In 2005, Willie Stokes, a tall soft-spoken man with deep brown eyes, returned to the home he grew up in. It's on Maple Street in East College Park, about a mile east of downtown Raleigh, a gray one-story home with a wide backyard built during the Roaring '20s, back in this neighborhood's heyday.
The house had been passed down through generations: Stokes' grandmother lived there when he was a child. So did his uncle John Stokes, a community leader who has a memorial garden named after him in Carver Park. Willie Stokes, now 73, had spent years living in the mid-Atlantic, most recently in Virginia, but the slower pace of his home state appealed to him, and that house was full of memories.
Over the years, he says, the family received letters from people wanting to buy that house. The answer was always no. "It's always been in the family," Stokes explains.
A decade ago, the city of Raleigh sent its own letter. Stokes responded that he'd be glad to sell—for a million dollars. He was joking, of course—the house is currently appraised at about $100,000—but even then, before downtown's resurgence, he knew the house was worth something, if only because of its location.
"When I was younger, we'd walk from here to the Capitol in 20 minutes," Stokes recalls. "We didn't have all of this that we have now. But we could go downtown, to the theater, and we could get there in 20 minutes, just walking and talking and having a good time. I understand how valuable this property is. It's not way out someplace."
The city knows that, too. After all, it spent the last several years acquiring properties and demolishing buildings in that neighborhood. It now owns 134 vacant lots in East College Park, out of roughly 400 total parcels. And it has big plans for this little corner of Raleigh.
Larry Jarvis, the director of the city's Housing & Neighborhoods Department, wants East College Park and the area directly north of it, a 245-unit rental development known as Washington Terrace, to be a Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area.
With the NRSA designation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would advise the city on infrastructure improvements, mixed-income residential development and economic-development opportunities within the targeted area. In turn, Jarvis says, the city will "economically empower" East College Park and Washington Terrace by rehabilitating houses, creating jobs, providing youth and senior programs, improving infrastructure and revitalizing commerce. These improvements would be funded by a mix of local, state and federal tax dollars, along with money from nonprofits and, presumably, developers.
But residents are skeptical, both of the plan and the city's intentions. This proposal, they say, was drafted without their input and presented to them as being final. They don't want their neighborhood lumped in with Washington Terrace. And, in the words of longtime activist Octavia Rainey, they see the proposal as a "developer's tool," a way for the city to profit off the land it owns in East College Park by building big houses and introducing the kind of economic development that belongs downtown—restaurants and bars.
In so doing, Rainey fears, the city will displace renters (who comprise nearly 70 percent of residents), and the remaining homeowners—like Stokes—will be "priced out, forced out or shut out" by rising property taxes.
One way or another, some of that is probably inevitable. As downtown blossoms and the city tries to rejuvenate inner-core neighborhoods, higher rents and property taxes will become unavoidable. Revitalization often breeds gentrification—a reality that has plagued planning departments all over the country.
The city argues that this plan will bring residents a host of benefits: better access to social service programs, job creation and retention, and flexibility in carrying out housing programs, all things designed to benefit current and future residents.
But Rainey and other residents say it's not necessary, not here, not now. East College Park has been improving all by itself over the last decade; they want to be left alone.
"They're playing for big money," she says. "Why hide behind 'social services' [for residents] when it's all about development? Put your cards on the table. We want to be taken out of that plan. We want to be able to tell them what we want, not hoodwinked and deceived."