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Column: Downtown Raleigh neighborhoods are seeing big changes, racially and economically

A newly constructed home is being built on the formerly empty lot next to an older home on East Lee Street on the edge of downtown Raleigh Wednesday. Neighborhoods east of downtown Raleigh are being developed. New homes are attracting young professionals, and the rising costs are pushing out longtime residents including poor minority families.
A newly constructed home is being built on the formerly empty lot next to an older home on East Lee Street on the edge of downtown Raleigh Wednesday. Neighborhoods east of downtown Raleigh are being developed. New homes are attracting young professionals, and the rising costs are pushing out longtime residents including poor minority families. tlong@newsobserver.com

Jimmy Bethea sees what’s happening in his Southeast Raleigh neighborhood.

New homes are going up, bringing young professionals who want to live near downtown. Those homes, with their wide porches, granite counter tops and expensive price tags, are a stark contrast to the run-down houses nearby on Bragg Street, where Bethea lives.

He figures he will have to move eventually, that the owner of the home where he pays $695 each month in rent will sell to a developer.

He will be just fine, said Bethea, 41, who works at a pharmaceutical warehouse and also does landscaping.

But he worries about the elderly residents who have spent their whole lives in the South Park neighborhood southeast of downtown Raleigh. Where will they go?

“The neighborhood looks nice, but at the same time, the people who have been here – it’s pushing them away,” Bethea said.

That’s what gentrification does – it pushes. Pushes old buildings and homes into piles of rubble. Pushes new homes onto the market. Pushes property values up. Pushes white people closer to the city’s core. And, at least in some cases, it pushes poor minority families out.

That’s what gentrification does – it pushes. Pushes old buildings and homes into piles of rubble. Pushes new homes onto the market. Pushes property values up. Pushes white people closer to the city’s core. And, at least in some cases, it pushes poor minority families out.

Downtown Raleigh has been undergoing a transformation for years, turning into a place where people want to be after 5 p.m. Some new apartments are renting for $2,000 a month, and homes are being built, renovated and sold in neighborhoods once considered undesirable.

And as downtown’s rebirth pushes farther out, more neighborhoods are being gentrified.

There are plenty of good things sure to come from the changes. Areas like South Park and College Park will probably see new investment, both from the public and private sectors.

But the downside is the displacement of poorer residents, said Sarah Mayorga-Gallo, a sociology professor at the University of Cincinnati who earned her doctoral degree from Duke University in 2012.

Just as white families left American cities for the suburbs in the mid-1900s, she said, many poor minority families are leaving cities today, making their way to more-affordable suburbs.

“It’s not necessarily a different process, it’s just a different direction,” Mayorga-Gallo said. The suburbs pose their own problems, including less efficient public transportation.

So is it a good thing overall – this drastic shift?

“I think it depends on who you ask,” Mayorga-Gallo said.

Developers surely think so. People who want to live in these new houses probably do, too.

I live downtown, and it’s nice to be able to walk to restaurants and bars. Count me among the young professionals eager to buy a new home in a fast-changing neighborhood.

Johnny Chappell, a real estate agent who sells homes near downtown, said he moved to an area on South Saunders Street five years ago, before it was gentrified. He tried to order a pizza, he said, and was told the business wouldn’t deliver there because it was unsafe.

But more and more homes in the area were renovated, he said, and the neighborhood is different now. He sees the same thing happening in South Park, not far from Shaw University.

Homeowners in the area will be able to sell their homes at a good price to developers, Chappell said.

“They’re going to get knocks on the door and letters from people who seriously want to buy their house,” he said.

It’s a different story for renters, who face limited options.

“Change is very good,” said Marcus Battle, 27, who has lived in Southeast Raleigh all his life.

Even so, Battle said he doesn’t want to stay there.

“My house ain’t like that house,” Battle said as he gazed down the street toward a new home. “And I can’t afford it.”

Battle, who works as a carpenter, said he moved out of Walnut Terrace when Raleigh redid the public housing complex. He’s not sure what he will do if he is forced to move again. He would like to live in Cary, where he attended high school.

Mostly, Battle said, he’d like for the community to remain, and for more jobs to become available.

“Everybody ain’t out here selling drugs,” he said.

Communities near downtown certainly won’t stay the same as they are, but the city has plans to bring more affordable housing – plans that could help families stay in their longtime neighborhoods.

A plan for East College Park and Washington Terrace near St. Augustine’s University calls for a mix of affordable housing and homes to buy.

Larry Jarvis, Raleigh’s director of housing and neighborhoods, said it’s important for the city to provide housing options for people of all income levels, particularly those who need affordable places to live.

You can’t socially engineer all of this.

Gregg Warren, president of the nonprofit DHIC

“If we don’t take proactive steps now for affordable housing, it won’t be there down the road,” Jarvis said.

Gregg Warren, president of the nonprofit DHIC, which partners with Raleigh to plan and build affordable housing, said it’s crucial to maintain diversity in neighborhoods. He said there is “certainly a lot of tension” among some longtime downtown dwellers who are witnessing big changes from their doorsteps.

“I think the question is, ‘Will there be a place for me?’” Warren said.

He hopes so.

But there’s only so much a city can do. People live where they want to live.

“You can’t socially engineer all of this,” Warren said.

Months ago, my now-husband and I went to see a home for sale on Bloodworth Street, a couple of blocks from where I chatted on a recent afternoon with Bethea and Battle.

I remember I felt a twinge of guilt about the whole thing. We wanted to make a smart investment in a home that would increase in value. But the separation of the haves and have-nots was painfully clear.

Again, it’s all about perspective. Mayorga-Gallo said some people who move into gentrifying neighborhoods probably see it as a “natural cycle.” Others feel some guilt.

This whole thing isn’t unique to Raleigh. Smaller cities across the country are dealing with issues of gentrification, Mayorga-Gallo said.

People like Jimmy Bethea are watching and waiting.

“You can see what’s going on around here,” he said. “It’s not just on this street. It’s all of Southeast Raleigh.”

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