City leaders are hoping to build excitement for the future of Dix Park and encourage participation in the planning process by luring visitors with free tours and programs.
Raleigh bought the 308-acre Dorothea Dix land from the state for $52 million last year and is now ready to hear how residents want to use it in the coming decades. City leaders want to build a destination park without compromising the land’s character or erasing its past.
The tours, which began April 30, reveal that Dix’s history has as many highs and lows as its geography.
There’s the hill where Theophilus Hunter, a leader in the Colonial militia, built his plantation and slave quarters in the 1770s. And on lower ground, a hospital graveyard is the final resting site for hundreds of deceased patients – some of whom remain unidentified.
But then there’s a spot on Umstead Drive, which runs above Western Boulevard but below the cluster of old hospital buildings. It’s where centuries-old oak trees open up to reveal an unmatched view of downtown Raleigh that more than a dozen residents captured with their phones during one of the city’s tours this week.
“You can really feel like you’re in the middle of nature while still being right here in the city,” resident Patrick Buffkin said during a tour on Wednesday.
Apart from the tours, the Dix Park Conservancy, a nonprofit partner of the city, will underwrite exercise classes, outdoor art classes and other free programs at the park this summer. Kate Pearce, a city planner organizing the efforts, said she hopes they inspire visitors to get involved.
Raleigh this week started accepting applications from residents who want to serve on a 45-member advisory committee that will help design the park and engage the public in the planning process. The group will advise an executive committee of elected officials, city staff and conservancy members who will have final say over the park’s design.
The push comes as Raleigh leaders consider a 1-cent property tax rate increase that would help the city pay for the park.
“The best way to understand how special it is is to put your toes in the grass and let the clouds pass over you … and feel the stories coming through the buildings,” Pearce said.
In studying major parks across the U.S., city planners say they’ve struggled to find a place where history, controversy and beauty are so interwoven.
The land housed Dorothea Dix Hospital for the mentally ill from 1856 until 2012. Some Wake County leaders blame its closure for a rise in local involuntary commitments.
The hospital was named for Dorothea Lynde Dix, a Maine native who served as superintendent of Army nurses for the Union in the Civil War. She advocated for the mentally ill – even lobbying the N.C. General Assembly to put $100,000 toward mental health care during a visit to North Carolina in 1848.
And the property has been at the center of political wrangling between the legislature and the city for years. Even after Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013 announced terms of a sale to Raleigh, some Senate Republicans tried to derail negotiations with a bill that would have sold the land to the highest bidder.
Pearce, wearing jeans and hiking boots, stood on a tree stump at Dix Wednesday afternoon and recapped some of its history for a tour group. Facing the downtown skyline, she explained why the park development may take decades – not years.
Much of the property is under lease, and many buildings are occupied by the state Department of Health and Human Services. In fact, the only structure on the Dix property that Raleigh owns outright is a decrepit, shuttered house that sat just behind her.
“The conservancy has expressed interest in restoring it for office space,” Pearce said. “We’re working on it together.”
She walked visitors to the sprawling grass field near the Farmer’s Market, where patients of Dorothea Dix Hospital once tended crops as part of their therapy.
“This is where I like to have my ‘Sound of Music’ moments,” Pearce said, referring to the 1965 movie in which actress Julie Andrews sings as she twirls through an Alpine field.
College-aged men threw a Frisbee in the background, and a remote-controlled toy plane flew overhead as she spoke. Mike Surasky, who chairs the city’s parks and recreation advisory board, surveyed the land with his daughters by his side.
“The topography of this park is incredible,” Surasky said. “You can’t really appreciate it without walking it.”
For more information
Raleigh is accepting applications from residents who want to serve on a 45-member advisory committee that will help design the park and engage the public in the planning process. The group will advise an executive committee of elected officials, city staff and conservancy members who will have final say over the park’s design. To apply, go to http://bit.ly/dixadvisory.