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Falling in Love with the Camel City

The selected designer for the aWAKEn project will have their design produced at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA. You should already know that. And, if you don’t, you can read about the details of the competition right here. But I would guess you’ve never thought you’d like to travel to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I’m not sure where the “Camel City” falls on the list of aspirational destinations in the US, beneath New York, Miami, Los Angeles, etc. I am not sure it is even ON the list. And, despite being ranked #31 on the list of Best Places to Live in the US, it’s NOT the best tourist destination. But it is a great city that I have come to love; a place I call the City Beautiful. And we hope the selected designer of Silent Sky will come to love it too.

Bailey Power Plant in the Innovation Quarter copyright Ken Bennett/WFU

Ours isn’t a bustling metropolis, but it’s far from a backwater hamlet either. Winston-Salem is a medium-sized city, by US standards, located in the southeastern state of North Carolina. Situated in the Piedmont region—which Romance language speakers will recognize means “foothills”—Winston-Salem is at the foot of the Sauratown Mountains to the north, with the distinct monadnock, Pilot Mountain, visible from the higher elevations of the city. The ancient Blue Ridge Mountains are just a bit further away to the west. The surrounding lush forests, coupled with the rolling terrain, form a beautiful backdrop for this city built on the back of tobacco and textiles.

The campus of Wake Forest University against the backdrop of Pilot Mountain and the Sauratown Mountains copyright Ken Bennett/WFU

The unique hyphenated name comes from the merging of two cities: the tobacco and textile hub, Winston, and the older, Moravian-founded town of Salem. Old Salem still exists as a living, working archaeological site, and popular tourist destination. People still live in most of the 18th and 19th century homes (surely a laughable idea of “old” to foreign visitors) and Salem College—also founded by the Moravian settlers—still inhabits and operates in many of the colonial era buildings.

Single Brothers' Workshop on Main Street in Old Salem

As the textile and tobacco industries have diminished in the region, the arts and technology—particularly biotechnology—have filled the gaps in Winston-Salem. In 2013, the Innovation Quarter was christened, following Wake Forest University’s Biotech Place taking up residence in a revitalized downtown area once owned by RJ Reynolds Tobacco. Innovation Quarter has continued to add technology companies as residents as well as actual residents in apartments and condominiums and a host of shops and restaurants followed them. Today, coupled with Bailey Park, Innovation Quarter stands as a mixed-use hub focused on creative development, innovation, entrepreneurship, and collaboration. With a number of the University’s departments and Medical School located within Innovation Quarter, it has truly become a gem of the city.

Bailey Park at the foot of Innovation Quarter copyright Ken Bennett/WFU

Winston-Salem calls itself the City of Arts & Innovation. Innovation Quarter clearly provides a great deal of the “innovation” part of that moniker. A number of arts organizations, museums, galleries, artists and colleges fulfill the “arts” part of the city’s ambition.

The Arts District in downtown Winston-Salem is the residence of a number of independent art galleries and shops including a regular “Gallery Hop” where the streets are closed and pedestrians wander from location to location, often with live music and food vendors joining the regular restaurants and shops along the thoroughfare.

Sculpture in the Arts District copyright Ted Buckner

Speaking of music, local venues like The Ramkat—also located in the Arts District—hosts a steady stream of musical acts that includes “legends and legends in-the-making.” One can see bands as well-known as Drive-By Truckers, Marty Stuart, and Cannibal Corpse, to local up-and-comers like Migrant Birds and American Aquarium.

Winston-Salem is the home to the top notch art museums the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), Reynolda House Museum of American Art (and its accompanying gardens), and the student run stArt Gallery, as well as a variety of other types of museums like the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and its companion living museum Old Salem, the Museum of Understanding, Storytelling, and Engagement (MUSE), the Museum of Anthropology on the campus of Wake Forest University, and the stock car racing focused Winston Cup Museum.

Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art copyright Ken Bennett/WFU

The Camel City is not home to large regional theatres like you might find in Chicago or Washington, D.C. Rather, the theatre itch here is scratched by a number of smaller companies, community theatres, and colleges. The Hanesbrands Theatre at the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts plays host to a number of companies including the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem, an 80+ year-old community Theatre, North Carolina Black Repertory Company, the Winston-Salem Festival Ballet, Spirit Gum Theatre Company, and the 40+ Stage Company. In their new home in a renovated taxi garage, Theatre Alliance produces a full season of crowd pleasing works on the border of downtown and the historic West End neighborhood, while the Stained Glass Playhouse is a community theatre that takes up residence in a converted Methodist church. Meanwhile, some of the best performances in theatre, dance, and opera can also be seen on the stages at Wake Forest University (of course) and the heralded University of North Carolina School of the Arts, on opposite sides of the city from each other.

Winston Square Park near the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts copyright Susan Smith

Winston-Salem is not a magnet for international visitors, but it does prove to be a terrific place to visit and live. Visitors to the Camel City won’t find themselves wanting for much (other than good public transportation, but the American culture is a car culture), but they will be greeted by a beautiful, friendly, and vibrant city. And when the selected designer for the aWAKEn project is here in residency, it will be Spring in the Piedmont of North Carolina. As I always tell people, “you can’t beat Winston-Salem for Spring.”

Weeping cherry tree on the Wake Forest campus copyright Ken Bennett/WFU

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