New Bern, a town nestled on the Eastern coast of North Carolina, has long been lauded for its rich colonial history and beautiful waterfront. As the former capital of North Carolina, New Bern was a key location in both the American Revolution as well as the Civil War. Today, this history is displayed in the historic downtown district that is home to the colonial governor’s mansion, Tryon Palace, as well as many other sites and businesses such as the historic Pepsi store. The city has been committed to the perseveration of the historic district, especially as New Bern continues to be a flourishing retirement town and site of major tourist attraction.
The housing project of Trent Court is also located within this district. Built between 1941-1953, Trent Court was developed as a low-cost housing option for many of the residents in New Bern. Present day, Trent Court is a predominately Black community that sits within the crosshairs of the current gentrifying project in New Bern. The Choice Neighborhoods Initiatives Greater Five Points Transformation Plan—funded by Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the local housing authority, and the city of New Bern, seeks to revitalize the Five Points neighborhood in order to make the area safer and more inviting to families. The initiative recognizes the Five Points community as the “gateway to the revitalized historic downtown area.” A crucial aspect of this plan is to replace units in Trent Court with “New mixed-income” housing that will be located both on and off site. This is aimed at diversifying the population and types of housing to improve resident’s quality of life and to “encourage additional private and public investment.” While this may seem like a great plan to renew the city and give it new life, Trent Court’s proximity to downtown New Bern and the race of the residents should not be divorced from the project. The relocation will result in the uprooting of many families in the community. This is one of hardest aspects of the plan to navigate because the redevelopment will have massive effects on the community and local memory.
The recent devastation of Hurricane Florence only exacerbates this situation. According to the Raleigh News and Observer, at least 4,325 homes and 300 businesses were damaged in New Bern alone. Many of these businesses and homes are located within the heavily toured historical district. Trent Court, located in a floodplain, suffered severe damage and many of the units are currently unlivable. Many people are still living in shelters while the city decides whether to restore or begin the demolition process on the units. The future of both the housing development and its residents is uncertain and it has had profound effects on the community.
Trent Court is not an anomaly. Following major catastrophes, local housing and zoning issues are often brought to the forefront. City officials are forced to come to terms with discriminatory housing practices and the effects of tourism and capitalist enterprises on the communities. The enactment of the Five Points Transformation Plan brings these questions to the forefront of local politics. The plan is similar to the gentrification that is seen in cities where residents are constantly pushed out and replaced with residents who are retreating from the comforts of suburbia to reclaim “urban” cosmopolitan life. Of course, all of this isn’t negative, but it is up to community leaders and others to ensure that these changes do not silence the history of the people who make up the city.
There is historical precedent for this anxiety. On December 1, 1922, a fire swept through downtown New Bern while many of the residents were away at a football game. The fire began at the Rowland Lumber Company Mill and spread throughout the town. Thousands of people lost their homes and the majority of the houses that were destroyed were black-owned. Also destroyed in the fire was the historical St. Peter African Methodist Episcopal Zion church where many of the black residents attended. Following the event, the mayor condemned a section of the land to help create a city park and cemetery. Many of the black homeowners were against the decision, however, the board agreed that it would be a “distinct advantage to both white and black.” Black residents had their land stripped from them and today what remains are widened streets, a police department, a city park, and a cemetery. The only physical evidence of the fire is the history that is in the restored St. Peter AME Zion church that sits on the corner. As a resident of New Bern, I had no idea of the fire as well as the black community that existed prior to its destruction. I am wary of the effects of the current redevelopment on the historical memory of the community as well as the people who live there.
Within the next months and years of restoration, the question of what is valued in the city will be at stake. Will funding be allocated to simply preserve a particular image of the colonial town, or will the city equitably restore the city and its residents. New Bern will have to ask themselves whose history is being preserved as well as whose history will be silenced in the redevelopment of the city.