In 2004 and 2005, neighborhood residents started to worry that encroaching development threatened to overrun the character of the neighborhood. Condos erected on Bellemeade Street on the corner of Spring Street could’ve been a harbinger of demolitions and high-priced replacements, residents feared, and nearby rezonings could also jeopardize the neighborhood’s character.
Joya Wesley, who lived right by the condos, helped spearhead a push for the city to create a strategic plan for the area to preserve its character.
“We had some neighborhood organizing activity going on because we were worried about gentrification when they built the condos on Bellemeade,” she said. “There was some concern that would be the end of the bohemian feel of the neighborhood.”
Motley recalls that she was “extremely concerned” about the future of the neighborhood at the time, and residents correctly feared that the outside perception of their community didn’t align with their own. People described the Cedar area as blighted, and the subsequent city plan noted that residents felt a strong sense of community that outsiders didn’t pick up on.
Residents in neighboring Westerwood, where property values are higher and people appear to be a little pickier about their lawns, feared what would happen in the Cedar Street area too, because — as then Westerwood Neighborhood Association president Marsh Prause reflected — “they realized if the entire Cedar Street area fell, development would be next on Westerwood’s doorstep.”
After city staff completed the neighborhood strategic plan in November 2005, Wesley said residents felt like their neighborhood stood on more protected ground. And it helped that the economy flat-lined, grinding development to a standstill. The western side of the condo building remains blank to this day, looking almost as if part of it were ripped off by a tornado, but instead construction halted halfway to the corner with Cedar Street.
Wesley spent the better part of her remaining time on the 400 block of North Cedar on the road as the manager for her father, famous trombonist and former James Brown band leader Fred Wesley. When she moved in 2015, Wesley left notes from the 2005 neighborhood organizing efforts with Liz Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald initially lived in the house with other college students, paying the mortgage by waiting tables. Later she lived there with her husband, and then various roommates after the pair split. For the last six months, her mother has lived in the house with her and two dogs.
As Fitzgerald and I sat on her wraparound porch last week, shortly after she cut her dog Bacon’s hair to look like a lion, she said her concerns about protecting the affordability and spirit of the neighborhood persist.
“That plan sort of made me feel like this area is up for grabs,” Fitzgerald said.
Motley later chose similar words.
“I think right now it’s just up for grabs with all the development happening around, and we’ll have to see what happens,” she said. “It’s been a place that people like me can live…. Let’s hope Cedar stays an interesting place for people of various incomes to live.”
While I’m embarrassed to say that after six years this interview served as my first full conversation with Motley, she verbalized my concerns. With new apartment complexes built within sight of my home, what will happen to rents on this street? How will the Downtown Greenway affect the desirability of this area, especially because Cedar Street is inside of the greenway loop? What about developer Marty Kotis’ property grabs in his Midtown commercial district nearby? Or what about the contiguous, vacant lots on the 500-block of North Cedar Street that will supposedly house a new commercial complex? With a high percentage of renters, is this area a prime target for yuppies looking to own or for house flipping?
“Everything around it is being financed from really deep pockets,” Fitzgerald said.
And ours, well… let’s just say the money in most of our pockets is spoken for, if it’s there at all.