Looking back fondly, looking ahead uneasily

Staff WriterJuly 2, 2006 

Both Chavis Heights are memories now -- the tight-knit community that was a center of black Raleigh culture for decades as well as the aged, crime-troubled place that the public housing complex had become before it was emptied in 2004 and demolished.

Former residents celebrated the first version Saturday with an annual reunion, ignored the second and tried to figure out what to think of the coming third version, a "mixed-income" project with some units at market-rate prices and others subsidized.

For now there are just new roads, piles of red clay and stacks of cinder blocks. But when construction is done by late 2007, the $20 million project will include a 55-unit apartment building for senior citizens, 73 townhouses, and 40 one-bedroom apartment "villas." More than 50 off-site houses for public housing tenants were also bought for lease and possible purchase.

"A lot of people don't like it," said Bobbie Archible, who moved into Chavis Heights in 1952 when she was 4 years old and left in the late 1960s. "At a time when you've got such a serious problem with homeless people, here you've got all these rules to get back in."

If the Raleigh Housing Authority can use the transition to filter out troublemakers, at least that would be a plus, she said. But the old place meant so much that even with its recent woes, losing it left a gaping hole in Raleigh history.

"For me, it's like the city has come in and taken our roots," she said. "Chavis Heights was a start for so many powerful black people in Raleigh."

She suggested some sort of monument so that history isn't forgotten.

The old complex, with 296 apartments, was completed in 1941 and became famous as a place where folks looked out for each other and working-class parents could launch their kids into better lives. Former residents became lawyers, judges, college professors and police officers.

"Everybody in the neighborhood was your momma, and you better do what they said because if it got back to your momma that you didn't, you were in real trouble then," said Malinda Holloway, who moved in when she was 6 months old and left in 1979, when she was 23.

Some of the more than 200 people at Saturday's reunion worried that the qualifications for living in the new Chavis Heights would keep out some former residents. People who lived there just before demolition will have a one- to three-month window to apply to return. Those under age 65 must be employed, and the housing for senior citizens will be income-restricted.

"I'd love to be able to come back, but things have changed so much I don't know that I could meet the restrictions," said Sheila Nesmith of Raleigh, who moved into the complex when she was a child and left about eight years ago. She's interested in the new senior housing.

Holloway said that she, too, would like to live in the senior building. She thinks that redevelopment will be great if it turns out like a similar project, the housing authority's demolition and reconstruction of crime-ridden Halifax Court.

Now called Capitol Park, it is also a mixed-income community. It has drawn good reviews for improving its neighborhood but criticism from some community leaders for offering less public housing than before.

The key, Holloway said, is background checks and tight reins not so much on income as behavior.

"The rules were stricter when I was a kid, and things were fine," she said. "But later it just went down, and I think part of it was that they just wanted the money and didn't care who they let in."

For some, the picnic fare at the reunion -- hot dogs and hamburgers -- conjured the dozens of grills that used to scent the air across Chavis Heights on summer nights. Archible reminisced about roller-skating, a long-gone dance pavilion and learning new steps on the roofs of the low sheds where lawn mowers were stored.

Used to be, she said, on a Saturday like this one there would be softball games and kids playing everywhere.

Instead, on the playing field behind the Chavis Heights community center, two Latino soccer teams ran up and down the grass.

Janis Clark, 50, who lived at Chavis Heights for the first 14 years of her life, said that of course things have to change. The new complex will probably be fine, she said, as long as access to the housing is fair and equitable.

"It could never be the same," she said. "But the world is different, and, you know, we aren't the same either."

Staff writer Jay Price can be reached at 829-4526 or jprice@newsobserver.com.

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