At ninety-eight, Milly Dunn Veasey is undeniably frail. But speak with her, and it becomes clear that her memory is vivid, her mind still sharp.
Veasey, who served as an army secretary in World War II, was born in a wooden cottage on South East Street bordering John Chavis Memorial Park—the home of her grandparents, who were born slaves. She's one of a dwindling handful of born-and-bred southeast Raleigh residents who see the park as part of their legacy. As Raleigh grows and changes, they hope this nearly eighty-year-old park, which has historically served the African-American community and has been mostly neglected for the last four decades, will once again thrive.
"Before we had Chavis, we went to Pullen [Park]," Veasey says. "[African-Americans] weren't allowed into the pool, but we could take our picnic baskets there. I remember when Chavis opened, and I was pleased that we had a park of our own."
Clearscapes, the architecture firm the city hired in 2014 to study how to implement planned improvements to Chavis Park, will make recommendations to the city's parks advisory board later this month. Construction is scheduled to begin in late 2017, using $12.5 million in bond money—part of a $92 million package voters approved in 2014—for a project expected to cost $40 million in total.
It's not clear how the city will make up that difference.
Today the park is twenty-eight acres of rolling hills anchored by a newly renovated carousel and a community center, pool, sports fields, and playgrounds, all of which could use some love. The park's neighbors have been pushing for improvements for nearly ten years. They wonder why Pullen Park, just down the road, has been so carefully restored and maintained, while Chavis has fallen by the wayside. In the first half of 2015, just 2,897 people rode the carousel at Chavis, compared to 120,043 who rode a similar carousel at Pullen.
It's clear the $12.5 million won't cover all the needed improvements—restrooms, concessions, water fountains, power, and lighting—that will drive traffic to Chavis and make it sustainable. And herein lies the rub: while residents say people pass on Chavis because of its lack of amenities, city planners say the park needs to bring in traffic before these amenities will be feasible.
Many of southeast Raleigh's longtime residents are elderly; they say it's time for the city to follow through with what it promised. "I want us to put forth a good effort to try to redo this park as best we can," resident Vivian Lee told the parks advisory board last month. "We are not going to be here forever, and we need something to leave here for the young people."
In 2008, residents collected more than one thousand signatures on a petition asking for these improvements. They also sought to replace the park's historic train and a replica of an airplane that commemorated the service of World War II veterans. In 2012, the city council voted to invest $2 million in the park's historic carousel and begin work on a long-term master plan.
That plan envisions a central recreational space comprising a community center and gym, including a snack bar, restrooms, fitness room, and lounge; a central plaza with an aquatic center, ice skating rink, and space for concerts, festivals, pop-up markets, and food trucks; and the original carousel building, which may one day house a cafe.
Despite concerns that the city hasn't been listening to their input, residents have been fairly receptive to the plan. Their focus, though, has been on honoring the park's history and preserving its historical features.
The park's most pressing needs, they say, are more bathrooms, water fountains, power, and some kind of food service—food trucks and partnerships with other vendors.
"If I take my grandson down to that park to the playground, there's no place to go to the bathroom there or to get some ice cream," says Carol Love, a parks specialist at N.C. State's College of Natural Resources. "If we go to Lake Johnson to feed the ducks, we can have a soda, we can have a hot dog. A simple concession facility seems to be a reasonable request."
The city says it has some options for more funding, including applying for a federal grant. It could also reallocate funds to Chavis in the next budget cycle, which comes up later this year.
Though the city earmarked the largest chunk of the 2014 parks bond for Chavis, and while residents understand that Raleigh has lots of parks that need attention, they see restoring Chavis as essential to the city's history.
"If we could bring back Chavis Park to how it was, it would mean so very much to me," says Veasey. "Our young people would know something about the history of the black community. It would let them know what happened here."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Parks and Wreck"