Two Americas, a Few Miles Apart

As I was driving away this morning after dropping off my younger daughter at day camp, I heard the story below on our local NPR station, WUNC.  Doing the work that I do — representing low-income children of color in the local juvenile courts — I am certainly aware of the extremes of wealth and poverty that exist in our small town, but this reality always hits me harder when it is personalized.

The summer camp my daughter attends is run by the University of North Carolina Faculty-Staff Recreation Association and is open only to its members.  The counselors are lovely, and the camp is a traditional one, not unlike the camp I attended in suburban New Jersey forty years ago. The day is comprised of swimming, tennis, arts and crafts, archery, games, carnivals, pizza lunches, special snacks, tetherball, and more.  As programs like this go, it is reasonably priced, although when you combine the annual cost of membership (plus a $600 initiation fee) with the cost of the camp itself, it is not cheap and likely out of reach for most UNC staff and many faculty.

In stark contrast is the life of the children living several miles away in the Rogers Road neighborhood of Chapel Hill, the site of a landfill that has left the historically African-American community with contaminated ground water and many residents lacking in basic amenities, including sidewalks, street lights, reliable public transportation, sewer, and water lines.  While there has long been talk of closing the landfill and providing the neighborhood with remediation, including a community center that was first promised when the landfill opened in 1972, no clear resolution has been reached as local politicians continue to debate the issue.  As a result, there are children and families who live in near intolerable conditions in the shadow of one of the greatest public universities in the United States.

The following is the text of a remarkable radio piece that was produced and narrated by Addie Malone, a nineteen-year-old resident of Rogers Road (the audio is available here).  It stopped me in my tracks this morning, leaving me wondering how we can ensure that the children of Rogers Road have a safe place to go next summer….

Addie Malone: I’ve driven down Rogers Road almost every day of my life–it’s just down the street from my house. Rogers Road has been in the news a lot. There is a big controversy over the landfill, which, on most days, you can smell from almost anywhere in the neighborhood. When I wanted to find out what’s happening there this summer, I sought out Robert Campbell. Everybody knows him around here. A few weeks back I brought a couple of lawn chairs and asked him to tell me about his neighborhood.

Robert Campbell: Right now we have Transit that is fit to come by, one of the Chapel Hill Transit buses that is coming by. It is not safe to stand close to the transit bus stop sign simply because you don’t have the safety margin…

Malone: We stood and talked for awhile about a lot of issues. Then he told me the story of the RENA community center. It’s a gathering spot for kids in the community that he and his friend David Caldwell founded two years ago.

Minister Robert Campbell: As you drive through this community you’ll see that there is no Park and Rec, still today we do not have sidewalks, so what we done is that we created a community center that will offer other programs within this community.

Malone: But the only problem was they started RENA without a permit in a building that was zoned residential, and in a building that the fire department sited for “life-safety issues.” Chapel Hill town council member Penny Rich explains:

Penny Rich: The problem with running a community center is that you need proper permitting, and you need to follow code, and the RENA center did not do that. They were housing children in there. There were no sprinkler systems; there were some windows that were painted shut—a number of violations that could have put children in danger.

Malone: Caldwell and Campbell say they never actually intended to open a community center, with children’s activities and neighborhood programming–it just happened. Now, the center is home to a summer educational camp, food ministry, and community garden. Caldwell says, it’s part of a larger effort to build a safe, close-knit community, much like the one he knew there as a child.

David Caldwell: When I grew up, this neighborhood from Old 86 to New 86, and from Homestead to the other side of Eubanks was our playground. And we’d go, we had a place called the apple orchard, and we’d go up and it had apples, pears, strawberries, and blackberries. We’d eat near the stream, and then we’d head home by dinner time. Our parents didn’t worry until it got dark.

Malone: During the summer, RENA holds a free, full-day program for kids in the neighborhood, funded in large part by agency grants from local governments including the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrborro. On any given day you can find the kids in the dirt driveway outside RENA playing basketball or inside working on math problems. 6th grader Ashley Robertson has been at the Center almost every day this summer. Without it, she says she wouldn’t know what to do.

Ashley Robertson: I would be at home by myself because my grandma works, my other grandma works, Shelayah is at home, my aunt. And when I come to camp I just see all my friends and cousins and stuff, so it’s a good opportunity.

Malone: Other vicinities in Chapel Hill such as the YMCA and Hargraves Community center offer summer and after school programs, but as Rich explains, nothing can quite fill the role of RENA.

Penny Rich: I think the issue out on Rogers Road is that there is not a good transportation system. And that’s why the RENA community center was good for the kids, because they could just walk there and walk home.

Malone: Each week, the center has “Fun Friday”–on this week, a soccer game between a group of younger kids picks up in the grass outside of the house. Sitting on the porch, David Caldwell looks out on the neighborhood he has spent his life in, and spent the latter half of trying to make better. He believes soccer games like this one play a vital role in keeping his community alive.

David Caldwell: They’re developing the camaraderie right now that they’ll talk about as they grow older and being friends… You know when you talk and say ‘I remember when we were nine years old and we did this.’ Our society is so transient right now that nobody stays in one place any amount of time. You know, to say that ‘I’ve been here since I was in the third grade, 50 something years…we don’t stay in many places to see anything change or develop into anything better.

Malone: RENA is closing on August 11. Campbell and Caldwell say they don’t have the money to bring the building up to code. Town Council Member Penny Rich says they have been working with RENA to try and find a place for the Center’s programs. Conversations have begun about building a new Center, but finding funding may be a long process.

Penny Rich: It’s not at no cost. It’s something that is not in our budget currently. We need to examine everything, but we need to be careful of how we spend tax-payer dollars.

Malone: To Caldwell and Campbell, you can’t put a price on how much it costs to restore a community. The two remain determined to keep RENA’s programs, and the neighborhood they serve, alive.

With the Youth Radio Institute, I’m Addie Malone. North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC.

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About Tamar Birckhead

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