Earlier this spring, a wrecker hauling a John Deere backhoe pulled up to 407 Ottawa Ave., a long-vacant bungalow in the heart of the Cleveland-Holloway historic district, three blocks northeast of downtown Durham (map). After driving the machine off the flatbed into the yard, Brad Proctor surveyed the home and planned how he would "chew through it, drop it and let it fall," a process he expected to take just 20 minutes. The home would have been a heap of rubble bound for the city dump if neighbor Eleni Vlachos had not come home from work sick. She arrived around noon, she says, "and I saw a bulldozer!"
Vlachos pulled out her cell phone and called everyone connected with the neighborhood: Faye Calhoun Broadwater, who, with her husband, Tommy, owns the stately Percy Reade House at the top of the hill on Holloway Street; city councilman (and Broadwater's son-in-law) Farad Ali; local developer Eric Westrom; real estate broker Ken Gasch; neighbor Natalie Spring; Gray Dawson and Constance Stancil from Durham's Neighborhood Improvement Services department. She also called the media. Vlachos exhorted everyone to rush over: "We are trying to save a house at 407 Ottawa. We're here and the bulldozer is as well. We don't want to lose another historic property."
Within a half hour, a crowd assembled outside the house. Vlachos stood in the middle of the street and argued with Stephanie Burgos, an inspector with Durham's Neighborhood Improvement Services, the city department tasked with enforcing the housing code.
"The homeowner was cited for violation and the owner decided to tear down rather than fix the property," Burgos explained, emphasizing that she was powerless to halt the demolition. She had inspected the structure after police complained that a suspect eluded them by darting through the vacant house. A No Trespassing sign was stapled to the front door, but the windows—with their rippled hand-blown glass—remained unlocked, and people sometimes climbed through to the home's two small bedrooms, living room, kitchen and breakfast nook.
"Part of the problem is we have such blight in the neighborhood," Vlachos said. "We're just trying to make it a nice place to live. This is not going to happen if we keep knocking them down."
Cleveland-Holloway's revival embodies a tension between new and old. The dozen or so new homeowners, mostly white young professionals, artists, musicians—and some real estate agents—have formed a strong and unified voice, advocating for much-needed neighborhood revitalization and historic preservation. But longtime renters, many of whom are low-income and have few housing options, occupy most of the crumbling homes.
According to 2000 Census data, two-thirds of the population in this area is black; nearly half the households earn less than $15,000 each year, and more than 40 percent have annual incomes of less than $10,000. There are social implications; it is unclear if the poor residents will benefit or be displaced.
While neighbors and city officials argued in front of 407 Ottawa Ave., one of the wrecker drivers, delayed at that point more than two hours, picked through a heap of trash discarded from the house. He salvaged a wheelbarrow and a small hatchet for his wife's garden. Three black women from the neighborhood carrying laundry bags on their backs walked up the hill, cutting through the excitement. "Y'all gonna tear it down?" one asked. "I hope so. Then the crackheads won't have no place to go."
City Councilman Ali, who had arrived shortly after Vlachos called, interjected, "An investor called me on the way over about buying this property." The investor, Faye Broadwater, is a preservationist, neighborhood resident and Ali's mother-in-law. She was prepared to pay $10,000 cash for the house. But the housing inspectors insisted they could do nothing to stop the demolition, and they left.
"When they see those huge green stickers on the house when they're riding through the neighborhood, that's the time to talk to us," Gray Dawson of Neighborhood Improvement Services said later. "Not when they see a huge truck in front of the house."
Running out of options, Eric Westrom, who is redeveloping a few properties in the neighborhood, asked Proctor, "What would it take for y'all to load up and go away?" Westrom pulled a roll of cash from his pocket. "If y'all want to do a neighborhood collection, I've got $900 now," he said. "I'll give it to him."
Proctor took the money, hopped in the backhoe and drove it back atop the flatbed. Helena Cragg of Seagroves Realty bought the house and plans to bring it up to code. She promised to preserve the home's historical features.
During the early part of the 20th century, merchants, manufacturers and professionals constructed the most elaborate structures in the city's history, yards from where Vlachos stood. The Queen Anne- and Colonial-style homes featured high decorative gables, dormer windows and elaborate porches. But during and after World War II, city residents moved to the suburbs. The downtown business district expanded into the neighborhood, and many homes were converted into apartments and rentals for lower-income people.
One of those properties is a neglected 100-year-old house at 501 Oakwood Ave. When the city planned to demolish it last summer, a then-fledgling organization, the Cleveland-Holloway Neighborhood Association, convinced the city to spare the property. Around that time, the association also successfully lobbied city council to reverse the sale of two neighborhood properties to social service organizations because city management had excluded neighbors from the discussions and because the area was already brimming with group homes.
Unified behind their neighborhood, there is a sense of community among new homeowners. "You're sitting on your porch—you're waving to your neighbors," Vlachos says. "It's very social, but it's not intrusive at all."
Three days before the standoff on Ottawa, Cleveland-Holloway residents gathered early one Saturday morning to clean up the intersection of Oakwood Avenue and Primitive Street. Ellerbe Creek, which flows along Oakwood and beneath Primitive, was swollen from steady rains. Piles of trash that had been lodged in the mud were afloat, and the streets, filled with debris, looked like a hurricane had blown through.
Dressed in orange vests, the residents hiked down the embankment to the creek bottom to haul up junk: an old wheelchair, a glass doorknob, a television. "We could clean down here forever," a voice shouted from below.
The core group of homeowners led the charge. Several volunteers joined them, but none of the renters or longtime residents showed up. Instead, they watched from their porches or walked by and declined requests for help.
A woman with a pint of liquor wrapped in a brown paper bag staggered by. "We the ones that messed it up," she said.
Twenty-four-year-old David Garcia, who lives in a rooming house up the block, sat in a folding chair and watched from across the street. "No matter how many houses you paint, no matter how much trash you pick up, this shit is gonna be the same," he said.
Yet public and private investment downtown all but assures the neighborhood will change. Greenfire Development, Scientific Properties and Blue Devil Ventures have begun projects that could bring thousands of residents, workers and shoppers downtown. As a neighborhood within walking distance of the city center, Cleveland-Holloway is already attracting people who anticipate the area's transition and the promise of increasing property values. The face of the neighborhood is transforming, with or without the poorer renters.
"What we're doing is making it better for those that cannot do it themselves," says Broadwater. She owns three homes on Holloway Street, including the Percy Reade House, one of the crown jewels of the neighborhood, worth several hundred thousand dollars. "One reason is resources. One is a level of depression or inaction and not knowing what to do."
Vlachos also sees resignation. "I've gotten the sense they didn't think there was anything that could be done," she says. "I think people have been pushed downed so much, and they think they can't prevail. I can understand."
Most of the new homeowners express a sense of responsibility to the renters, but have not determined how to work with them. "We've been thinking about trying to partner with someone to create a land bank so that the neighborhood could purchase houses and then keep them at affordable rates," says Natalie Spring, who bought her home on Queen Street in 2002. "We've talked with the Community Land Trust to see if renters can purchase their houses. I think at some point someone suggested all of us chip in to buy a few houses, but we are not wealthy." She added, "We know we are heading toward gentrification."
Marcellus Bass has rented his house on Queen Street for 10 years. As he stood outside his home washing his old Chevrolet, he described a neighborhood where residents are friendly but tend to look after their own property. "I don't recall the white girl's name, but she brought a paper around," Bass said, referring to the notice about the neighborhood cleanup. "I didn't go to it. I don't do much stuff like that."
Asked whether he plans to buy property in the neighborhood, Bass said, "I ain't gonna never own nothing—I ain't got no money. If I had some, it would be something different. If I could hit that lottery for 270-something million, I'd be in good shape, sure enough."
Up and down Mallard Avenue, Queen Street and Carlton Avenue, Seagroves Realty signs mark long-neglected homes now for sale. Between October and April, real estate broker Ken Gasch sold more than a dozen homes in the neighborhood, and he bought two for himself. "I didn't know what Cleveland-Holloway was less than a year ago," says Gasch, who lives less than two miles north in Colonial Village.
Now he does. As president of Durham's InterNeighborhood Council, a coalition of neighborhood associations, Gasch hears about each new association that registers with the city's planning department. When the Cleveland-Holloway Neighborhood Association registered late last year, Gasch asked to meet with them. "These newer neighborhoods can learn a lot from the Trinity Parks of the world that have come a long way," he says. He offered the Cleveland-Holloway residents the resources of the InterNeighborhood Council and started looking for houses to list. "It became apparent that this is the neighborhood I want to work in until all the opportunities dry up."
Strolling through the neighborhood, with a Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver in his pocket for protection, Gasch tells the purchase history of nearly every house he passes.
505 Carlton was a foreclosure, he says; a real estate agent from North Durham bought it. "When it came on the market, I said, 'You better hurry up,'" Gasch remembers telling her. "She asked, 'Do you know somebody who's going to buy it?' I said, 'I'm going to buy it!'"
Gasch recently purchased a two-story house on Oakwood Avenue. The inside of the house is collapsing, with rotting floors and walls. But Gasch hopes to invest between $50,000 and $150,000, so his family can move in by Christmas. He set some potted plants on the front steps to spruce up the home until he begins renovations.
Local developer Rick Rees owns three properties. Broker Clare Studwell recently purchased the well-maintained house on the corner of North Elizabeth Street and Carlton Avenue for $160,000. Real estate agent Shannon Graham and her husband Bill own at least six houses. Helena Cregg, a real estate agent with Synergy Enterprises, bought three houses for a total of $30,000, including the one at 407 Ottawa Ave. "If a few people come in here and make a good return on their investment, it's like putting up a flag," Gasch says. "It's like pulling the starter's pistol at the beginning of a race."
"People are snatching that stuff up," Faye Broadwater adds. "They are going to make so much money."
Broadwater tells potential purchasers: "Don't be afraid. This neighborhood will help you. This house is a strong house and a good house, and if you're willing to put work into it, you'll have something to be proud of."
"We're not talking about the neighborhood going through the roof," Gasch says. "We're just talking about the neighborhood being where it should have been."
In 2002, when Spring was looking to purchase a home, she says real estate brokers were nowhere to be found. "When I told people I wanted a house for less than $70,000, I didn't get calls returned," she says. Now a half-dozen brokers have signs in the neighborhood.
"I don't like the idea of anyone owning a multitude of houses in the neighborhood," Spring says. "But I own this house and my partner owns the house on Oakwood. "
After a busy month of sales, opportunities to buy are drying up. An estimated 80 percent of houses in Cleveland-Holloway are occupied by renters, but as speculators, investors and new homebuyers purchase them, that amount is expected to decrease. "Thirty-five percent rental would be pretty darn stable," Gasch says.
Landlords, rather than renters, seem to be a priority for Gasch. He says he plans to meet with some neighborhood property managers soon. "People are living in really bad conditions around here," he said. "I'm sympathetic to the landlords' current situation. Let's not dwell on the past. I talk to them for 15 minutes, and they let me put my sign out there. If they're tired of renting the home, we'll put somebody else in there."
Harris Carpenter bought a two-story dilapidated bungalow on Oakwood Avenue last September, with the goal of renovating the house in time for a March 19 commitment ceremony with Natalie Spring. By the time the date arrived, Carpenter and Spring had fixed the holes in the floor and cracks in the walls. Plywood still covered some windows and a giant dumpster was parked next to the house, but the new drywall had been hung, decorated with vibrant paintings, and Chinese bulbs hung from the ceiling. After a short and informal ceremony under the pavilion at SEEDS, a nonprofit community garden, Carpenter and Spring invited guests to party in the neighborhood.
One guest told another, "Oh my gosh, this is sooo Durham." The second guest replied, "It so is."
In the hallway the newlyweds had hung a poster titled "Our house," with photographs of their home at different stages of renovation. Guests marveled at the transformation, since only days before the ceremony, the interior was exposed to the old oak beams. "It's amazing what happens when you throw money at a problem," Spring said, joking.
It turns out Spring and Carpenter will need to invest more money into their home than they had planned. A few weeks after their ceremony, the couple learned the contractor they'd hired to repair the foundation had done shoddy work, and the house was not up to code. But Spring still owns the house around the corner, so they are living there until the new contractor finishes the repairs, probably in October. "We are having to get another loan and get someone to do it to code," Spring says. "We have to come up with between 30 and 40 grand. We don't have a horrible house. We had a horrible contractor. We'll come in a little over budget but still a little under $150,000, which is OK."
Few people in Cleveland-Holloway can move around the corner when their homes fail to meet housing code. On March 27, the newly reorganized Durham branch of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, staged a protest to draw attention to living conditions in Cleveland-Holloway. Organizers had been canvassing the neighborhood, talking to residents about their concerns. "A lot of people are coming forward saying 'We are being victimized by our landlords,'" said Gloria Harris, ACORN's lead Durham organizer.
The protest began at the Ellis D. Jones & Sons funeral home and wound to Queen Street, where Zelia Stanback rented her crumbling home of 18 years from landlord Michael Jones Jr., the funeral home owner.
The roof of the duplex looks as if it could split any moment. The ceiling is cracked. The walls are crumbling. Stanback had run a cord from outside to get electricity into the kitchen. She complained about rats, and at night, she said, she heard squatters moving around on the vacant side of the house.
Stephanie Burgos, the housing inspector who squared off with Vlachos a couple of weeks earlier, inspected Stanback's home a few days after the protest and found so many violations—the whole house is basically rotting—that she condemned the structure. Michael Jones Jr. would not discuss the conditions with the Indy, but he sent Stanback a letter dated April 2: "The city of Durham has issued a notice that 403 N. Queen St. is uninhabitable with a number of housing violations. So, I'm going to ask you to leave. You must vacate the home within 30 days."
Stanback stayed until the city found her a new place to live and paid for her moving expenses. Some renters are not so lucky.
"The reason people do not call and complain is because if you do not find an affordable to place to live, you don't want to be put out on the street," says Muna Mujahid, an activist who lives on Holloway Street and is active in ACORN and the Cleveland-Holloway Neighborhood Association. Her home on Holloway Street has also been condemned, but housing inspectors have allowed her to remain long enough to find another place to live.
In the fight to preserve historic homes and to revive the neighborhood, the renters' needs also need to be considered. "I know the [Cleveland-Holloway Neighborhood Association] has been dealing with some other stuff," Mujahid adds. "I just think ACORN can be a little more effective. We're fighting different battles on different fronts."
Different battles go down on the streets of Cleveland-Holloway. "The drugs, the violence with all the gangs—you have a lot of gun shooting over here," says Charnita Green, who lives on Carlton Street in a house without hot water. "My major issue right now is the water heater. It's been broken since we been here—three months." Green boils water or goes to a friend's house to bathe. "They're fixing up the neighborhood around here," she says. "This one should be right along with it."