With a key location just across Hillsborough Street from what is now N.C. State University, and on a streetcar line just a 10-minute ride from downtown, it started life in 1910 as Raleigh’s most expensive suburb.
By the 1960s it was sliding into decline with the departure of many of the original families, but then it rallied again as residents banded together, pushing back a tide of encroaching apartment conversions and fraternity houses. Eventually Cameron Park regained its status as one of the Triangle’s most attractive family neighborhoods.
And now it’s the subject of its own history book.
Residents attended a gathering Sunday at Preservation North Carolina president Myrick Howard’s house to celebrate the publication of “Cameron Park, A Remote Retreat on Hillsboro Street, 1910-2010,” invoking the old spelling of the street that forms its southern border.
The book was the brainchild of Howard, who has lived in the neighborhood for 35 years.
“It seemed like it was time for something like this,” he said. “The neighborhood is 100 years old, and a lot of folks who live here now don’t have a strong sense of where it comes from.”
Given the role that community has played in the history of the place, it’s fitting, he said, that the residents paid for it themselves. More than 100 people, most of them residents, contributed the $38,000 it took after word went out on the Cameron Park listserv.
Cameron Park was begun about the same time as two other suburbs, Boylan Heights and Glenwood, said the author, architectural historian Ruth Little, who attended the party Sunday. Each suburb targeted specific segment of the market by setting a minimum cost allowed for houses. Lot buyers had to spend at least $1,500 on a home in Glenwood, $2,500 in central Boylan Heights, and at least $3,000 in Cameron Park.
This was of course the South, and decades before the civil rights movement, and the trio of suburbs were marketed to whites who wanted to leave the more racially mixed downtown area. All three areas restricted deeds to prevent black residents other than domestic workers, something that only ended in 1948 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such covenants were unenforceable.
Cameron Park’s design, which features linear parks and service alleys behind houses, is responsible for much of the neighborhood’s enduring charm, Little said. These amenities help make a place with homes that are relatively close together feel spacious. That and an overall feeling of community and livability, the peace and quiet, are the distinctive features, she said, rather than assertive architecture.
In fact, the homes are generally low-key, she said.
“It’s neighborly architecture,” she said. “People weren’t vying to try to build something that attracted attention.”
Lots along Hillsborough Street, near the streetcar line, developed first, then building moved north until it was complete.
Eventually competition from whatever neighborhood was the newest and trendiest, such as Hayes Barton, drew some original buyers away. But the biggest problem came when more and more properties came into the hands of landlords, who in some cases converted them to rooming houses or apartments. The neighborhood never became exactly blighted, but it was at least partly a “student slum,” Howard said, and real estate agents steered families away.
In the 1970s, though, residents formed an association to fight the encroachment of boarding houses, apartments and fraternity houses, persuading the city to change the zoning and even creating a fund that bought a couple of the most troublesome houses and then resold them with restrictions that meant they would remain single-family.
Eventually such extreme measures weren’t necessary, and residents’ main tool in the fight became word of mouth. Whenever they would hear a home was likely to come on the market, they would put out word to potential buyers who would live there themselves, rather than becoming landlords.
It’s now seen as a classic “Inside the Beltline” single-family neighborhood. But after examining census information and doing other research, Little said that she found the population density in the early years was much higher than she expected. It was not unusual for a dozen or more people to be living in a single house, what with cooks, maids, members of extended families perhaps in the city temporarily to attend NCSU and the occasional boarder.
And some of the homes were originally built as subtle duplexes to help the owners handle the hefty minimum home cost.
Premium on walkability
Once, the big draw was that it was on the edge of the city, but reachable by trolley. Now, Howard said, an attraction is that so much has grown up around Cameron Park that rather than being “remote retreat” it’s now one of the most walkable places to live in the state.
“I tell people that there are at least 75 restaurants within walking distance,” said Howard, who himself walks to work downtown.
And the book, he said, could serve as a model for other neighborhoods around the state that want to preserve and celebrate their history and culture. Preservation NC co-published it along with the Cameron Park Association, and is selling the book on its website at http://www.presnc.org/store_category/books/.
The neighborhood is bounded by some of central Raleigh’s main thoroughfares, including Hillsborough Street, St. Mary’s Street, Peace Street and Oberlin Road. The increase in high-density housing on its borders may cause issues, with, say, parking, Howard said. But that new density also could improve the already great walkability by bringing even more nearby businesses.
And while the neighborhood association will have to stay vigilant, it now seems as though Cameron Park is in a position of strength, Howard said. New residents have been moving in, including many young families. Community functions like the annual holiday party and July 4th celebration continue, and the association remains strong.
Little, who helped lead a similar revitalization effort in the Oakwood neighborhood, agrees, and says the next era in Cameron Park’s history will be a positive one.
“I think it’s going to be a kind of green oasis with much more density around it,” she said.