Ye Olde Archives » OPINION: Peter Eichenberger

Saving Dix--and what she stood for

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A century and a half ago, Dorothea Dix harangued Massachusetts legislators into funding mental care at a time when the troubled were, she said, routinely "chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience." But today in North Carolina, Google gets $260 million in tax breaks and mental care gets $90 million a year, or $50.43 per person. Get out of your car and look. The results live in the street. What has North Carolina become? Too bad mental health patients don't have an advocate as good as Google.

Dix's work is being undone as she did it, state by state. "Across the nation, former state hospitals for the mentally ill—with dated names like 'lunatic asylum'—are being converted into homes," the AP reports—condos specifically. At the site of Danvers Mental Institution in Massachusetts, "AvalonBay [Communities] is creating a 'campus-like environment,' with a swimming pool, WiFi cafe and fitness center. Rents will start around $1,400 for a one-bedroom, and about half-a-million dollars for a condo," the story continues.

"Demographics and changes in urban planning means good news for the condo market," says the Urban Land Institute, which came up with a development scheme for Dix—in three days.

I've never figured out why "highly regarded" follows ULI like a puppy. Lest we forget, ULI and J.W. Willie York created Cameron Village and "worked very closely with merchants who relocated from downtown," wrote Nan Hutchins in her history of the project—which hastened destroying it. Willie's widdle boy, Smedes, attended Dix meetings as an "interested citizen" soon after he went to New Orleans, head of a ULI commission. After what they wreaked coast to coast, why was "highly regarded" wham-bam given a shot at the Dix job?

I suppose it is a coincidence that John Healy, a honcho at AvalonBay, and his wife, ULI trustee Patricia, recently moved to Raleigh. "Trish" addressed the Dix commission in 2006, and the Healys have a listing in the phone book at the Park Devereaux condo, right across from City Hall. They're renovating a house in Oakwood. They didn't return my phone calls but have said they moved to Raleigh to be closer to family and not to get back into the asylum redevelopment biz.

Like at Danvers, Dammasch in Oregon, Northern Michigan Asylum and the Octagon in New York City, 10 bucks says condos await Dix—unless, unless citizens and voters hold legislators' feet to the fire. So much negotiation happens clandestinely and unrecorded that citizens' sole bargaining chip is intimidation. The commercial quislings who infest governmental bodies must understand that their very political lives may hinge on the outcome of the Dix question. The people have spoken loudly that they do not want development.

At a recent Dix Commission meeting, the commission would not remove references to "commerce" and "housing" in the draft report. With popular support echoing the resounding "no" vote Raleigh gave to a convention center referendum, it should be clear Raleigh is no "democracy," rather some sort of commercial oligarchy.

As far as what really matters, the lives of the unfortunate patients are pinched in a vise via secret machinations that will never be revealed. The only thing the ordinary people of Raleigh and North Carolina can do, what we are ethically compelled to work for, is retention of some bit of what Dorothea Dix lived and died for, not gain or money. The only way to redeem the closure of Dix and the uprooting of its fragile human charges would be creation of a place of quiet, of respite for the ill—and for you, the ordinary citizen, increasingly buffeted by the psychological ravages of this culture.

The disruption created in the lives of patients and employees transferred to Central Region Hospital in Butner, home of a bleak federal prison safely out of sight of delicate sensibilities (no grounds and no trees), is a fait accompli. The only ethical way to continue Dorothea Dix's crusade is to provide some sort of care for those of Wake County who have been left with nothing, a place of respite for all, more than vague blah-blah about "community-based projects." Convert the Dix hospital property to another fake stucco yuppie paradise? Why not dig Dix up and grind her bones into plant food? In this world of Adam Smith taken to the edge, profits trump compassion. If it is all about da money, let's dig us some cash, hoss.

Tax incentive funds? Chump change. The infirm need more than TIFs, one-time sale money and a piddly $40 million saved by closing Dix and other facilities. The Mental Health Trust Fund should get 50 percent of the profits from developers and landlords and a buy-back provision and remediation if it all falls to hell. If the developers balk, maybe it wasn't such a great idea after all.

Dix spent her life shaming legislators into creating healthier places than jails for the troubled. Today, they will be back "in our jail," as Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison says, when the new hospital is full.

Ah, progress.

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