Published: Sunday, March 3, 2002

TAR HEEL OF THE WEEK

Activist carves identity for his neighborhood
 
[PHOTO]

John Schelp, a leader in the Old West Durham neighborhood, gets things done for the neighborhood and other causes.
Staff Photo By Chuck Liddy
 
JOHN E. SCHELP
Born: July 2, 1961, in Washington, D.C.

Education: Bachelor's in political science and French, St. Lawrence University, 1984, including study at the University of Normandy, France; master's of public administration, 1990, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Occupation: Program analyst, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Family: Wife, Beth Moracco; children, Mikaela, 6, and Elijah, 3

Last book read: "King Leopold's Ghost," by Adam Hochschild, a history of Belgium's colonial reign of terror in the Congo.

Hobby: Eating breakfast on Ninth Street and walking around Duke's East Campus.

Hero: Mahatma Gandhi.

Last film seen: "Lumumba," about the first prime minister elected in the newly independent Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960, and later assassinated.

By RAH BICKLEY, Staff Writer

DURHAM - Last month, neighborhood activist John Schelp fought off the asphalt industry's effort to build more plants in Durham.

Nearly 20 years ago, as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Congo, he taught English, amid sick, starving children.

Both times, he felt the same impulse. He wants to build the community he lives in.

"You see something that's wrong and you want to fix it," said Schelp, sitting in his living room in Old West Durham, wearing an African vest that matches the tapestries and masks on the wall.

In a city bursting with jostling political interests, Schelp, 40, is emerging as one of its most effective activists. Since 1998, he has taken his century-old neighborhood, an old mill village sliding into decline, and given it a new name and a new identity. Last year, he shaped a city law to limit where high-density apartments could be built. He also helped get city and state historic markers celebrating Durham's old blues musicians.

Schelp, who projects both calm and high energy, has built relationships with politicians, business leaders and other neighborhood groups. He is president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association and an executive committee member of the Durham NAACP. He is also a member of the People's Alliance political group, where he was vice president before being recruited to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

People ask so often if he's going to run for office that he has a stock response: Don't hold your breath.

His motivation springs from his Peace Corps experience, Schelp said.

"When you see a child with a potbelly and a runny nose and flies flying around his head, when you see that kind of abject poverty, it changes you forever," he said. "You develop a purpose. You develop a clearer sense of what's right and what's wrong in the world."

For Schelp, a native of Washington, D.C., whose parents took him traveling all over the world, the asphalt battle was his most visible triumph yet. By accident, he came across a proposal by two companies to change the city rules to open up 10 more sites for possible asphalt plants. He discovered that all but one of the sites were in East Durham, where poor blacks and Hispanics would bear the smell, noise and possible health problems from the plants.

He went into battle as chairman of the NAACP's community committee. He rallied residents, students, and an army of data. The industry backed down, withdrawing its proposal. The City Council will vote on the proposal Monday, and Schelp expects it to be defeated, meaning it could not be reintroduced for a year.

People often ask what a white man is doing in the NAACP. Only one other white person has sat on the executive committee in recent years.

Schelp chuckles. The NAACP was founded by both blacks and whites, he said. The branch president, the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, calls Schelp a star among the members.

"It exemplifies the fact that black and white people can work together and be effective together," Gatewood said.

Before the asphalt battle, Schelp did most of his work as president of the neighborhood association. Its members credit him for giving Old West Durham its own identity, even its name. Before 1995, it had neither. Real estate agents told their clients the area was part of Watts Hillandale or the Ninth Street area.

In the late 1980s, it had hit rock bottom, Schelp said, when Erwin Cotton Mills closed and many residents lost their jobs.

The neighborhood coalesced after an ugly incident in 1995. Three men on Oakland Avenue started an intimidation campaign against their neighbors, a white woman and a black woman who lived together. The men used the N-word and shot off guns at night. One night, they shouted vulgar, anti-black and anti-gay epithets through a bullhorn.

Schelp wrote a letter to the editor denouncing their behavior. Then, just as he and his wife were having their first baby, they started getting hate calls and hang-ups. A red pickup truck cruised past their house every day.

The ringleader was indicted for a hate crime, in the first successful indictment using the state's hate- crime statute. Another was evicted from his house, and the third later died, Schelp said.

In 1998, the neighbors elected Schelp president of the association. He started small --with a sign.

He wanted to put a sign announcing the neighborhood on Ninth Street, its commercial heart, but city and state officials told him it would be impossible. The city owned the land; the state owned the right-of-way; there was too much red tape, they said.

But Schelp persisted, and they got their sign.

Today, the green and cream sign on Hillsborough Road reads, "Old West Durham: Diversity, Harmony, Community."

Schelp staged a ceremony. A City Council member came, a police captain came. One merchant paid for the $600 sign; others donated biscuits and flowers. The sun shone. Schelp was building a community.

"That little sign ceremony pulled together the neighborhood," Schelp said. "It was a huge shot in the arm. We had arrived."

He and neighbor Pam Spaulding started an Old West Durham Web site: http://www.owdna.org. There are oral histories. It tells the neighborhood's history, house by house. The photo captions set down memories of places like the house on Green Street that held people's stashes of white lightning in floor-to-ceiling cabinets during Prohibition. It has dozens of links, with newspaper articles and information about neighborhood issues.

Schelp started mailing the Web site's address to the City Council, the Board of County Commissioners, all the political leaders, Spaulding said. It won awards from local and state historic preservation societies. The Library of Congress chose it as one of the state's 44 "local legacies," along with the N. C. State Fair and the American Dance Festival.

"It was as if the neighborhood was almost discovered as a result of his one-man campaign," said Spaulding, 38.

Schelp arranged a neighborhood cleanup of a cemetery for workers at the old Erwin Cotton Mills. Neighbors and mill workers' descendants discovered the old graves and made it an annual event. Another piece of the neighborhood had been resurrected, named, claimed.

Then came bigger projects. When a mammoth apartment building was planned near Erwin Square office tower, Schelp worked with the developers to make the design reflect the nearby Erwin Mill building, with a red-brick facade and tall windows. Construction on the 340-unit complex is scheduled to start this summer.

More important, he put the neighborhood's mark on the new law that the city council had to pass to allow the new, high-density complex. He shaped the law so that high-density complexes may only be built near the stops planned for the future regional rail system. Each project must also include open space.

Then came Ninth Street North, a big commercial building cater-cornered from Elmo's Diner on Ninth Street. Again, Schelp and the neighbors worked with the developer to add red brick to the design, and set the building close to the street like the older Ninth Street buildings.

Only once, Schelp says, has the association had to battle with a developer. That was Marvin Barnes, owner of M.M. Fowler oil company, who owns, among other gas stations, the new Family Fare on Broad Street at the corner of Markham Avenue.

Barnes originally planned a big, flat "interstate-style" roof, two rows of pumps and a conventional-looking convenience store. Schelp and the residents wanted him to use a sloped roof, one row of pumps, and the store's original design. They won.

Schelp is a fighter, Barnes said. If he's against your project, he'll find a way to stop it, or at least delay it.

But in the case of the Family Fare, Barnes said, "What we ended up doing is more attractive from a lot of people's perspective. And because it's been well received, I would say he was right."

One of Schelp's latest projects is to create a neighborhood gathering space in a patch of creek and meadow across Green Street from E.K. Powe Elementary School. The city has promised to pay for it, and Schelp will have to negotiate with the owners of Erwin Square, whom he expects will build near it.

The neighborhood has no parks, he said. It needs a place to hold its picnics and potlucks.

"We need to create a heart of our community, and this would be it," he said.

Staff writer Rah Bickley can be reached at 956-2421 or rbickley@newsobserver.com.

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