Saving Northside, the largest black community in Chapel Hill

A new house under construction in Northside neighborhood. A loan from UNC-CH has allowed the Jackson Center to purchase properties to sell at an affordable rate in an attempt to raise the neighborhood's black population. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)
A new house under construction in Northside neighborhood. A loan from UNC-CH has allowed the Jackson Center to purchase properties to sell at an affordable rate in an attempt to raise the neighborhood’s black population. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)

By Sofie DeWulf

Eugene Farrar is one of the originals. He’s lived in Northside for years, so he’s personally witnessed how the neighborhood has transformed; and like other long-term residents, he’s got something to say about it.

In 2010, he was interviewed for an exhibit featured in the community called “Facing Our Neighbors.”

“Right now, I see a lot of work to be done,” Farrar said. “You know, African-Americans dominated this town, but now you’re pushing African-Americans out because you don’t think that they can pay the taxes or they don’t have the revenue to support the town. So, you bring people in to live in these houses, to build 3,4,5, $600,000 homes, which, you know, the average person that was born and raised in Chapel Hill cannot afford that.”

Historically, Northside neighborhood has been the largest black community in Chapel Hill. Eugene Farrar is one of hundreds of African-Americans who have called Northside home for decades.

Many resident’s families have lived in Northside for generations. These natives cherish the history of the neighborhood and the tight-knit community that developed from a network of long-term family residents.

This community dynamic, however, began to change before the turn of the 21st century. The major reason for this change? College students.

Because of a growing interest from college students to live in Northside, the African-American population in the neighborhood has declined significantly in the last 30 years. According to the U.S. census, there were 1,159 black residents in the neighborhood in 1980, but by 2010, there were only 690.

Because of these changes, Northside residents are worrying about the future of the neighborhood. Many residents, like Farrar, believe that the increase of rental properties and the subsequent rise in housing prices are forcing low-income, predominately African-American residents out of Northside.

There is a fear that this threatens the close feel of the neighborhood and the appreciation of its history. Recent initiatives such as the Northside Neighborhood Initiative and organizations like the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, are helping the community to address these concerns.

Neighborhood Pride

The Northside neighborhood encompasses the 188 acres of land enclosed by North Columbia Street to the east, the Carrboro city limit to the west, the Tanyard Branch trail to the north and West Rosemary Street to the south.

While it may be a clearly established neighborhood now, Northside began rather haphazardly as a labor settlement that served UNC-Chapel Hill in its beginnings.

“There would not be a university if not for the blacks in this community,” says Kathy Atwater, a long-time resident of Northside. “The university was built on the backs of slaves. My grandfather worked for the university, and he would carry water from the Old Well to the dorms for the students.”

In addition to performing tasks like this, Northside residents helped to build the stone walls that surround the university today.

Fast forward about 170 years to the 1950s and you find the largest black community in Chapel Hill, running from what is now the McDonalds on Franklin to the Wings Over on Rosemary. At this time, The Midway, the district connecting Chapel Hill and Carrboro, was full of black-owned businesses, from Bill’s Barbeque — which is now Mama Dip’s — to Mason’s Grocery and a pool hall nearby.

Northside remained united in the face of racism and discrimination. Many residents became freedom fighters in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in sit-ins, marches and demonstrations in Chapel Hill. Church Street was the unofficial divider of the white and black areas of the neighborhood, becoming a marker of the segregation within the community.

While the coexistence of white and black within Northside was relatively peaceful, the same could not be said beyond the boundaries of the neighborhood. Keith Edwards, another long-time resident of Northside, recalls being spit on and kicked during her time as a student at Chapel Hill Junior High.

Her walk home from school every day was filled with anxiety, but she says that her fear vanished as she got close to Northside.

“As long as you stayed in the perimeter of that neighborhood, you were safe from the outside world,” she said.

Edwards’ memories—the feelings of protection and safety and community from living in Northside—are echoed by other residents.

“Everybody was just family,” Atwater recalls of the Northside of the past. “We all looked after one another. Nobody was left to themselves. And I think that’s where most of the hurt comes from, from those who are still here. They remember how it used to be and how it felt like they had something.”

Graham Street in Northside Neighborhood.  Because of the affordable prices and close-to-campus location, Northside has attracted many students in the past few decades. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)
Graham Street in Northside Neighborhood. Because of its affordable prices and close-to-campus location, Northside has attracted caught the attention of many students in the past few decades. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)

Change Comes to Northside

The hurt that Atwater is referring to started roughly 30–40 years ago, when the gentrification of Northside began. It was about this time that students at UNC-CH started showing a greater interest in living in Northside.

Northside was close to the university, and houses in the neighborhood were relatively cheaper than in other areas surrounding campus. Developers began to notice the growth of students in the neighborhood and how these students could offer more money than existing residents in Northside.

Yvonne Cleveland, administrative associate at the Jackson Center and a member of the Northside community, said that resident’s houses are often sold after they pass away.

“Let’s say my grandmother owned the house, and she passed away,” Cleveland said.  “I have no interest in living in the Northside community, so if someone offered me $200,000, I’d probably say ‘Yes, I’ll take it.'”

Another major reason residents move out is because they can’t afford to live in the neighborhood anymore, largely because of increased property taxes. In either situation, developers will buy the house, rebuild and expand it, and convert it into a rental property to cater to college students.

“Instead of renting one house for $600, you’re renting one room for $600, and within that house you have five rooms,” Cleveland says. “Basically, you’re quadrupling your profit.”

According to the decennial census, investor-owned properties in Northside neighborhood have increased significantly since 2000; and with the increase in investor-owned properties comes a change in demographics.

From 1980-2010, the population of 18 to 24-year-olds increased from 23.4 percent to 55.7 percent, while family households dropped from 48.2 percent to 22.9 percent. The number of owner-occupied houses also decreased significantly. The large majority of the family households living in these owner-occupied houses are long-term, African-American residents of Northside.

Lifting Voices

The long-term residents of Northside became concerned with these changes. How will the community restore homeownership and family rental housing in the neighborhood? How can student neighbors learn to appreciate the history of Northside? How will the neighborhood maintain its diversity in age, income and race? How can the tight-knit feeling that used to pervade Northside be restored?

There was a real need for long-term residents to voice their concerns and have them addressed. The town of Chapel Hill responded with the Northside Neighborhood Conservation District Plan, one of the first initiatives adopted by the town on Feb. 23, 2004. This plan established regulations to “help preserve the character of a particular, older residential neighborhood.”

The real change, though, started happening in 2008, with the establishment of The Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, a nonprofit located on Rosemary Street at the city limit of Carrboro.

The Jackson Center started as an initiative to preserve the history of Northside by creating an oral archive of interviews with long-term Northside residents, but soon expanded its mission to work to sustaining and strengthening the community.

“What we want to do is hear what our neighbors want,” says Della Pollock, the executive director of the Jackson Center.

Since it began, the Jackson Center has been behind several initiatives to aid Northside, teaming up with a number of partners, including UNC-Chapel Hill, Self-Help, the Town of Chapel Hill and EmPOWERment Inc.

These initiatives consist of the Northside and Pine Knolls Community Plan, adopted in January 2012; the Northside Housing Market Action Plan, developed in 2013; and, most recently, the Northside Neighborhood Initiative, announced on March 9, 2015.

The Northside Neighborhood Initiative, according to Hudson Vaughan, senior director of the Jackson Center, is meant to “ensure the diversity and legacy of Northside and preserve its future.”

This has been accomplished through efforts to engage with the students living in the neighborhood. Student residents are encouraged to connect with their neighbors through events like “Cocoa on the Porch” or “Lookout for the Cookout.”

They can also learn about the history of the neighborhood by listening to the Northside soundwalk, “Histories of Home,” created by the Jackson Center.

Jake Pachecho, a student at UNC and volunteer at the Jackson Center, finds the soundwalk to be a huge benefit to student residents.

“Knowing the history of Northside can instill a respect that will stay with students who see Northside as simply a place for them to stay,” he said.

Students have also been educated about neighborhood ordinances, which has helped reduce the nuisance complaints in Northside by 60 percent since the Northside Neighborhood Initiative was announced. The ultimate desire of long-term residents is to build an understanding with student residents.

“They’re not opposed to students,” Cleveland said. “They just want them to have respect for the community and its history.”

Northside has seen other big changes since the Northside Neighborhood Initiative was announced.

UNC-CH gave a $3 million no-interest loan to the initiative, which has allowed the Jackson Center and its partners to purchase 16 properties in Northside and sell at an affordable rate. This is a big step in restoring homeownership and family-rental housing in the neighborhood.

An Uncertain Future  

Currently, a stone gateway is being built in front of St. Joseph Christian Methodist Episcopal Church beside the Jackson Center. The gateway is meant to honor the freedom fighters of Northside and be a marker for the neighborhood. It comes at a turning point in the community.

Because of recent efforts from the Northside Neighborhood Initiative, the African-American population in Northside has increased for the first time in 30 years.

George Barrett, the associate director of the Jackson Center, looks to the completion of the gateway and the achievements of the community with excitement. The gateway is an inspiration for the future, but it also acts as a reminder of the struggles blacks in the community continue to face today.

“There’s still work to do,” he says, echoing the same words of Eugene Farrar seven years ago.

Edited by Molly Weybright