It's quiet before the demolition crew arrives. Fifty-three bite-size houses sit vacant with their windows boarded up and their doors flung open, while their various remains—kitchen appliances, high-school portraits, sticks of deodorant—pile up on doorsteps like small offerings to the gods of urban development. A family of rabbits, shielded by the overgrown grass, hop unusually close to the buildings to sniff the overturned trashcans.
This small but dense rental community emptied in a trickle of forced emigration after news of an impending sale spread late last year. The place is abandoned now, but the holdouts made their mark. On the door of 711 Virginia Ave., lyrics to Don McLean's "American Pie" are written in something that looks a lot like blood, while across the street, I lock eyes with two construction-paper peepers taped to the front of a home.
On the morning of Tuesday, May 5, at the corner of Elm and Sasser streets, a pair of workers begins the demolition. One operates the yellow crane, positioning the jaws directly atop a vulnerable-looking structure not much larger than the Dumpster next to it. The asbestos siding removed, it's easy to read the construction notes scrawled across the exposed plywood.
It only takes a moment for the crane to plunge through the roof and crumple the house. A second worker picks up stray bricks and tosses them into the growing pile of debris.
It's over quickly.
Five weeks later, all that's left are a few piles of twisted metal and wooden stakes declaring the prospective boundaries of new lots.
What we know as Tiny Town took shape in 1945, at the end of the Second World War, to accommodate the crush of returning GIs. That year the Sasser family, which had operated an eight-acre farm at the corner of Wake Forest Road and Sasser Street—about a mile northeast of downtown Raleigh—since the turn of the century, sold the property to James "Willie" York, a developer also responsible for Cameron Village and the expansion of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. In 1965 York sold his vision of a "veteran's village" to Kip-Dell Homes, which has owned it ever since.
But on March 26, joint investors Community Properties and Robuck Homes purchased Tiny Town from Kip-Dell for $6.6 million, citing degradation and a desire to "participate in the revitalization that is occurring in downtown Raleigh"—in other words, dollar signs—as reasons to raze the little houses. That was the plan all along, of course, as downtown density conspires with land scarcity to drive up property values. Residents were informed as early as October 2014 to vacate their homes "at their earliest convenience," but with dwindling options for affordable housing downtown (two other low-income complexes nearby were sold shortly after Tiny Town), where were they supposed to go?
For Ivy Brooks, that's a disquieting question.
Brooks lived next door to the house with the unblinking eyes more than four decades ago. A quick talker with a thick Southern accent, Brooks recalls the neighborhood as quiet and family-oriented, a place where everyone looked out for one another. Her best friend lived across the street; her sister-in-law lived in a home at the end of the block.
"I was a senior in high school and had just gotten married. I was pregnant," she says. "We moved to a two-bedroom on Virginia Avenue right before my son was born on June 1, 1971—the day I was supposed to graduate. That's what you did back then."
Renting in an affordable, centrally located neighborhood allowed her to return to school a year after having her son, as she could walk to nearby Enloe High School while friends and family helped out with the babysitting.
"I don't know what I would have done without my own little place," Brooks says. "Even though it was a rental, that home was mine. I could decorate it however I wanted, and that was important to me. I don't think they should tear them down unless they replace them with affordable housing. The cheap price kept us there a long time."
Tiny Town—officially Brookview, though that was too inelegant a name for such an extraordinary place—comprised 71 rental units housing a few hundred people, singletons and couples and families with waddling toddlers. It wasn't a black neighborhood or a white neighborhood, a middle-class neighborhood or a poor neighborhood. All that was required to live there was a desire for the independence of a standalone structure without all of the baggage of buying a home. There were mechanics and department store clerks, people employed hourly downtown and those who relied on the bus to get to work.
But it was Tiny Town's essential promise—that is, a 500-square-foot rental for under $500 a month—that also led to its demise. After 70 years of tenant turnover, plus the fact that residents weren't expected to maintain the buildings the way they would a purchased home, the property sunk into disrepair. The cost of rehabilitating the structures eventually outweighed the cost of tearing them down.
And so the wrecking crew came.
Many years after Brooks, I learned teenage lessons in Tiny Town, too.
I graduated from Broughton High School in 2005, long before downtown Raleigh found itself atop Forbes lists, before the barcades and the cold-press juices and the pour-over coffee shops. Fayetteville Street and City Plaza weren't even part of a Caps' vernacular. If you wanted to hang out downtown, you either went left, toward the pizzerias and record shops of N.C. State's main drag, Hillsborough Street, or you went right, following a straight line from Peace Street toward the neighborhoods where many of the high school kids lived.
Though I went to school in the city, my family lived in the commuter shed of Cary. I was 13 and given just enough freedom to roam, so on Friday afternoons, my mostly suburban crew would order two greasy slices from I Love New York Pizza and then walk the mile-and-a-half from Broughton to Tiny Town. We'd thread through Person Street Plaza, past the hair salon and the rundown delivery joint that's now an artisanal bakery. If we had a few bucks, we'd grab a bag of chips or a Mountain Dew at the Super 10 on the corner—now a jazzy Retro Fitness—and then cruise, walking idly the way that teenagers do best.
The neighborhood tucked between Oakwood and Mordecai was the destination for the urban-curious, the place to visit with friends who didn't look or act like everyone else in the 'burbs. We dubbed it the "Monopoly District" because most of the houses were itty-bitty, painted in pastel blues, greens and yellows. In it, there was the shaggy-haired skateboarder who would become my first boyfriend and the girl named Rachel who'd be a high school confidant. There was the woman who brought my friends tamales for the first time and clotheslines that seemed to stretch on for miles.
Maybe it was because we weren't old enough to drive, or because the houses were so small that they made the vehicles next to them look massive by comparison, but we could waste away entire evenings watching the neighborhood cars roll by. There were rusty junkers aplenty, pickup trucks with deflated tires and all manner of sport-utility vehicles. If luck was on our side, we'd catch a Chevy plumped up on wheels much larger than its frame intended, thumping bass all the way down the street.
But being relegated to foot travel had its advantages. It was while walking through Tiny Town that I first saw an urban garden, a respectable but by no means expansive plot with a few peppy basil plants and a tangle of cherry tomatoes. In the planned developments of Cary, growing anything but a manicured lawn was unheard of. That you could somehow live in a city and produce food at the same time was a foreign concept—and why would you think to, when you could just buy what you needed at the grocery store?
I was so enamored by Tiny Town's scrappy, do-it-yourself attitude that I begged my mom for a small tomato plant the next day, which I stuck in a windowsill and promptly killed.
A few years later, cruising on my own set of wheels, I showed my respect to the neighborhood by piling three horn players into a two-seater and then belting out a brass number in the middle of Sasser Street after dark. Rachel and I were both in the Broughton band and spent nearly every afternoon outside, practicing difficult licks and tossing fake rifles into the air.
When we did our impromptu performance in Cary, someone called the cops. In Tiny Town, folks tapped along.
The first time I saw Mike Shumake, a homeowner who lives across the street from what was Tiny Town, was during an operation to remove an established yucca plant from what used to be someone's front yard. An email passed among Oakwood residents recommended grabbing what you could before it all got hauled off to the dump. As my husband dug in the dirt, Shumake emerged from his front door. I first took his "what's going on here?" posture as a threat, but soon discovered the reason for his curiosity.
Throughout the demolition, Shumake has been collecting the houses' black steel mailboxes and repurposing them as planters, filling them with marigolds and catnip to keep mosquitos away. It's a small tribute to the change he views as a natural and positive evolution for the area.
"It's not about having rich white people live across the street," he says. "It's not like that at all. Property value is determined by comparable properties nearby. So, if we knock down a 500-square-foot house and replace it with a $400,000 house, that impacts the assessment value of my property."
Shumake bought his home three years ago as an investment. What was once an abandoned property with a scrubby brown lawn is now a bright-white ranch with new fencing, potted plants and a trellis for climbing vines near the driveway.
"I think there are a lot of people who are very liberal, like myself, who can identify with the low-income housing issue in Raleigh," Shumake says. "But at the same time, when you put dollars to donuts and someone says, 'I can raise the value of your property by $40,000,' you go, 'Yeah, I care about the issue, but I'll take the check.'"
His neighbor a few doors down, Jimmie Davis, isn't as content to take the check. Davis worries that the increased property tax on his home, which he purchased for $48,000 in 1987, will feel like a second mortgage.
I spent many nights in Davis' small shotgun house as a kid, working on algebra problems and exploring the nooks and crannies of the neighborhood with his daughter, Rachel. We'd climb the tall trees behind the little houses, bending the limbs with our weight, or follow trickling streams through downtown drainage pipes. More often than not, we'd end up at the Krispy Kreme a few blocks away with fingers crossed for the Hot Now sign, or perched under the weeping willows in the expansive cemetery at the edge of the neighborhood.
It's hot in Tiny Town now that there are no porches to duck under. My husband sweats as he rocks the yucca, trying to loosen the roots. From across the street, I hear someone call my name, and then I see Rachel's slender figure emerge from the stoop of her father's home. She cranes her neck to get a better look and then asks, "Tina? Is that you?"
After all these years, she isn't expecting to see me here, standing among the ruins of the Monopoly houses, digging up shrubs. She asks what I'm doing, and I explain the plant's escape plan and the nice plot of land a few blocks away, out of sight of any wrecking crews, where it will be rehomed.
"That's so you," she says with a shrug. Then, staring at the empty lot of her former neighborhood, she kicks the earth and asks the question we're all wondering: "What's going to happen here?"
Unlike her father, Rachel won't be around to see the pricey new development. In May, she interviewed for a job in El Salvador, and just found out she landed it. Now, Rachel is here to tell her dad that like most everything else around him—his friends, his neighbors, even this little yucca plant—she'll be leaving soon.