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3 min Read
Published December 4, 2017

From Slave Plantation To Playground: Raleigh’s Dix Park

The city of Raleigh recently held a event talking about the future of Dorothea Dix Park at the N.C State Hunt Library. Raleigh Mayor Nancy Mcfarlane delivered the opening remarks to a mostly white crowd who looked upper class. In her opening remarks she mistakenly referred to Dix Park, as “Dick park”. Though nobody seemed to notice.

The park is being designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh which is an architecture firm based in Brooklyn, New York. During the meeting held at the Hunt Library, the firm talked about the South Saunders street area. With a representative calling the area, “dreary” and saying that it needs to be changed. He also said that Pedestrian routes needed to be added to South Saunders street to make it more accessible to get to the park from there. Which is another thing that could raise property values while displacing the people who live there. While, in many ways this gentrification of South Saunders street has already happened.

At a city council meeting held several months ago, one developer from another firm talked about Rachel’s Tarot psychic reading business that used to be on South Saunders street. He said how the property will be bought out and closed down, adding that, “It does not reflect the character of what we want the area to be”. As it stands now, Rachel’s Tarot shop has been closed down, and the building looks different. What this “Urbanization” that will happen with the Dix Park deal will mean for minority owned businesses on South Saunders street should be obvious by now. Yet city leaders tout this park as inclusive and diverse. The park has also been touted as Nancy McFarlane’s main achievement. And was a large talking point in the recent Mayoral race.

In fact more was said about this park, than poverty and inequality. Only furthering the divide between Raleigh’s rich and poor. The representative of the firm also talked about how we need a park that will keep the city together, that people will look at this and say that this park is what makes raleigh great. He talked about wanting a great place for kids which was the same argument made for what we see in Downtown Raleigh today in terms of development that has made life worse for children from low income families. But perhaps the most important thing about the Dorothea Dix park site is how very little is known about the real history of the site.

The site of the park was once a 5,000 acre slave plantation, known as the Spring Hill Plantation. It was owned by Theophilus Hunter Sr. and his family, including his wife Jane Lane who was the niece of Joel Lane. at its peak in the 1830’s there were 63 slaves on the plantation including 10 children. It was one of the largest slave plantations in Raleigh and was sold in the 1840’s for it to be turned into Dorothea Dix Hospital. The portion of the plantation that was turned into Dorothea Dix hospital, was sold by Riddick Hunter in 1841.

Riddick Hunter is the son of the famous Issac Hunter who helped play a role in the foundation of Raleigh. Another interesting name on the deed record, is Turner Pullen, who is the father of Richard Stanhope Pullen, the man who founded Pullen Park. According to records, the original building that was the Dorothea Dix hospital as it was built in 1856 cost $300,000 or nearly $8 Million in today’s money. And was named after A.J Davis who helped design it. While the history of this land goes back hundreds of years, as it stands now the city still does not know what it will do with the site entirely. One person involved in the process said it will take a few more years for them to figure out what they will do. And news reports have indicated that it will cost Hundreds of millions of dollars for the final plan of the park.

One topic that also came up during the event was the issue of what to do with the soccer field near the site of what used to be a landfill on Dix Park. The developer said that the soccer field where mostly latinos play, does not reflect what they want the area to be and “looks dirty” right now. It was also implied during the event that Dix Park will need sponsors and private investment of some sort to help pay for the large cost of the park. As other projects designed by the firm have shown that they have built condos and expensive homes near the site of the Brooklyn Bridge park as well. It would not be out of the question to say that the same thing could happen on the land where Dorothea Dix hospital stood. Michael Van Valkenburgh’s firm also designed the Brooklyn Bridge park which cost $370 Million dollars to build, and was considered one of the most expensive parks built in History.

But over the past seven years that the park in Brooklyn has been open, property values have risen. Which has helped some people, but left many others displaced. As Brooklyn is now considered one of the most gentrified cities in America.

It’s also interesting to look at the context of the money being spent, as $370 Million dollars is $170 Million more than what the state of New York paid to buy the land that Central park is on now as they paid $200 million for it in today’s money. It should also be noted that when Urban parks such as Houston’s Discovery park and the Brooklyn Bridge park were built, it did result in a property tax increase for homes near the area.

Looking at houses near where Houston’s Discovery park is for example, shows that some of the older homes which used to have a tax assessment of $159,000 10 years ago, now have a tax assessment of $229,000. Which has resulted in the cost of housing going up at a high rate. With many homes near the park in the $400,000 range. The cost of housing for the area near the Brooklyn Bridge park shows this as well with many multi-million dollar homes near the park area. A search of the real estate near the park shows that affordable housing is quite simply not there near the park area. One example of a older home that sold for $150k in 1995 near where the park is, is now worth $750k. This kind of development can have disastrous consequences for the lower middle class in Raleigh based on what has happened in other cities that decided to spend a lot of money on a urban park. And something that needs to be a part of the public conversation.

If the Brooklyn Bridge park resulted in the growing inequality in Brooklyn by helping developers get rich. Then what will the long term impact of Dorothea Dix park be for Raleigh’s marginalized and the most vulnerable? What will the park mean for the more than 4,500 adults who are homeless in Wake County along with the 750 children who are homeless? Will the park result in a upward mobility for them like it will for the people live in areas like Boylan Heights? These are questions that should be asked during the process of turning this land into a park.

Raleigh Mayor Nancy Mcfarlane speaking at the N.C State Hunt Library on the future of Dorothea Dix Park. In her opening remarks she mistakenly referred to Dix Park, as “Dick park”.

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  • John Curtis Smith


  • John is a writer born and raised in Raleigh, N.C he has written about politics and International affairs since 2011. He previously worked for and is now a freelancer. In 2012 and 2014 he covered the United Nations General assembly meeting. He is also passionate about local affairs and what happens in Raleigh. All my articles.

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