“UNITED” pleads for solidarity amidst Crystal Towers crisis

The documentary captures a pivotal moment in Winston-Salem’s ongoing housing crisis
Crystal Towers resident Michael Mike Douglas is the main subject of UNITED. (Courtesy of Louie Poore)
Crystal Towers resident Michael “Mike” Douglas is the main subject of “UNITED.” (Courtesy of Louie Poore)

On the cold, otherwise quiet afternoon of Jan. 23, smoke began billowing out of the 11-story high-rise. Crystal Towers was, literally, on fire. But the unfolding disaster at the 201-unit affordable housing complex had been slow-burning for years. 

While firefighters contained the fire in the sprinkler-less building, the significance of the event was not lost on locals and observers; the crisis at 625 W Sixth St. had reached an alarming new temperature. 

Later that same week, “UNITED,” a short documentary from Wake Forest documentary MFA student Louie Poore was officially released to the public. The film, one part of a series on affordable housing Poore is working on, highlights the struggle Crystal Towers residents have faced in trying to protect their community and save their home.  

The 16-minute film arrived at a crucial moment for the community, showcasing within its frames the grassroots coalition-building efforts fighting for change in the neglected building. 

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Despite its local specificity, Poore said this cause is universal. 

“A lot of Americans have been tenants at one time or another. A lot of Americans are workers, the ruling class, the landlords, the managers, what have you. They’re very much in the minority for the average American new experiences,” Poore said. 

He continued: “I’m a tenant, and I’m a worker […]. It’s hard for me to not see the plight of the folks at Crystal Towers and the larger work of Housing Justice Now and not feel a deep kind of affection and connection to that struggle.”

625 W Sixth St.

The 50-year-old Crystal Towers, which were originally designed as affordable housing for Winston-Salem’s elderly population, have become the source of a years-long battle between the residents, advocacy groups and the local government. 

Overseeing Crystal Towers is the Winston-Salem Housing Authority, or HAWS, which receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They’ve attempted to ease the state of disrepair that the complex has fallen into, but those costly, long-term repairs — many of which have been years in the making — have been stymied by HAWS’ insufficient funding. 

Today, Crystal Towers remains without a working sprinkler system or consistently-operational elevators — a particular concern given the number of wheelchair-bound residents. 

Resident Michael “Mike” Douglas, who Poore frames the film around, opens the documentary by describing the state of the complex. 

“I’ve got neighbors that have been bitten by mice. I’ve got floors with asbestos in them,
Douglas said. “We recently had a renovated lobby — but no one lives in the lobby.”

These dire concerns prompted residents to form an advocacy coalition in order to directly engage the city government: Crystal Towers United

In the months following the group’s inception, speakers have routinely attended city council meetings, vocalizing their frustration and demanding city-level intervention. 

In a September city council meeting, Crystal Towers United member Samuel Grier told city council he felt “targeted.”

“I love my city … for the sake of the people … we’re handicapped. We’re elderly. And we just need the city to step in and help the housing authority” Grier said. 

Art and advocacy 

Poore said his filmmaking effort was a part of what he saw as a neighborly responsibility to share their story.   

“It resonated with me deeply to … be in this powerless, helpless position, where you’re at someone else’s … whim and mercy. And really all you’re trying to do is have shelter, have a roof over your head, have safety and security,” Poore said. “These are basic human rights in our world. Today has become pretty precarious.”

The documentary follows Douglas, chronicling multiple meetings with Crystal Towers United as he and others prepare to speak at a pivotal City Council meeting in November 2023 — which serves as the film’s climax. 

In a November meeting at the Forsyth County Public Library, Poore captures the group preparing for the upcoming council meeting where Douglas and others hope to get on the call to the audience list. They discuss and prepare what they might say, dictating letters and speeches to Dan Rose, an organizer from the local advocacy group Housing Justice Now

“We’ve got to be smarter than them because they’ve been forceful with us […]. [The city council doesn’t] really give a damn about us getting what we deserve,” Douglas tells Rose. 

“Poore hopes his work sparks a larger conversation – particularly on Wake Forest’s campus, which exists only three miles from Crystal Towers.” (Courtesy of Louie Poore)

In the buildup to the city council meeting, the film yields its most illustrative sequence. Douglas and another member of United are seen signing in for the call to the audience and behind them Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines and other members of the city government pose for a photo  op with the Wake Forest women’s golf team. 

Poore said that this candid moment visually encapsulated the thematic essence of his project: the contrast of who’s living in the city and how. 

“It’s very quiet,” Poore said, “and if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you might not really get it because it kind of comes and goes, and, honestly, that speaks to my intent as a filmmaker. I don’t want to beat you over the head with it.”

Wake Forest’s inclusion in the documentary, albeit brief and entirely coincidental, illustrates the institution’s tenuous relationship with the city — Wake Forest’s institutional “ripple effect,” as Poore described it. 

In front of the city council, Douglas concluded his speech by announcing he will run for city council. He explained that because HAWS’ members are not elected, rather appointed, there needed to be someone directly affected by those laws and programs on the board. 

“It’s like taxation without representation. And we all know that’s unAmerican. We need you to think about us,” Douglas said. “And because that has not been done, I’m throwing my hat in the ring to run for city council in the north west [ward].”

“I was called upon to do this.”

What’s next? 

“UNITED” arrives a month before the North Carolina statewide primary elections, with many Winston-Salem residents looking to candidates to see how they’ll respond to the city’s burgeoning housing problem. 

While the film is explicitly Mike Douglas’s story, Poore said it just scratches the surface. He acknowledges that the work is far from over but is optimistic that as the word gets out others will join the call for action. 

Poore hopes his work sparks a larger conversation – particularly on Wake Forest’s campus, which exists only three miles from Crystal Towers. According to Poore, Wake Forest has the same neighborly responsibility he has. 

“There is something pretty protected and pretty isolated about campus and about the community,” Poore said. “But just on the other side of that little bubble, our neighbors and their neighbors who are probably leading very different lives, investing in those lives, showing an interest in those lives [and] breaking out of the bubble will enrich you.” 

He concluded that filming “UNITED” taught him not just about the city he lives in but about himself. 

“For me, the folks at Crystal Towers and specifically within Crystal Towers United  … have, strangely enough, taught me to kind of insist on my existence,” Poore said. “That it’s okay to speak up against power, it’s okay to join forces, even when you don’t agree about everything.”

In the wake of the fire on Jan. 23, it is clear that the work of Crystal Towers United is of grave importance to the community. 

Louie Poore knew this when he picked up his camera and Mike Douglas knew this when filed to run for city council. 

The fight to save Crystal Towers now heads to the ballot box.

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  • K

    Kenneth NesbittFeb 9, 2024 at 12:26 pm

    This is a situation that has gotten out of hand. I am happy to see the residents hold hands in solidarity. Continue with the struggle. God Bless you all. A new counsel person is the beginning of the solution. Best of luck