Raleigh is now almost blase about being cited in the national media as a city on the rise, but a New York Times report last week cast that growth in a less flattering light. It used Raleigh as exhibit No. 1 of how well-off whites are moving into traditionally black neighborhoods near urban centers and converting longtime nonwhite areas into white enclaves.
The story stressed that Raleigh’s pattern is part of a national trend, but its focus in photos, videos and quotes was on North Carolina’s capital. The theme was that poorer blacks are being pushed out and those who remain feel their neighborhood is being usurped.
The coverage put a spotlight on an issue Raleigh’s leaders know about but have not directly addressed: How much should growth be allowed to displace residents and transform neighborhoods?
That issue ran through the last mayoral contest, between Mayor Nancy McFarlane and challenger Charles Francis. Francis, a black attorney, questioned the city’s commitment to affordable housing and the stability of neighborhoods. McFarlane won the race, but the issue is likely to be back even stronger as Francis and other candidates compete to replace the retiring mayor this fall.
Raleigh City Council member Russ Stephenson, who has pushed for tempering growth with equity, said of the Times report, “I don’t think there’s any shocking news in any of that, but when you get that kind of focus on your community, you need to be looking for solutions.” Stephenson’s solution is to push for an affordable housing bond on this fall’s ballot.
Clearly the city and Wake County have a role in promoting affordable housing — whatever “affordable” means — and both have committed to paying for it. But when it comes to gentrification, Raleigh would do well to not automatically declare it is a bad thing. Younger white professionals are moving into Southeast Raleigh because it is safer, the housing stock is ready for replacement, land is relatively affordable and it’s an easy walk to an increasingly vibrant downtown. Meanwhile, longtime homeowners there are seeing their properties appreciate and neighborhood conditions improve.
Indeed the Times story called attention to the implication that there is something wrong with downtown neighborhoods gaining new homes and more value as white flight reverses. Kyle Smith, writing in the National Review, poked fun at that in a column, in which he wrote: “My fellow Americans, in the interests of soothing the worries of New York Times real-estate writers, please stop moving around. Stay exactly where you are, forever.”
Former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, whose success in igniting downtown’s rebirth deserves blame or credit for what’s happening in Southeast Raleigh, said he’s puzzled by the assumption that change is bad there.
Meeker notes that the change in what had been a lower-income, mostly African-American section of the city is only the latest in a pattern that is now decades-old transitions inside of Raleigh’s I-440 Beltline. In-close neighborhoods have gained value from, Cameron Park through Boylan Heights and into the historic Oakwood and Mordecai areas. He said the city can help people stay in changing neighborhoods with low-cost loans and tax policies, but there’s no point in blocking change.
“To me, gentrification, though it has its negative connotations, is part of the healthy cycle in a city,” he said.
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