Commentary

Nagem: Downtown Cary native pushes for change

May 2, 2014 

Marlon Williams grew up on Johnson Street near downtown Cary. He’s leading an effort to organize property owners in the area to sell to a developer.

SARAH NAGEM — snagem@newsobserver.com

— If a cluster of houses near downtown Cary are ever torn down, Marlon Williams won’t be upset about losing his childhood home forever. He will see it as progress.

For nearly two decades, Williams has helped lead an effort to organize property owners in his old neighborhood to come together and sell their land to a developer.

The move would erase Cary’s last remnant of the few African-American communities that existed for years, likely making way instead for new homes and businesses.

Sometimes older neighborhoods – often occupied by renters who don’t have the means to pack up their lives and start over – are destroyed in the name of growth and redevelopment.

But Williams, 53, sees this opportunity as a stepping stone for local families.

Instead of selling individual parcels to developers who would likely turn a big profit, Williams hopes the roughly 55 property owners can benefit the most by banding together to sell their 20 acres.

“African-American communities will understand they do have a choice and they do have a voice,” Williams said. “It’s about having a voice heard – the idea that we as a community can control our destiny.”

Williams has fond memories of growing up on East Johnson Street, where he says his grandmother and mother stressed the importance of education.

His late mother, Ella Arrington Williams-Vinson, worked as a teacher and wrote books about the history of Cary.

Williams spent his early years playing sports in the open field by what is now Kingswood Elementary School with friends who also came from working-class families.

After high school, he headed to the University of Notre Dame and then to law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. He now lives in Durham.

While Williams was gone, Cary transformed from a sleepy little town to a bustling suburb. His mother moved out of the neighborhood, but not much changed around Boyd and Johnson streets.

Then the developers finally came calling.

Some homeowners had the chance to sell years ago, but it didn’t happen.

“This is the chance for that community to create some wealth for themselves and future generations,” said Williams, whose mother’s estate includes some vacant rental properties on Boyd.

Now Williams and the others are waiting to sell. And they’re watching with interest Cary’s renewed focus on downtown.

The town spent more than $6 million to renovate The Cary theater on Chatham Street, and an urban park is in the works.

The Boyd Street neighborhood has plenty of potential, said Scott Ramage, principal planner for Cary. It’s within walking distance to the theater and the Herbert C. Young Community Center – and whatever else could crop up in a new kind of downtown Cary.

“The location is fabulous,” Ramage said.

Williams is looking forward to the day when the place he grew up makes way for something bigger. Maybe a trendy shopping center. Maybe an extension of downtown.

When it happens, he hopes the town will put up a plaque in memory of what his mother dubbed the Cary Colored Community.

“I’m giving back to the community what they gave me growing up,” Williams said. “We look more at progress instead of a loss.”

Nagem: 919-460-2605; Twitter: @BySarahNagem

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