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After 50 Years, Cameron Village Still Swings

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RALEIGH — Some growth experts say designing communities with a neighborhood-friendly mix of stores and offices will help stop urban sprawl. Developer J. Willie York had the same idea in 1949 when he designed Raleigh's Cameron Village.

"My dad, I remember him taking me out here and riding me through when it was just woods, and I remember part of it being built," says Smedes York, whose father liked the idea of building a collection of stores and offices surrounded by new homes and apartments.

"He says that one of the city council people who, at that time, said, well, that he didn't mind if we had a service station and perhaps one other store. In other words, they didn't quite get the concept, but it was a revolutionary concept."

"At that time, there were no malls," York says. "The idea was for storefront parking, free parking, common management, you know, a uniform look and common promotion."

Cameron Village began to attract a lot of shoppers that had been spending their money downtown. Eventually, several downtown stores followed the shoppers to Cameron Village.

"We moved down here when the city of Raleigh took it upon itself to tear up Fayetteville Street and put the mall in place, which promptly destroyed business all up and down the street," says Frank Ragsdale, owner of Jolly's Jewelers. "There was no place for anybody to park."

When the new malls were built beyond the beltline, shoppers gave up parking convenience for big department stores and familiar franchise chains. The malls forced Cameron Village to change its look and focus on small specialty stores to generate new interest.

"I think that in the 70s and 80s, maybe, the move was to 'Bigger is better.' But I think people now want to come back to a more human scale, a more pedestrian scale," York says. "Cameron Village is right in touch with that trend."

City planners are looking to the center's success as a model of smart development and an antidote to commuter traffic snarls and isolated neighborhoods.

"My dad is a visionary," York says. "He's a visionary today and was a visionary 50 years ago. And he has done a project here that has stood the test of time."

Cameron Village is celebrating its 50th anniversary on Saturday night from 6 - 10 p.m. Bands will be playing swing music, the sound that was popular when Cameron Village was built.