Before Town Common was a park, it was home to the Downtown neighborhood. It is now being remembered with Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza, currently under construction and expected to open in early 2020.
Director of Recreation and Parks for the City of Greenville Gary Fenton said the goal of this project is to remind the Greenville community and visitors that the Town Common wasn’t always a park and was once a community.
The community that was located at what is now known as Town Common, was called Downtown by its residents or the Shore Drive neighborhood since it was located on the Tar River, Fenton said.
Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church was a “big” church, Fenton said. The church is now located on 101 Hooker Road and has several thousand members. Many of the former residents who lived in the “Downtown” neighborhood, their children and grandchildren want the area to be remembered.
“It was a pretty vibrant community and it had a pretty significant church. Architecturally beautiful and certainly impactful in the community. That church was on the corner of First and Greene Streets. We have lots of pictures of that church. It was really something,” Fenton said.
Town Common was created in the 1970s as the result of an Urban Renewal project in the mid-1960s, Fenton said. Many people may say the neighborhood was “dilapidated” and some areas were “poor,” he said. Despite these factors, the neighborhood was called home to its residents, he said.
The people who lived in areas which were parts of Urban Renewal projects were to be paid by the city but there weren’t many protections for these residents, he said.
The cemetery associated with the church was moved, but the church still remained after the land was cleared, Fenton said. The church was burned down and had to be demolished, many people suspected arson but nothing was ever proven, he said.
Although Town Common is considered the “Central Park of Greenville” it is still important to remember the past, Fenton said. The city is trying to do so by creating a “vibrant” west end entrance to Town Common which will tell the history of the “Downtown” neighborhood, he said.
Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza construction began on the project in the second week of July and is expected to be completed in March or April of 2020, Parks Coordinator, Mike Watson said.
The Plaza is expected to be located in the front of the west section of the park, Watson said. The area that is currently fenced off is not for the entire project but for the underground work which needs to be done before the project can begin, he said.
“It’s only going to be on the front corner of the park. The section you see is fenced off for site work you won’t see once the project is completed,” Watson said.
Heather White, Assistant Director of Assessment and Engagement for Joyner Library, did oral history reviews for the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza project for Joyner Library in 2017.
“For two days straight we did oral history reviews from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. and, like, hearing and working with them (former members of the Downtown community), they’re like family to me,” White said.
White’s exhibit took pictures of former members and family members of the community. The former members stood with artifacts from their home at the closest spot to their home.
White said she would go to community engagement meetings where people would tell their stories of their lives in the “Downtown” neighborhood. She said it seemed as if people “weren’t hearing them.”
“Downtown” was a former community and there were many entries in the Bless Your Heart section of The Daily Reflector about people who “didn’t get it,” White said.
White said Joyner had records in its collection of the houses that were moved and the plans for what would happen to the “Shore Drive” project.
“It’s what we ended up working with Zena (Howard) and other folks to design as it will be constructed as Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza that really tells a story of community and family,” White said.