Additional Resources for Muralists
The City of Kinston is located in the coastal plains region of the state in eastern North Carolina (NC), about 80 miles east of the capital Raleigh. It is a historic place, originally inhabited by the Neusiok people on the banks of Neuse River and later founded in 1791 as the county seat of Lenoir County. The City’s population is currently estimated at 20,509 residents, down nearly 15% from the 2000 Census estimate of 23,840. This population decline is largely the result of two devastating hurricanes, Floyd and Fran, in the 1990s, which devastated and subsequently cleared out entire neighborhoods.
By the mid-twentieth century, Kinston’s local economy was built on the then-thriving industries of textile manufacturing and tobacco farming. As a result, its primary downtown thoroughfare, Queen Street, was a bustling center of commerce and entertainment, known as the “Magic Mile” to folks from all over eastern NC. However, several events converged upon Kinston, including the loss of manufacturing jobs, the decline of the tobacco industry, the impact of flooding from natural disasters, and the arrival of the shopping mall. These factors left the downtown shuttered and mostly vacant by the 1970s. In the intervening years, the City has struggled with a declining population, a diminishing tax base, high crime, and overall economic distress. Poverty rates are as high as 65% in some areas of town.
Yet, Kinston has proved itself to be a resilient and resourceful place that has come together to overcome these challenges. Already known for its Civil War History and its ability to churn out professional athletes (1 in 53 Kinston High basketball players go on to play in the NBA), the City’s reputation has evolved and expanded in recent years. City leaders, entrepreneurs, developers, and arts advocates have worked together to leverage the area’s cultural and social assets for tourism and economic development. A centerpiece of this effort on the southern edge of downtown is the Kinston Music Park, a project of the NC Arts Council and the hub of the African American Music Trail (AAMT). The AAMT is an 8-County heritage trail that eternalizes the contributions of eastern NC musicians in gospel, jazz, funk, and popular music.
The City also has a strong local African American Heritage Commission (AAHC) that seeks to preserve, protect, promote African-American arts and culture. The AAHC hosts an annual music festival, guided tours, and other events throughout year. In addition to arts-related activities, the AAHC and its partners also work to elevate the Kinston community’s rich African-American history and significance within the Civil Rights Movement by highlighting events such as the Adkin High School Walkout, in which students peacefully protested unequal school conditions, and the persistence of Green Book era institutions such as Dove and Son’s Garage.
In addition to the AAMT and AAHC’s efforts, the City’s art scene is continuing to grow under the leadership of the local arts council Kinston Community Council for the Arts (KCCA) and other stakeholders. Among many accomplishments, KCCA has established Kinston as having the largest per capita public art collection in NC and its downtown Arts Center features local and national artists as well as classes. The nonprofit SmART Kinston City Project Foundation has revitalized the historic downtown neighborhood Mitchelltown into an Arts & Cultural District, transforming over 50 once-vacant millhouses into live/work spaces for artists. Art105, a cooperative studio and gallery space, occupies a former auto parts store downtown.
Although the downtown and urban neighborhoods still struggle with vacancy and blight, signs of new energy and investment are tangible. In addition to the arts, Kinston is now well-known for its food and drink, with downtown anchors like farm-to-table restaurant Chef & the Farmer and craft brewery and distiller Mother Earth drawing visitors from out of town to once-empty historic buildings. These successful businesses have paved the way for additional private investment in and around downtown over the last few years, including new shops, restaurants, and two boutique hotels – one occupying a former bank building and the other a retro 1960s motor lodge. Two seasonal BBQ festivals draw thousands of visitors each year; while Minor League Baseball team the Down East Wood Ducks has taken up residence in historic Grainger Stadium after a period of dormancy. The local City government has strategically invested in public projects, such as an Arts Riverwalk connecting the aforementioned Arts & Cultural District to downtown, a new playground adjacent to riverfront Pearson Park, as well as a recent overhaul of the Queen Street streetscape. The Downtown Mural Program coincides with a recent City-led $3.2 million downtown streetscape improvement project (including new street trees, sidewalks, crosswalks, parking street lights, and traffic patterns). Despite many challenges, Kinston is proving that it can evolve and reinvent itself by building on its unique cultural and social assets.