MISANTHROPY IS EVERYWHERE
Those are the words some literate maniac scrawled on the side of a rusted train car that once sat, with various other industrial castoffs, on a small plot of land behind the office of T.J. McKnight Inc., the piling contractor that, from the late 1970s until just recently, operated on North Craven St. in New Bern, beside Mamie Sadler’s long-abandoned general store and a block west of the Neuse River.
That train car was one of the first things that caught my eye when I began exploring New Bern’s Riverside District in the late 1990s, seeking scenic oddities to document after enrolling in the photography program at Carteret Community College. I smiled every time I saw it, just knowing there was someone out there strange enough to spray those words across its scarred surface in stylish white script.
McKnight’s office was just down the road from the old New Bern Oil and Fertilizer plant, a late 19th century construction whose silos rose stories above the houses and businesses along North Craven St. before being demolitioned in 2016. By the time I began photographing the area the plant was long gone, but remnants of its singular industrial architecture remained. As did a security guard, nearly as antiquated as the odd dagger-toothed machines still littering the grounds, who promptly told me to vacate the premises, immediately.
North Craven St. is just one corner of a larger cross-section of New Bern that has fascinated me since I was a child, an area that runs roughly from Cedar Grove Cemetery on George St. northwest along the National Ave./Oaks Road corridor to Glenburnie Park and east to the river.
It’s a world I was familiar with long before New Bern was the tourist destination it’s known as today, before the Riverfront Convention Center and the big riverfront hotels. In the late 1970s Barbour Boat Works still built Silver Clipper Deluxe’s on the banks of the Trent, on land where the North Carolina History Museum now sits, and a ride up and down the escalator at the Belks store on Middle St. was still a weekend novelty.
But even back then, once you moved north of Broad Street, past the historical plaques and waterfront manors, things were different.
Here was, to paraphrase music writer Greil Marcus, the old, weird New Bern.
These weren’t the buildings that tourists sought out, the ones pictured in the Chamber of Commerce brochures and billboards. These were the places where people worked, day in and day out to provide for their families. These were museums of labor, monuments to survival that stretched back to the era of the lumber mills that once churned night and day throughout the Riverside District.
My dad would sometimes take me on drives down there, telling stories of the summer he spent working in one of those lumber mills, stacking boards still warm from the blade in the heat and choking dust. I wish I could remember more of those stories.
Today, many of the area’s old industries and small businesses have been abandoned, while a few have stood their ground. Though some parts of the city are virtually unrecognizable from the mid- ’70s, when my family relocated here from Greenville, New Bern’s northeast realm still bears the worn, unreconstructed face that I remember from my middle school days. Driving the area now, I follow a map that’s drawn more in memories than asphalt and earth.
On Bern St., F.R. Danyus Elementary, where I attended fifth-grade, has been transformed into a child development center, the drab, prison-like grounds I recall from youth now radiant with day-glo playhouses and the clamor of children. Travel east to George St. and you pass Religious Community Services, where I once shot a photo essay for a school assignment on local soup kitchens. Hang a right and there’s Register’s Glass Shop, which administered to my car’s shattered windshield in the late 1980s after one of my ill-advised off-road adventures.
At the corner of Guion and North Craven streets, take a left and you pass the remains of the fertilizer plant silos, now scraped and bulldozed into rows of small grey pyramids.
A few yards further, across the train tracks and to the right, sits the empty lot that was once home to Tom Mcknight’s piling business, where my uncle worked for years helping construct hotels and piers across the southeast. Roll on another block and you pass Moment of Truth Ministries, formerly a Caro-San distribution office where my cousin was employed as a driver many moons ago.
From here you can see the long white Maola Milk and Ice Cream building near the end of North Craven St. The processing plant closed in 2014 after 79 years of production but a few of the company’s trucks can still be seen on the road and parked out back. For nearly 15 years my grandfather drove one of those trucks, going to work for the company in the early 1950s as a delivery driver before moving up to route supervisor. Until he left this world in March 2016, he would tell stories of his days on the road, bumping along the blacktops of Craven, Duplin, Lenoir and other counties, crates of glass milk bottles clanking behind him.
Circle past the Maola plant on River Road out to National Avenue and there’s Boyd’s Barber and Styling, a family establishment I used to frequent several times a year during my more hirsute teenage years. The sign on the front of the small brick building is fancier these days, but little else has changed.
From there it’s a mile, give or take, to the Oaks Road entrance to Glenburnie Park. I spent a not insubstantial part of my youth sliding down its steep green hills on a sheet of plexiglass scavenged from my grandparent’s nursery and playing on the rusted missile casing, now long gone, that was once a centerpiece of the park’s playground.
There’s other places on the map that I’ve missed, of course. There’s Cedar Grove Cemetery and the old Union Station Train Depot, both of which would require entire articles unto themselves. But there’s also the tiny tin-roofed house on North Craven St., now a florist but formerly a dry cleaning business, that my father once counted among his bookkeeping clients. And the dog park off of Dunn St., where me and my wife let our four-legged kids run wild when we first moved back to New Bern in 2010, before its gate went missing and stayed that way for years.
I know all these roads, all these side streets where the past superimposes itself like faded film stock across the crooked oaks, brick churches and vacant lots. They all have their stories.
But for me, since coming home eight years ago, they all eventually lead to one place: the Donald M. Miller Memorial Park, down at the dead end of Avenue A, a stone’s throw from the river.
Just beyond the park’s picnic table the grass fades into a thin strip of shoreline that snakes behind empty fields and orphaned scraps of chain link fence. If the tide’s right you can follow the sand all the way to the railroad bridge, with its black creosote-enriched support timbers stretching out into the Neuse towards Bridgeton.
On a good day, a walk along that short stretch of shore reveals random fragments from the city’s past among the knotty roots and shallow waters: an ancient Texaco sign; rusted rail spikes; a stray chunk of cement from the demolitioned silos; parts of motors, gears and other industrial fossils uncovered by passing storms and the river’s slow, erosive caress.
The lot where the train car once sat, the one that drew me here years ago, is mostly empty now. But those words emblazoned on its side, MISANTHROPY IS EVERYWHERE, well, whoever wrote that was a prophet. The sentiment seems truer today than ever. My own disgust with the human race has certainly never been more pronounced, more visceral.
But still, I keep coming back.
Several weeks ago, I found myself driving through the area at night, trying to clear the cobwebs after a week of late breaking news and early deadlines. At some point I rolled down the window, turned the music off and simply immersed myself in the beauty of the place in a way I wasn’t even sure I was capable of anymore: the streetlights through the Spanish moss; kids on their bicycles wheeling around the old Maola parking lot; shadows across the columned porches and burial vaults; a single light burning in an auto repair shop garage.
What I found there, in a corner of New Bern that sometimes feels all but forgotten, were some truths, old truths and not very comforting ones, but truths all the same. I take solace in that. And I hope some small piece of that New Bern remains, years from now, for my son and his children to discover, and wonder at and smile.