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The Examined Life: Uptown Pastoral

by Thomas Herron
Guest columnist

A Day in the Life is a rotating invitational column. Writers are asked to offer some idea or observation about our world, filtered through their liberal arts field, the study of the which promotes active citizens and a vibrant democracy.

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” –Joni Mitchell

Uptown Greenville is much uglier than it should be: sprawling aprons of tarmac, some long enough to land airplanes on, swelter during summer and bounce heat back into the atmosphere, dangerously so in the long-run. Polluted water runs into our storm systems. Uptown is dominated by asphalt, gravel and concrete urban deserts that are toxic to the environment and to our sense of civic well-being.

It is the liberal arts, and ECU’s place in it, that promises a remedy. In particular, we need to re-envision our growing town according to pastoral principles. The pastoral is one of the foundations of the visual and literary arts and a cornerstone of a good liberal arts education. It is a way of living and learning that fosters communal thinking along environmental lines. It is what Greenville needs to be green again, and ECU is leading the way in this regard.

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I have not met anyone who admires a parking lot. Look at what they replace: either green fields and woods or —in the case of Greenville’s downtown (i.e., Uptown)— fine old houses and lawns that once formed the town’s dense, walkable center. Many of these buildings were neglected for years while the suburbs grew, until they were finally flattened by demolition, the growth of the courts and municipal bureaus, legal services, private office buildings, and the sprawl of ECU administrative buildings in the 1960s and ’70s.

Photo: Lisa Ellison

William H. Long House. Photo: Lisa Ellison

As a result, between Fifth St. and the Tar River downtown, any tree or attractive building that still pokes its head up from the black-and-gravel, office-park wasteland around it feels like a lucky mushroom in a well-mown lawn. Some buildings that have withstood the slow crawl of destruction and negligence, such as the boisterously columned William H. Long house (200 E. Fourth St.), a national historic landmark named after former mayor William H. Long (mayor from 1901-03), are tasteful temples to the past, but their indwellers fled long ago. Like the plucky and attractive Greenville Art Museum, they are repurposed shells of private homes, fine institutions but ruins of what once was: a well-to-do community in Uptown.

What have we lost? On the Long building, the remarkable, outsized, grand stone Tuscan columns and jutting porte cochere hearken back to the porticos of the classical age; they were meant, in the marketing illusions of real estate agents, for greeting elegant visitors with fans in their hands and for relaxing under shadily while drinking mint juleps and whiffing vibrant gardenias. The recently restored Robert Lee Humber house on 5th St. has a similar effect. They were, in reality, a way of showing off and claiming a link to Southern plantation culture and, through their fine proportions and democracy for the elite, to ancient Greek culture.

They were, in all cases, attractive and built on a human scale. They were meant to be lived in and cared for —the house part— while also appearing cultured —the temple part. Air conditioning and economic prosperity helped to destroy all that, but so did car culture.

Let’s bring back the bicycles, the pedestrians and something else enlightened and ancient as we rebuild our town: a bustling civic space. This can all co-exist with cars, as it does so well in front of the shops on Evans St. (which, for a time, was converted into a pedestrian mall north of Fifth St., until the scheme failed). The new parking garage on Fourth and Cotanche Streets, adjacent to Evans St., takes the right attitude by building vertically and not only horizontally. It also offers a terrific view of town from its top deck: the courthouse sits like an elegant old friend while the river flows nearby. We can make Uptown a place where people enjoy physically existing in comfortable, interesting and productive spaces that pleasantly bond us together.

 

To form a community, we need to envision Greenville as a pastoral space. What do I mean by “pastoral?” The pastoral appears first in our classical literature. It is an edenic vision of a fallen world, a greenspace around attractive ruins occupied by rustic philosophers. It is a place where culture once grew, decayed, and can grow again. It is a location of literature, song, art and conversation, of discussing and reminiscing while looking forward. It is a place of contemplation and of careful work, which can benefit the whole community.

In the pastoral, shepherds provide milk from goats and pull wool while singing poetry. Today we can offer hamburgers, lattes and home-made ice cream as well as Freeboot Friday concerts. The pastoral creates a space for art and conversation: conversation provides food for thought, on how best to live, on the passions and pains of love, on the fickleness of politicians, on the meaning of life. The root of the word “pastoral” is closely related to both pastures and pastors; pastoralists take care of their flocks while seeking to better understand their place in the world and the place of the world in them.

The pastoral asks us to admire the harmony between humankind and nature as it creates and idealizes a cultivated space. The pastoral supports individual voices and initiatives; it offers the opportunity to criticize authorities who negligently or purposefully replace what is admirable and good. In other words, the pastoral vision suggests a way forward and out of the asphalt desert we currently find ourselves in in Uptown Greenville.

More houses or apartments with elegantly cultivated spaces, including pleasant yards, parks and gardens, as well as good businesses that care for their immediate environs, will improve our quality of life here.

 

How do we rebuild our community and sense of communal admiration in the historic heart of Greenville, i.e. in Uptown? Improving the economy and reducing crime are of course paramount. But so are sidewalks and bike lanes nicely situated alongside attractive green spaces with parking, vibrant restaurants and small businesses. Fine new houses (perhaps townhouses) are badly needed. Apartment blocks that cater only to students and that take up every square inch of a property with no room to breathe around them are not the only solution.

If a mayor still lived in Uptown I doubt it would be so run-down, so let’s build a new mayor’s house there according to pastoral principles. A good “green” (LEED)-minded architect would have plenty of space to work with. Such a building could function as a combined perk-of-office and civic space, like the Chancellor’s residence does at ECU.

Uptown could use a creatively designed hotel that overlooks the Tar and the Town Commons and that caters to ECU (such a hotel is included in ECU’s long-term planning). Such places will draw adults (not only students) into living in and spending their money Uptown. Let’s build on the success of Starlight Café, Cinnamon and the Scullery, Emerge Gallery, iTeach, the Wright School of Music and Winslow’s. By contrast, the Convention Center Hilton on Greenville Blvd. is classy and comfortable but could be anywhere.

 

Ironically, ECU is leading the way forward down the garden path it helped to pave over. A remarkable thing is happening amid all the budget cuts, rising fees and suppressed faculty salaries on campus: the administration has found a pastoral vision. A fine new fountain was installed by alumni in front of Wright to mark the Centennial. Students and their families flock to it like flamingos to a watering hole. Through-roads (such as Founder’s Lane) have recently been abbreviated and pedestrianized, including addition of bike lanes and fine landscaping. Parking lots (such as that between Rawl and Austin Buildings) have been turned into tree-lined greenswards. A “Green Room” with wide windows has been added onto the Croatan for better socializing and dining. The dorms on College Hill are being attractively renovated and will be a “gateway” to campus. We can enjoy newly bricked sidewalks on pretty lawns under stately oak trees in front of columned architecture. The result: the ECU campus is a much more attractive and healthier place for people to visit, walk and bike in than it was even five years ago. We look more like Chapel Hill. Prospective parents will be impressed. Enrollments will increase and class sizes grow. As ECU planners look west of the main campus towards Uptown, a similar liberal arts spirit should be encouraged there, too. All we need is a pastoral vision.

Thomas Herron is an Associate Professor of English at East Carolina University.
© Thomas Herron

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One Response

  1. Anthony Noel says:

    Thank you Thomas, for reminding us that downtown is still evolving – and that we who live and work here have the ultimate say in exactly how it will.

    The parking garage enables the Evans Street pedestrian mall’s rebirth, if we are bold enough, having not at first succeeded, to try, try again. The garage’s absence is what sunk the project’s first incarnation. So let’s plant trees right down the middle. Convert the pavement to paving stones with integrated gardens and benches. Allow outdoor dining adjacent to existing restaurants and reward new retailers for using old spaces.

    Start all this at Fifth and run it past the courthouse, straight through First Street, terraced down to the Town Common. This would force traffic not merely to calm but to behave as it does in city centers across the country, ceding priority to walkers and bikers. Anyone who has visited Durham or Asheville or Charlottesville, VA knows exactly what I’m talking about. Do some shopping. Enjoy an al fresco brunch or dinner. Then maybe a concert, a paddle on the Tar, or a self-guided walking tour of the grand old homes you’ve identified.

    The parking garage makes all this possible, and more – helping Greenville become a destination not only for students and staff, but home to the businesses incubated during their scholarly pursuits.

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