Thursday, May 05, 2005

Private Geography

Dorothea Dix Hospital is a state-run inpatient mental health facility in Raleigh. Founded in 1856, its several red brick buildings sit on top of a hill. Over the years, many a North Carolina child has been threatened with being "sent to Dix Hill" if he couldn't regulate his behavior.

For ten years I lived within a stone's throw of Dix Hill, in the Boylan Heights neighborhood adjacent to the hospital grounds. In the early and mid-1900s, Boylan Heights was rather intimately connected with Dix Hospital. Dix nurses and orderlies were likely to live in the neighborhood. Halfway houses and other, less formal assisted-living arrangements eased some patients' re-entry into the community. As Boylan Heights gentrifies, the relationship becomes less intertwined. But Boylan residents value the Dix campus greatly, as nearby green space and for recreation value. A city greenway with a hiking/biking path runs along the near side of Dix Hill. I went running or dog-walking there regularly. During the summers my wife and I picked blackberries there. There is an open grassy area with a picnic shelter, and behind the shelter the hillside rises with a stand of oak trees, some of the biggest old trees in the city. On snowy days, rare though they are, people would come from far and wide to sled on Dix Hill. My children were introduced to sledding there.

It sounds awful to say your neighborhood is bordered on one side by the state mental hospital, and on another by the maximum security prison--which Boylan Heights is: Central Prison, kitty-corner from Dix Hill, is the Big House, home to North Carolina's Death Row. But I found it was no problem living next door to these places. Central Prison's security was formidable, as you'd expect, and if not for the faint sound of loudspeakers (announcing Lights Out or whatever; I could never make out any words), you could forget the prison was there. With Dix, you occasionally read of security lapses, patients wandering off, but I never worried, since the few times I'd encountered patients (supervised, out for a walk usually) they weren't threatening: quite the contrary, they tended to be blissed out of their gourds on meds.

I was very fond of the neighborhood, still sort of grieve having to move away, and I have nothing but good memories of Dix Hill. It's a significant and distinctive landmark in my adopted home city, and I'm amused by the irony of the Bedlam associations, the boogeyman function Dix Hill has for native Tar Heels. So I claimed its name for my blog.

Dorothea Dix Hospital is scheduled to be closed in two years. in 1856 Dix Hill was a good out-of-the-way site for a sanitarium. Today it is a prime piece of real estate, 300 acres with a view of the Raleigh skyline, and there is intense interest in how it's going to be developed. Dix Hill has resonance for students of public policy as well: for changes (not necessarily for the better) in mental health treatment, and as a major crossroads in Raleigh's city planning. I may have more to say about those public developments, but I wanted to write up what Dix Hill means for me.

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