GREENSBORO — When someone says "downtown landmarks," most people think of the Lincoln Financial Building or the Carolina Theatre. The statue of Nathanael Greene in the traffic circle or Center City Park.
Homeless people have a different set of landmarks. Though some, like The Depot, are shared landmarks, others include railroad bridges and camps.
"Storyscapes: Re-Mapping Downtown Greensboro" is an art and storytelling project created by staff and clients of the Interactive Resource Center, which serves people experiencing homelessness. It gives city residents the opportunity to walk in the shoes of the homeless, and see the city through their eyes.
It's a sometimes haunting experience.
At a computer kiosk at the Central Library, IRC client David Pigue lets the air conditioning take him back to the memory of cool ocean breezes, and the Summerfield pond of his youth, and wonders, "Where did the magic go?"
At the installation outside Family Service of the Piedmont, Donna H. Burnett recalls how "Dancing on Daddy's Shoes" turned horribly wrong, into something no child can handle.
Beautifully written and uniquely framed, these narratives and poems tell the stories of people who are often overlooked or ignored, "never noticed, forever feared," writes the anonymous poet G. in "Greensboro Diaspora."
"Who makes maps?" asked Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, the director of fund development and marketing at the IRC. "We look at them like they're empirical, but what happens when somebody who doesn't have power makes those maps? It got us thinking about questions of space and belonging. We don't know these vibrant lives of people walking these streets. You wouldn't know that by looking at a Google map."
Frisbie-Fulton, who has a longtime interest in alternative mapping, joined with some of the creative and talented clients of the IRC to find out what a map would look like from their perspective.
They started with a huge map of downtown with the barest outlines and asked IRC clients to draw in the places that were meaningful to them.
"Though I work here and work with homeless people, it was eye-opening to me," Frisbie-Fulton said. "They drew in camps, where to find food, where to find bathrooms. People started drawing shovels on one location because that's where they go to find work as day laborers. It was hard for me to get my bearings because I drive, and they take shortcuts — and they're always on foot."
The map is not completely precise. It's more like a scavenger hunt to find some of the pieces, because most of them are small and out of the way. But they are worth the hunt.
Take Melea Lail's "Look Up."
Sitting in my favorite spot on Sunday morning; the spot that helps me get my mind back at the end of the week. Look up!
Get ready for the show. Sixteen floors of reflection is my screen and background.
A monolith of glass, marble, and steel reaches for the sky
As cumulus clouds seem to smack into the building stratus clouds gently caress and comfort the injuries they inflict.
The numerous residents and workers never having an idea of the show that I am watching.
I don't look at peoples shoes anymore
I look at their eyes
And I look up.
Hanging in the front window of the Bargain Box, the poem looks outward to the view of Center Pointe that inspired it.
For many IRC clients, the stories poured out.
"Everybody had a story, and some of them were really hard stories — stories where they've been objectified because of their homelessness," Frisbie-Fulton said.
"There's an excitement over the idea that a group of people who can so frequently be overlooked, that their stories are out there and will be heard."
While other cities try to move the homeless population out of downtown, Greensboro has been supportive of the homeless population, Frisbie-Fulton said. When the Downtown Greenway was slated to go through a homeless camp, for example, Action Greensboro worked with Streetwatch and other groups to move the camps nearby.
"We see Greensboro as a city where we can celebrate everybody's contribution and everybody can be a part of that," Frisbie-Fulton said. "Greensboro seems to understand that there are many faces in this community and all those faces have value."
Storyscapes was greeted enthusiastically by downtown merchants, who offered to distribute the maps and provide venues for the exhibits.
Megan Patillo, the store director at Just Be on Elm Street, was excited to have one of the works hanging in the store window and noted that the map display stand created by IRC artists looked entirely at home in the store, which specializes in offbeat art and jewelry.
"I think it's really cool that they're doing this, especially because what we think we see when we look at homeless people is not what it really is," said Patillo, who has done social services work in the past. "It's important to take that label off of it."
One goal of the project is to take away the otherness, Frisbie-Fulton said. She hopes the stories and poems in Storyscapes will help everyday people connect with the personal stories of homeless people.
"It's a way to recognize the humanity and subjectivity of each person," she said. "We all have yearnings and hopes. It's what we can do to remind ourselves that we're very similar."