Raleigh Housing Authority: Where the streets have magicians' names

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJanuary 17, 2014 

— When the Walnut Terrace public housing complex reopens next year, its residents will find that their new addresses bear the names of obscure magicians.

Steve Beam, Raleigh Housing Authority director and card-trick expert, has named the new development’s streets after historical figures in magic, most of whom – like Beam – were known for masterful illusions with a deck of playing cards. Beam recently came under fire for taking up to 20 comp days off a year, sometimes to attend magic conventions across the nation for his personal business, Trapdoor Productions. The agency’s board did not vote on the names chosen.

Beam defended the choice of names, which were filed with the Wake County Register of Deeds last February and are now beginning to show up on city maps. He said the magical streets are a nod to the project’s against-the-odds success: While the agency’s other housing redevelopment efforts have been done with millions in federal funds, the housing authority alone paid for the Walnut Terrace renovation.

“It has been stated by other housing directors that it was like magic to be able to redevelop the property without additional federal grants,” Beam said. “When completed, we planned to capitalize on that in the initial lease-up.”

Southeast Raleigh community activist Octavia Rainey, however, is not amused. “I can’t believe he’d have the gall to do that,” she said. “What company would allow you to bring your second business into your first business and start naming a project off your second business?”

Rainey – who says her great-grandmother lived in the Walnut Terrace area – doesn’t think a historically black neighborhood should bear the names of people who were known for making things disappear.

“A lot of black people disappeared because they were fighting for their rights,” she said.

A map of the development shows nine new streets honoring magicians, many of them replacing street names that date to the South Park neighborhood’s founding more than a century ago. Streets like Holman, Walnut and Branch predate the housing project but will no longer appear on signs. Beam said the city rejected a proposal to keep those names because some of them were in use elsewhere in Raleigh.

Most people likely won’t recognize the pioneers of illusion that will grace the streets in Walnut Terrace:

• Hofzinser Court will pay tribute to Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, a 19th-century Austrian magician who’s considered the father of card magic.

• Scarne Street is named for John Scarne, considered by many to be the greatest card manipulator of all time. He also wrote several books, including “Scarne’s New Complete Guide to Gambling.”

• Stebbins Circle salutes Si Stebbins, a circus clown and acrobat who developed a card-stacking technique that bears his name. One of Beam’s books features a card trick inspired by Stebbins called “Stebbin’ Out.”

Former residents likely will barely recognize the site when construction wraps up. The old buildings have been demolished to make way for a $50 million mixed-income community where Raleigh’s poor will live alongside tenants paying market-rate rents.

Beam said he had hoped the unique street names would draw attention to sweeping changes at Walnut Terrace. “Ironically, it was in the anticipation we would receive some positive press (something we apparently don’t spend enough time on) for the transformation of RHA’s portfolio,” he wrote in an email.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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