Column: Caldwell County's past, present seen from one corner

Apr. 28, 2013 @ 01:24 AM

Until the day of the ceremonial announcement that Google is going to expand its data center in Lenoir, I didn’t even realize where the data center was.

I had driven past it at least a dozen times since arriving here in January.

I don't think anyone at Google intended for it to be poignant when they selected a site within Lenoir for the company's data center, but that's what happened. When you leave Google and turn left to Morganton Boulevard, you face Bernhardt Furniture's Plant 3. There at the traffic light, you sit smack between looming symbols of this area’s past and what may be its future.

When I worked here as a reporter 25 years ago and furniture was at something close to its height, every afternoon around 3, black smoke poured from the smokestack at that Bernhardt plant. At least in my memory, a thick plume boiled against the sky for 20 or 30 minutes, and then it gradually eased. People I knew who had worked there or knew people who did said it was from workers clearing the scraps from their work area at the end of the shift, tossing everything into the incinerator.

I haven't seen smoke like that since returning.

Out of curiosity, last Saturday morning I drove up Lynnhaven Drive past Google’s entrance and into the old neighborhood there. The juxtapositions can be striking. In certain places, it can feel as though a spaceship has landed and altered the landscape.

Tall chain-link fencing draped with concealing green fabric lines Google's perimeter, but you can still glimpse the large, white buildings lined with towering cooling equipment, with an empty field between them and the fence. At one point along Overlook Drive, which has no overlooks, there is a sheer earthworks wall at least 50 feet high where a holler was filled in. It too is topped with  fencing.

On the opposite side of the road, meanwhile, are woods or modest houses of the kind you might find on any country drive.

Before long the road passes out of range of Google, and you could be in any hilly spot in Caldwell County, if you didn't know where you are.

I’m left with the lingering images of old and new. Old neighborhoods on one side of a winding residential road, new hillside and fencing on the other. Old Caldwell industry and new, almost face to face across a city thoroughfare.

The former Broyhill Furniture Industries headquarters on U.S. 321, soon to be home to a growing pharmaceutical company, still seems to me the greatest single symbol of the local economy’s transformation.

But there on the street outside Google's gate you get a greater sense of the sweep of change. From the Google sign you can look at the company’s guarded, high-security gate and the almost-new buildings beyond them, look to one side at the Bernhardt smokestack, and then look to the other up the hill to houses where some people have lived since before the founder of Google was born.

Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov said: “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

Who could have foreseen this world?