As I was putting the finishing touches on a story covering the reopening of John Chavis Memorial Park last month, friends on social media alerted me to some disturbing comments made by District A Raleigh Council member Patrick Buffkin. He claimed to be paraphrasing Durham Mayor Steve Schewel when he said, “Don’t build projects that house only poor people. These are places that are devoid of hope. There are very few role models for the children that live there and a much better way for the community is to have this mix of incomes, people from different backgrounds, people from different means helping each other to learn how to live together.”
Though most of his colleagues chose not to address these ignorant and false statements, some from the community did. Fair housing advocate Wanda Coker, Nicole Heckstall Bennett, a member of the Planning Commission, and historian Carmen Cauthen all penned thoughtful and vulnerable rebuttals to Buffkin’s comments. Yet, instead of honoring their lived experience and apologizing for causing harm, the self-identified antiracist called the criticisms ‘gotcha politics,’ then added, “it saddens me that instead of focusing on the work of building a stronger community for everyone in Raleigh some have chosen to distort my comments in an attempt to score political points.”
Those who understand the history of Raleigh know that across from Chavis Park was Raleigh’s first public housing complex for Black residents. While writing my article on the park, I met former residents of the community. The way they spoke about their neighborhood was very different from the way Buffkin describes life in a “project that [housed] only poor people.”
Ms. Virginia Talley was intent on communicating the pride her family and neighbors took in their apartments. “They were apartment homes,” she said, with added emphasis, then described the pride of place so often attributed exclusively to homeowners that was alive and well in her community.
Another former resident named Darnell Henderson remembered growing up in Chavis Heights and playing baseball, football, and basketball at the park as a child. He went on to coach the Chavis Park basketball team, and led the team to its first championship victory.
Years ago, while I was curating the first Black Oak Society Zine, Carmen Cauthen taught me about Jessie Copeland, a tenant organizer for Chavis Heights. She baked cookies for the neighborhood children by day and advocated for the rights of their parents by night.
Demetrius Hunter, a Raleigh native and business owner, remembers riding in his father Zelb’s truck that was converted into a mobile produce market and served healthful, farm-fresh foods to the residents, with special attention to the single mothers and elders.
No one had a lot, but they had each other. That is, until the city decided to redevelop the property into mixed-income housing. The part about this kind of redevelopment process that often goes unsaid is that—unless the developer decides otherwise—some residents will be kicked out of their neighborhoods and never be able to return. Converting a neighborhood that exclusively serves low-income families to one that serves “everyone” may be more beneficial to the city’s bottom line, but it is devastating to the fabric of a community. Bonds will be broken, children will lose friends, parents will lose the people who kept a watchful eye over their children while at work, and those elders will lose the young, energetic people who help bring their groceries in from the car or rake the leaves for them in autumn.
The other myth in Buffkin’s words is that mixed income neighborhoods result in socioeconomic harmony, helping people of different backgrounds “learn how to live together.”
What Buffkin is referring to, as described in sociologist Michael Banton’s Order of Racial Contact, is called “institutionalized contact,” when the dominant class comes into the community of the marginalized class to “improve” it or otherwise redefine it.
Buffkin’s comments suggest that if Raleigh changes Heritage Park from traditional public housing to mixed-income housing, it will be making something “devoid of hope” (a community of only poor people) into something “much better” (a community with fewer poor people and more wealthy people). That, in turn, will result in poor people and wealthy people building relationships and repairing the wrongs of discrimination and inequality.
This is not on the minds of most upper-income families moving into gentrifying communities. I would challenge those newcomers to Raleigh’s historically Black neighborhoods to comment below this piece and state the names of those neighbors whose properties their new homes cast a shadow over, or the last time they invited them over for dinner. When’s the last time that neighbor has called you for help, or you have called them? These things happen with trust and vulnerability, two relational features that wealthy newcomers often forget to unpack along with their ski equipment and old paperwork.
In Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s book, Racism Without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, he discusses that even when white people are in racially integrated spaces like neighborhoods, schools, or workplaces, they rarely develop meaningful relationships with their Black peers. He also observed that, despite this, white people too often believe they have a much closer relationship to the marginalized people in their world because of that proximity. When pressed to share the specific nature of those relationships—what is the name of your Black best friend, when is the last time that you went out for drinks with those colleagues—it becomes clear that there is no real relationship, just cordial observation.
When I have spoken to residents of historically Black or disinvested communities in Raleigh, I hear a cautionary tale. My friend Chalisa Williams talks about going on her morning walk and feeling like she is out of place in her downtown neighborhood. Raleigh native Johnny Blaylock shared a story of how newcomers to his neighborhood walk past him while he tends to his garden as if he is invisible. Other residents speak of feeling endangered as new white neighbors call the police on young people gathered on the corner or upon hearing loud music and conversations at night.
Buffkin’s remarks reflect the paternalism emblematic of color-blind racism. It’s the belief that poor people (of color) are ill-equipped to care for themselves and their children, so they need wealthier (white) people to come into their communities to show them the way. While it is not hateful language by any means, and Buffkin’s heart may be in the right place, his analysis lacks any semblance of reality.
Poverty does not diminish a human being’s capacity to love, lead, and innovate. Many religious and spiritual traditions suggest the exact opposite, and data show that the isolated socialization of the dominant classes impacts their ability to empathize with marginalized people. But what poverty does do is starve individuals of the resources afforded to others, leaving them fewer options as they seek to care for their families and neighbors.
Displacing people from their homes creates anxiety, upheaval, and anger. It renders people powerless to do what they were created to do: to provide stable and nurturing homes and communities in which to raise their young. The answer to the suffering of Raleigh’s low-income families is not to break apart their village and stick in some wealthy families. It’s to give them the resources they have long been denied—that have been stolen from them for generations—and stand back as their neighborhoods burst forth with the most beautiful flowering humans the city has ever seen.
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