Dunn used camera to focus attention on city’s future, reviving downtown Salisbury

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
As a rookie city councilman in 1978, Jim Dunn spent a Sunday afternoon in spring taking photographs of downtown Salisbury.
He especially focused on the 100 and 200 blocks of South Main Street.
Cherry laurels ó the urban street trees of the day ó were groomed into the shape of lollipops. Planters made from long Norman bricks collected a lot of debris.
Parking meters stood in rows up and down the street. And cobra-head light poles, painted an unattractive bluish-gray, filled in some of the spaces between the meters.
Public benches essentially were two pillars of concrete and some boards.
The Police Department still had a booth on the Square next to O.K. Wig.
The Center Theatre was showing “Baby Blue Marine,” starring Jan Michael Vincent. The X-rated late show at the Center was “Sip the Wine.”
One of the stores on the street-level of the Empire Hotel sold water beds.
A Marlboro cigarette billboard cast a shadow toward Gil Walker’s vacant Gulf station at the corner of South Main and Bank streets.
Friedman’s Jewelry’s false facade looked like it was made of egg crates. Most of the downtown stores had similar false fronts, trying hard to look more modern. The Jewel Box, Raylass, Cato and Diana Shops comprised at least 100 feet of continuous aluminum facades in the 200 block.
All the upper windows of the L&S Furniture location were boarded up with plywood. The “Hole in the Wall” ó left by the destructive 1963 downtown fire ó had its own urban forest growing in the empty spot.
“Downtown Salisbury didn’t look so good back then,” says Dunn, a retired state planner who would serve on Salisbury City Council for 10 years.
“It was experiencing the same problems small towns all over the country were facing with deteriorating downtowns and much of its retail relocating to suburban shopping centers and strip commercial developments.”
Dunn became one of the pioneers in a 30-year transformation of downtown Salisbury.
In the city’s 255-year history, 30 years is a snapshot.
“But in our lifetime, it’s a generation,” Dunn says, “and the younger generation of today would hardly recognize the downtown of 30 years ago.”
Dunn tips his hat to merchants, property owners and tenants in the central business district; the preservation and tourism communities; Salisbury City Councils and city staff members; the Community Appearance Commission; Downtown Salisbury Inc.’s staff and board; and a host of other individuals and organizations “who have all done an outstanding job in changing the heart of the community from what we see in these 1978 photos to what we see today.”
“The downtown is organic, and it did not grow up overnight,” Dunn says, “so the problems it incurred over a long period of time were not solved quickly.”
When Dunn became a councilman in 1977, historic preservation, community appearance and a comprehensive plan for the downtown were not necessarily high priorities.
“I wanted the city to pursue those issues, and these photos were part of my ‘fact-finding’ and ‘survey and analysis,'” he says.
In the late 1960s, photography became Dunn’s passionate hobby and a complement to his role as a planner who visited communities throughout the region and state.
He usually carried his camera bag with him, and it contained two cameras ó one with print film and one with slide film. He remembers choosing to take his black-and-white photographs of South Main Street on a Sunday afternoon because there would be fewer cars on the street, giving him a more complete picture of the buildings.
Dunn says people respond better to “tangibles.”
“Something that you can hold up in front of them to see,” he explains. “These pictures were part of that process.”
Dunn was trying to sell an idea or concept for the downtown that’s pretty much taken for granted in Salisbury today. It wasn’t then.
“One merely had to look at the downtown through these photos,” Dunn says, “to see that it was rather drab and gloomy and that there was a crying need to enhance its visual environment, restore its historical integrity and, at the same time, make it economically viable.”
Dunn says the photographs spoke for themselves. The idea behind taking them sprang from a familiar quote in the 1933 Marx Brothers movie, “Duck Soup.”
The line went, “Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?”
Dunn wanted city government and stakeholders in the downtown to take a more holistic approach. Dunn talked about block faces, the relationships of buildings to each other and comprehensive strategies.
Within two years, Salisbury became one of the first 30 cities in the United States to participate in the National Main Street program ó an economic development effort within the context of historic preservation. There were six participating states with five cities in each state.
Dunn calls the Main Street program “a godsend.” It served as a catalyst for a slow-but-sure makeover of the central business district ó an architecturally significant area that had been hidden behind aluminum facades and neglect.
Now it’s hard to imagine front after front of aluminum, parking meters, missing buildings, ugly planters and benches, lollipop trees, cobra-head lights and more. One change, one investment led to others.
Since 1980, the total public and private investment in downtown Salisbury has been almost $100 million.
“There’s nothing that pleases me more,” Dunn says, “than coming to the downtown and seeing a happy tourist taking photographs of our lovely buildings. I doubt if they would be taking many pictures if the buildings still looked like they did in these 1978 photos.”
Dunn’s wife, Pug, recently uncovered the black-and-white photographs Dunn took in 1978 in a bottom drawer of an old chest. Dunn guessed that he had tucked them away some 25 years ago and hadn’t thought about them since.
When Pug handed him the photographs, Dunn asked, “Do you remember why I took these?”
“She gave me one of her patented first-grade teacher looks and tersely replied, ‘Because it was part of your DNA,’ ” Dunn says. “She knows me well.”
Over the years, Dunn filled 26 metal file boxes with slides ó 6,744 slides, in fact. He seemed to shoot a roll of film wherever he went.
His master index divides the slides into three categories: 13 boxes are devoted to Salisbury slides, five boxes cover Rowan County properties outside the city limits and eight boxes show North Carolina (and some other states) historic sites.
Before and after retirement, Dunn gave countless talks ó often on community appearance and community planning ó in which he relied on his slides to make his points.
He swears he has given his last presentation.
Now 69, Dunn plans to donate his slide collection to the History Room at Rowan Public Library in Salisbury.
It’s a gift he hopes can be digitized and become an educational link on the library’s Web site.
“A teacher could take students on a field trip from her room,” Dunn says, thinking of the possibilities.
Again, it’s all about tangibles.