Restoring a Neighborhood’s Cultural Legacy through Community-Based Planning and Engagement

Built by the Work Progress Administration in 1937 as a park for blacks in segregated Raleigh, NC, the John Chavis Memorial Park was a 28-acre well-appointed park that drew blacks from all over North Carolina. In its heyday, the park boasted an elegant carousel, large swimming pool, tennis courts, picnic shelters, sports fields and stadium, and many other amenities. The park is located in southeastern Raleigh adjacent to the predominantly black neighborhoods of South Park and East Raleigh as well as Shaw University. But with the advent of integration the park fell into disrepair in the 1970’s and 1980’s, primarily due to lack of investment. Along with the park’s degradation, the modest black neighborhoods have been threatened by gentrification resulting from development and influx of new residents into downtown Raleigh in recent years.

Site Safari Activity July 2013 (courtesy of Alisa Hefner)

Site Safari Activity July 2013 (courtesy of Alisa Hefner)

In an attempt to improve the visibility and accessibility of the park’s carousel, Raleigh’s parks department relocated it to a higher elevation in 2008. This action followed previous alterations that were very unpopular with local residents such as demolishing the stadium, removing a Cougar jet fighter plane shell that was used as a slide along with a miniature train ride, modifying the large pool to a smaller size and allowing vegetative overgrowth along the park’s west end creek to expand the riparian buffer. According to Vernice Miller-Travis of Skeo Solutions, “Taken together over time, these actions generated tremendous resentment and distrust towards the local government, making a productive dialogue about the park’s future very difficult.”

In seeking to overcome the frustration among African American residents and to meaningfully engage these residents in planning for the future of John Chavis Memorial Park, the City convened a “community conversation.” This initiative was rooted in the City of Raleigh’s newly adopted public participation for park planning municipal guidance, and was facilitated by Skeo Solutions to empower a broad-based, diverse coalition to define a vision for the future of the park while building on the park’s history, and to explore options and create a masterplan to guide future park investments.

John Chavis Memorial Park Master Plan (courtesy of SKEO Solutions)

John Chavis Memorial Park Master Plan (courtesy of SKEO Solutions)

Skeo Solutions, working with the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department, facilitated the 18-month Chavis Park Community Conversation The Conversation was led by a Public Leadership Group composed of stakeholders with diverse backgrounds and experiences that received training in Collaborative Problem Solving and Building Cultural Competence that provided the group with the tools for productive, consensus-based decision-making. “This process resulted in the creation of a vision and a master plan that both honors the past and the park’s significance to African American heritage while looking forward to a vibrant future that connects the park to downtown and visitors of all ages,” said David Shouse, Natural Resources Administrator for the City of Raleigh.

The final plan was approved unanimously by the Parks Board and Raleigh City Council and proposes more between $22- $40 million in improvements and $12 million to initiate phase one. According to PLG member Lonnette Williams “the Chavis Conversation, while a long and challenging process, was so gratifying….to see the community members and the local leaders come together with shared goals and a commitment to implementation is a huge accomplishment.”

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