January 28, 2022
My Hometown: From A Heaven To A Hell
NOTE: This is not about MY Hometown, well it is, but it is more about Progress and Change and waking up one morning and learning that Old Man Usta really is dead. Yesterday is a Memory … Today is Reality.
WARNING: This is a long one. Probably should be a two-parter but …
If you were fortunate to have grown up in an idyllic small town in America in the 1950-60s – and you were a middle-class white kid … this might be about “Your Kinston” whether you called it Shelby – Hickory – Rocky Mount – Danville – Valdosta – Cape Girardeau – Cookeville – Pine Bluff – (insert name of yours).
All towns are living organisms … forever evolving. Never staying “the way they are … or used to be”. They must deal with circumstance and consequences or …
“Small town” for our purposes will be 5,000 – 40,000 “back then”. If you grew up in a city your “small town” might be a neighborhood or “a borough”… whatever constituted “your stompin’ grounds” as a kid.
Hopefully, your idyllic “where you grew up” has fared better than mine has. I grew up in “a Happy Days’ Heaven” that over 60 or so years has morphed…
…into “a Hell” – “the poorest, crime-ridden community per capita in North Carolina” and on various short lists of such in America.
WHOA … before I get blacklisted from my next High School reunion – I’ve attended Every One of the 10-12 that have been held. I’ll put my growing up in Kinston in the 50-mid 60s against anyone anytime anyplace. I cannot overuse “idyllic” because it was.
It was Happy Days – Leave It To Beaver – Father Knows Best – My Three Sons – et al. … for a middle-class white kid.
At 20,000 – 60% White / 40% Black back then – we were way too big to be “Mayberry”. Ronnie’s dad Joe Hill was a Friendly barber but so was Red Hathaway. We had 4-5 “Floyds'”.
We had a for-real 10-story high-rise hotel – “the tallest man-made structure east of Raleigh” so they say – located on our “Magic Mile” shopping district – Queen Street – with a hill on the north end that hosted for-real Soap Box Derbys. … for middle-class white kids.
“Idyllic” doesn’t mean perfect. Kids got acne … there were bullies. I have often wondered what maximum security dungeon Jack Medley is rotting away in? … We had puberty and adolescence with all its assorted traumas. But Life was darn good for us middle class white kids.
The “struggling to meet payroll for its bare bones staff” regional newspaper in Raleigh ran a 2-part series over the past several weeks A Basketball Heaven inside a Living Hell. That wasn’t its exact title but thats what it was about.
I could link to the articles but they have a PayWall. Plus I’m not about to have my vast audience provide “clicks” to those self-righteous SOBs.
Like many others, I stopped subscribing to and reading the overtly partisan rag over a dozen years ago, but I was flooded with copies of the lengthy articles.
My 20+ years reputation as an Internet Smart Aleck meant a number of calls and emails asking “BobLee, whatta ya think about this?”.
I agreed with 95% of it based on what I know. I’m not privy to the population / income data, crime figures and such.
BUT … any paragraph much less multiple lengthy articles about “Kinston Basketball” that does not contain the two words Paul Jones is like a King James’ New Testament that doesn’t mention Jesus Christ.
A 38-year Hall of Fame coaching career with over 660 Wins merits a footnote, don’t ya think?
But this article was only about “black basketball players” from Kinston who reached the NBA. Beginning with Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell and Jerry Stackhouse – both of whom were coached by the legendary Paul Jones – up to current players Reggie Bullock and Brandon Ingram … and the multiple state championships won in recent years by Kinston native – and middle-class white kid – Coach Perry Tyndall
Other than the total omission of Paul Jones, the depressing portrayal of My Hometown circa 2022 as a dirt-poor, crime-ridden Down East Hell-hole is not inaccurate from what I know.
Of my 1965 Jesse W. Grainger High School class, a reasonable number – 30-40 or so – have remained in Kinston and carved out not-unpleasant lives for their families proving basic goods and services to the community.
Middle-class white folks serving other middle-class white folks in “the poorest, crime-ridden community in North Carolina”.
They live in nice homes in pleasant neighborhoods and their children likely attended the local highly-rated Arendall Parrott Academy before moving on to ECU, UNC, NCState, Campbell, etc … and a few even to Duke … and then into The World. To return “home”, maybe, for funerals and reunions.
I could drive you around a carefully chosen route through Kinston for a half- hour and show you the last vestiges of the idyllic Happy Days Hometown of my youth. Clean well-maintained homes that would sell for $500,000+ in Raleigh, but “maybe” half that in Kinston if the buyer was lucky..
After those 30 minutes it would be the desolate post-apocalyptic long-vacant “mall”. A typical mall that did not exist in the mid 60s … sprouted up in the 70s … and died a slow lingering death around the turn of this century. Don’t laugh. I bet your home town has one too.
Or, that “Magic Mile” downtown I spoke about is a post-apocalyptic collection of wig shops, store-front tabernacles, wannabee dollar stores, and boarded up storefronts with long faded FOR RENT signs.
A handful of hardy merchants have miraculously kept afloat over the years. Lord knows how! Hyman Stadium can guess your suit size the minute you walk thru the door of H. Stadiums menswear just like his father could. Hyman’s long time rival- Brody’s – sold out and moved out years ago.
Yes… there is Chef & The Farmer the trendy Farm To Table restaurant that locals hoped would replace DuPont’s polyester plant as the lynch pin of the local economy?? Alas, the parade of foodies diverting off I-95 has dwindled and local celebrity Chef Vivian Howard realized Charleston might be a better longterm bet for her talents.
NOTE: The same Chef Vivian Howard who, when accepting a James Beard Award from her former NYC faux-elitists, described Kinston and environs as “what Pakistan must look like”. OUCH!
There’s Mother Earth Brewery … but its dozen or so employees hasn’t replaced Dupont’s 2000 either. A vodka distillery has taken over the scary old deserted Power Plant which I swear is haunted. “Leatherface”, Jason Voorhees and Freddie Kruegar are playing pinochle in the basement.
A handful of local entrepreneurs are like “the little Dutch boy” trying to plug all the holes in the economic dike to keep Kinston “fogging a mirror”. Bless their hearts!
Meanwhile a recent basketball game between Kinston & Farmville in the Kinston Hi Gym was interrupted by a freakin’ tear gas grenade and ensuing battle of rival gangs … none of whom were middle-class white boys.
My Hometown once called itself WFTC – “World’s Foremost Tobacco Center”. With due respect to The DuPont Plant, TOBACCO was always “The Straw that stirred the economic drink” for Kinston / Lenoir County … until it didn’t any more.
Then it became known as The #1 ‘Stop to Pee’ location for beach-goers from The Triangle & Triad. At least King’s BBQ and Neuse Sports Shop out on the Hwy 70 by-pass shared that reputation.
Kinston’s touristy pride & joy is The Ram Neuse. A Confederate gunboat that was built in the mid 1860s in Seven Springs, 20 miles up the Neuse River. On its maiden voyage, it hit a sandbar outside Kinston AND SUNK. 100 years later, some locals guys dug it up … and Kinston had a You Must See.
More recently it’s become The Regional HQ for the Jamaican Drug Cartel on the East Coast. The ATF cites Kinston as a major East Coast drug center.
Then there was the local inter-racial couple who bludgeoned one of their spouses … carved the corpse into assorted pieces… then drove to Houston TX to toss the “parts” into a local canal??? Imagine you are the local Kinston Chamber of Commerce exec who saw THAT on the local / regional / national news! YOWSA!
The big economic news last year was an Axe-Throwing parlor opening up in one of the dozens of vacant storefronts just off “The Magic Mile”. You think I’m kidding don’t you?
OMG! BobLee! How did all this happen? Depends on who you ask. But the not very short list of “How” contain many of the same “Whys”.
That economic “straw” – Tobacco – dried up in the 70-80s and there was not another straw to replace it. So the economic drink dried up.
America’s love affair with “polyester” dried up. So the Dupont Plant shut down.
If America had (1) kept up its “three packs/day” habit and (2) kept wearing leisure suits, this column would probably not be written.
Several fairly large “shirt factories” that were the staple employers of much of Kinston’s “not middle-class white” population moved their production off-shore. They were replaced by an Axe-throwing parlor and a vodka distillery in a haunted power plant.
Then there’s Mother Nature. About every 2-3 years “Mom” decides to send a Cat-4/5 Hurricane to Eastern North Carolina. We’re not talking about Hockey teams … The Neuse River rises 30′ above flood stage and FEMA sets up shop in Kinston … AGAIN. When FEMA officials remember the menu at King’s BBQ from “the last time we were here” that is NOT a good sign for a community.
OK, this is where I insert the kinda scary 500 pound Go-rilla that cannot be ignored when discussing the Past – Present – Future of My Hometown.
Have you noticed my frequent mention above of midde-class white …? Picked up on that,huh?
That 60/40 white/black population in 1965 is now 35/65 white/black and becoming more “b” than “w” by the day.
My idyllic Hometown was as dramatically Segregated in the 50-60s as any Southern community you wish to use as comparison. There were separate but not equal “restroom facilities” in every public building, restaurant, etc.
Separate water fountains … separate schools … separate playgrounds … separate waiting rooms in medical facilities … even our postcard-perfect baseball stadium had “Colored” bleachers separate from “ours”.
There was “another side of the tracks” and every one of Kinston’s 20,000 residents knew it existed. The “housing projects” were “over there”.
The only time most of “us” went “over there” was (1) to take the maid home, or (2) at Christmas to deliver “a charitable box of canned goods” from our church’s youth group.
Hey, I’m not bragging about this. I’m telling you “like it was” in small town South in the 50-60s. If you asked anyone “why” the answer was aways “thats just the way its always been…”.
Have I mentioned that – back then – Kinston NC – like 95% of “small town South” – was at least 98% Democrat.
NOTE: That N&O article I mentioned above conveniently omitted Kinston’s long standing political history.
Republicans were rarer than Mormons. Actually I knew more Mormons than I did Republicans.
Could/Would Repubs have done any better for Kinston if they had been in charge. Probably not … but they could hardly have done any worse.
We had one local Republican – Dr J.C. Peele – who was a full-fledged “John Bircher” and wrote LTTE to the Kinston Daily Free Press once a week. Oddly, pretty much everything “goofy ol’ Dr Peele” warned about is Today’s Headlines.
My Mamma was a for-real Yellow Dog Democrat. She had no clue whatsoever about any “issues”. Nixon’s 5 o’clock shadow in his debates with JFK was more than enough to vilify him to my Mamma.
… Hey, I Told You This Was a LOOONG One!…
I NEVER in her 95 years EVER heard her say “the N -word” … they were “colored people”.
One day when I was “back home” from wherever I was living at the time, I mentioned to her that Jesse Jackson was running for President “as a Democrat”. Uh Oh! I’m not sure she ever trusted anything I ever said after that.
When Mamma met the Best Man at Blondie’s and My Wedding in 1984 in Cape Girardeau MO he was “just my friend, Rush, who worked for the Royals”. As that evolved in the 90s; she never could deal with it so she simply ignored it. Probably best for all concerned.
Have I mentioned that – other than WWII when my Dad – “The Colonel” – was stationed at various military bases, my Mamma spent her entire 96 years living in Kinston, just as her mother had before her. To her, “going to Goldsboro” was “traveling out-of-town” which she saw no real reason to do very often.
On the rare occasions I return to Kinston it is either a high school reunion … or a funeral of either a HS classmate or their parents. I avoid “the scary part of town” just like I did 60 years ago. That “scary part” has expanded about 50% since then. It’s referred to as “the Kinston creep”. I avoid the house I grew up in and where my Mom lived for 50 years. Its not in “the scary part of town” YET but I have no reason to visit there.
“Kinston” – whatever that noun encompasses – did not handle “Integration” any better than it handled the End of The Tobacco Era. Not very well at all.
Does one have to lay “fault” on the City Fathers of the 60-70-80s? Sure … who else is suppose to guide a community when “times they are achanging”.
Some small Southern towns have certainly fared better … few have fared worse than Kinston.
No discussion of Kinston’s socio-economic collapse is complete without three letters – GTP – Global Trans Park.
In the late 80s-early 90s, a UNCCH professor -John Kasada (SP?) – came up with a whizbang idea of locating manufacturing / assembly plants along an airport runway. Cargo planes could load / unload parts directly to the plants loading docks. WOW … what an efficient way to do business !!!
I heard Prof Kasada deliver his plan to a group of Triangle mover/shakers. Me / BobLee? A “mover-shaker” … a long story for another day.
The key to WHERE TO PUT IT was a 500-mile concentric circle from the “TransPark” so it could efficiently service the suppliers / customers of the plants. Like multiple locations in Tennessee and Kentucky for instance.
But NCs “Governor For Life” Jim Hunt did not have a powerful political crony in Tennessee or Kentucky but he DID have one down in Kinston. Everyone in Kinston who reads this knows who it was. The rest of you don’t need to know … every small town has “political cronies”.
Long Story Short … The NCGA allocated beau-coups of taxpayers $$$ to an elaborate feasibility study (by more of Jim Hunt’s cronies) that ended up selecting little ol’ Kinston as the site for THE GLOBAL TRANS PARK!
GLORY BE … THANK THE LORD … KINSTON IS SAVED! – Pass the Hushpuppies
Whoa guys … wait a minute … that 500-mile concentric circle that makes the whole whizbang idea work … Has anyone looked at a map?
40% of that 500-mile concentric circle is the Freakin’ Atlantic Ocean. … and the nearest Interstate Highway is 60 miles away !!!! OH S***!
Of course, by the time any of the Wizards of Smarts realized the obvious … Jim Hunt’s local crony had sold a lot of otherwise worthless land to “GTP” … and Hunt’s other cronies had been paid for their totally worthless “feasibility studies”.
By then Kinston’s lone Republican – Dr J.C. Peele – was long dead and no longer writing scathing LTTEs.
And My Hometown was left with ….
- A well-weathered Welcome To Kinston / Home of The Global TransPark sign out on Hwy 70 …
- 20,000 broken dreams … and
- The “honor” of becoming #1 among the “Poorest, Crime-ridden Cities in North Carolina”
But, by golly, I’m still darn lucky to have been born & raised in Kinston back in the 50-60s … as a middle-class white kid.
Kinston, NC will Always be My Hometown.