Velma Perry has lived at 308 Lindsay Street for 88 years.
From the parlor window of the white and green bungalow house that her grandfather built in 1921, Perry has watched the historically black neighborhood of Northside change from a tight-knit community of single-family homes to a rental neighborhood for students.
As Orange County’s property taxes rise — values have increased an average of 22 percent since 2005 — old families like Perry’s are finding it more difficult to hold onto their homes and more tempting to sell them to rental companies.
With more than half of Northside made up of student rental units, Perry is one of the last Northside residents who still remembers the neighborhood’s humble beginnings.
The son of freed slaves from the Meadowmont plantation, Perry’s grandfather, Luther Hargraves, was an entrepreneur in what a 1989 town assessment called the most well-to-do post-Civil War black neighborhood in Chapel Hill.
Northside, then Potter’s Field, was home to the low-wage workers who waited on professors’ families and staffed the University’s dormitories.
“Here in Chapel Hill, most black people, only jobs they had were maids and cooks and janitors,” said Perry, whose mother worked as a maid in a local white family’s home for $2.50 a week in 1916.
Jim Merritt, a former member of the Chapel Hill Town Council, grew up on McDade Street in the heart of pre-integration Northside.
Merritt said he remembers that growing up in Northside was like growing up in one huge family.
“It was a community-tight neighborhood where everyone knew everyone’s kids. You would conduct yourself in the neighborhood just as if you were at home. Otherwise, the neighbors would call your parents,” he mused.
Now, Perry said she barely knows her neighbors since students move in and out so quickly.
“It’s the coming and going. That’s what ruined the neighborhood,” she said. “I don’t know them, and they don’t know me.”
Although Perry never had children herself, that generation left Chapel Hill to go to school and work up North.
“Quite a few blacks went north to find better job opportunities and stayed,” said Merritt, who spent almost 30 years in Virginia before retiring in Chapel Hill.
Merritt said part of his generation’s disenchantment with Chapel Hill came from the bitterness of how the town dealt with desegregation.
“There’s still quite a bit of racism here and discrimination,” he said. “For a lot of people, they still remember the hard parts of desegregation.”
Northside was left without heirs, and homes that had been in the same families for years were sold to rental companies and often torn down.
Perry and Merritt said realtors are still trying to buy up old properties.
While Perry said she hopes to leave her home to one of her nephews, she has received several letters from developers asking her to sell.
“We knew they wanted to buy us out. We had so much land,” she said, adding that although she holds onto her home, the old community is already gone.
Travis Tate of Tate Realty and Construction Co. said Northside is hanging on by a thread.
“This community will not exist as it was, and it will probably pretty much slip away in the next few years.”
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