Burlington, North Carolina is not unlike most mid-sized cities in this state. It has a slightly busy downtown, lots of places to shop, and a decent spread of mom-and-pop diners. However, a quality that sets Burlington apart from other municipalities is that its population of around 50,000 is nearly 50% minority. While this is an awesome statistic to highlight about my new city, this diversity has roots in a sad past that has drawn lines throughout the community. These divides can still be seen today and are important to learn about if we want to continue to move forward towards a unified city.
I learned a lot about the divided past of Burlington through a project I started working on as soon as I started my job with the city. This project was a display that would be located in the new carousel house in the heart of the city, City Park. This small amusement park is one of the tourists highlights of Burlington! The exhibit I am working on will showcase a separate carousel horse that was originally located at the North Park Carousel. Historically, when the city was still segregated, North Park was for African Americans and City Park was for whites. Both parks had carousels but unsurprisingly, the North Park carousel was not maintained as well as its City Park counterpart and eventually was no longer usable. The exhibit at the City Park Carousel honoring the North Park Carousel is a great example of the city recognizing the issues we face and then trying to right the wrongs.
I am happy to report that North Park is probably one of the more well-funded, and nicer parks in the city today. They have a brand-new pool and community center to provide things for the youth in the community to do as well as the adults and a few times a month they have a farmers’ market on the property to provide fresh local produce. North Park remains mostly utilized by people of color, due to the racial makeup and of the surrounding community and the norms of the larger community.
Not only is this division seen in the parks, but in the spaces in which people live. The difference between East and West Burlington is so defined that even the life expectancy varies 11 years from one side to the other. There is currently a lot of effort within the city to close this gap whether that be through economic development, youth programs, or affordable housing. I know from working here, even though it has been a short period of time, that the City of Burlington wants to see its citizens thrive, because at the end of the day we all live in this community, no matter what side you live on.