We had been in Elm City for thirty-five minutes the first time I trespassed, hopping a rusty old fence. We found ourselves, uninterrupted and alone, prowling an area advertised as off-limits. Turns out, during this weekend adventure, it would not be our last offense.
We'd left Raleigh minutes after the workweek had ended, headed east for a little less than an hour, and pulled into the laughably affordable Bailey House—Elm City's only bed and breakfast, and perhaps the only one worth counting within a half-hour drive, the officious but infinitely pleasant innkeeper Nell Cain had told us upon arrival—just as the sun had started to sink to golden-hour lows. It was Friday evening, not yet seven o'clock, but the little Eastern North Carolina railroad town already seemed tucked in for the night. The streets were empty, the tracks quiet, the wind whispering. Two orange tabby cats playing in the neighbor's yard seemed to be the town of one thousand's busiest weekend scene.
There were a few enthusiastic introductions and some anxious explanations. Nell told us of her afternoon troubles with a plumber who had quit before making our bathroom sink usable, a tale confirmed by her son, Jason, the home's actual owner, who soon arrived with a pizza tucked under his arm. We smiled, nodded, and said goodbye for the moment, pulling two bikes from the roof of our sedan and starting a slow roll down South Railroad Street, which hugs the still-active rail line.
We passed rows of silent brick storefronts and a grand old depot, a gleaming silver water tower and century-old homes in various phases of splendor or squalor. In a little less than a mile, a row of spindly cedar trees formed a fence of sorts to our right, leading the way through the ferric gates of the Cedar Grove cemetery. We eased along the shaded gravel paths, ogled the oldest stones, and cut across muddy hillocks in a farmer's unkempt field.
At last, we found ourselves at a locked fence that guarded the waterworks of the swampy town's sewer system, entirely unexpected given the community's presiding feeling of complete torpor. We looked through, saw an adventure ahead and no "No Trespassing" signs in sight, and determined that we had forty-five minutes to kill before heading an hour southeast to late dinner reservations at the television-famous Kinston restaurant Chef & the Farmer.
I climbed, while my wife, Tina, shimmied between the gate's halves. Honeysuckle bloomed in billowing clouds along the lagoon's banks, while the early signs of blackberries poked through radiant green leaves and briars. We peered into the goopy water, marveled at turtles fighting through the muck, and soon returned to the other side of the fence, where our unlocked bikes stood undisturbed.
We spotted carloads of kids arriving at a middle school dance and two other bikers along the town's "fitness trail," or what you may call a sidewalk. We became the first people to ever go through the drive-thru of Boogie's Turkey BBQ by bike. (The prize, turns out, was free hush puppies, the only thing we'd wanted.) We climbed a slow country hill outside the Elm City limits, just as the sun properly began to set. We turned around and moseyed to our car and headed back to the highway.
When I'd sorted through Eastern North Carolina lodgings, I'd wanted a town I'd never seen, full of people I'd never met and who mostly let the occasional tourists be. Nodding to a family closing its Friday by sitting on its front porch in hushed Elm City, I realized this was perfect.
Like lots of the United States, North Carolina is dotted with places that have never really adjusted to several decades of systemic economic changes. With their wealth of well-built monolithic warehouses or labyrinthine mills, these tobacco or textile towns stand now like grand skeletons, stripped of the people and business that once made them buzz with vitality.
And if big-box retailers didn't bleed such towns' retail districts dry to begin with, they've certainly helped keep them that way. Lines of once-grand bank buildings or humble brick grocers are now notable only as antique stores or for the advertising murals that cling to their sides, like ghosts holding fast to the belief that, against all odds, the future can bring them back to life.
And in some cases, as a weekend spent roaming the small cities and minuscule towns of Eastern North Carolina will prove, that actually happens. Kinston, Wilson, Farmville, Nashville, Elm City, Snow Hill, Sharpsburg, Rocky Mount: together, these places—wrapped inside or along a geographic oval one hundred or so miles from the Carolina coast—offer studies in repair and disrepair, the stages of the cycle suggesting an urban analogue to forest succession.
In Kinston, for instance, Vivian Howard has brought a deserted quadrant of the city back to life with Chef & the Farmer, a sleek restaurant where soft jazz and energetically abstract paintings belie the homey comfort of updated Southern standards like spoonbread, Hoppin' John, and big skillets of grits. Howard grew up nearby and returned to the area to launch the restaurant after a tortured stint at an advertising agency in New York.
To my mind, Howard is better at telling this story than she is at rewriting the rules of regional favorites in the same way as, say, Ashley Christensen or Sean Brock; the food is rather expensive but only mildly inventive, with flavors that are either merely fine or a desperate scramble to stun.
Still, she, her restaurant, and a popular PBS show about her saga, A Chef's Life, have helped spark an honest-to-goodness renaissance within plain sight of a replica of the CSS Neuse, a Confederate ironclad, and a sudden, dramatic swoop in the Neuse River itself. These days, you can spend more than $200 for one night in The O'Neil, the century-old shell of a gorgeous Farmers & Merchants bank that's now a lavish, seven-room hotel. You can sit at an oyster bar or have a wondrously rich veggie burger made from butter beans at Howard's other restaurant, The Boiler Room, or meander around Flue, a row of earth-cast sculptures made by Raleigh's Thomas Sayre as a reflection on the town's largely lost tobacco heritage.
Or you can squander the day in one of the state's best breweries, Mother Earth, where a taproom of soft neon lights and sharp lines is almost discordant with the beer's typically robust character. You can sample the goods of its fledgling distillery during a tour, but, thanks to liquor laws that must certainly date back to Kinston's prime, you'll need to step across the street to another bar for a full drink.
But venture far outside of these few blocks—or, in some cases, simply across the street—and you'll find that, despite the hoopla, renaissances come slowly and in phases. Most of the town resembles its region, with people still working to fend off the poverty line and buildings still awaiting saviors.
In Kinston, the once-proud Paramount Theater is an eyesore of ruins. In Rocky Mount, regal downtown buildings now stand like lonely suitors, desperate for attention. In Elm City, an impressive train depot, boarded and locked tight on all sides, awaits help from the departments of agriculture and transportation in becoming the community center the town desperately desires. Along the winding, field-lined roads that connect these tiny burgs to relatively major cities, too many abandoned tobacco barns, roadside stands, community marts, and gas stations to count are being strangled by vines or fighting the pull of gravity and—slowly, steadily—failing. I find myself staring at these buildings, often sneaking in to imagine their past lives and those of the people who used them. It's a strange sort of necromancy, I suppose, one of few facts and many assumptions.
In these towns, surrounded by ancient buildings in which nothing has happened in decades, time can seem to stand still. But time is actually of the essence, as many of these communities seem teetering on the brink of permanent financial ruin.
Farmville actually recognized this and acted accordingly. Downtown storefronts appear to have been abandoned on a whim. But Duck-Rabbit, a brewery that opened on the edge of the town's industrial zone in 2004, is actually succeeding with a growing network of distribution. The town was so desperate for a Kinston-style revitalization it helped Duck-Rabbit obtain a $125,000 grant for a taproom, a hopeful tourist magnet.
As we sat outside at a picnic table on a Saturday afternoon, a few pints of barleywine deep into a suntan and a novel, it seemed to be working. Every few minutes, car tires would crunch the gravel driveway, or a posse of men on motorcycles would rip into unmarked spaces. Some customers talked like regulars, while others openly marveled that they had been able to find this place in a town they'd never visited.
When I paid my tab, the bartender essentially cut it in half and handed me half of a doppelbock six-pack. She knew we were from Raleigh but staying in Elm City, just two people trying to get away in a region where very few would think to look.
"Just tell your friends we're here," she said, smiling.
On Sunday morning, we woke up a little late in our pale yellow Elm City bedroom, decorated cheerfully with lighthouses, rows of pulp fiction, and Native American statues, a tribute to early settlers of the region. We wandered into the dining room and found the table set with a spinach quiche Nell Cain had made that morning and fresh strawberries Jason had picked up Friday.
Nell told us about her childhood in Elm City and walked us through the various companies that had purchased the nearby electronics factory where both she and her husband had worked. The Bailey House is a de facto history museum for Elm City, where Nell has lived all her life. It's lined with newspaper clippings about its past and diplomas from the town's schools. She talked about former guests as if they were old friends, discussing their eccentricities and accents.
I wondered what she might say about us, the couple who had cruised through the graveyard on mountain bikes upon arrival and who had asked seemingly obsessive questions about businesses that were long since gone.
I made a silent wish that I hoped she hadn't heard about the time we hopped the chain-link fence, just to check out Elm City's sewer system.
This article appeared in print with the headline "State of Ruin"