1.13 / Critical Mass

Memory in Place, Part 2

By Adrienne Skye Roberts April 21, 2010
The view from the back window of the Zenke home reveals the lot where their home once stood, Greensboro, NC. Photo: Adrienne Roberts


When Chris Zenke was growing up, the view out the front window of his childhood home was much like any other quaint residential block during the 1960s in Greensboro, North Carolina: Queen Anne‑style homes sat neatly on top of modest lawns surrounded by dogwood trees and blackberry bushes. This view was fairly unremarkable and yet, for Chris, a lifelong resident of Greensboro, its familiarity represented his personal investment in place; it meant that he was home. In 1970, the view changed when Guilford County claimed the property across the street for the construction of a county jail. This shift in landscape constituted a bleak view both aesthetically and metaphorically. In place of the single-family houses now stands a tall, gray building resembling seven concrete slabs stacked one on top of another, separated by narrow windows on their northern and southern sides.

Last September, the view out the front window of the Zenke family home changed once again. On May 6, 2008, Guilford County voters approved a $115 million bond referendum to expand the county jail. It included a complex to be built on the exact location of the Zenke home, where, until recently, Chris’ elderly mother lived. The Zenkes were given three choices: stay put and be the only remaining private residence on a block populated by an incarceration complex; tear down their home; or remove it from the property altogether. Given these options, Chris and his sister Ginia felt they only had one choice—to keep their home intact. They arranged to have it lifted from its foundations and move it a mere 300 feet from its original location, shifting the orientation from facing east on Blandwood Avenue to facing south on the adjacent Washington Street. This displacement is slight, yet it holds significant meaning—for the Zenke family, the city of Greensboro, and the concept of home. In a single gesture, a personal and voluntary residence becomes a controlled and regulated domain.

I first met Chris on the empty lot where his home formerly stood. Having heard about the new jail, I was surveying the landscape for visible signs of the impending construction. I was met with an absence: a stretch of dirt littered with small piles of bricks and misplaced brush. The Zenke family owned this lot for forty years before the county obtained it through negotiations related to the jail bond referendum. While Chris wasn’t explicit about the details of these negotiations, he informed me that in the end it was considered an exchange: the Zenke family gave up their property and in turn the county granted them the lot where their home now stood. Through this negotiation, the county was relieved of any financial obligations related to the move. The Zenkes were left to manage not only the financial burden, but the emotional weight that this dislocation caused as well. In a sense, the empty lot where Chris and I met was a memorial, albeit a temporary one, to his home and the neighborhood where he was raised. As I spent time with the Zenke family I was continually struck by this symbolism. On the property where their home once stood will soon be a jail with the capacity to hold nearly 1000 people.1 Within this small city block are paralleled injustices of different scales—the slight, involuntary dislocation of one family’s home simultaneously makes room for the construction of a jail that will house those involuntarily displaced from their own homes, communities, and freedoms. Underscoring both realities is the reliance upon acts of involuntary displacement as a tool for the city’s economic growth and civic control.

Greensboro is the third largest city in North Carolina and yet, for Chris, it still feels like a small town. Generations of families continue to populate Greensboro—people whose memories act as an archive into the city’s past. In 1939, Chris’ father Henry and his uncle Otto moved from New York City to Greensboro to establish their interior design firm, Otto Zenke Interiors, and quickly became the region’s most renowned designers. The Zenke brothers were famous for creating a new classic Southern style by adapting 18th-century British neoclassicist décor to the ’40s South. Their reputation landed them jobs throughout the country, including remodeling the White House during the John F. Kennedy Jr. presidency. The majority of their work was local; they decorated and remodeled the interiors of numerous hotels, historic landmarks, and the homes of Greensboro’s most prosperous families. This is the context in which Chris was raised and through which he understood the city. He was part of a prominent Greensboro family whose reputation was built on the potential of property to make a public statement about private lives.

During the late ’60s—a time Chris describes as Greensboro’s “transitional period”—numerous homes and historic buildings were torn down and replaced with modern buildings in an attempt to fullfill the city’s dream of becoming a major metropolis.2 In addition to the jail, a new courthouse and the city’s municipal building were constructed in the Blandwood area. While the map of downtown Greensboro was slowly being rewritten, the Zenke family remained. In 1966, they helped establish the citywide nonprofit Preservation Greensboro Incorporated, in an effort to preserve the city’s historic and architectural landmarks that were falling prey to Greensboro’s redevelopment. The Zenke family purchased the remaining houses on Blandwood Avenue in an attempt to protect them from demolition, a defiant act that was counteracted years later when the county condemned the buildings.

The empty lot on Blandwood Avenue, Greensboro, where the new jail will be built. Photo: Adrienne Roberts.

As Chris and I stood talking on the sidewalk across from the jail, he called up apparitions of his old neighborhood. He gestured and nodded in the direction of places only visible within his own memory, sites that have since been replaced by city buildings, parking lots, and jails. At the end of the block there was a Presbyterian church that was torn down twenty years ago; beside it was a home where a family from China had lived. Across the street was a building designed by his uncle, which was once used as the headquarters of Otto Zenke Interiors; today it is the administrative offices of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department. If the empty lot we stood beside was any indication, Greensboro’s transition in the ’60s was not a phase but rather one revolution in the continuum of the city’s growth and expansion.  

The slim margin with which the jail bond was passed—fifty-one to forty-nine percent—indicates the tension surrounding this legislation. According to the November 10, 2009, article in the News & Record, Greensboro Sheriff BJ Barnes and other proponents of the new jail cited overcrowding as the main justification for needing a new facility.3 At any given time the Greensboro jail has more than 200 people over its capacity of 671. Within this scenario inmates are forced to sleep on the floor, and living conditions within the jail worsen. Yet even the issue of overcrowding is contested. A confidential source working within the court system speculated to me that in the time leading up to the May 2008 election, law enforcement held people in the jail for minor offenses or longer than the length of their sentence in order to increase the number of inmates as justification for another facility. The construction of the jail raises questions beyond these discrepancies and beyond the site-specific context of Greensboro.

Incarceration is often considered the only solution to crime and jails and prisons are seen as a benefit to the communities in which they exist. They expand a city’s economic growth and create stable jobs. And yet they do so at the expense of the most disenfranchised members of a community. The disproportionate number of incarcerated minorities exposes the heavily racialized nature of America’s criminal justice system. In Guilford County, an area with a majority of Caucasian residents, roughly seventy-one percent of those currently in jail are ethnic minorities; sixty-six percent are African American.4 This imbalance raises the critical question of how race influences who is targeted for crimes and who is jailed, thus alluding to issues of racial profiling, the privledging of incarceration over rehabilitation, and a lack of investment in the economically disenfranchised communities from where many of those currently incarcerated resided. Furthermore, the public investment in jails represents our inability as a society to imagine alternative methods for doing justice and a limited conception of how a city takes care of citizens.

The front door of the Zenke's home now on Washington Street, Greensboro. Photo: Adrienne Roberts.

The politics surrounding the new Guilford County jail expose the broader issues endemic to the prison system. During this past summer, the sheriff’s office received federal approval for a program that gives power to local police officers that is traditionally reserved for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This policy, known as 287(g), allows police officers to check a suspect’s citizenship status and begin the deportation process for those who do not have proper legal documentation. Guilford County is the second county in the state to adopt this policy, and one can readily perceive this as a xenophobic response to the significant influx of Hispanic and Latino immigrants into North Carolina since 1995.5 Once arrested, undocumented residents will not be eligible for bond. Instead, they’ll be held in jail until their charges are resolved in court and then transferred to the ICE for deportation. According to Sheriff Barnes, the goal of 287(g) is to protect the citizens of Guilford County from crime.6 This language creates a dichotomy between the law-abiding citizens in Greensboro and those undocumented residents who either have the potential to commit crimes or already have. Given the proximity of both the approval of 287(g) and the passing of the jail bond, one has to ask, “For whom is the jail being built?” It appears as though it is being built for people not yet arrested, suggesting that the focus is not on crime prevention but on targeting criminals assumed to already be present within the community.

In the weeks leading up to the May election, the News & Record published an advertisement encouraging votes in favor of the jail bond; its language bore striking similarity to the rhetoric justifying 287(g). This full-page advertisement depicted a middle-aged, Caucasian man leering out from a dark jail cell. His hands firmly grip the metal bars in front of him while his face is cast in shadow. Accompanying the image was the statement: “THE JAIL BOND: IT’S YOUR DECISION…YOUR HOUSE OR OURS.” Paid for by the sheriff’s department, the dramatized sentiment threatened and almost promised future jailbreaks and subsequent crime. It placed the responsibility of crime prevention on the shoulders of Greensboro’s voters and created a dichotomy similar to that which is present within 287(g): law-abiding citizens outside the jail versus the criminals within it. The advertisement hoped to convince voters that without enough space in the current jail, dangerous criminals would undoubtedly roam the city streets—their next destination would be your house.

Of course the designation, “your house or ours” resonated differently for the Zenke family. Chris told me that he felt the advertisement was intended as a direct threat to his family, although he was careful to keep politics out of our discussions. He was more disheartened by the county’s lack of cordiality and respect towards his family. In a small town such as Greensboro, there is still presiding concern about how one treats one’s neighbors. I had to ask him, “Why save the house in the first place? Why go through the pain of navigating the roadblocks and red tape of Guilford County just to scrape together enough money to move the house ever so slightly? Why not just give in?”

The back portion of the Zenke home is a traditional Quaker home built in 1830. Photo: Adrienne Roberts.

Chris and Ginia revealed the answers to these questions when I accompanied them inside their home. Since its move, the house sits on top of a concrete foundation that lifts it to street level. To reach the front door, we climbed up a ladder and stepped over the thick metal bands that wrapped around the house to preserve its structural integrity during the move. The house has its own complex history. From outside, it is a wide white house with tall windows, a small balcony on the second floor, and a light sconce on either side of the door. Its back portion, a traditional Quaker-style home, was built in the 1830s; a decade later, a front addition was built. When the Zenkes bought it in 1950, they enclosed the porches and made minor repairs, but kept the original floorplan and century-old details intact. From inside, the house was almost completely empty with the exception of curtains, a sparse collection of bedroom furniture, and closets full of clothes. Despite the absence of familiar objects, the space itself provoked a deluge of memories. As Chris and Ginia led me through the house, they shared intimate details known only by those who spent their lives there: a hole drilled in a cabinet door to allow for the light from a slide projector to shine through; a kitchen designed to hold family heirlooms and collections of china; and the corner of the living room that was reserved each year for the Christmas tree. The Zenke’s dedication was unwaivering. “This is our home,” Chris told me. “It is meant to be a home and will remain so as long as I am alive.”7

Since I left Greensboro last October, construction on the new jail began. A wide, deep hole was dug in the ground. Cranes and caution tape surround it. The construction site is visible from the Zenke home; they will be able to monitor the progress from their kitchen window. Once the jail is complete, the property will no longer contain any visible traces of the Zenke’s presence or their absence. The temporary memorial that was the once-empty lot will disappear and the former life of the neighborhood and city of Greensboro will be confined to the memory of the Zenke family. More than witnesses, the Zenkes become their own memorials to a city that claims to protect them as it simultaneously erases their physical ties to the city and challenges their right to their home. The slight dislocation of the Zenke’s home is symbolic of the conflict surrounding Greensboro’s civic obligations to those who once lived on the exact location of the new jail, and those who will soon reside there.


  1. Ryan Seal, “New Guilford County jail ‘sorely needed,’” News & Record, November 10, 2009.
  2. Interview with Chris Zenke, October 15, 2009.
  3. Seal, ibid.
  4. http://www.guilfordsheriff.com/content/view/231/260/
  5. John P. Kasarda and James H. Johnson Jr., “The Economic Impact of the Hispanic Population on the State of North Carolina,” Kenan-Flager Business School, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (2006): 11.
  6. Gerald Witt, “287(g) approved for Guilford County,” News & Record, July 10, 2009.
  7. Interview with Chris Zenke, October 15, 2009.

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