Chapel Hill’s Northside neighborhood has had its share of challenges and champions. The traditional home to hundreds of African-American families that for generations made up the bulk of workers at UNC-Chapel Hill, Northside was the birthplace of the town’s Civil Rights Movement. While residents lived to see a rise in the political clout of the town’s African-American community they also witnessed the decline of Northside. For decades, a flourishing drug trade and a steady shift from single-family homes to student rentals have reshaped the neighborhood that borders Carrboro.
Growing up, Delores Bailey didn’t spend much time in Northside, save her senior year at Chapel Hill High School, when she and her mother moved to a little house on Graham Street. It was enough time, though, for her to know that when she moved back a few years ago the place was in trouble. There was fear of the drug traffic and the crowd of kids hanging out on the corner. There was mistrust of the police and frustration with the Town Council. Houses that had been home to longtime Chapel Hill families were being sold off to developers and investors eager to convert them into student rentals. Lots that once included modest homes and backyard gardens were being covered by massive, multi-bedroom duplexes.
Bailey said she’s not sure what made her decide to get involved. Maybe it was when she saw a young man pull a gun on a neighbor, she says. Or maybe it was just driving by all those kids on the corner and wondering why they didn’t have anything better to do.
“I just knew I needed to get involved,” she says. So the mother of two started talking to those kids on the corner.
“Sure, some were involved in the [drug] traffic, you know that, but most are just hanging out to hang out. I started wondering, ‘Who do these kids belong to?’ I knew I knew some of their parents so I would just ask them, ‘Aren’t you so-and-so’s kid?’ ”
She got to know roughly a dozen of them, sometimes stopping her van on the way home from picking her daughters up at school and rolling down the window to talk.
One day it hit her what the scene would look like to an outsider.
“There would be a group of kids gathered around the van and I realized that if people saw up they would probably think we were doing a drug deal,” Bailey says. “I would have probably thought that way, too. It made me think that we need to give our neighborhood and the people in it the opportunity to get beyond these stereotypes.”
Three years ago, Bailey joined a residents committee that was trying to get the Town Council to help shut down one trouble spot in the neighborhood. Her work on the committee led to involvement in organizing a “night out” for residents to take back their neighborhood–at least for one evening.
Its success got her noticed and made her a leading candidate to take on the role of community liaison between the town and residents of Northside.
“Delores has been the right person in the right place at the right time,” says Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy. “She’s got that rare combination of being both a great leader and facilitator. She’s able to think about Northside issues in the broader context of the town, and she’s an excellent communicator.”
The community liaison job, funded through a grant by the Chapel Hill Police Department, is now part of Bailey’s duties at Empowerment Inc., a non-profit trying to increase home ownership opportunities in Northside and other neighborhoods. Through her job, she’s helped re-organize Community Watch and helped set up a jobs program for local teens. This year, the third annual Night Out drew a record crowd–including every Town Council candidate–for the march through the neighborhood.
Chapel Hill Police Chief Gregg Jarvies said Bailey’s energy and focus have helped bridge the divide between some residents and the police. And, he said, she’s done it with a gentle, but persuasive, style.
“If Delores gets on something you know she’s on it start to finish,” he said.
This year, Bailey took on another challenge–leading a diverse committee of residents, students, business leaders and developers in drawing up rules to prevent more of those massive duplexes from chewing up more Northside lots.
The meetings, she says, were long and often, and with such a diverse group, contentious. She had to convince developers that banning duplexes in Northside wouldn’t be the end of the world, while assuring homeowners that the rights to their land wouldn’t be trampled. On Monday, the committee presented its proposal to the Chapel Hill Town Council, which enacted a town-wide moratorium on duplexes while the group works on a plan. It’s not perfect, she says, but should help while the community rebuilds.
Though there is a sense of revival, she says, there are setbacks. The drug traffic picked up again recently and it is still difficult to convince people not to sell their homes to developers.
“No matter what, it’s something I can’t turn my back on,” she says. “I keep thinking someday things are going to break. I see some things that are encouraging, but I know it won’t break if we don’t keep on pushing. There needs to be somebody in there saying ,’It can work.’ ”