It’s Sunday morning and I’m on my way to Martin Street Baptist Church in Southeast Raleigh. For two years, it’s been the high ground in the political fight for control of the Wake County school system: the church, as a gathering place for the defenders of diversity; and Southeast Raleigh, the historically black area of the city and the county with all its problems and its promise.
My journal of Southeast Raleigh started last June with the Social Justice Summit at the Martin Street Baptist Church near downtown. The subject was what the faithful should be doing beyond the four walls of the church. Brad Thompson, a community leader of long standing, read from the Bible about our duty to lift up the poor”the least of these.” Many pastors preach that it’s enough if you save your own soul, Thompson said. “But scripture teaches us that we have a collective duty as well.”
There were 35 people in the room. According to my notes, I was one of two who were white.
A week ago, I attended Sunday service with a conservative congregation in a very suburban area of Southeast Raleigh. At the Upper Room Church of God in Christ, Pastor Patrick Wooden’s message was indeed about barricading our souls from the sinfulness of the world. Again, I was one of two or three white faces, this time out of some 700–800.
Wooden and his flockbut mainly Woodenput on an amazing show that brought me to my feet saying “amen” in spite of my staid Catholic upbringing and the fact that Wooden is a rabid anti-gay activist.
From June until now, I’ve been on a journey to discover a part of Raleigh that I’ve been through many times and where I’ve attended countless meetings, but which for meand I think for much of Raleigh and Wake Countyis a place too much talked about but not understood or shared.
Southeast Raleigh is a quarter of the Capital City. About 85,000 people live here, but they’re not all the same. It’s one of the fastest-growing parts of Raleigh, but some neighborhoods are in decay. It has a reputation for crime. There is crime. And poverty. You don’t have to look hard to see it. But even in the worst parts of Southeast Raleigh, there’s hope. In most of Southeast Raleigh, there’s very little crime and the neighborhoods are middle-classmiddle-class and still predominantly black.
There’s a stirring in Southeast Raleigh, a semblance of do-it-yourself spirit. But outside investments are needed tooinvestments of money and of heart. There’s no part of the city with more potential to grow and add vitality to our region than Southeast Raleigh. It will do so when all of us embrace it, from within and without.
What follows are a journalist’s sketches, not a portrait of this place. I can’t claim to know Southeast Raleigh just yet. But I do claim to want to.
AUG. 3, VIGIL ON HAY LANE: On this August evening, family and friends gathered with lighted candles in front of a nondescript house on this tiny street just east of downtown and a short distance from Martin Street Baptist Church. They’ve assembled to mark the one-year anniversary of the murder of Ezekiel (Zeke) Crowder, which remains unsolved.
A 30-year-old husband, father, electrician and Army veteran, Crowder was visiting on the front porch with another manneither one lived therewhen someone walked up and started shooting. Police think Crowder may have been the unintended victim of a ricochet bullet aimed at the friend, who was wounded.
According to Raleigh police, there were 21 homicides in Southeast Raleigh in 2008, a terrible year. The number declined to seven in 2009 and three, including the Crowder killing, in 2010.
The Rev. Diana Powell speaks for Project Ricochet, a fledgling volunteer effort to push the gangs out of the neighborhood and attract economic development. “It’s time for a change, and we’re not going to stop until somebody hears our voice,” Powell says.
Six young men watch at a distance from in front of a boarded-up house on nearby Haywood Street. Whether they’re gang members, I don’t know. When the vigil ends, they’re gone.
AN AGING LEADERSHIP: The South Central Citizens Advisory Council meets monthly at Roberts Park Community Center on East Martin Street, a few blocks east of Martin Street Baptist Church. It’s one of the six CACs scattered across Southeast Raleigh. This one encompasses most of the neighborhoods immediately east of downtown, the historic heart of the city’s African-American community.
In late July, I went to the meeting with some questions for Danny Coleman, the CAC chairman. He also chairs the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association (RWCA), for many years the major African-American political organization in the community. Coleman was in hot water for aligning himself with John Tedesco, the outspoken leader of the conservative bloc that took over the Wake County school board in the 2009 elections. Most black leaders were at war with Tedesco’s conservatives. Why wasn’t Coleman? And why, with city and school board elections coming again, wasn’t the RWCA organizing behind progressive candidates?
Coleman, though, was absent, as was the vice chairman. When Margot White, the secretary, finally called the meeting to order, just 10 people were present, not counting a handful of city officials.
CACs are a forum for neighborhoods and the city to talk. The discussion that night was about drug dealing on Montague Streetthe two cops there were nodding; they’re aware of itand about a blighted apartment building on Coleman Street that had been recently purchased and torn down by Raleigh’s Community Development Department. The city was looking for a developer to fill the vacant lot with affordable housing.
Later, White brought up the lack of citizen participation. She suggested that the CAC hold a special meeting “to take stock of how we can be a better value” to the neighborhoods. But she worried that unless food was served, folks wouldn’t come. “I don’t know how we bring things back to the safe feelings and neighborliness we had,” White said.
Older residents of Southeast Raleigh remember segregation with disgust, and they see it coming back to the school system unless Tedesco and his ilk are stopped. But they also remember the olden days of Southeast Raleigh with pride for how the community flourished despite segregation and worked together to defeat it.
Now, though, only a few gray hairs still come out for meetings in the “old” part of Southeast Raleigh. Young talent of the kind seen a half-century ago is conspicuous by its absence.
LONG NEGLECTED: After the CAC meeting, I speak with City Councilor Eugene Weeks. Weeks, 70, represents District C, the Southeast Raleigh district. In the October elections, he’ll be on the ballot for the first time. A year ago, he was appointed to replace James West, 68, who left to replace the retiring Harold Webb, 85, on the Wake County Board of Commissioners. Webb got the seat when Vernon Malone, who died in 2009 at age 77, was elected a state senator. The Old Guard, they’re called. All Democrats. All veterans of the civil rights era.
Weeks is a retired high school teacher. He’s intelligent, energetic and has a long track record in community organizations. I tell him it’s time for the city to get serious about building up Southeast Raleigh. He agrees. “I told the mayoral candidates, Southeast Raleigh’s been neglected for a long time,” Weeks remarks.
The night before the Hay Lane vigil, I ran into one of those mayoral candidates, Billie Redmond, at the Tarboro Road Community Center. A big crowd had turned outyes, there was foodfor a city-sponsored “Night Out Against Crime” event. Redmond was looking for votes. I raised the subject of Southeast Raleigh’s neglect, including the carcass of the historic St. Agnes Hospital at the front of St. Augustine’s College just up the street.
St. Agnes used to be the only hospital for blacks in Raleigh and miles around. Now it stands wrecked and abandoned, symbolic of how Southeast Raleigh’s best places have been allowed to decay.
Redmond, a commercial real estate broker, is a dealmaker. To my surprise, she told me that, when she was on the board of WakeMed, the giant health-care complex on New Bern Avenue at the eastern edge of Southeast Raleigh, she very nearly put a deal together for WakeMed and St. Augustine’s to rebuild St. Agnes as a community health clinic.
What an excellent idea. Redmond said she couldn’t quite make the funding work. And she didn’t want to say too much about it during the election season for fear of sounding like it was a campaign ploy. But she hasn’t given up.
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 totake 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 investorsor the citybuying 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 housesactually, older houses that were moved and rehabilitatedwent 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 centernothing 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 Raleighthe 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 streetgoing 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.”
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.
Back to schools
AUG. 27, HOW LOW IS LOW? Keith Sutton, who represents Southeast Raleigh on the Wake school boardhe’s the lone African-American memberhas called a community meeting this Saturday morning, at the new and virtually all-black-and-Hispanic Walnut Creek Elementary School. When Hurricane Irene approaches, Sutton calls off the meeting, but I don’t get the word until I arrive. I spend the next hour in not-bad weather exploring the thicket of nearby tract houses that, if it were 50 years ago, could be Levittown, Pa.
How is it possible that Walnut Creek opened with 80 percent of its students estimated to be eligible for federal lunch subsidies, i.e., their families are low-income? Low-income? These neighborhoods may be lower middle-class, but they’re nothing like old Southeast Raleigh. Still, some households here apparently fall below the income standards for subsidy: The limit is $27,000 for a family with two children.
FALLING SHORT: “We pray, God, that they understand that they have a special task in their hands.” It’s the annual back-to-school meeting at Compassionate Tabernacle of Faith Missionary Baptist Church, a brick building at the end of a long driveway across the road from Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School and a few miles up from Walnut Creek Elementary. The opening prayer is offered for the school board and for Superintendent Tony Tata, who’s here today.
Compassionate Tabernacle is where Marvin Pittman goes to church. Pittman is a retired Wake principal and a fixture at community meetings where the conservative school board is roundly thrashed. Conservatives want voters to believe that Wake’s longstanding diversity policy, which integrated every school based first on race and then on family income, didn’t help black or poor kids. The conservatives’ evidence: Graduation rates for blacks and economically disadvantaged students are 20 percent below those of whites.
Pittman is among the great majority of black leaders who say the conservatives are wrong. The achievement gap, bad as it is, they say, would be worse if poor students were concentrated in the high-poverty neighborhood schools that would exist in Southeast Raleigh if diversity is abandoned.
Pittman does credit the conservatives with recognizing that too many poor kids aren’t learning and are being excluded from challenging courses, because principals and teachers aren’t doing their jobs. Walnut Creek, for example, opened with less than 50 percent of its students reading at grade level, he points out. What happened in their previous schools?
But if the conservatives raised the right issues, they did so for the wrong reasons, Pittman insists. “We know what they were really saying is, ‘we don’t want your children in our schools’,” he says. “If they had left the diversity policy alone and did a better job of educating the kids once they went to those diverse schools, focusing on the issues they brought to the table, we would have an excellent system.”
SCHOOLS ARE CRITICAL: The school issue is huge in the community. For years, Southeast Raleigh has allowed about half of its childrensome 10,000 currently, according to school officialsto be bused to suburban schools. In turn, this makes room in the Southeast Raleigh schools for magnet students who come by choice from the suburbs. With special programming backed by additional funding, the magnet schools in Southeast Raleigh are one reason why middle-class blacks have never left. Their kids attend a top-notch magnet school or a good suburban school, but they’ve never been consigned to a high-poverty one.
Tata, a diversity supporter, makes a different point when he addresses the Compassionate Tabernacle congregation. Because it has so many lower-income students, Walnut Creek is budgeted for $5.4 million a year, Tata says. That’s $1 million more in operating funds than elementary schools of comparable size with diverse student bodies.
The extra money is to ensure that struggling kids can get necessary help, including free breakfast and lunch and an after-school program that is free for every student. Without help, many students would be at risk and so would Walnut Creek. It’s currently over-enrolledfree after-school care was a big draw, causing some kids to be “residing” with aunts and grandparents, school officials saybut the school could quickly empty if parents determine that it’s a bad school.
Wake County can’t afford a lot of high-needs schools, Tata tells the 100 people in the pews. It’s better and cheaper to avoid them in the first place.
THE MAGNET FAIR: It’s a madhouseor a fun houseas Wake County’s 33 magnet schools, the majority of which are located in Southeast Raleigh, pitch their services to several thousand prospecting parents at this annual event at Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School. Poe Elementary School teacher Juliet Kuhn, who’s white and lives in Garner, is explaining her school’s Montessori approach. “It is a good school,” she tells me. “Of course, you know in Wake County, you can’t go wrong.”
Sometimes you hear that the magnet schools are two separate schools in one building, I say to Kuhn. The magnet students and the base students don’t really mix. She smiled and shook her head. “That’s just not the elementary school experience,” Kuhn said. “The kids pair up.” Her son’s a fifth grader at Poe. “When I see the kids at his sleepovers, that’s what diversity looks like.”
For the first time this year, Southeast Raleigh parents, too, are shopping the fair. Under Tata’s controlled-choice assignment plan, they’re no longer assigned to a magnet or suburban school. Instead, they can apply to their two closest magnets, a high-performing suburban school or make another choice.
Observing the scene, Tata says: “If this doesn’t get you excited about the Wake school system, nothing will.”
SEPT. 29, READY? My friend Ricky Caldwell and I take a midafternoon stroll through the neighborhood around Haywood Street. I met Ricky when he was “in transition,” shall we say, and living in a homeless shelter. He’s come a long way since then. He has a handyman and yard-care business, rents a house and is working on his GED. With a different start in life, his intelligence and salesmanship would surely have ensconced him in the middle-class. Instead, he lived over here and has a prison record to overcome.
Data from the Raleigh police indicate that serious crime is down in Southeast’s worst neighborhoods. However, their aggressive policing, the reports also say, may be the reason for an increase in drug-related arrests in areas farther east on New Bern Avenue. To me, this area feels safe enough by day. Not at night.
Our research takes us to a house on Alston Avenue where two men are sitting in the front yard drinking beer. Ricky knows one of them, and soon we’re having a beer, too, and talking about crime. From where we’re sitting, we can see a trio of young men who appear to be in the drug business. One is on a bicycle. One keeps moving from the street to the back of a building. The third keeps a lookout.
It’s not that the drugs themselves are so bad, Ricky’s friend observes, it’s that the users go crazy when they’re short the money to buy them. The other man then tells how a druggie pulled a knife on him, and when the man got away and called the police, it took 90 minutes for a cruiser to arrive. “But if you take the law in your own hands, you know what’ll happen,” the man says. “They’ll get you.”
Back on Haywood Street, another trio is hanging around a convenience store. Ricky’s certain that they’re pushing too. He explains how food stamps are used in the drug trade. As we walk toward Martin Street, yet another trio comes into view, and one of them rides his bike toward us, mouthing a single word to Ricky: “Ready?”
Ricky shakes his head no. The youth swings his bike around and heads back to the corner.
“A white man walking with a black man on Haywood Street?” Ricky says. What else could they be doing except looking for drugs.
ELECTION DAY: Eugene Weeks wins in District C, with Racquel Williams a distant second. Billie Redmond runs second behind Mayor-elect Nancy McFarlane. In the all-important school board elections, the Republicans are swept from power as voters turn out in big numbers. A November runoff is needed to settle one North Raleigh district. But when Kevin Hill wins, candidates backed by the Democratic Party have claimed all five seats, making them the new 5-4 school board majority. Diversity in the schools will endure. You can hear the sighs of relief all over Southeast Raleigh.
One other election note: Danny Coleman’s personal endorsement did little to help Redmond. Meanwhile, for the first time in memory, the RWCA never met to endorse candidates in the Raleigh or school board races. I talked with Coleman a few days ago. He acknowledged that he’s finished as chairman. He didn’t so much support Tedesco, he said, as try to be a broker between Tedesco’s side and the pro-diversity side. Coleman questioned why white students should be “paid” to go to the well-funded magnet schools while black students who live near them are sent to lesser-funded suburban schools. He never thought that was fair, Coleman said.
With Coleman out, I’ve heard that the Rev. Earl Johnson of Martin Street Baptist Church may be tapped to lead the RWCA. I need to find out.
The good news
NOV. 6, ST. AUGUSTINE’S COLLEGE: Among the obvious places for a gathering place in Southeast Raleigh is in front of St. Augustine’s College, along Oakwood Avenue between Tarboro Road and Hill Street in the College Park neighborhood. Down the hill to the west is the historic Oakwood Cemetery. The neighborhood is unsightly now, a collection of shabby stores and mismatched houses, not to mention the ravaged St. Agnes Hospital. But when I drop in at the St. Augustine’s Community Development Corp., Executive Director Dennis Davis reveals that the college, with help from the city and federal funding, has acquired most of the properties it will need to completely remake this area. A master plan for housing and businesses is almost finished. The CDC is offering home ownership courses to area residents. The changes should come quickly.
Davis, a retired Wake County school administrator, foresees that the neighborhood will be transformed in the next few years as St. Aug’s expands and the city works to improve the New Bern corridor. “There’s never been a better time to be in a better place,” he says.
THE CHURCHES: Lacking community places, Southeast Raleigh meets in churches. There are many, with no two alike. But no two are more different than the Upper Room Church of God in Christ and Martin Street Baptist Church.
“Visitors, you have to be ready for me,” the Upper Room’s Pastor Wooden warns from the stage-pulpit when I visit on a Sunday. “This guy’s crazy,” he cracksbecause he suspects that’s what you’re thinking. “No, this guy’s right.”
Well, right wing, and ecstatically so. In two nonstop hours of performance, preaching, singing and praying, Wooden takes stray shots at gays and lesbians, Bill Maher, yoga and the Occupy Raleigh movement (“bunch of losers”). He’s part Billy Grahamthe hellfire and damnation partand part James Brown, the hardest-working man in show business. With a six-piece band like Jay Leno.
The Upper Room is a football-shaped hall that seats about 1,200 with a giant stage, choir seating for 100 and a modern TV studio in control of a three-camera broadcast setup and at least 12 speakers. Expect many smiles and greetings, brother, should you check it out on a Sunday.
Behind the church, the Upper Room Christian Academy is where Rodney Purvis, N.C. State’s promising basketball recruit, is a senior in high school. Christian schools are a growth enterprise out here. NBA star John Wall played at Raleigh Word of God.
Unfortunately, Wooden has put his considerable talents behind the anti-gay constitutional amendment that North Carolina will vote on next year. Not everyone in Southeast Raleigh is progressive.
Fortunately, Martin Street Baptist Church is progressive. The Rev. Earl Johnson, who arrived two years ago, matches Wooden as a pulpit preacher, if not as a singer.
Martin Street’s sanctuary is about one-fourth the size of the Upper Room, and its congregation is older. But Johnson says a bigger sanctuary is planned, and he wants his church to engage “downtown”meaning with political issues of social and economic justice.
Johnson preached Sunday on “the power of the Church.” An example, he said, is the way Martin Street got behind the movement for good schools for all the children in Wake County. “I am beaming with delight,” he said, “that Kevin Hill was elected” in the District 3 school board runoff. Now “reasonable people are in charge of our schools.”
After the service, I asked Johnson whether he’ll be the RWCA’s new leader. “Maybe,” he said. Of course he’d need to be elected. And he’d only be interim until the organization gets going again. Until he can get it going, I think is what he said.
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Mitch Silver, Raleigh’s planning and economic development director, agrees New Bern Avenue should be a two-way “gateway corridor” and an investment magnet. At least, it should take you toward the Capitol. He grabs a pen and changes its direction on my notepad. We talk about the vacant tracts in Southeast Raleigh that are ripe for development. Silver, who is African-American, is keen to work with black institutions like St. Augustine’s. But white investors are needed too. It’s not either-or, he says. Revitalization need not mean gentrification and displacement. What it does mean is greater density, more people and more businesses will follow. “These are communities in transition,” Silver says. “I would say transitioning for the better. The potential is vast.”