After the city spent more than $2 million to restore the carousel at John Chavis Memorial Park and move it to a new, climate-controlled building, the historic carved wooden horses are still a treasure that relatively few people see.
The 100-year-old ride – open seven days a week year-round – drew only 6,770 riders all of last year, according to the city. By contrast, 272,166 people rode the Pullen Park carousel during that time.
The restoration of the Chavis carousel was the first step in a long-term revitalization of the 30-acre Chavis Park that is still in the planning stages and is expected to bring more energy and visitors to the park. The public will get an update on the project at a meeting Oct. 1.
Meanwhile, the city will celebrate the 77th anniversary of Chavis Park on Saturday. The event will both look back to the busy Chavis that drew African-Americans from across the state and beyond during segregation, and forward to the new, thriving park that people hope emerges from the redevelopment project, when the carousel won’t be such a solitary attraction.
“It’s beautiful. We absolutely love it,” Gretchel Carter-Hinton said of the restored ride. “But it takes more than a carousel.”
Carter-Hinton, 56, grew up in nearby Chavis Heights in the 1960s and 1970s and is active on a planning group that advises the city on the redevelopment project. She says obviously Pullen’s carousel draws more riders because its park has other attractions and amenities that Chavis lacks, including a train ride, snack bar and bathrooms.
But Pullen is the obvious point of reference for Chavis. For decades, they were companion parks in a segregated city, one totally open to blacks, the other with restrictions. Both had historic wooden carousels; both had swimming pools and playgrounds, and both had trains that looped around the park.
But after segregation, when Chavis was no longer the only park that African-Americans could use without restrictions in the region, its fortunes began to wane. Residents say changes made by the city hastened the decline. The large swimming pool was filled in, replaced by a small neighborhood-size pool. The train was dismantled, as was a Korean War-era fighter jet that had been refitted as a slide.
“We’re the only park that you know of that the city actually came in and took things away,” Carter-Hinton said.
The new Chavis Park will play a different role in Raleigh. On the edge of a growing downtown, Chavis is expected to draw people from throughout the city, like Pullen does, even as it serves a changing neighborhood that is more diverse racially and economically.
It’s going to be like a melting pot. We welcome everybody, because it’s not only for African-Americans. It’s for everybody.
Virginia Stanley Tally, 72, member of planning group advising the city of Raleigh on redevelopment of Chavis Park
“It’s going to be like a melting pot,” said Virginia Stanley Tally, 72, who fondly remembers playing in the park starting in the 1940s and who also serves on the planning group. “We welcome everybody, because it’s not only for African-Americans. It’s for everybody.”
Planning group member Rob Wylie is part of a new generation of people eager to see Chavis reborn. Wylie walks to the park frequently with his two children, soon to be 5 and 2, and says the carousel is as nice as the one at Pullen and goes a little slower, which is good for young children.
And there’s never a line; Wylie’s children often find themselves alone on the ride.
“It’s a little sad that there’s not more kids enjoying it,” he said. “I tell people about it all the time, and they just don’t know that it’s there.”
Wylie thinks that will change.
“As the park redevelops and more people move to downtown, I think Chavis Park is really going to rise up and become a much more important park in the city system,” he said.
The Raleigh City Council approved a revised master plan for Chavis Park last year and hired local design firm Clearscapes to develop a schematic design to show in more detail how the ideas in the master plan would actually work and relate to one another.
The goal, said Matthew Keough, the project manager for the city’s parks department, is to create a plan that would let the city decide next spring what to build first. The 2014 city park bond issue includes $12.5 million for work at Chavis, while the master plan envisions projects that would cost about $40 million.
“We are ultimately getting to some hard choices because we can’t afford to do everything that’s in the master plan,” Keough said.
With permitting and other prep work, construction on phase 1 isn’t expected to begin until late 2017, which could mean two more lonely years for the Chavis carousel.
1,774 Number of people who rode the Chavis Park carousel in its old location in 2011, when it was open only during warm months
6,770 Riders of the carousel last year in new, indoor location, open seven days a week year-round
272,166 Number of people who rode the Pullen Park carousel last year
Some of those who watched the city dismantle and neglect Chavis for so long are frustrated by the pace and the fact that the revitalization will come in phases and not all at once. They won’t be happy until they can see something coming out of the ground.
“People are tired of waiting,” Tally said. “They want to get on with it. They want to see some construction going up.”
But Keough notes that most city park projects occur in phases, even at Pullen Park, where the amusement center was redeveloped all at once a few years ago. Other parts of Pullen were revamped earlier, and the city is still preparing for the renovation of the Pullen Art Center.
Meanwhile, the city parks department had hoped moving the Chavis carousel into a new, year-round house in a more prominent location, where it could be seen from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, would draw more riders – and it has. Only 1,774 rode the carousel in its old location in 2011, when it was open only during warm months.
But it’s clear that it’s going to take more to make the Chavis carousel the attraction the city wants it to be.
“It’s just one item,” Carter-Hinton said. “That one item is not going to do it.”
When John Chavis Memorial Park was dedicated in May 1938, its “No. 2, Special Three Abreast” carousel was under a canvas tent just inside the park’s main entrances off Worth and East Lenoir streets. The Allan Herschell Co. of North Tonawanda, N.Y., had built the carousel in the late 1910s or early 1920s as a traveling ride, to be taken apart, moved to the next town and reassembled. After the city bought it for $4,000 in 1937, it was not taken apart again until 2012, when the pieces were sent to Ohio to be refurbished.
Unlike the larger Pullen carousel, with a menagerie that includes rabbits, cats and ostriches, the Chavis ride is all wooden horses (some with cast aluminum legs), with glass eyes and bared teeth, each a “jumper,” going up and down as the carousel goes around. There also are two decorated wooden benches, including one known as the “mother’s bench” directly behind a row of four small aluminum horses for small children.
The tent was replaced by a wooden pavilion sometime in the 1940s. That pavilion is empty now, and the master plan includes a variety of possible uses for it, including a small museum on the park’s history.
The carousel costs $1 to ride and is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and from 12:30 to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Chavis Park events
▪ Chavis Park Celebrates, the 77th birthday party for John Chavis Memorial Park, will take place Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Platinum Sound, Shaw University’s marching band, kicks things off, followed by food trucks, free carousel rides, inflatables, music and community booths. At 3 p.m., there will be an attempt to break the world’s record for the longest Soul Train dance line. Reggie Caldwell’s NuVibe Band will perform from 4 to 6 p.m. For information, go to nando.com/chavis.
▪ The city parks department will present an update on the Chavis Park Master Plan on Thursday, Oct. 1, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Chavis Community Center. For information, including a copy of the master plan, go to nando.com/masterplan.