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City on a Hill

Driving along the ridge line at the top of the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus, you come around finally to Spring Hill--and the best view of the Raleigh skyline in the city. Dix is the high ground of downtown Raleigh, 465 acres rising gently from the south side of Western Boulevard. Whether it will be a high spot in Raleigh's future is an open question that citizen groups and state and city political leaders must now address.

The Easley administration put Dix in play with the announcement by Secretary of Health and Human Services Carmen Hooker Odom that it planned to close two of the state's old psychiatric hospitals--Dix and the John Umstead Hospital in Granville County--and build just one new facility to replace them. At first, Odom said it might go in Chatham County. But later she decided it should be built on the Umstead site in Granville. And the Dix land?

N.C. State University has taken over 130 acres to add it to its Centennial Campus, which was carved out of the original Dix tract. A group of Raleigh parks and conservation activists, recently organized as the Dix Community Partnership (www.DixCP.org), thinks the rest of Dix should become for Raleigh what Central Park is to New York City--a physical and symbolic "heart of the city" that pulls its oft-battling parts together. The centerpiece of the DixCP plan is an amphitheater on Spring Hill, but that won't happen unless N.C. State agrees, because Spring Hill is part of the university now.

Meanwhile, a group calling itself the N.C. Mental Health Advocacy Campaign wants the Easley administration to replace Dix and Umstead with two new psychiatric hospitals--at Dix and Umstead. The group is an off-shoot of the Wake County chapter of the NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. They're alarmed, according to spokeswoman Ann Akland, that the state is moving too quickly to close Dix and shift responsibility for the mentally ill to county governments when the counties are nowhere near ready to do the job.

Akland calls it "a disaster waiting to happen" and a repetition of the disastrous "deinstitutionalization" policies of the '80s, when psychiatric patients were released from state hospitals all over the country on the theory that they'd be better cared for in "community facilities" that just didn't exist. Many ended up in prisons, homeless shelters or on the streets.

Some patients require constant hospitalization and most need intermittent hospital stays, her group argues. Better to have two small hospitals in the central part of the state than one big one, and much better that one of them be within a few miles of where the vast majority of patients--and their families--live. Butner, in Granville County, is out in the country with no public transportation access and not much in the way of a medical community around it. Dix is close to major hospitals, state agencies and the "community" facilities that Wake County is scrambling to provide.

The vast acreage around Dix dates to its earliest days when, to be self-supporting, a state hospital required a working farm around it. A new 200-300 bed facility at Dix would require just 30 acres, Akland says.

Interestingly, her group and DixCP see the future Dix land in similar terms. Having an historic institution like the Dix Hospital in the state capital "is an important reminder and symbol of our responsibility" to care for the mentally ill, Akland says. Says DixCP: It's important to protect Dix's "sense of place" as a reminder of how our ancestors "cared for the less able in a pastoral, self-sustaining fashion."

The Easley administration, however, may see gold in them there Dix hills. And if it doesn't, the General Assembly might. Sold for development, the acreage could bring big bucks to a cash-strapped state treasury. But as DixCP's Will Hooker asks: Would New York City ever sell Central Park? "No way. And they're more strapped for dollars than we ever will be."DiamondDiamondDiamond

Civil Liberties Alone? Attending the 2002 Awards Dinner of the Wake County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), we were struck by how, um, old and wise the audience was. Chapel Hill-Carrboro chapter? The same thing. It's not like civil liberties issues are over and won (see Front Porch, p. 13). But they don't seem to bring out many young card-carriers for the cause.

"I was just in Asheville for an awards dinner and it was the same thing," says John Boddie, a Greensboro lawyer and president of the ACLU of North Carolina. "It was a very much older crowd." But young people are joining the organization in big numbers, he assures us--nationally and in North Carolina. Since Jan. 1, membership in the state is up 25 percent and now stands at 4,550. "They join up through the Web site, they send e-mails and faxes, but they don't come out to meetings," Boddie says. "It's the 'Bowling Alone' thing, I guess"--referring to the book by political scientist Robert Putnam that says people are doing things by themselves nowadays rather than in groups.

"Clearly I would rather have more young members showing up," Boddie says. "On the other hand, when I was in my 20s, I wasn't showing up at awards dinners either." EndBlock

Bob Geary can be reached at rjgeary@aol.com. If he's at an awards dinner, he'll get back to you later.

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