Tell me what you see in this rendering of Beal Street Square that you remember from Part 2 of this series – What is a Shotgun House? Do you recognize the gable roof lines, the narrow roof over the offset front door, porches, and houses set side by side? You’re looking at a project that didn’t happen over night, but began October 9th 2007 when the Happy Hill Neighborhood was authorized for redevelopment. City leadership along with the Rocky Mount Housing Authority, the Rocky Mount-Edgecombe CDC (Community Development Corporation) and the Happy Hill Neighborhood Association all pledged their leadership, time, and resources, which culminated in the recent ground breaking of Beal Street Square.
Beal Street Square is housing for working families making between $8 and $20 per hour. 80 units are being built which will cost on average, for a 1 bedroom, $75.00 a month, a two bedroom $95.00 a month. Rocky Mount need jobs, but we need housing for the workforce that new jobs create. Beal Street Square, when built, will be a place to live, work and play in a safe, energy-efficient, and culturally diverse population. Large employers like Pfizer, Cummings, Draka and Honeywell are key in the Rocky Mount economy. We can all stand up, arms thrown over our heads in the Wave for these companies. Providing housing for a workforce the likes of Beal Street Square will encourage new jobs where employees want to live.
Here is Vann Joines, Master of Ceremonies for the ground breaking celebration. His expertise in the area of “workforce housing” is of incalculable value to the exciting future of Rocky Mount. He helps us understand the far reaching importance of housing for working families. “Large National and Global Companies attract employees from all over the country, and when they are hired for a job in Rocky Mount they now have to make a decision as to where to live. We loose many employees to places like Raleigh, Greensboro or even Tarboro that have strong neighborhoods walkable to downtown.”
Soon: We Will Add A New Concept to our Learning Curve
“It is gracious to have old people full of vitality and endowed with wisdom in our society.”
― Lailah Gifty Akita
I was taking photographs of the houses in the 800 block on Beal Street. It was Sunday, quiet, no traffic. I was trying to imagine the time when each house was occupied, full of life and activity. A car came around the corner and stopped beside me. When the window rolled down, a beautiful child looked up at me and smiled. I leaned in to say hi to the driver. “What you doin’, honey?” she asked. I explained I was taking photographs because I was going to write about the neighborhood. “You got to come in and meet my Auntie Mary. She and her sister can tell you stories.” I spent the next hour and half in the home and company of Mary Alston and Viola Williams. Southern ladies don’t often tell their ages, but Viola, the oldest sister who is 94, and Mary, slightly younger, are a cause for awe and celebration. Mary Alston and her young husband bought and moved into the house in 1957. “We were young and foolish and figured we could work on the house a little bit at a time.” The house has been loved and cared for over the years, has seen the birth of three Alston children, the early death of their precious adult daughter. Their pictures and those of extended family are proudly displayed throughout the rooms. Mary is a gardener at heart, never mind that she has slowed down. Viola showed me a photograph of the front of the house once planted in begonias and inpatients that would win a curb appeal award. There is a red rose climber on the edge of the porch still hanging on, sparse now, fewer blooms, but surviving. Mary intends to feed it some fertilizer when she can get to it. The climbing rose is a perfect metaphor for these two loving woman. I’m invited back and look forward to it. I need to figure out how to get ice cream cones to them without melting; Mary likes vanilla and Viola, strawberry.
The empty homes on Beal street were once filled with Mary and Viola’s neighbors who have died away.
The Beal Street Square Project is going to bring new neighbors and new life to Happy Hill. It will call attention to the area, making it clear that investment in the future of the neighborhood is a sound idea. The houses I’ve photographed are perfect for “young and foolish” couples to once again breath life back into them. The dwellings in Happy Hill, their history, and the stories associated with them are treasures surrounding the site of Beal Street Square; another great partnership.
There is a church that sits across the street from Mary & Viola. It’s been there since Mary and her husband moved in; a holy place after years of prayer, they minister to Mary and Viola, and they will welcome the new neighbors that are coming to Happy Hill.
“A place without meaning is no place to be.”
Wayne Gerald Trotman
The Happy Hill Neighborhood has broken ground on a new project, Beal Street Square, a cause for celebration. I want to remind you about the architecture you find in Happy Hill, and throughout the south, so when you see the design for Beal Street Square, you will appreciate it all the more.
The “shotgun house,” a domestic residence, is a Black cultural architectural form that originated in the American South and was used extensively throughout the region. Shotgun houses are typically 12 feet wide with a gable-ended entrance, and are two or three rooms deep. They are one story high with few windows, if any, on the sides There are doors at each end of the house, which allows better airflow. The narrow frontage increased the number of houses that could be planned along a street.
“Shotgun” & “double shotgun” are two common dwellings types in Happy Hill. “Double” shotgun houses consist of two houses sharing a central wall. There are “Camelback” shotgun houses that include a second floor at the rear of the house. In Happy Hill, perhaps all, were built by Thomas Watson, a wealthy Rocky Mount businessman and area farmer who invested in rental property. Over the years variations of shotgun houses have been updated to the needs of later generations of owners. The simple design of shotgun type houses wound up giving us the southern porch, a gathering place for the tight knit neighborhoods that evolved.
This photo on the right is an example of how the houses have been embellished with ornate fixtures. Brackets that hold the roof aloft are usually carved after the Victorian or Greek Revival fashions. Vent covers are intricately designed and the front windows and doors are adorned with shutters. Today you can find these little houses restored to a level of splendor that did not exist when they were first built.
Join me for Part 3
Visiting with Aunties Mary & Viola – The Roses of Beal Street
Pecan Trees Saved at the Neighbors Request
“The pale stars were sliding into their places. The whispering of the leaves was almost hushed. All about them it was still and shadowy and sweet. It was that wonderful moment … a moment when anything can happen, anything be believed in.”
― Olivia Howard Dunbar
It was my first time in the neighborhood when I joined neighbors and community leaders for the ground breaking of Beal Street Square. It was plain to see that everyone in attendance shared a history and a dream that was coming to fruition; the largest affordable housing project to date. People who championed the neighborhood and those providing untiring leadership came together in partnership – a key ingredient that Vann Joines, Principal of JOIN Development, and Richard Angino, President of Third Wave Housing, have put together. These two men are the wind beneath the wings of Beal Street Square. Those of you who regularly read Main Street Rocky Mount will not be surprised that while part of me was listening and marveling at what was going on, I was experiencing that wonderful moment when anything can happen, and I could hear the voices of children playing and parents at night fall calling them home. I could “see” neighbors sitting on their front steps, a close knit community, watching out for one another, irregardless of the constant movement in the early days of people of primarily young and seasonally employed factor workers. I’ll be writing further about the Beal Street Square project and neighbors like Gloria Lancaster Austin, but first, this as an opportunity to step back and appreciate anew this Rocky Mount neighborhood called Happy Hill, a place believed in.
Katherine Mansfield talks about how hard it is to escape from places. “However carefully one goes they hold you — you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences — like rags and shreds of your very life.” I’m certain that what I heard at the ground breaking for Beal Street Square was the fluttering of the lives of Happy Hill people. Throughout this series, I want you to love and embrace this story because it is yet another chapter in a place called home. Happy Hill is a large intact black district. By 1920 the neighborhood was densely populated along Beal, Tillery, and Thomas streets. By 1930 the 20-30 block area northwest of Main street was filled with houses, churches and small businesses for blacks. Investors built rows of shotgun, saddlebag, and hip-roofed houses next to the tobacco processing plants and warehouses. If you are taking for granted the architecture in Rocky Mount, you are missing one of the greatest assets we have. It isn’t just about the grand homes throughout the community, but it is also the amazing pockets, like Happy Hill, that provide a sense of place and have a history to be honored.
Join me for Part Two: Shotgun Architecture