Traveling down Oakwood Avenue toward St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh– just as you cross over the 300 block of Linden Avenue–the majestic porch-wrapped homes of the Oakwood section give way to a large cemetery on the left, and a row of smaller houses on the right. A sizable number of these houses are abandoned, their tattered wooden planks half-covering lifeless interiors.
Such stretches of urban blight have contributed to the negative image of this historically black section of Southeast Raleigh–an image that belies the proud communal legacy represented by the longstanding college and the nearby home of the city’s first black mayor, Clarence Lightner. They also symbolize the abandonment many community leaders feel, as development has soared in other parts of town but has failed to take off in the city’s black communities.
“We’ve grown weary of promises,” says Wake County Commissioner Vernon Malone, a native of Southeast Raleigh. “We’ve heard them again and again and still we have nothing.”
Malone points to the abundance of corner mini-marts versus sizable area businesses as evidence of the lack of economic investment in the area. “If I want to buy a nice suit,” he says, “I have to pack a lunch and head to another community.” The city’s growth over recent decades, Malone adds, “does not reflect in any way on the southeast part of Raleigh.”
Next month’s mayoral race is all about growth. In their campaign platforms, the two frontrunners have acknowledged that more of the benefits of that expansion should flow to Southeast Raleigh. Republican incumbent Paul Coble, a developer-friendly conservative, has promised to bring economic development to the city’s southeastern portion by creating incentives for new business investment there. His main challenger, Democrat Charles Meeker, has pledged to give improvement projects in Southeast Raleigh the same attention and funding as those in the rest of the city. (A third candidate, IBM executive Joel Cornette, has run a low-key campaign and is not expected to win enough votes to survive the primary.)
But Southeast Raleigh leaders are wary of campaign promises–so much so that a significant number are staying neutral in the mayor’s race. For some, a history of half-hearted commitments from City Hall is behind that decision. “When you do what you always do, you get what you always get,” says Octavia Rainey, a leading community activist and former City council candidate who has firmly declared her neutrality in the primary race.
If the race is close, votes from the heavily Democratic southeast section of the city could be key to unseating incumbent Coble. And in the future, “whoever becomes our next mayor needs to stay focused on Southeast Raleigh,” Rainey says. “It’s time for some serious change.”
Some community leaders feel the 1999 election of Coble was a change. “The political will is now in place to make Southeast grow,” says current city council hopeful Venita Peyton. A Democrat and former mayoral candidate who surprised many by supporting Coble two years ago, Peyton believes that “the proof is there. While others have only offered lip-service, he’s come to the table with area leaders to improve Southeast.”
Peyton–who ran against Republican Tom Fetzer in the 1997 mayor’s race–cites a number of new developments that have sprung up under Coble’s tenure. Among them are a Kroger supermarket complex now under construction at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Raleigh boulevards, the slated September 2002 opening of a PepsiCo production plant at Interstate 40 and Jones Sausage Road, and the creation of the Southeast Raleigh Assembly, a 45-member body of developers, city and state officials, and civic leaders aimed at improving the area’s economy and image.
Others aren’t convinced. Rainey points out that developers can still make profits without investing in the communities where they build. “In order for a community to progress, dollars have to turn over in it,” she says. “You can’t begin to talk about economic development without addressing the problems of discrimination and accessibility.”
For example, Rainey notes that Centura Bank recently declined to open a branch near the new Kroger. (If it did, it would be the first of the bank’s nine city branches to locate in Southeast Raleigh.) And, she says, insurance companies frequently either overcharge or refuse to cover area businesses.
Coble did not respond to requests for an interview about his plans for Southeast Raleigh. Not surprisingly, challenger Meeker is critical of the incumbent’s pledge to revitalize the area.
“There’s been a lot of talk, but not a whole lot accomplished,” Meeker says. “The improvement budget for capital projects is $47 million for this year, but only a few hundred thousand are allocated to central or Southeast Raleigh.
“There needs to be parity,” continues Meeker, “so that we have parks, transportation and cultural projects going on there as well as the rest of the city.” On Sept. 7, Meeker mailed his own proposed agenda for Southeast Raleigh to more than 100 prominent members of the community. Among other items, it cites reducing crime, re-energizing city services and community development by devoting more resources to the area, and acquiring a permanent site for a Martin Luther King Jr. center on race relations as top priorities.
Whether that agenda will convince Southeast Raleigh residents to come out strongly for Meeker remains to be seen.
Malone, who is among those staying neutral in the mayor’s race, says the last thing Southeast needs is more promises. “I’m anxious and I’m agitated,” he says. “And I want some action.”
Southeast Raleigh has been waiting a long time for action. For decades, it has largely been cut off from economic prosperity and development enjoyed by other areas of the city.
“We’ve always needed more affordable housing, more jobs and less crime,” says former mayor Lightner, a native of the area who has not endorsed a candidate for mayor. “Southeast has, throughout the years, been left behind when it comes to stuff like this.”
Examples of such municipal neglect are not hard to find. In a number of the area’s more troubled sections, community leaders like Rainey say the city has either failed or been slow to respond to such ongoing menaces as abandoned houses and drug trafficking.
“What has damaged the economy of Southeast is that the negative businesses have hurt the positive ones,” Rainey says. Her definition of “negative businesses” includes illegal drug and sex transactions in boarded-up houses, as well as the legal operation of corner stores selling mostly malt liquor while offering little or no food products. In many parts of Southeast Raleigh, Rainey continues, residents have had to risk “getting past the negative businesses in order to frequent the positive ones.”
Past revitalization efforts have produced little result. Twelve years ago, the city introduced the Southeast Raleigh Community Development Corporation as a way of reviving the stagnant area. But less than a decade later, the troubled nonprofit had only one employee and a record of numerous financial losses. Last year, the Raleigh Business and Technology Center–an incubator for small businesses–opened its doors in the area with similar economic aspirations in mind. While they support its presence, community leaders point out that it took 17 years of bureaucratic and financial setbacks for the center to become a reality.
In 1993, inspired by such inactivity, ex-mayor Lightner and a number of prominent community members pushed the city to increase its commitment to Southeast Raleigh. In exchange for supporting plans for a convention center downtown, Lightner’s group was recognized by the city, and the Southeast Raleigh Improvement Commission was born. Composed of 26 leaders from the public and private sectors, the commission trumpeted the area’s concerns for an eight-year period before it was absorbed by the Southeast Raleigh Assembly in July.
1993 also began the six-year reign of Mayor Tom Fetzer. A staunch conservative, Fetzer was known for his far-from-cozy relations with Southeast’s historically black communities. During her 1997 mayoral bid, Peyton criticized Fetzer for focusing on the economic needs of other parts of the city–North Raleigh in particular–over those of Southeast. By the time the 1999 mayoral race rolled around, Coble–a close Fetzer ally on City Council–appeared to have little in common with the area’s heavily Democratic constituents.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to City Hall. Prior to that year’s mayoral race, Peyton–who considers herself an outsider to the “old guard” represented by Lightner and his former improvement commission–threw her support behind Coble. Coble would win office by a razor-thin margin of 264 votes over fellow city council member Stephanie Fanjul.
Although Fanjul received 76 percent of the votes from the city’s Southeastern District C, some argued that Peyton’s endorsement likely made the difference by swaying a small-yet-significant number of residents to Coble’s side.
In a November 1999 post-election editorial in The Carolinian, a Raleigh based African-American newspaper, the political implications of Peyton’s endorsement were described this way: “In each [Southeast] precinct, there was a noticeable vote for Coble–10 votes here, 12 votes there,” the editors wrote. “When you add those votes together, you come to the conclusion that, had they not been siphoned away from Fanjul, we might have seen a very different outcome.”
Peyton downplays her role in the previous mayoral election. “All I want is for Southeast to be respected,” she says. What we now have, she adds, is a political leadership that is “very concerned with our area.”
Yvonne Lewis Holley sees the situation differently, and that’s why she’s supporting Meeker. “I believe Meeker would be more intensive with his efforts in Southeast,” says the past president and current member of the Raleigh Wake Citizens Association, an influential community group. In 1999, Holley lost her bid for a district council seat to current City Councilman James West, who is running unopposed in the upcoming primary. Holley describes Meeker as an honest, trustworthy and longtime supporter of Southeast who “understands our desire to grow responsibly.”
Though largely agreeing with Holley’s assessment of his personal attributes, many community leaders feel that Meeker, as Rainey says, “has not come out strong enough” on the issues facing Southeast–especially considering the close 1999 race and the likelihood that Coble’s recent attention to the area may net him a few more votes there this time around. If a significant number of area leaders fail to actively support Meeker, Coble could benefit from a lower turnout in this heavily Democratic district.
Accordingly–though he’s expected to easily carry this historically black section of the city in the primary on Oct. 9–Meeker can ill-afford to take the area for granted.
Regardless of which candidate wins, community leaders in Southeast Raleigh say being taken for granted is something they’ll no longer tolerate. While some may be sitting on the fence in the mayoral race, local leaders are united about giving Southeast a more prominent place in the city’s agenda.
“We’ve got to market this community as a viable place for economic development and stop frightening people with the notion that we don’t have a work force, or that we have too much crime,” says Malone. “Once we do that, we can start to turn this thing around.”