Published: Jun 07, 2008 11:09 AM
Modified: Jun 07, 2008 11:09 AM
The Northside area of Chapel Hill was once a close-knit neighborhood full of families with deep roots in the community. Everybody knew everybody, and the children walked to the elementary school in the heart of the neighborhood.
Things have changed. The school closed decades ago, although a pre-K program still operates on the site. Many of the families are gone and the vast majority of the houses in Northside are occupied by UNC students or other renters.
But the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district is considering putting the next elementary school in Northside, and some residents say that would be a welcome step toward breathing life back into the neighborhood.
"It'll make us feel like our neighborhood is coming back to us," said Velma Perry, who was born and raised in the historically black Northside neighborhood and went to the old Northside school. "Because it makes us come back to know our neighborhood -- because we'd been there all our lives -- and I think we would like to know our neighborhood again."
The school board Thursday night discussed the question of where to put the district's 11th elementary school. Although the board did not make a decision, several members appeared to be leaning more toward the Northside location than the other proposed locations, at Carolina North and on the Greene Tract, both of which are in northern Chapel Hill.
They said the Northside site would better meet their timeline for opening the school in August 2011. If they were to build on the Greene Tract, they would have to involve all the local governments in the conversation, because they each have a stake in that tract. That could delay the opening of the school.
Superintendent Neil Pedersen and Chairwoman Pam Hemminger emphasized that the school board has not ruled out the Greene Tract and Carolina North sites. They said they will continue to examine them as potential sites for future schools.
Some longtime Northside residents went to Thursday's meeting to speak in favor of building the new school in their neighborhood. The original building that housed the Northside Elementary School has fallen into disrepair; an addition that was added later houses pre-kindergarten programs.
"It was a part of the neighborhood," Perry said of the original school. "It was a place for the neighborhood to go to, to have speeches and such." She asked that the new elementary school site continue to house the pre-K program if a new school were built there.
Delores Bailey, executive director of the affordable housing agency EmPOWERment, said that the Northside neighborhood has gone from 85 percent owner-occupied homes to 15 percent owner-occupied homes.
Some say Northside has lost its community feel and gained a reputation, deserved or not, as a dangerous area. Many of the people who grew up there or live there now want to change that.
"I miss the children. I miss the children very much," said Esphur Foster, who said her grandfather helped build the old Northside school. "If [the original building] has to be demolished, maybe we could preserve the cornerstone and have it as a monument at the new school."
School board member Annetta Streater suggested the board seek input from past and current Northside residents as well as former Northside students "of what the school looked like" and how it fit into the neighborhood.
"I would like the new one to reflect the old one," she said.
The other board members agreed.
At a Rogers Road Small Area Plan Task Force meeting this spring, Carrboro Alderman Joal Hall Broun said that since the local schools integrated in the 1960s, no new school has been built in a predominantly black neighborhood. Schools tend to make neighborhoods more stable, she said.
"I don't think it can be over-emphasized -- the historical significance of the Northside [site]," said Dave Mason, an alumnus of the Orange County Training School, which later was named Lincoln High School.
Esther Atwater McCauley, who went to Lincoln High, asked that the new school incorporate the "Lincoln High School" and "Orange County Training School" names into the building.
James Atwater, McCauley's brother, agreed.
"Of course it's always easy to remove the physical portion of a school," he said, "but it's difficult to erase the symbolic, historic significance of the school."