by Trista Porter
Evidence of shifting landscapes are all around Greenville. Drive along Cotanche Street, Dickinson Avenue, and all their side streets to see new buildings replacing older ones, and in some cases, older buildings being reconfigured for new businesses. Notice the updates to the Town Creek Culvert that have added some temporary inconveniences but will ultimately change the landscape of our city and help prevent the flooding that regularly hits Greenville. Or take a stroll along the Tar River Greenways and enjoy newly installed artwork juxtaposed against the natural backdrop of our city.
Alongside all these changes, our perspectives of Greenville’s many landscapes and what we value about them – whether these landscapes are natural, architectural, cultural, social, or political – are also being renegotiated. Through historical photos and artifacts, and works by contemporary artists, Greenville, Then and Now (on view at the Greenville Museum of Art until October 5) invites viewers to pause and reflect on Greenville’s historical and contemporary landscapes and what they continue to mean to us as individuals and as a community.
For centuries, the area along the Tar River was populated by indigenous peoples such as the Tuscarora. In the 1700s, the Tar River also brought European settlers migrating from the north side of the Pamlico Sound to the area of Pitt County. In the years that followed, the river continued to provide an important means of growing the town of Greenville –
established in 1771 as “Martinsborough,” changed to “Greenesville” in 1787, and eventually informally shortened to its present-day “Greenville” – into the city it is today.
Greenville’s population expanded rapidly between the 18th to 20th centuries, and with it, demand increased for industries and businesses that would support the prospering community’s diverse needs. Industry began first with gristmills, tar kilns, and a fulling mill as early as 1778. Crops like rice, corn, and sweet potatoes were the leading commodities early on. Later, the “King Cotton” years of the mid-19th century encouraged more steamboat traffic and improvements on the river. Tobacco became the major cash crop in Pitt County in the 1880s, and with the arrival of the railroad in 1890, Greenville opened up to the world.
Greenville’s expanding tobacco industry also brought new businesses and institutions focused on public needs, including hotels, banks, schools, hospitals, and churches, among others. Recreation and entertainment also grew as a response to Greenville’s expanding population and economic wealth. Greenville once had opera houses, masonic halls, social clubs, horse racing, and boat races, and since the early-20th century, social events, parades, performances, and festivals hosted by local clubs have continually drawn visitors into the growing commercial district of Greenville.
The 20th century brought urbanization and the incorporation of towns reflective of the “New South” economy, which combined agriculture with industry and commerce to help foster strong associations with business. Many members of the Greenville community supported this idea of progress, but there are negative impacts to urban development as well. It can and has displaced residents over the years, especially those with less economic, political, and social opportunity. As part of a larger urban development project in the 1960s, many homes and structures considered substandard were replaced with new buildings, structures, or public spaces viewed as more accommodating of Greenville’s rapid growth. Sadly, many homes, churches, and other buildings of historical significance were lost to the wrecking ball. Members of the community, especially those from Greenville’s African American community, who lived and worked in those areas, were displaced. Additionally, many of the shops and other businesses originally centered in Downtown Greenville eventually moved out to new developments on the edge of town.
These are just some of the effects of change and development that prompted us to exhibit Greenville, Then and Now. To newcomers, it might seem that Greenville is having a moment of rapid development, but these changes have really been happening for the last 50-60 years and have had varying effects on the community. Long-time residents of Greenville can attest to what the city used to look like, including Five Points at the corner of Evans and Fifth Streets; the numerous tobacco warehouses along and around Dickinson Avenue; and the different businesses they frequented Downtown before the opening of the Greenville Mall. Some of these places and histories are a joy to recount, while others are more painful considering what this loss has meant to certain people and their communities. However, we wanted to create a space where all of these memories and conversations – whether joyful, conflicting, or challenging – could take place, all while Greenville continues to move, mold, and change around us.
Greenville, Then and Now is on display at the Greenville Museum of Art until October 5th. Join us for the following exhibition-related programming and events!
• History Day at the GMoA: Saturday, August 24, 1:00 – 4:00pm
• Downtown Dialogues in the Humanities: Wednesday, September 25, 6:00 – 7:30pm
• Closing Reception + Haunted Tours of Greenville: Friday, October 4, 5:00 – 8:00pm (Haunted Tours start at 5:30pm)