The last Black residents of South Park are weary.
Black folks have been fighting to survive in Raleigh since emancipation, but especially since the city tried to extend Western Boulevard through this historically Black neighborhood in the seventies. And though displacement has harmed South Park economically, it’s the city’s success in all but erasing the significance of East Raleigh residents from its common history that has worn down its spirit.
Go downtown and try to find information on display about the significance of Hargett Street and Moore Square to Raleigh’s Black community. Look at the sad state of the Top Green Center, where the city has declined for years to fund an archive room to showcase priceless artifacts of its Black history; or the long-delayed restoration of Chavis Park—in early planning meetings in the 2000s, city staffers didn’t even know Chavis had a children’s train before desegregation until community leader Lonnette Williams showed them old photographs—which has languished even as the city restored Pullen Park, just down the road, and even after city voters approved a parks bond in 2014 that was supposed to help.
Though South Park residents have always had a vision for themselves, the city has rarely accepted it, at least without pushback. City officials have often seemed indifferent to or put off by the neighborhood’s demands, and the community’s leaders have been shut out of the most important committees and meetings in City Hall.
The residents of East Raleigh have brought businesses, institutions, and beauty to their home city and beyond, but their success has never really been part of Raleigh’s long-term plan.
Raleigh, after all, wasn’t built for free Black people.
As the city enters another election season, displacement is a fact with which we must reckon. When measuring the impact of our zoning laws, business regulations, and community overlay districts, we should look at why these policies exist in the first place.
“The system isn’t broken,” a friend and real estate agent told me recently. “It’s working exactly as it was designed to.”
Black neighborhoods like South Park are classic cases of city neglect. They’ve been passed over for enrichment opportunities, their parks and schools decimated, and residents have been ignored when they reported negligent landlords.
And while there was no redlining in Raleigh (per se), the city found ways to concentrate its nonwhite, non-wealthy citizens—e.g., by locating the segregated Black schools near a quarry and a landfill and declaring that Black students wouldn’t be bussed elsewhere.
Until the late sixties, many Black residents were denied access to mortgages. Investors bought single-family homes in Black neighborhoods and split them into multiple units to make more money. By the nineties, these neighborhoods were among the only places in town that would accept Section 8 vouchers or rent to people with poor credit or who had been previously jailed.
Then, with downtown resurgent, the city’s developer friends swooped in, buying properties from investors and struggling elderly homeowners. Loaded with cash and power, they began harassing the remaining residents with letters disguised as bills to induce them to sell on the cheap, so their houses could be flipped.
The residents have no voice, not even support from the ones who promised to help. NIMBYs and YIMBYs alike are both focused on the privileged class and disregard the most affected residents. And though the city claims to want to “revitalize” what, frankly, it ruined in the first place, its plans often read like a thinly veiled land grab.
Raleigh’s idea of revitalization has more to do with increasing tax revenue, by allowing things like guest houses and breweries, then increasing housing stock for under-resourced citizens.
The land is worth more to them than the Black lives on it.
The residents of South Park, however, haven’t quit fighting.
Lonnette Williams continues to raise her voice when she sees the city disrespecting our elders’ legacy. Because, as she puts it, “Once I’m gone, it’s over. My generation is the last link to the past, and some of my neighbors have died waiting to witness the restoration of Chavis Park and the Top Green Center. If we have nothing to leave to teach you our heritage, it’ll be gone.”
COURTNEY NAPIER is a Raleigh native, community activist, and co-host of the podcast Mothering on the Margins. NEXT WEEK: former News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders.
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