RALEIGH — About a year ago, a dozen neighbors in downtown Oakwood convened to lament that another storied neighbor had passed away without us ever capturing her stories. In response, we bought two digital recorders, held a training workshop and identified a list of people whose stories we needed to capture - and soon.
This weekend over a thousand people will flock to the 40th Anniversary Oakwood Candlelight Tour. The houses on the tour are unique and beautiful. Visitors may assume that these houses, by virtue of their quality, have maintained their elegance and integrity with little effort.
Not so. Forty years ago Oakwood was on the verge of demolition. It was peppered with condemned properties and its crime rate was among the highest in the city. Once a tony address, the neighborhood had fallen long and hard, as had older, inner-city neighborhoods across the country.
Suburbs were in and urban was out. Such was Oakwood's decline that it was deemed dispensable. In the 1970s, the city decided a freeway and government offices were better uses of the land.
In the meantime, a small group of urban pioneers had moved into the neighborhood who thought otherwise. They envisioned a renaissance of Oakwood and set about to make it happen, one renovation at a time. Because of them, a Beltline circles the city rather than bisects it. Raleigh's historic residential core remains. Without the efforts of these re-settlers, there would be no Candlelight Tour and no Oakwood worth living in, except as a last resort.
The homes were built in the styles of the day - Victorian, Italianate, Second Empire, Neo-classical - using local supplies (such as the rot-resistant heart pine and cedar) and they were built to last forever. Oakwood grew and thrived well into the 1920s, until the automobile, people's desire for larger lots, the Depression and the expense of keeping up historic homes all conspired to motivate people to leave the downtown for the suburbs. While some families did stay in Oakwood, economics often forced extended families to move in together and others to subdivide their homes and rent out rooms. Over the next 40 years, the neighborhood declined.
One month after moving into his home in late 1972, Ronnie Ellis heard on the radio that the city was planning to run a new north-south freeway right through the middle of Oakwood and Mordecai, and his house was directly in its path. He and other newcomers banded with longtime residents and started sending out fliers and petitions. It was at one of these meetings that they hatched the plan to host a Candlelight Tour that year - both to raise money to pay mailing and attorney fees and to bring people from other parts of Raleigh in to see first-hand the houses they would lose to the highway.
It was these residents, along with local activists and City Council members Randy Hester and Tom Bashford, who saved Oakwood, Mordecai and parts of downtown from being razed.
Many more residents since then have been instrumental in saving Oakwood - through setting up a revolving fund to purchase blighted properties to restore, establishing a park, creating a community watch program, conducting neighborhood clean-ups, creating annual community traditions, restoring homes and continuing the tradition of the Candlelight Tour. These are some of the stories you can listen to at www.oakwoodproject.org/.
While this project started as a way to save history, it has grown into something much more: a way to recognize and celebrate the individuals who have been instrumental in Oakwood's evolution; a way to learn and teach history; a way to possibly inspire and provide guidance to other communities facing similar challenges, and finally, and probably most importantly, a way to build and strengthen connections within our community.
Oakwood resident Liisa Sinikka Ogburn is with Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies.