even though Loray is only a little over a mile from Zoe’s, it is not really walkable, certainly not in Gastonia terms. Collin Martindale, a painter and relative newcomer to the city, told us that the Loray project had had trouble recruiting retail tenants. He also commented that efforts to revive Downtown should be focused on rehabilitating buildings in the old business district, not drawing people away to the Loray Mill.
Still, it remains to be seen whether Gastonia can repackage its past for a shinier future. I was struck by the fact that a history that had been obscured for most of my life now served as the basis for an ambitious—and perhaps delirious—attempt to rebrand the space of my old neighborhood. I had to go to grad school 650 miles away to learn about the Loray Mill, yet here it is with a fresh coat of paint and “exposed trusses on 16-foot ceilings.” In an era where young people have embraced cities with gusto and each municipality plays up any element of “place” that might set it apart, Gastonia has settled on its “industrial heritage.” Poverty, pellagra, mob justice, and segregation—all transmuted into the magic elixir of gentrification. (Maybe.)
Indeed, Gastonia is a story of pasts remembered, forgotten, willfully obscured and never-known—and Loray Mill is (literally) a huge piece of that. It was once the largest factory of its kind in the world, and it remains a very big, very red elephant as Gastonia tries gamely to reinvent itself as part of the orbit of greater Charlotte. Years ago I interviewed a local developer who lamented that Gastonia never got its due—Charlotte’s other neighbors had better PR, as people saw Monroe to the southeast and Concord to the north as decent places to settle down and raise kids, while the local news always sent reporters out to interview poor, toothless souls in trailer parks out in roughneck Gastonia. In the years since, Gaston County has actually fared better, as towns between Gastonia and Charlotte, such as Mount Holly and Belmont, have flourished as bedroom communities for people who work in the “big city.”
The Loray Mill sits on the very periphery of that world, as close to Shelby to the west (the fictionalized setting of Eastbound and Down) as the bank towers of Charlotte. The old Gastonia that we first came to—the one of textile mills and fish camps and the Fish Camp Jam, a now-defunct annual festival that featured, amazingly enough, catfish races—seems to be slipping into the eclipse of a newer, cleaner, Charlottean order of the future. The Loray Mill Lofts themselves might be the furthest reach of that metropolitan dream, but it remains to be seen whether the future can make it at the edges.
The title of this essay is inspired by the great Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. There are many great works on the history of Southern industrialization and Gastonia/Charlotte in particular. Here are a few:
James Cobb, The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936-1990 (2nd ed., 1993)
Jacqueline Dowd Hall et al, Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (1987)
Thomas Hanchett, Sorting out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975 (1998)
Liston Pope, Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia (1942)
John Salmond, Gastonia: The Story of the Loray Mill Strike (1995)
There is also an ongoing effort to create a memorial to Ella May Wiggins.