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Revitalizing Montgomery without erasing markers of the past

The Kress Department Store in the heart of downtown Montgomery, Alabama is one of many decaying buildings that New York-based entrepreneur Sarah Beatty Buller is trying to revitalize. Jeffrey Brown reports on a project to revive a neighborhood marked by a history of racial divisions as well as bustling black businesses, without erasing its past.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to a story about history and change.

    Montgomery, Alabama, is a city of monuments and markers of its conflicted past, the Confederacy, segregation and the civil rights movement.

    Jeffrey Brown looks at a project to rebuild downtown while maintaining a sense of its heritage.

    It's part of his ongoing series Culture at Risk.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    "Colored" and "White" inscribed on two stones that once stood over segregated water fountains in a Kress department store in the heart of downtown Montgomery, Alabama, where everyone knew their place.

  • Valda Harris Montgomery:

    You knew exactly where you could and could not go.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Valda Harris Montgomery used to go to Kress as a young girl.

  • Valda Harris Montgomery:

    It was just the unfairness and the inequality that you sensed that was so strong. You could sense that you're not welcome.

  • Sarah Beatty Buller:

    I think it is a vestige of truth.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Now those old stones are part of an effort by New York-based entrepreneur Sarah Beatty Buller to revitalize a building and downtown that had fallen on hard times.

  • Sarah Beatty Buller:

    It really started very pragmatically with, wow, those are some spectacular buildings, and they're not really being loved. Do you think that we could do something maybe about buying those buildings and helping to restore them?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But then it went further. Buller and her husband, Mark, have spent the last five-plus years renovating this building. The goal, to create new commercial space that turns a profit and preserves a sense of sometimes painful history.

  • Sarah Beatty Buller:

    I don't want to recreate a time in history that isn't a very proud one. I do also think that I have a responsibility to show a vestige of history, so that people understand that that had an impact for how people behaved and how they connected, so that we can come up with something that's better.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In Montgomery, as in other cities, street names and neighborhoods were markers of racial divisions. Dexter Avenue was a largely white shopping area. When businesses and people began to move to the suburbs in the 1960s and '70s, many buildings were left in disrepair, paint peeling, windows boarded up.

    The Kress building was one of them. It was originally built in 1898, restored in 1929 after a fire, and finally shuttered in 1981. A so-called five-and-dime store, it was a destination for Montgomery shoppers. But the block-wide Kress also opened onto Monroe Street, a once-bustling black business area.

  • Valda Harris Montgomery:

    Downtown Montgomery was a lot of fun, because you could buy your popcorn. If you had a dollar or so, you could really spend it on just junk.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Valda Harris Montgomery's father and grandfather owned and ran a drugstore for decades on Monroe Street.

  • Valda Harris Montgomery:

    This is a recreation, pretty much.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Her father later moved the lunch counter from the store into their family home. There were many good memories, she told us, but she also witnessed the segregation imposed at Kress and other stores, separate dining areas, restrooms, even a separate staircase that led to the African-American shopping area downstairs.

    In the restoration, Buller kept some of these features, but in a new Context.

  • Sarah Beatty Buller:

    We really decided that adding this quote, "The time is always right to do what is right," by Martin Luther King Jr., could be a reminder to all of us.

    If we took them out of this space, it would almost be like pretending this never happened. It would be wiping it away. And that wasn't our — we were not — that was not my place to do that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Buller reached out to local residents, including Montgomery, for input.

  • Valda Harris Montgomery:

    When we were doing a brainstorming session in the building, and she spoke of the water fountains, it was a little visceral feeling there of discomfort.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. And things came back.

  • Valda Harris Montgomery:

    And as things came back, came back quickly.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So what's the value in keeping, in restoring them?

  • Valda Harris Montgomery:

    Well, after — this was in the beginning.

    After she's had the grand opening, and you saw the younger people that have come down that are really interested in learning the history, because they have only read about this — they grew up in integrated times. And how so many of the young whites that are coming in that are wanting to learn about this history as well, I think it's going to be very, very, very beneficial.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So does Michelle Browder. She runs a tour company, More Than Tours, and was one of the first business owners to move into the new Kress building, where her store is filled with art and artifacts from Montgomery's past.

  • Michelle Browder:

    When I was shown the stones, the colored and white only water fountain signs, it was a no-brainer. I had to be here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Why?

  • Michelle Browder:

    It just reminds us of the battle and the struggles that we have to continue to fight for equality and for equal justice. And so, basically, I thought it was important to be the keepers of the stone. You know, I just thought, that narrative needs to be told.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    She's also part of a new generation of African-American entrepreneurs, and takes inspiration from being on the same street where black-owned businesses once thrived.

    And that narrative needs to be told.

  • Michelle Browder:

    For so long, we have been groomed to go to college to work for someone else. No, we can own our own. There are people that are smart enough here to be able to do that and offer a product that works.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The legacy Browder looks to is on display throughout the new Kress building.

    As part of the Remembering Monroe Street Project, residents brought in photographs of the historic block. And, downstairs, there's a space to record and share memories of the store and neighborhood.

    There's also an art studio containing works from Alabama artists, including Bill Traylor, a self-taught illustrator, born into slavery, who gained fame drawing on Monroe Street.

    There's plenty of space for new businesses, and two floors above are 23 luxury apartments, all quickly rented, for $900 to $1,200 a month.

    This is, remember, a business, one created by outsiders.

  • Sarah Beatty Buller:

    I think, for us, especially because we don't live here, to make sure that we could link arms with people in the local community who had — and understood that our visions were aligned for what we wanted.

    And what we all did share was an interest in really trying to bring downtown Montgomery back.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Making money while doing this, there's no shame in that.

  • Sarah Beatty Buller:

    There's so no shame in that. I hope that every single square foot is rented, is leased, and it's a combination of local businesses and multinational businesses involved with conversations as it relates to their customers and social justice.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's a big idea, combining history and profit, old stones and new money.

    Buller and her husband have purchased several other buildings nearby, some in very raw condition. They plan to renovate them, just as with Kress.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in Montgomery, Alabama.

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