Community wants Chavis Park restored to its former glory

david.ranii@newsobserver.comAugust 12, 2012 

— Anger and resentment that Chavis Park is no longer the jewel it once was boiled to the surface at a public forum focused on the historic park’s future on Saturday.

“We’re tired of getting nothing,” Irene Hall complained at the morning session sponsored by Raleigh’s Parks and Recreation Department. “We pay taxes just like anybody else.”

About 50 local residents attended the session at the park’s community center, the first of four meetings designed to gather community input for a master plan that will map out the park’s long-term future. The city, which also plans to appoint a group of citizens to foster community feedback, expects the plan for the 29-acre downtown park to be completed in 12 to 18 months.

For years, Southeast Raleigh residents have complained that many of the attractions that once made Chavis Park special – a train ride, an Olympic pool, a WWII-era plane – have disappeared over the years. (Old-timers dismiss the park’s current, smaller pool as “a kiddie pool.”)

They’re also upset the city has lavished attention on the park on the other side of town, Pullen Park.

The comparison with Pullen is especially grating because of Chavis’ history. It was conceived during segregation as an alternative for blacks who were barred from Pullen’s pool. Built in the 1930s by the federal Works Progress Administration, Chavis boasted the only pool of its size between Washington and Atlanta where African-Americans could frolic.

“What stands out so vividly is those Saturdays and Sundays that people came to the park from all over North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia,” Bennie A. Mack Jr., 70, who grew up in the Chavis Heights neighborhood, said in an interview. “We had swim meets, diving contests, just like you see on NBC Sports.”

The city already is the midst of a $1.8 million upgrade of the park, but even that has stirred controversy. Some residents object that the park’s classic carousel – purchased used for $4,000 in 1937 – is being shifted from its original site.

At one point during Saturday’s session, Diane Sauer, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, told the crowd: “We haven’t always done a good job of communicating and keeping people informed on how and why decisions were made.”

Frustration about what has happened in the past has made some people wary about how interested the city is in listening to residents’ views and whether the city is serious about funding a major park upgrade.

“How can we ensure that this isn’t just posturing, that something will actually come out of this?” asked Rhonda Muhammad.

“We are giving you our word that this is an authentic process,” said Vernice Miller-Travis, a city consultant who presided over Saturday’s discussion. “We believe in you, we believe in this community, and most of all, we believe in this park.”

She also pointed to Mayor Nancy McFarlane’s attendance at the session as a demonstration of the city’s commitment.

Prior to Saturday’s session the consulting firm Miller-Travis works for, Skeo Solutions of Charlottesville, Va., interviewed about 50 people – residents, community leaders and city staffers – about Chavis’ history and its potential.

Some of their suggestions, which were posted at Saturday’s meeting, have a back-to-the-future resonance: A larger swimming pool. A kiddie train. A World War II plane.

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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