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A Millennial Perspective on Community Development in Rural North Carolina: Part II

An Opportunity to Reinvest and Revitalize in Eastern NC

By: Sonyia Turner, 2017 NCCDI Summer Associate


Forty years ago, the Southeast neighborhood in Rocky Mount teemed with young families and a sense of community pride. Children played in the streets, men and women greeted each other as they went to and from work in the downtown mills and factories, and “the big blue house at 703 Clark Street, was the most beautiful home on the block” according to Mary Warren, Southeast Rocky Mount Community resident since the late 1970’s. Today, however, this neighborhood, full of large single-family homes characteristic of the architectural style unique to the early 1900’s, feels more like a wasteland.

As my colleague and I drove down Clark Street on a hot July morning, I couldn’t help but find myself marveling at each house we passed, many of which boarded up and abandoned, yet still glimmering a piece of their former glory. Looking at these homes was like looking into the faces of those who once beamed with pride, only to now find themselves in a state of shame and disrepair. Though neglected, forgotten, and falling to pieces, I felt an overwhelming sense of opportunity and hope that this community could be restored.

Downtown Rocky Mount is experiencing an exciting revitalization, with current development projects like the Rocky Mount Event Center and Rocky Mount Mills, a brewery incubator, bringing much needed attention and economic growth to the city. So, with the Southeast neighborhood a mere five minute drive from these projects, it’s only a matter of time before investors jump on this gem.

This downtown development inevitably leaves areas like the Southeast neighborhood vulnerable to increased property values and taxes. Once full of youth, this community is now predominantly occupied by seniors, many of whom have lived in the neighborhood for several decades. Having witnessed the disinvestment in their area first hand, these owners are proponents of local revitalization efforts that embrace the importance of maintaining affordability and curbing displacement.

As we continued through the neighborhood, there were a few homes that still reflected the warmth of life. With fresh paint coating sagging exteriors and bowing porches, and beautiful gardens enclosed in crooked and chipped fences, it was clear that the owners of these homes were trying to maintain a level of beauty in their neighborhood, yet lacked the financial resources to make the major repairs that their homes desperately needed. In stark contrast to these homes, there were many houses that were occupied by residents who seemed to reflect the same depressed state of the house. In passing many of these latter homes at 11:45 on a Tuesday morning, we saw many young, working age men staring suspiciously at us from their porches. This apparent unemployment and hopelessness indicates additional economic challenges that point to the community development needs beyond affordable housing.

Mary Warren is hopeful for her community, and feels the Southeast Rocky Mount neighborhood is a place of opportunity, and I agree. I believe that it is a pivotal time for strategic investment in this community. The home at 703 Clark Street, less than a five minute drive from the future Rocky Mount Event Center, is a two-story, 1600 square-foot home built in 1900 estimated at $14,500 according to Zillow. With multiple properties priced like this one, this area lends itself to being an excellent place for affordable housing initiatives – an opportunity we should not miss. These homes, rich in history, once proudly served Rocky Mount’s workforce. How wonderful it would be to revitalize them and make them available again to the American workforce they once served. I think that would be great.

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