The other side of town: Southeast Raleigh's problems and promise | News Feature | Indy Week
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The other side of town: Southeast Raleigh's problems and promise 

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A wider lens

AUG. 4, TRAVELS WITH BRAD: "Southeast Raleigh's never been short of land," Brad Thompson says breezily. We're touring by car, Thompson at the wheel. He's offered to show me all of Southeast Raleigh, devoting a full morning to the task.

What I'm seeing and hearing is a tale of two cities. Or is it three? There's the old Southeast Raleigh, the one I'm familiar with. Built during segregation, it is close to downtown and contains the poorest neighborhoods in Raleigh. There's a newer Southeast Raleigh, built farther from downtown from the '60s to the '80s, that is broadly middle-class, with housing that ranges from small and spare to spacious and tree-canopied. Finally, there's Southeast Raleigh sprawl, with tract houses built since 2000 that are packed in clear-cut subdivisions well beyond the Beltline.

And everywhere there are vacant lots to develop and buildings that need to be replaced or tended to—take your pick.

Thompson, a public relations and policy consultant, was District C's council representative in the '90s. (An exception to the Old Guard's rule, he was in his 40s then.) He knows every neighborhood, every street and a lot of people. What he wants me to understand is that the crime-ridden parts of Southeast Raleigh, though ugly, are a small part of a much brighter story. "Don't look at it from a single perch," he urges.

Interestingly, the worst of the neighborhoods, near downtown, are beginning to gentrify, with investors—or the city—buying slum properties for a pittance and fixing them up or, more often, tearing them down and building anew. Usually such investors, Thompson says evenly, "don't happen to be black." A few streets we visit have flipped from all-black to all-white, he tells me.

Gentrification is a sore subject with community leaders in Southeast Raleigh. They don't want black people, because they're poor, pushed out of their neighborhoods in the name of progress. We drive past the Builders of Hope project on State Street, where sharp new houses—actually, older houses that were moved and rehabilitated—went up on a blighted block that the city had bought and cleared. The new houses have white owners.

"This was a rough area," Thompson says. "The question is, how do you do this"—he's admiring the results—"without [bringing in] the people who are qualified to buy?"

People who aren't poor, that is.

He shakes his head. "I've wrestled with this issue all my life."

THE NEW BLACK: Unlike the older streets of Southeast Raleigh, its newer middle-class neighborhoods and tract subdivisions remain virtually all-black, Thompson says. We cruise one after another: Rochester Heights, Biltmore Hills, Kingwood Forest, Farmington, Lyndhurst Manor. Many were developed by John Winters, a black airport skycap who became a legendary builder and state senator. Winters built some of his houses with doctors in mind; others, smaller, were for working-class blacks who had never owned a home.

A few Southeast Raleigh neighborhoods were built by whites for whites. Worthdale, for example, was a white neighborhood in the '50s. But the "white flight" that happened after racial restrictions in housing were outlawed has turned Worthdale black since the 1970s. "What it meant," Thompson says with an edge, "is that these folks were left with some pretty nice homes." Only Longview, north of New Bern Avenue near WakeMed, with its well-kept homes on large lots, is widely integrated today.

Near the outer edge of Southeast Raleigh, we drive by the Upper Room Church of God in Christ, Patrick Wooden's church. The surrounding neighborhood is new and, except for the lack of trees, nice enough. It's predominantly black. Houses are for sale below $200,000.

Farther still, we come to Wake County's newest elementary school, Walnut Creek, which is nearly all-black due to the anti-diversity "neighborhood schools" policy of the conservative school board majority.

I make a note to return to both.

WHERE'S THE BEEF? On our way back, Thompson and I talk about the lack of places in Southeast Raleigh. It has no Five Points. No Cameron Village. For the longest time, Thompson recalls, the area lacked even a grocery store. As a council member, he had to convince Food Lion that the 80,000 people in Southeast Raleigh were enough to support a store in the Southgate shopping center. Salisbury, Food Lion's hometown, had four stores at the time to serve a population of 35,000.

Today there are two Food Lions and a Kroger in Southeast Raleigh. But there's nothing you'd call a town square or village center—nothing to put on the postcard.

The absence of gathering places means residents must leave their neighborhoods for recreation or even a cup of coffee. When they do, their money and vitality go with them, sapping the economy. "We have homes," Thompson says. "But there's a lack of enterprise [and] a lack of services. And with that comes a lack of jobs."

We drive back to Thompson's downtown office taking New Bern Avenue. It is to East Raleigh what Hillsborough Street is to West Raleigh—the major east-west corridor. But the similarities end there. Hillsborough Street is thriving. New Bern Avenue, at least the part of it closest to downtown where businesses should be, is a motley stew of decrepit buildings and vacant land.

"It has billion-dollar potential," Thompson remarks. "If you can see the potential of a Hillsborough Street or a Capital Boulevard," another area of intense city interest, "why can't you see the potential of a New Bern Avenue?"

He answers his own question. "You can't look to the west and not look to the east without showing bias."

WRONG-WAY ROAD: The same night, the Raleigh planning department hosts a community meeting at Milner Memorial Presbyterian Church to talk about its yearlong "New Bern Avenue Corridor Study." About 70 people attend. All but 10 are white. Most of Southeast Raleigh is unrepresented.

New Bern Avenue lacks sidewalks, crosswalks and sufficient drainage, but worse yet, as it approaches downtown it turns into a one-way, three-lane street—going the wrong way. (To get into downtown, you're routed onto Edenton Street.) Imagine if Hillsborough Street were a one-way road going west.

At prior meetings, the consensus was that New Bern should be two-way, with traffic slowed and utility lines buried to enliven the street. Bus ridership on New Bern is already the highest in Raleigh due to WakeMed and various Wake County offices at the eastern end. A Bus Rapid Transit system, or BRT, with dedicated bus lanes and more frequent service, could attract dense, mixed-use retail and housing developments of the kind the city covets in and around downtown.

The price to get started? About $20 million, says planner Martin Stankus. Raleigh tried for federal stimulus funds when they were available. No dice. "The costs are pretty high," Stankus adds. "But that doesn't mean you can't look to the future."

Diversity's diversity

AUG. 26, A RISING: "My vision is, before we ask the city to do anything, what are we as a community going to do for ourselves? How are we going to grow together?" Racquel Williams is Eugene Weeks' most active opponent in the District C council race. Her platform is self-help, new blood and independence from the Democratic Party. She's called a press conference on Aug. 26 at the Bragg Street Mini-Park, located in a troubled part of Southeast Raleigh close to the Builders of Hope project, to make the point that the Old Guard has lost its effectiveness. A few supporters are with her. But the only press she draws is me.

Williams is a New York transplant, a 35-year-old with welfare and an abusive ex-husband in her past and four good-looking kids in her present. She's a go-getter who's worked at the General Assembly, earned a bachelor's degree at N.C. Central University and is working on a doctorate in public policy from Walden University, an accredited online program. Her neophyte (her word) nonprofit, Can I Live Inc., has a small federal grant to provide life-skills training to residents of Raleigh public housing projects. It doesn't pay her, she says. She makes money as a motivational speaker, supplemented by student loans.

Before more jobs can materialize in Southeast Raleigh, Williams declaims, its residents need better skills and more education. She asks, "Are we willing to go back to school?"

While she's speaking, a young man named Reginald Rogers walks up, stops and listens. Rogers grew up in Southeast Raleigh in the old Walnut Terrace public housing project. In prison for 11 months, he was released yesterday, he tells Williams, and spent the night in a homeless shelter. He's heading for a bus stop so he can get to a Division of Motor Vehicles office in West Raleigh and obtain an official state ID card. Then he can look for work.

"I have a history of criminal activity. But even though I have a bad record, I'm not a bad person," Rogers says. He speaks softly but in earnest. "And even people who've made bad choices, if they would have some people who would be supportive, then it would turn a lot of lives around."

As this is unfolding, I'm remembering something Brad Thompson said, that Southeast Raleigh's worst neighborhoods offer the only housing available in Wake County for men and women leaving prison. It looks like hell to us. But absent more re-entry programs and supportive housing, the rooms they can rent for $100 a week are the best they can do.

DRESSED FOR SUCCESS: I'm also struck by Williams' kids: polite, attentive and dressed alike in black and white. Then I realize they're wearing school uniforms, white shirts and black pants or skirts, and the man with them is Don McQueen, who runs a North Raleigh charter school, Torchlight Academy, with his wife, Dr. Cynthia McQueen. They brought their chorus to a charter schools conference in Raleigh last summer; it was very impressive.

Torchlight Academy started in 2000 and now has almost 400 students, virtually all of them black or Hispanic. We talk about the problem I see of elite white, suburban charter schools that offer no transportation for kids from poor, inner-city neighborhoods. Yes, he says, but his school is not like that. It's one of a handful of charters that send buses into low-income neighborhoods. The kids wear professional attire, he says, "because we want to make them the business leaders of the future."

Charter schools like his, McQueen says, "can serve poor, underprivileged communities and deliver to them a quality of education that is unmatched and unparalleled." Come visit us and see, he adds.

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