RALEIGH — Forty years ago, Raleigh nearly tore out its heart.
Bulldozers almost knocked down the mansions of historic Oakwood, ripped out the tall oaks of Mordecai and flattened the streets of Chavis Heights to build a north-south freeway 200 feet wide.
Had it happened, Raleigh would have placed a ribbon of speeding cars within sight of the governors mansion and the Krispy Kreme on Person Street, not to mention spoiled a million good walks down Oakwood sidewalks.
So this week, Raleighs oldest neighborhood will celebrate the highway-that-wasnt, recalling how a crowd of plain-folks activists stopped a massive freeway and helped shift power away from a handful of businessmen who wanted it.
In a pair of forums Friday and Saturday, Oakwood will present the story from the original rabble-rousers. Along Bloodworth and East streets, purple ribbons on the telephone poles mark what might have been demolished.
This was a monster, said Randy Hester, a landscape architect who lived in Chavis Heights at the time. Anybody who was anybody in the power structure wanted that thing built. It touched a nerve.
It takes a lot of rewinding to understand the freeway decisions impact.
In 1972, Raleighs Interstate 440 Beltline hadnt been finished. Crabtree Valley Mall had just opened. Oakwood had just started crawling back from a decade of neglect that saw its towering homes carved up into flophouse apartments.
The Chamber of Commerce picked candidates for City Hall, who ran citywide, not from districts.
For many years The News & Observer said the good ol boys ran the city of Raleigh, and they were just about right, recalled G. Wesley Williams, 92, longtime director of the Raleigh Merchants Association. We still meet once a month. Its a fellowship thing.
The North-South Freeway grew out of a sprawling $144 million plan to reorganize state government buildings into a grassy campus, connected by underground tunnels. A freeway, the thinking went, would pull traffic off crowded downtown streets and provide easy access to the central business district.
The present thoroughfare system is currently operating at or near capacity during rush hours, the plan said. Obviously, this system as it now exists will be able to accommodate little growth.
To Hester, teaching at N.C. State University at the time, the plan called for growth at any cost, especially the older neighborhoods that stood in its way. He and his students put out a pair of studies showing what the freeway would bring, neighborhood by neighborhood, and the deep scars carved by widening roads.
It was going to be cleared, he said. The whole place. The whole neighborhood. All those shotgun homes. The real estate was too valuable to leave it in the hands of poor black people.
One goal: No road
In October of 1972, nearly 130 Oakwood residents gathered in a Polk Street church with one goal: No road. They collected more than 1,000 signatures from Raleigh and across the state.
Divisions formed within the City Council between neighborhood and business backers, a split that would change the citys politics for good. The council gained members such as Hester and Miriam Block, one of the first women ever to serve, who kept the goal of calling 10 constituents every day.
All this was a neighborhood approach to try to maintain and preserve the city center of Raleigh, said Oliver Williams, a councilman at the time. The freeway would have been plowing through two neighborhoods that were trying to revitalize.
As the anti-freeway push grew, the activists were targeted by vandals. People vocal in the movement found their windows covered with orange spray-paint.
But they stuck together and formed their own nonprofit: the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood. They started a candlelight tour through some of the oldest homes, a tradition that continues each December. Within a few years, they helped get Oakwood named as Raleighs first historic district, meaning any change to the exterior of any house would be subject to design review.
But their first victory came in November 1972, when the council opted to move on with its downtown plans without the freeway.
We need to get something going, Wesley told the group, noting the neighbors opposition.
Today, Hester points out the new people flooding into the downtown neighborhoods that wouldnt have existed with the freeway. He wonders if the restaurants and bars on Hargett Street, the new condominiums and apartments on and around Glenwood South or the festivals on Fayetteville Street would have happened if an expressway roared a few blocks away.
He also points to Durham, where he lives now, with N.C. 147 cutting through it, destroying much of the historic Hayti community.
Almost every public meeting I go to, he said, someone is complaining about the injustice of 147. It wrecked Hayti. It wrecked the black community. People are still bothered by it, and if the freeway had been built in Raleigh the same thing would have happened.