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The Impulsive Traveler: Going green in Greensboro, N.C.

By William Powers,

“This is Greensboro?” my partner, Melissa, asked with surprise, gazing up at the LEED Platinum-certified Proximity Hotel, its 100 solar panels gleaming futuristically back at the sun. “When I think of Greensboro, all I picture is the KKK massacring protesters.”

True, the city suffers from a long-standing image problem. On Nov. 3, 1979, local Ku Klux Klan members shot and killed five Communist Worker Party activists during a street protest here. The incident became known as the “Greensboro Massacre” and was examined in documentaries such as “88 Seconds in Greensboro.” The accused Klansmen, in the end, were acquitted by an all-white jury.

I tried not to think about Greensboro’s dark past as our bellhop escorted us through the Proximity Hotel’s sun-filled lobby, explaining that the furniture was locally sourced and that one-fifth of the concrete walls were made of fly ash from incinerated garbage.

The elevator to our room, remarkably, was self-powered, its downward motion fueling the upward lift. The bellhop enthusiastically told us that the hotel uses 40 percent less energy and 30 percent less water than comparable hotels. Solar panels heat well over half the water for the rooms and the restaurant. No wonder this place became the first American hotel to receive the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design system’s highest rating.

The surprises continued in our room. “Eco” certainly didn’t mean austere. Loft-style high ceilings allowed sunlight to warm our bed. A sliding door opened up the modern bathroom to natural light as well.

Later, down in the lobby, a cheery receptionist asked, “Ready for your bikes?”

“You rent them?” I inquired.

“They’re free for all guests,” she replied. “To provide a healthy alternative to. . .” Was it my imagination, or was she frowning toward the parking lot?

I gradually gathered that she was suggesting that we give our car a rest from gas-gulping. Before I could even mutter a reply, the concierge appeared out front with two new bikes and helmets. Melissa shrugged and dropped our car keys into her purse, where they would remain for most of our stay.

While gliding along Greensboro’s excellent bike paths, we learned that the city is busy constructing one of the country’s first urban greenway loops, complete with bike and walking trails, as well as a space for public art displays.

Our dark stereotype of Greensboro was further undermined at our first stop: a “living museum” called Elsewhere, housed in a half-century-old thrift store where the artists use only recycled material to create interactive sculpture. “You don’t see a gift shop here,” one of the artists in residence said to me. “Nothing is sold at Elsewhere.”

Dinner was a tough choice. I craved Montagnard food. After all, we were in Greensboro, home to the largest number of Montagnards (a collection of mountain tribes from Vietnam’s highlands) outside Vietnam. But Melissa won out in the end; we hit a local bistro for some rabbit and Bibb lettuce supplied by local farms.

Over dessert, we probed our waiter on the subject of Greensboro. The city is part of the 1.5 million-inhabitant Piedmont Triad (along with the smaller Winston-Salem and High Point). The Triad grew first into a national textile and furniture-making hub and more recently added technology and biotechnology to the mix. Our waiter took pride in telling us that his city has developed a sensitivity to the environment, noting that in 2004, the Department of Energy awarded Greensboro entry to the Clean Cities Hall of Fame.

The next day, I was to give a lecture at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The university’s Committee on Sustainability had invited me to discuss my book, “Twelve by Twelve: A One Room Cabin, Off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream,” about an American physician and permaculturalist who lives Thoreau-style in a 12-by-12-foot off-grid house.

To be frank, I expected a small turnout. But again, the city surprised. The room filled up with enthusiastic readers who had chosen my book for their Green Book Club. When I asked, “What’s your 12-by-12?” they showered the room with ideas on ecological living. I learned that Greensboro was the birthplace of well-known environmentalist Thomas Berry, and that the late CBS news anchor Edward R. Murrow had grown up in a log cabin outside town.

After the book-signing session, I chatted with attendees in the lobby beside a glass case holding a trumpet that Miles Davis had donated to the school. Beyond the encased horn — the very one that the jazz great had used to record “Kind of Blue”— was a footbridge over a forest, in a spot where there had once been a paved road. A middle-aged man looked me in the eye and said proudly, “We took out the road and gave it back to Mother Nature.” If Miles Davis could see Greensboro today, I chuckled to myself, he might change his tune to “Kind of Green.”

Over lunch at the vegan cafe Boba House, a student environmentalist told me: “In my free time, I slay vampires.” She and dozens of other students dress up as “vampire slayers” to alert fellow students to “vampire energy” — like leaving a computer on when you’re not using it. And the entire university was undergoing a major energy audit.

Throughout our discussion, I discovered other reasons why Greensboro was in the Clean Cities Hall of Fame: for instance, 84 of the city garbage trucks and buses switched to biodiesel fuel in 2002. (The switch was reversed last year for various reasons.)

That afternoon, local resident Charlie Headington gave us a tour of his urban permaculture homestead near the university. Wearing a smile, he led Melissa and me through a marvelous backyard brimming with lettuce and grape trellising. As I looked around, I thought: This is what utopia must look like. Luscious hues of kelly and peacock green — a mix of fruit trees — rose over a clean pool of water stocked with fish. Brightly colored flowers sprouted from their pots, and Charlie’s perky crops felt a little like a welcoming committee.

“My whole life revolves around gardens,” Charlie said. “I have no lawn, no grass, just fruit trees, food beds, ponds and bee hives.” It became apparent to us that these organisms were more than just plants to this man: They were his family.

He graciously offered us some fresh persimmons off his tree. “Scrumptious!” Melissa said, pocketing a couple for the road.

Back at the Proximity Hotel, I reluctantly packed up my belongings. I found myself wishing for more time in Greensboro. Time to enjoy its 17-acre Bog Garden, a boardwalk of trails that wind through a garden of plants and wildlife that thrive in a wetland ecosystem. Time for the the International Civil Rights Museum and the Greensboro Arboretum.

But I found comfort in the fact that there was still enough time left to enjoy the last of Charlie Headington’s persimmons — until the next visit to the new green Greensboro.

If You Go

Want to take a spur-of-the-moment trip to Greensboro, N.C.? Here’s what you need to know for the weekend of April 8-10:

Getting There

US Airways flies nonstop from Reagan National to Greensboro with fares starting at $266 round trip.

Where to Stay

Proximity Hotel

704 Green Valley Rd.

336-379-8200

www.proximityhotel.com

This LEED Platinum-rated hotel uses 100 solar panels to heat water. Rooms from $189.

O.Henry Hotel

624 Green Valley Rd.

336-854-2000

www.ohenryhotel.com

Proximity’s sister property inspired in part by one of the same name built in 1919. Rooms from $189.

Where to Eat

Dran Restaurant

3113B Summit Ave.

336-621-0341

Vietnamese and Japanese options. Entrees from $5.50.

Boba House

332 Tate St.

336-379-7444

www.bobahouse.com

Eco-conscious locals gravitate here for tasty, inexpensive vegan fare. Dishes from $7.49.

Print Works Bistro

336-379-0699

www.printworksbistro.com

In the Proximity Hotel. Entrees from $10.

What to Do

Elsewhere Living Museum

606-608 S. Elm St.

336-549-5555

elsewhereelsewhere.org

Wednesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. $1.

Greensboro Trails

336-373-3816

www.greensboro-nc.gov

More than 90 miles of trails and greenways.

International Civil Rights Center & Museum

134 S. Elm St.

336-274-9199

www.sitinmovement.org

Tuesday-Thursday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday-Saturday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 1 to 6 p.m. Adults $10; students and seniors $9; children 6-12 $6.

Greensboro Arboretum

401 Ashland Dr.

336-373-4334

www.greensborobeautiful.org/Arboretum.htm

Take a permaculture course with Charlie Headington (336-334-4597, charlie.headington@gmail.com) or ask him for a tour of his urban permaculture homestead.

Information

www.greensboronc.org

Powers is a New York-based freelance writer. His Web site is www.williampowersbooks.com.

All flight and lodging info valid as of press time, March 24, 2011.

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