March 25, 2011

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.