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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, March 2, 2006. Interview U-0185. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The case of the Cherry neighborhood and alternatives to urban renewal

Fillette discusses how the Cherry neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina offered a new means of achieving community revitalization during the 1970s. An historically African American neighborhood scheduled for demolition because of deterioriation as part of the city's "community development program," Cherry residents with the help of their neighborhood association president, Phyllis Lynch, sought the help of Legal Aid. Eventually, it was determined that many of the houses could be rehabilitated and turned in to public housing for low-income tenants. Fillette explains how this demonstrated the viability of alternative approaches to urban renewal that would be less detrimental to the inhabitants of particular neighborhoods.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, March 2, 2006. Interview U-0185. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

SARAH THUESEN:
Your work on these issues extended into the late 70s. I know you worked fairly closely with the Cherry community, right, on similar issues?
TED FILLETTE:
Yes.
SARAH THUESEN:
Could you tell me just a little bit about that?
TED FILLETTE:
Well, the Cherry neighborhood was one of the historic black neighborhoods. It was somewhat of a mix economically. It had a fair number of middle-class people who owned their homes. It was predominately rental with most of the rental homes owned by one particular family and rental company. Most of those rental houses were in very deteriorated condition by the middle 1970s. Cherry was one of the nine neighborhoods targeted under the community development program for demolition. The original plan in 1975 called for the virtual complete demolition of the neighborhood. But in 1977, there was a new city council elected, which created district representatives for the first time, and the representative for district number one in the city, which included Cherry, was willing to entertain some other approach other than complete demolition. The president of the neighborhood association at that time, whose name is Phyllis Lynch, thought that it was unnecessary and, I think, just plain wrong to demolish the entire neighborhood. She came to our office, the Legal Services of Southern Piedmont office, and asked us to assist the neighborhood organization to try to get a change of that plan. There was over a million dollars allocated to that neighborhood and all of it was budgeted for acquisition of the absentee landlord property and demolition of the houses. So what we did was assign one of our young lawyers to help draft a new plan for the neighborhood, which essentially was demolish only the structures that were totally beyond rehab, acquire the rest of the rental housing from the absentee landlords, and sell those homes to a new non-profit organization that would own and manage them for low-income tenants. Our organization, that is the Legal Services organization, incorporated that non-profit, which became the Cherry Community Development Corporation, so it could become the owner of the rental housing for the lowest income people. The other part of the plan was to have the Housing Authority build fifty new units of public housing that would be affordable for the very lowest income people, so that the subsidy was built into the housing itself. That was owned and operated by the Housing Authority and put into the areas where the demolition had to occur for the poorest structures, so that we ended up with the city council in 1979 did approve the redevelopment plan that had been designed by the neighborhood association and our lawyer, to save the neighborhood from demolition. It was a very different approach.
SARAH THUESEN:
What was the new public housing complex called that was built? Or was it more a scattered-site structure?
TED FILLETTE:
I don't remember what the Housing Authority called it, but it was actually sort of a series of duplexes and four-plexes that sort of were put out on the street and added up to fifty units. So it was not a tall brick building or a sort of old, conventional public housing at all. It was blended in fairly well with the neighborhood.
SARAH THUESEN:
I'm just curious how the original plan that you eventually helped to overhaul, how that even made it at far as it did, given the ways in which the city had been forced in the past to make accommodations for folks who'd be displaced by development projects.
TED FILLETTE:
Well, you had the city staff saying to the city council, "There is this enormous stream of federal money and it can be used for these purposes. We have housing inspectors who have been through these neighborhoods and seen that a lot of the housing is old and in bad shape and the landlords have not maintained them well." The staff basically had the view that the only thing that you could do was demolish everything that looked bad. No other alternative view had been discussed before. If this had been in Roxbury, [Massachusetts], you would have had community leaders out in the streets saying, "You're not taking our neighborhood." There were no militant folks here that had that kind of ability to challenge authority. The authority of the city was generally viewed as unchallengeable. So until the Cherry fight happened, other than to try to use the federal litigation to help individuals, no one had really thought about trying to save the whole neighborhood itself. But once we saw that that could be done—and it was done mostly politically. There was not an order from Judge McMillan or anybody else that said to the city, "You have to stop demolishing this neighborhood." It was not part of the Harris-Kannon lawsuit. It was a political decision.
SARAH THUESEN:
And do you think that reflects the changes in the structure of the city council?
TED FILLETTE:
I think it was a perfect confluence of the new city council being much more responsive to the constituents in their district, and that particular council member happened to have been a lawyer who had been a law clerk for Judge McMillan for two years, back when the school case was going on. So I think he had a particular sensitivity. And then it just made sense to try to save a neighborhood if it could be done. So having a positive alternative plan with a neighborhood that was somewhat organized made it an attractive alternative.