67 People a Day: The Stories of Some of Wake County’s Newcomers | News Feature | Indy Week

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67 People a Day: The Stories of Some of Wake County’s Newcomers

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Wake County adds new residents at the dizzying rate of sixty-seven people per day, a number that often arises as people talk about the region's future. 

City and county leaders tout that number for what it says about the region, but it also comes with problems. Those new folks will contribute to traffic, infill, and crowded classrooms. Wake passed one million residents in 2014 and hasn't looked back, ranking second among large U.S. counties in the rate of growth. By July 2020, the county will be home to 1,116,912 people, according to state projections, an increase of 138,400 since 2010. That means Wake will have grown in numbers that equal the entire population of Raleigh in 1976.

With all the sturm and drang over the influx of newcomers, we started wondering: Who are these people, why are they here, and what are they bringing with them?  

As it turns out, the woman next to you in the checkout line might be a novelistic essayist who's moved here from Alaska. Or he could be a philosopher from Rome.

"I hoped to talk to people to get a sense of how American society is faring, and to work a lot," says Francesco De Luca, twenty-nine, who moved to Raleigh from Italy last year with plans to launch a website that will serve as a platform for political and philosophical debates. "It just so happened that I was at the time of my life when I could do what I needed to do, wherever I was." 

Meanwhile, the millennial ordering coffee at Morning Times could be a solar energy executive who worked in the Obama administration. And the person escorting Raleigh Little Theatre actors to their appearance on The State of Things at WUNC studios in Durham might be a Fayetteville State graduate who's only been in town a few months. 

"I like it in Raleigh," says Fidel Benton, the twenty-six-year-old marketing manager at Raleigh Little Theatre. "In my job, you get to meet new people every day."   

It seems the region's creative energy is a big draw. 

"I always felt like I wanted to come back to North Carolina if there was a way," says Tyler Norris, a twenty-nine-year-old who grew up near Asheville but left the state for more than a decade for education and renewable energy jobs. "I didn't realize how much North Carolina was doing in the solar space and how successful it had been."

People who move here from elsewhere in North Carolina represent the same share of newcomers (minus the babies) as international immigrants—about 20 percent. 

To get to that magic sixty-seven figure, demographers count the twenty or more infants born in Raleigh each day. These babies are undeniably new residents, though not of their own choice. Many of them will wind up in Wake County public schools and have to be factored in when the school board and county commission plan for the future.  

New adult residents don't take long to join the voices complaining about the traffic and other issues to which they contribute. A 2016 survey that found that people generally like Raleigh also brought out complaints about traffic and growth. 

"I think this is the hardest part of our job," says Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane. "With the numbers of people that are moving here, we're building housing, we're building businesses, we're building infrastructure. How do we accommodate all the people that are coming here and preserve this sense of place, this quality of life that we like about Raleigh?" 

Mary Kudenov - PHOTO BY CAITLIN PENNA
  • Photo by Caitlin Penna
  • Mary Kudenov

Mary Kudenov even talks like a writer.

"I was born in a town where they don't deliver babies anymore," she says.

Kudenov, thirty-seven, a writer from Alaska, finds Wake County to be quite a contrast from her native state, the scene of Threadbare: Class and Crime in Urban Alaska. The book—a collection of essays that reads like a compelling, finely detailed novel—is harrowing at times and lyrical at others, describing a hard-bitten urban atmosphere beset by violence and substance abuse.

Living in an unincorporated area of Wake County, Kudenov was glad to discover that her neighborhood allows carefree walks with her child.  

"I realized that I didn't need my mace, and I didn't have to worry about running into a moose," Kudenov says.  

Kudenov is a native of Haines, Alaska, a small town some thirty-eight hundred miles from her new home near Raleigh. Like many other newcomers, she's here because of the tech world.

Her husband, Peter, is earning a doctoral degree in communications, rhetoric, and digital media at N.C. State. Mary Kudenov's job entails writing proposals for clinical research, usually spending two days a week at home and the rest in a north Raleigh office. The couple has a son, David, five, who has special needs.

Kudenov enjoys the prosperity and safety she feels in her neighborhood off Ten Ten Road, where she doesn't have to worry about human or moose intruders. She's also found support services for David's behavioral issues.

"It's an easy life, compared to where I'm from," she says. "Everywhere you go, you see new buildings."

Kudenov describes living a difficult life in Anchorage, and moving beyond it, in Threadbare.

"I was dealing with a spree killer and my brother's suicide," she says.

Kudenov describes her haunting realization that Christopher Rogers was her coworker just three years before he hacked his father to death with a machete, then fatally shot a college student in Anchorage. Her brother Seth, who helped raise her, killed himself during the same period.

With her parents absent during much of her younger years, Kudenov was raised by her brothers in the southeastern Alaska towns of Haines, Seward, and Moose Pass until age fifteen. She went on to attend the University of Alaska, waitressing her way through undergraduate and MFA degrees.

In Anchorage, she also worked as a writing teacher in a women's prison and lived among an underground of homeless people, drug dealers, and a spree killer. It's all in Threadbare, sections of which mirror conditions in many of North Carolina's downtrodden towns.

In Alaska she also made a place among a supportive community of writers and teachers, something she's yet to accomplish in Triangle writing circles. It's another side of being new—the effort it takes to make connections in often-entrenched circles of people, in the arts or elsewhere.

"I've been floating around meetup groups, but they seem more into trying to publish and less about the craft," says Kudenov. "It's a lot harder here to become part of the community."

Fidel Benton's Raleigh workplace stands out from those of his friends in that he passes by a man-eating plant every day.

That makes more sense given his job at the Raleigh Little Theatre, where preparations are underway for a production of Little Shop of Horrors, featuring the voracious carnivore Audrey II.

"I'm sure other people like my peers don't walk past something like that," says Benton, who came to Raleigh from Fayetteville five months ago. The Fayetteville State grad worked as a college radio d.j. and did marketing work for campus organizations. As RLT's marketing manager, Benton is involved in the organization's broader-picture programs as well as its theatrical productions.

"The youth are exposed to the arts outside their own schools," he says. "We have weekly classes, then we have offsite classes as well, in Cary and Wake Forest and Knightdale."

Those classes engender the same kind of interview and communication skills that Benton had to draw upon to get his job.

"They're performance-based, just to understand all the skills you acquire to get another job," he says.

In January, Benton went with an RLT delegation to WUNC studios, where they re-created part of the dialog from the current production, What We're Up Against. The timely play focuses on a lone woman's situation in a workplace dominated by males.

When he was first hired, Benton commuted from Fayetteville to RLT, in the University Park neighborhood, but he's since moved to an apartment off Glenwood Avenue, near the Crabtree mall. As for life in the state capital, he has the same grumble as countless other Triangle residents: traffic.

Benton's job, like that of many newcomers, combines several key areas: creative work, communications, and business. He's been impressed by RLT, both its status as a Raleigh mainstay and its work in the community.

"It's really a staple, not only in the arts community but with people in general," Benton says. "With the Rose Garden in the back, it's like a local landmark."

Francesco De Luca had a grand vision in mind when he came to Raleigh last fall.

De Luca is building a website called Zeteo, from a Greek word he translates as "search, inquire, interrogate, desire to know, meditate." Designed to appear in English and Italian, the site will contain his own writings on philosophy, culture, politics, and ethics, as well as pieces from collaborators and an emphasis on providing a thoughtful platform for reader response.

Sort of an un-Twitter, in other words.

De Luca, one of the roughly 20 percent of post-birth newcomers who arrive from another country, came to Raleigh for several reasons. For one thing, his mother grew up on Lake Boone Trail; she was a Broughton High graduate who moved to Italy and married decades ago. Thus, De Luca has been here several times for family visits, making the Triangle familiar territory. In addition, he was looking for feedback and support from people in the region.

"The project I'm working for will hopefully be a nonprofit," he says. "I would benefit from meeting new people, although it's an early stage in the partnership. So I was here for fundraising and resourcing. I also wanted to broaden the base of potential collaborators."

De Luca scored housing in return for house- and dog-sitting in Anderson Heights, walking and riding his bike to get around. He came armed with a bachelor's degree in European literature and a master's in epistemology from the University of Rome, plus a second master's, in global ethics and human values, from King's College in London. He's also worked in Rome for the United Nations World Food Program. His various experiences will be reflected in Zeteo, which is scheduled to appear online this summer with a subscription-based model.

"It will appear on a fortnightly basis and deal with issues from feminism to communications," De Luca says. "I find the whole idea of feminism with a Southern twist very interesting."

Tyler Norris - PHOTO BY CAITLIN PENNA
  • Photo by Caitlin Penna
  • Tyler Norris

Tyler Norris grew up in rural Fairview, a community south of Asheville, and by age twenty-five was a special adviser to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Now that the high-achieving Raleigh resident is back in North Carolina, he still makes it home to witness the progress in Fairview.

"We finally have a coffee shop and a little brewery," Norris says.

Living in downtown Raleigh, Norris is among the roughly 20 percent of Wake newcomers who come from somewhere else in North Carolina. He works as manager of policy and market development at Cypress Creek Renewables in Research Triangle Park, which describes itself as "the largest and fastest-growing independent developer of utility-scale solar in the United States."

"Everyone in the company is very mission-driven," Norris says. "The whole mission is to put as much solar as possible on the ground."

Norris attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, then embarked on an educational and professional ride that took him to Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Silicon Valley, and New York City, before ending up in Raleigh.

"Compared to New York and D.C., it's so much more affordable," he says. "I really like it in Raleigh, being close enough to home to drive to Fairview. My folks are still there."

Norris attended Johns Hopkins University for a couple of years, then took a break to work at a San Francisco Bay area think tank. He finished a degree in public policy at Stanford University, absorbing the Silicon Valley culture, which he compares to RTP.

"Silicon Valley just sort of happened because of Stanford," he says. "At RTP, they were prescient at the time to see the growth of knowledge-based industries."

After another think tank job, he landed in the Obama administration, from 2012–15.

"It seemed like we might have this transformational presidency," Norris says of his stints as special assistant to Chu and as a tech-to-market adviser in the department.

Looking back, Norris believes the administration's work in reviving the tanked economy through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is underappreciated. Some initiatives didn't succeed, he concedes. However, "it ended up funding Tesla, which has been one of the big success stories. And the programs office ended up in the black."

At Cypress Creek, he's part of the company's effort to support communities and utilities in their efforts to create more clean energy, including solar farms in North Carolina and beyond.

"North Carolina is number two in installed solar projects," he points out.

One of many newcomers who elect to live in downtown Raleigh, Norris is witness to the growing vitality there.

"I was really impressed this summer," he says. "I had a blast seeing the diversity of people who come here from all over the state."


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