Randy Hester

Randy Hester

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“One thing led to another and pretty soon I was completely committed to stopping the urban renewal project and eventually to stopping the North-South freeway. Urban renewal was a federal program and it was basically a plan to get rid of minorities and get that (valuable) land they were occupying. These freeways that were inner city freeways were happening all over the country.

“One of the great moments in Raleigh’s history was stopping the North-South freeway, different from Durham, which still suffers because of the resentment of the African America community. It’s an unbelievable story of two cities—so close. 147 was built here and the North South freeway in Raleigh was not.

“Deep democracy is still alive, and it’s alive in Oakwood… I think the thing that is most blessed about Oakwood is that it has been a place that has provided individual growth, but within the framework of understanding (our) responsibility.”

Randy Hester first moved to Raleigh to attend Design School at NCSU in 1963, and lived in Raleigh until 1980, working tirelessly as an activist and council member for the good of all communities in Raleigh. Randolph (Randy) Hester Jr. is a landscape architect, professor and sociologist formerly based in Berkeley, California. His practical work and teaching has focused on applying sociology to the design of neighborhoods, cities and landscapes. Hester is a strong advocate for community participation in the development of what he calls ecological democracies and sacred landscapes – spaces that grow out of a true understanding of the needs of a local community and the potential of its resources. His approach has excited communities across the US and abroad, and inspired countless students to actively engage the social and environmental context of their work..

Full Transcript

Randy Hester (starting working in Chavis Heights and Oakwood in 1963)
Interviewed by Peter Rumsey, Jerry Blow, Lee Blow (Hester’s cousin) and Liisa Ogburn on September 19, 2011 in Hester’s office in Durham, NC. Daniel contacted Ogburn after reading the News and Observer Op-Ed. 

Liisa: Today is September 19, 2011. I am sitting with Randy Hester, Peter Rumsey, Lee and Jerry Blow in downtown Durham. We will be interviewing Randy Hester this hour. Randy, to start off can you introduce yourself?

Randy: I am Randy Hester. I now live in Durham. From 1963 until 1980 I lived in Raleigh. I was first a student there then went back to Raleigh. In regards to this project, if I were introducing myself, in one sentence [I would say] I was probably the most radical voice and effect action oriented person from 1970 to ‘75 or 76. 

Peter: How did you happen to decide to live in Raleigh and become active there?

Randy: I went to school at State and in my sophomore year, started working -- this is the Civil Rights-- started working with Dorothy Allen, who was the office of economic opportunity director. I told her I would really like to work with her organization. I thought she would have be designing parts of something. She said, “we really need someone to baby-sit the kids who come after school.” That was basically what I did for Dorothy Allen. It was soon after that, we noticed the Urban Renewal Project was basically going to destroy all of Chavis Heights. It was scheduled to be a clearance project and starting where the north-south freeway was going to go, from New Bern all the way to the entirety of Chavis Heights. I became just more and more concerned about that. You couldn’t escape the inspiration of Dr. King. There were a few of us who started doing our design projects while we were at the [NCSU] School of Design in Chavis Heights. We built a playground with kids, and one thing led to another and soon I was committed to stopping that urban renewal project and eventually to stop the north-south freeway.

Liisa: Let’s back up a little bit. Tell me Randy, I know nothing about the Urban Renewal Plan.

Randy: This was typical all over the country. There were the pockets of poverty that almost always were in an area where real estate was really valuable. If you could have built the North-South freeway and cleared all of Chavis Heights, you would have 100 of acres where you could have developed upscale apartments. This was the vision in every city in the country. Urban renewal was a federal program to basically clear ghettos. It was called by some academics, “Negro removal,” instead of urban renewal. It was basically to get rid of the minorities and get the land they were occupying. Raleigh successfully got a little piece in Southside. Where the auditorium, the civic center place, I think, that was in urban renewal. Destroying Chavis Heights would have just destroyed the black neighborhood. You had to prove that the housing was beyond repair. One of the first things I did was survey all of the housing and show that the city had exaggerated the desperation. 

Liisa: What year was that?

Randy: Urban renewal may have started in the mid 50’s, but this was 1963, 64, 65. The fight went on to stop the urban renewal until 1970 or 71. That was actually how I got involved. I don’t actually know when the city finally gave up on doing the urban renewal project. By 1974 it was pretty clear that they didn’t expect to do it. The city had given up on it. There was a demonstration at City Hall. A young black guy with a sign said niggers can’t organize. It was an amazing thing. Chavis Heights was very poor. It was not the black leadership. This was not Clarence Lightener and Bill Knight. This was poor folks. Clarence and the black leadership supporting building the North-South freeway. There was that division in the black community. 

Peter: You have mentioned repeatedly about the North-South expressway. Tell us the origins, as you understand it, for that expressway.

Randy: These inner city freeways were happening all over the country. One of the great moments in Raleigh’s history is stopping the North-South freeway. Durham still suffers, because of the African American community. It is a tale of two cities so close. Highway 147 was built here and the North-South expressway was not [built there]. Every city in the 50’s had realized they needed to build more freeways, because everybody was getting a car. It is the same story now in China. Raleigh’s thoroughfare plan was developed in the mid 60’s. Maybe adopted in ‘67 or so. It was awful. It wasn’t just Chivas Heights and Oakwood. There were arterial streets that were twenty or thirty feet wide that were going to become forty or fifty feet wide. Clark Ave and Oberlin Rd., you go to those streets...The North-South expressway was the worst. It was an inner state highway sized piece that was going to go from East to Bloodworth. The impact that it would have had was five or six more blocks on either side. Those freeways destroy the fabric of the city. They make it impossible to walk. The North-South freeway would have gone the length of Raleigh. Oakwood was not affluent in those days, if it had been it would have been easier to fight. Most of these freeways were along, stream corridors, river corridors, or poor black neighborhoods. 

Liisa: Who were you working with? Who were you fighting this with?

Randy: It started with the Office of Economic Opportunity, Dorothy Allen, and she was concerned about it, but she was more concerned about the urban renewal project. These were partners in evil. I worked with her first in the mid 60’s. Then we did this report that said if you live on these streets, and it was over 150 streets, your life was going to get miserable. It included the whole city, like Five Points Hayes Barton. The things that the Civil Rights movement showed us… it wasn’t just poor people who didn’t have access to their government, none of us did. If you needed a stop sign in your neighborhood, it would take two or three years. I was appointed City University Coordinator in 1970 or 1971. One of my mandates from the city and the university was to organize all the universities to do student public service. Wake Environment, Don Hizing, was already active; they were more about ecological things, like rivers. This was the beginning of the green way of thinking. Bill Flouronoy was a student of mine. We were beginning to think about the Raleigh greenway as a student back in 1963, I had done a green way plan. I am embarrassed to say i.; I dammed both Walnut and Crabtree Lake and made these great lakes. I was a sophomore in school, but I learned better and fast. 

Wake Environment was the publisher of the neighborhood guide to the thoroughfare plan. There were a few more activists, and African Americans, [who] began to fight. Stopping the urban renewal and the freeway were about all I ever thought about those days. I then started reaching out. When I started teaching at State, I tried to get a grant to fight the freeways. Bill Roberts, the conservative wing of the Democratic Party back then, had unbelievable access to local government. Bill Roberts was completely sympathetic with what I was saying, but they said you couldn’t just fight the freeways; you have to have a positive vision. That was when we formed the Goals for Raleigh. This was when I first met Betty Nutson, and Betty Doke. The three of us formed Goals for Raleigh, and it became another ally. The movement started in Chavis Heights and as more people became aware, it grew. It became an environmental and Civil Rights issue. By the time Goals for Raleigh, I think we had four or five principles and one was that the neighborhood was the most important unit of every day life. You could not build free ways and destroy the neighborhoods with urban renewal. Oliver Williams, Miriam Block, and Ron Hershbaum, were elected, in 1974, because we had built this momentum. 

Liisa: I have heard several people talk about the court room decision in 1972, when they ruled the North-South freeway would not go through. At what point, did some of the folks in Oakwood join your movement?

Randy: My memory is, it wasn’t until 1976 or 1977, that the North-South freeway was removed. When I was on the city council, starting in 1976, the whole thoroughfare plan was dismantled. Don Blackburn, who was the thoroughfare planner for the city, is my arch enemy. The bureaucrats were professionals. They truly believed we needed these freeways. They were well trained, but narrowly trained. They didn’t think about land use. His mandate was to move people by the single occupant automobile in the most efficient manner possible and if it destroyed everything else, it was tough luck. I was stopping him at every point. They would come to meetings and be arrogant. They would say “your neighborhood really isn’t all that important.” 

By this time Oakwood was a major force in this. Chavis Heights was neutralized because the black leadership still supported it. It was really when Oakwood became aware and organized that we thought we had a chance to stop the North-South freeway. Tom Bashford, who was a minister of a store front church, was elected from the district that was Oakwood. He voted every vote against the progressives. In the time I was on the city council, almost every vote was four to four. The mayor, Joe Collins, voted to create the tie; there were seven city council people, two at large, plus the mayor, and five districts. We were basically unable to do anything. The city had done an extraordinarily comprehensive plan. It said a certain percentage of any of Raleigh’s growth has to go to the downtown. If we voted to take a recess the vote was four to four. The four progressives were Jim Quinn, Miriam Block, Ron Hershbaum, and me. We could not stop the freeway because the votes were still tied. Tom Bashford voted with us, to stop the North-South freeway. I think it was more aimed at the whole thoroughfare plan. It was the vote of the Oakwood representative that saved Raleigh’s entire inner core from being destroyed by freeways. He was very old at that time. He would nod off; when it came time to vote he would usually vote with the other bad guys. When it came time to vote this time, he voted with us. It was defeated 5 to 3. We were unable to do any of the other parts of that comprehensive plan, except the transportation component. John and his last name started with an H, had developed this transportation plan and worked with the goals of Raleigh. It is not just important for Oakwood and Chavis Heights; it made Raleigh as livable a place as anywhere in the country. If it had not been stopped, it would have been the same kind of destruction of urban neighborhoods we saw everywhere.

Liisa: Can you tell me emotionally what that was like, after you had invested so much of yourself, almost a decade?

Randy: We were pretty happy, but by that time we had other fish to fry. I don’t remember, I am sure there was some huge celebration; we still thought we had a chance at getting the comprehensive plan developed. By that time the green way was really going and the opponents of these things were very important people. People didn’t support the green way because people wanted to develop that flood plain, right up to the edge. If Jones had not developed Crabtree in the flood plain, we never would have stopped the flood plain development elsewhere. It floods once every five years. It took that demonstration for people to realize. We had been working on parks and open space. We were trying to get 15 or 20 new parks. I am sure I was really happy. I had been trained, as soon as you accomplished one thing, you went on to the next. We probably thought we were really cool; we had beaten the shit out of those Scots!
Peter: Tell us when you first became aware of Oakwood, what pictures and image did you have and how did it change over time?

Randy: I must have first gone to Oakwood in the early 1960’s when I went to school. It was certainly not a prestigious place to live; it was probably one of the nicest places, most pleasant places to walk. A lot of stuff was run down and dilapidated, but then you would pass a garden that was loved more than you can imagine. The houses even though they were, by the early 1960’s, some were fixed up, but some had never gone into disrepair. It was just in a relatively dilapidated state. It was just charming in a way that made you want to walk. If you want to get rid of obesity today you would make neighborhoods like Oakwood. You just wanted to walk around. That was my first impression. I can remember when I was living in Chavis Heights and working so much in Chavis heights tha

Randy: It was maybe 1977, when I moved into the neighborhood onto East Street and lived in an apartment.  And it was one of those really big fine houses that had been broken into four apartments, I think.
Then I got to do those walks almost everyday and...yeah, that’s mostly my impression.  And you know, now it’s probably one of the premier neighborhood addresses anywhere in the country.  You know, it’s old and new. It’s preserved. It covers a big area. There are plenty of historic districts that might have preserved two blocks in every direction, but this is a big neighborhood.

Peter: Were there people that you remember from Oakwood?

Randy: If you tell me the names I probably would remember.  I knew people in Chavis Heights a lot better because I was living there and that’s where to me the fight originated. And quite honestly, it’s been so long now and I have people who I knew in Oakwood that I have mixed up with people on Oberlin Road, and you know, it’s sort of all in the category of Raleigh or something.  So I’m sorry, I really don’t.  And in fact, I can’t even remember--there was this young professor at, who taught at Duke and I can’t remember his name.  And he was an important political ally.  Anyway, I just, I don’t remember.

Peter: Gentrification.  The flip side of a variety of things.  

Randy: Well, I know as a radical progressive, I’m supposed to be against gentrification.  I understand that.  And at the same time, the places that I’ve worked, Oakwood included, I know that if it hadn’t been for the gentrifiers, it’s not just that neighborhood that wouldn’t be terrific today, lots of other neighborhoods [would be affected] too.

I think Chavis Heights is healthier as a place because of Oakwood becoming the premier address [it is].  I think that in almost every case I know if there aren’t some early innovators who then lead to the gentrification, you would, we would have lost a huge amount, not just of our historic fabric, but also of our social fabric in cities.

I think that we have to be careful that gentrification doesn’t become cancerous, but you know, white people didn’t want to live in Chavis Heights.  Chavis Heights is still very close and is a terrific place to live if you have very limited means.  And so generally, I would invite upper middle class professionals to engage in places, to come and dwell in places that they later become labeled gentrifiers.  When in reality, they’re pretty big risk takers when they first come.

And you know, we’ve just moved into downtown Durham and we put every cent that we had into real estate in downtown Durham, and almost everybody who advises me about these things says it’s a really stupid thing to do, but I think that gentrifiers--and I’m a gentrifier of downtown Durham, gentrification with people who are sensitive is actually one of the best development directions we could be going in.

I think of myself as being reasonably sensitive.  I will fight in downtown Durham to have parks that serve me and my family, but I will also fight for those parks to serve the homeless, and the soup kitchens and the Wednesday preachers...and that’s part of what happens in gentrification.

Now the other is that, that we try to push the undesirable forces out and that just has to be resisted.  But gentrifiers can do that, too.

Peter: What’s the importance of rental housing to a neighborhood?

Randy: Well, if you don’t have some rental housing, you don’t have the kind of diversity either of income or of age and lifestyle preference that really makes a place vital.  And I think that for children that are growing up… to not just be in an enclave in which everybody has children almost the same age who all go to the same schools and they all, you know, they all learn about Spongebob Squarepants at the exact same moment. If you want your kids to grow up and sort of understand the complexity of the world, you gotta start in your neighborhood and it’s gotta have rental housing.

And if it’s second units that are associated with a major house, that is in my mind one of the very best situations.  If it is at the corners that there are still some blocks of apartments and houses that are broken up, that’s...but you want, a single family neighborhood has to be dominantly single family.  And so for example, if you, at some point when you get about 40% tourist facilities or 40% of something else, it ceases to be one thing.

And this is, I think clearer to me in working in towns that are trying to develop tourism.  Yountville, CA where we worked for years, there was a new inn that was coming and we had just done a study and realized that when that inn was built there would be more beds occupied by tourists then there were by residents.

And some teenage kids sprayed on the sign--it was The Inn of Yountville was the new inn, and they had whited out the Inn and put the End, E-n-d, replacing I-n-n.  They obviously had watched Spellbinder on zoom.  Anyway, if we can have 10% of rental housing in a dominantly single family neighborhood, we’re doing good.  I mean we would be happy.

And probably can go to 20% and not be an imposition on housing values or lifestyle or...

Peter: Summarize for us both where you grew up and then your professional career leading you here to Durham.

Randy: Okay.  I grew up mostly in Roxboro.  Never more than five blocks from Lee [Blow].  And in the late 1940s and 1950s, Roxboro was 5,000 people.  It was the classic neighborhood unit.  

So it didn’t function as a town, it functioned as a neighborhood.  And literally everything that I could ever have wanted in my whole life could be consumed by walking.  There was a real hardware store.  I could go to the courthouse.  There were two drugstores uptown. I don’t mean to be romantic about this, there was strict segregation and even within that there were these divisions, but it was a classic neighborhood.

And then we were required every Sunday to be at our grandparents’ house, so my cousin, Lee Dickens, now Lee Blow and I, spent every Sunday together with our cousins. There were nine of us.  Ten, with Charles.

And so we grew up like brothers and sisters --we were told that we could not go all the way to Big Branch when we were at our grandparents’ house.  It was about a mile away.  And we went almost every Sunday.

And we never got punished for going, and anyway...there’s this extraordinary sense of community as the neighborhood unit functioning in a way that the new urbanist just would die for if they could make a neighborhood function like Roxboro functioned then, with the exception of race.

And access to nature, both in town and also particularly when we would go out to Hester’s Store.  And so I have said many times, I’ve spent my whole professional career as a landscape architect, environmental planner advocate, community organizer, elected official, appointed official...everything I have ever done was trying to make cities and neighborhoods like that.

You know, and this is not unique to my story.  It’s not just my story, but that of ..two communities, Hesters Store and Roxboro. There truly was a balance between individual and community responsibility.  You couldn’t have survived if you didn’t share that community responsibility.

And it’s not communism.  You know, it simply is understanding that the community is a whole organism and that the land is an organism, and it’s both an ecological concept in the sense of [Alba Leopold Sam County Almanac?] and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said you know, we are inextricably bound together, and the fate of one of us is the fate of all of us.  That’s the messages I got growing up and the environment supported it.

There was a extraordinary preacher, a black preacher, Wylie Bratcher, who Lee’s mother knew, they all knew, we all knew about him, but he died the year, maybe the year after I was born… he had a church.  He thought that the automobile was going to be the ruination of the black man, and he hanged a car from an oak tree at their church, at the church at those days...it’s now the Union Grove Baptist Church, I think.

But when he founded it, it was the Church of God in the Wilderness and the Wilderness was the white man’s domain.  The Wilderness.  Anyway, but he hanged this, this car from an oak tree in his church yard.  And there were all of these sort of--the landscape then taught us these moral lessons.  Anyway.  That’s far more than you wanted to know.  

I taught at Penn State for a year and then came and taught at North Carolina State for 10 years, plus when I was a student.  And then I taught at Berkeley for 30 years and we decided that we would move back to NC in my retirement.  And I wanted to move to Hester’s Store and my wife was willing to move east, but she said “I have to have a city.”

And so we have an apartment in Durham and the old farmhouse out in the country.  So that’s how we got to be here.

Peter: What are you doing today?

Randy: Well, I am now doing a downtown open space plan, and so I started going to the meetings as a citizen and Marcia and I sort of coach.  So we met all morning before you all came with the staff that’s doing this and they’ve just done this really wonderful thing.  I should show you.

At the last community workshop we divided into teams to focus on parts of, or you could focus on the whole of downtown. You could focus on what you thought was most important.

They then color coded the areas that each team thought was most important.  And so there’s literally now a paper trail of here’s what you told us the first meeting, here’s what you told us the second meeting, here’s what you told us the third and fourth.  And so it’s like the, the citizen participation is literally recorded and they then recount what we did each time before. 

Anyway, I was thrilled to see this because as a citizen, I look at this and I would say well, your team was the red team, and I can see somebody was listening, you know.  And anyway, I’m working with them on that and I do a huge amount of volunteer work.  

And then this afternoon we’re working to save an endangered species in Asia and Marcia and I will work on that probably for an hour.  And then she’ll email people in Shanghai and in Fukoga[?] and I will go back to doing the citations on my next book.  And it’s just brutal.

Oh, and the other thing, I’ll listen to the NASCAR race while I do the citations.

Peter: You’ve accumulated over the years, a number of planning books and documents.  If you could very quickly, ideally in a chronological order just identify those that you have sitting here at the table.

Randy: Yeah, well luckily when we moved from CA, our 30 years of practice went into the archives and so we don’t have to worry about that stuff.  And some of the stuff that was specifically reports, we had multiple copies.

And so Marcia just filed in our storage room all of the projects by when they were done.  And so I was able in like two minutes to go and reconstruct the sort of context of Oakwood’s defeating the freeway, and so this was the the first document.  And I want to show you one person, Jesse Beans lived in Chavis Heights, and he started working with my students and me and I don’t see his picture...

But the city was condemning housing, preparing for the north-south freeway, and clearing the urban renewal.  And they would condemn maybe 10 houses at a time.  And we organized the group to--every time they condemned a house we would find out what the minimum requirements were to prevent it from being demolished.  

And we would then work on the weekends under Jesse Beans. He was a contractor, a black contractor, who lived across the street from me in Chavis Heights.  I don’t know what happened to it.

Peter: What is the name of it?

Randy: This is Human Development Through Housing Rehabilitation: A Case Study in Advocacy.  Okay, so this was, I would say this was 1970 or something.  

This one is the Citizen’s Guide to the Thoroughfare Plan.  This is the one that I said...my students and I did to alert people on the impact of every freeway or every major street expansion, such as Atlantic Avenue or Glenwood Avenue.  Anyway, that’s what this is and I think this is probably 1970-71, and this was done with Wake Environment.

And then, growing out of that and our desire to stop the freeways, we were encouraged to think more positively and more holistically, and that’s when Betty Ann Knudsen, Betty Doke and I formed Goals for Raleigh.  And this was the first technical report.

And this one was 1972.  Tom Gerig, who was a statistician at NC State setup the interview system so that we could literally predict within five percent...five percent, plus or minus, what citizens were thinking.  

And we did these interviews in every neighborhood of the city, and that became the basis of Goals for Raleigh.  And out of that then grew this report.  One thing that came out of that was that everybody still wanted freeways, but they just wanted them in somebody else’s neighborhood, which was then a perfect thing if, when later I was campaigning for city council, to be able to say everybody wants freeways, but we want them in somebody else’s neighborhood. Whose neighborhood are they gonna be in?

It seemed to me we had two choices: destroy somebody’s neighborhood or build them more freeways.  But this thing was really powerful.  That data was unbelievably powerful.  And that then lead to several hundred people joining different groups.

And so there was a natural resources group, a transportation group, a health, a mental health, integration, social control, education, recreation, housing...and there were then reports from every one of them that became clear policy statements that city council people or candidates used to run for.  This was probably ‘74 or so.
 And then the Raleigh neighborhoods, by this time it was pretty clear if the--this is ‘74, that that that the comprehensive plan might not change, but the neighborhood had become the most important unit of thinking and planning and zoning in Raleigh.  This was the council previous to me, so it’s Clarence Lightner and Jack Keeter and that group of people.  And then

Peter: Tell us for a moment, Clarence Lightner, just so the record will show

Randy: Clarence Lightner was, [I believe], the first black mayor of any city in the US.  He was certainly the first black mayor of Raleigh, but this is pretty early.  I...there was some other bigger claim, but I can’t remember what it was.  But he was the mayor this term and then he and Oliver Williams both ran the next time, and that’s when they divided the progressive vote and, and Jack Coggins was elected.

Anyway...Clarence was a good ally of mine and a good friend, but he campaigned directly against me.  He handed out in southeast Raleigh the RCA cards.  They, in those days when you went to vote and you were black, you went to vote and you were given a code by the black leadership of who to vote for.  And they were against me and Clarence specifically campaigned against me. 

I still considered him an ally.  He had to do what he had to do.  And then this is 1975, we were convinced that none of us knew how to get things done.  And so we did a citizen’s guide to every department within the city...and who to contact and you know, how to make yourself a--create a nuisance, which is basically all that you could expect of community participation in those days.

Peter: Wow.  

Randy: Thank you both.

Peter: Let me ask you the question we always ask at the end, which is anything else?

Randy: I think that the only thing that occurred to me after Lee called and said you all were doing this was that it made me think back about this time that I don’t think much about.

But it also made me aware that deep democracy is alive and that it’s alive in Oakwood, and it’s alive in many neighborhoods in Raleigh, but it’s particularly alive in Oakwood.  And that’s about all we have to offer the world is deep democracy.

And it can’t just be a consumer democracy, it’s gotta be deep democracy or it’s just the wrong lesson for people.  And it is about our freedoms and also our responsibilities.  And I think that the thing that is most blessed about Oakwood is that it has been a place that has provided for individual growth, but within this framework of understanding the responsibility.

And so it, it made me feel really happy to just think about it and to think about what a great place it is to live, but maybe even more about this continuing commitment to grassroots involvement and, and making democracy a part of your life every day as opposed to you know, [occasionally] when you vote and consume.

And Oakwood in that way should make us all feel good.

Peter: Wow, thank you.

Randy: Thank you.