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Poverty and promise

In Southeast Raleigh, the organizers are going to work

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City Hall is close enough that you can almost hear it--the organizing in Southeast Raleigh, I mean. It's in the CACs--the citizens advisory councils--where residents wanted the city to crack down on slumlords, only to get "concentrated code enforcement" instead. (They put a stop to that.) It's in the streets, where ACORN--the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now--is going door-to-door. It's in prayer meetings led by Sister Brenda Jackson of the Plant A Seed Mission House, Minister Donnie Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, and Pastor Roosevelt Ashford of the Church of God of Prophecy.

Not big meetings. But not so small anymore either. Thirty people. Fifty people. Different people. The city, hustling--or trudging, more like--to get in front of the parade, hosted a Neighborhood Exchange on Saturday at Southeast Raleigh High School. It drew an audience of established, homeowning types who talked about how to get organized. "You can get things done through the CACs," said Eugene Weeks, a leader in the Firefox community. Meanwhile, ACORN's younger flock, with Sister Brenda at the front and a half-dozen other ministers of the community in tow, was marching up Bragg Street to announce that they are getting organized.

It's a good thing. They're both good things, if and when they come together. Southeast Raleigh right now is a place of high poverty as well as great promise. And while you might think it's the poverty that's causing the sparks, actually it's the promise that's driving it, as the money comes in, Hispanics come in, white folks come in, and an emerging generation of black leaders tries to see that the new prosperity gets shared with their neighborhoods and doesn't just sweep them away. And they are hustling, some of them.

"For 30 years, black folks haven't used the power," said Octavia Rainey between sessions at the Neighborhood Exchange. They've let their political (male) leaders make deals with the city's white business establishment, she was saying, rather than insist that they fight for Southeast's improvement.

But now, younger blacks and whites and Hispanics are moving into Southeast--including into the expanded Southeast, which spills out beyond the Beltline--and they aren't going to settle for the crumbs. The political impact of the Olde Towne development, with 2,400 new houses and a golf course off Rock Quarry Road, is going to be huge, Rainey predicts.

That's at one end of things. The other end is below Shaw University and just a stone's throw from the newly renamed Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, where the Bragg Street Grocery's homemade sign tells you that food stamps are accepted, checks cashed and money orders sold within. It's in a neighborhood where tiny shotgun houses are now duplexes, and front porches are so close to the sidewalk that when the ACORN march went by, older folks didn't need to get out of their chairs to be a part of it. Which, with few exceptions, they didn't--but they were listening closely nonetheless.

"A Drug-Free Neighborhood!" the marchers chanted. "When?" "Now." "Who Are We?" "We Are ACORN."

"There's drugs all over this place," said Katina Wimbush, marching with her 9-, 5- and 4-year-olds. "Drugs and prostitutes." She joined ACORN when organizer Jerimee Richir (ncacornraro@acorn.org) came knocking on her door, one of his 50 dues-paying members so far, Richir said.

"I was in a bad situation, relationship-wise and housing-wise," Wimbush said simply when I asked what brought her to Bragg Street, to a $500-a-month apartment complex that is not subsidized by anybody. "When I found out how bad it was, it was too late to move--I was out of money."

Wimbush wants the police to patrol more on foot, less in their cars, and get the bad guys out of there. "It's sad when you've got children who know what drugs are when they don't need to know what drugs are."

Maybe ACORN (www.acorn.org) can help. It's a national group that goes way back on housing and poverty issues but is brand-new to Raleigh. It puts a big emphasis on jobs, and on paying a living wage. (Former Sen. John Edwards has been campaigning with ACORN in other states to raise the minimum wage, though so far they've not hooked up in North Carolina. Stay tuned.) ACORN's dues are "whatever you want them to be," according to Richir.

Maybe Brenda Jackson can help. "Let's tell 'em," she says of the dopers and the dealers, "you don't have to go there. Let's bring 'em to church instead."

And then there was Helen Montague, who took the microphone when the march stopped at the playground across the street from her well-kept house on South Person Street. She is helping. And by the way, she can handle herself, she assured us. "I'm gonna fight!" Montague declared. "I'm not afraid. I dial 911 every chance I get."

Said Montague: "I love where I live. I don't like the activities going on, but I love where I live."

Amazing that this neighborhood under siege, of good people with some bad neighbors, is so close to the so-called downtown renaissance and to the revitalization of Southeast. So close, and yet so far.

And so far, the political stirrings are disparate, but they're promising too.

Heroes and Zeroes
Heroes: Progressive legislators, led by Democratic Rep. Alma Adams of Greensboro, who are fighting to increase the minimum wage in North Carolina, from the current $5.15 an hour to a munificent $6. They wanted more. But $6.15 was voted down in the Democrat-controlled House--can you believe that?

Zeroes: North Carolina's two U.S. senators, who didn't stand up for the Triangle Transit Authority when the money was being ladled out to high-tech areas in Washington. The Washington Post reports that Sen. John Warner, a Republican, got the rail transit project in Northern Virginia out from under ("grandfathered") the new, more stringent federal approval process requirements as part of the new transportation law. Ditto California's senators, both Democrats, for a Silicon Valley rail project, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, for Portland's latest expansion. But in the Triangle, our Republican duo, Sens. Liddy Dole and Richard Burr, left us twisting in the federal red tape.

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