Magicians could disappear from Raleigh Housing Authority street signs

ccampbell@newsobserver.comFebruary 16, 2014 

— The Raleigh Housing Authority is considering again renaming the streets in its Walnut Terrace development, replacing the names of obscure magicians with black educators and other notable figures in the neighborhood’s history.

The agency recently drew fire for changing street names in the community – which is being rebuilt as a mixed-income neighborhood – to honor historical names in magic like French conjurer Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin and Austrian card magician Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser.

Housing authority director Steve Beam, who’s a card magician himself, chose the names without input from the agency’s governing board. He said the naming theme was a nod to the new development’s success without federal funding, considered to be “like magic.”

But neighborhood leaders weren’t charmed by the change, which removes street names like Holman and Branch that have been on the map since the South Park neighborhood was built in the early 1900s.

“I just had a problem with naming those particular streets after magicians,” said Bruce Lightner, the longtime leader of Raleigh’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations. “Nobody would know who they are or what they contributed to this community.”

The housing authority has asked Lightner, neighborhood leaders and public housing residents to recommend new names for the streets. Agency leaders have compiled suggestions and want neighborhood groups to vote on their favorites.

Among the recommended honorees on the initial list:

• Dr. Lewyn E. McCauley, founder of the McCauley Hospital, which treated black patients on South Wilmington Street in the first half of the 20th century. He founded the 10-bed hospital in 1923, and it was described by The News & Observer as the “only recognized negro private hospital in the state.” For 12 years, McCauley also ran a nursing school.

• Joshua Levister, a principal at Washington High School, which still stands across from Walnut Terrace as an elementary school. Other Washington High educators like S.V. Perry and Pete Williams were also suggested.

• James E. Hamlin, the founder of Hamlin Drug Company in downtown Raleigh, considered to be the oldest black-owned pharmacy in the country.

• Mattie Akins, who’s credited with starting the city’s first black Girl Scouts troop in 1938 .

• Alan Brewer, a Negro League baseball player who was on the Raleigh Grays team.

• Fourth Ward, the neighborhood’s name before the Walnut Terrace public housing complex was built

Lightner said he’d also like to consider keeping the original names on existing streets, while applying names with “historical reference” to additional roads created during the redevelopment.

The housing authority initially proposed to leave the names unchanged, but city and county officials recommended that the agency submit new ones, emails show.

“My main concern is the fact that a few of them are in use in other parts of the city,” city addressing technician Wayne Brewer wrote in an email, which was provided to the Raleigh City Council. “I myself would like to change them, but there is concern about the historic use of the names for the community.”

Housing authority officials were unable to get answers about city and county policy for street names similar to unrelated roads elsewhere in Raleigh and Wake. “We needed to know if we could keep any names, and we could never get an answer on that,” the housing authority’s Gail Keeter wrote to a county official. “Therefore, to speed it up we just submitted all new names.”

The submission was a list of magicians, which the city and county immediately approved. Both governments will need to sign off on the replacements once Lightner’s committee culls the suggestions and selects eight or so preferences.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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