Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on October 18, 2021.
It’s one of our favorite things to do in Raleigh (especially with kids!) and we’ve also included it in our guide to free things to do in the city. Above all, we love the Big Field, where you can hang out, have a picnic, fly a kite, and just enjoy the scenery.
I really enjoyed learning from Pearce, who has worked on the park from its beginning.
NC Travel Chat #9 Summary
We cover a bit of everything, including the pioneering (yet complicated) woman behind the name, where to find the best views of the Raleigh skyline, sunflowers, and more. I also loved her honesty in bringing up the less-sunny sides of Dorothea Dix’s legacy and the hospital that was in use on the park’s property as recently as the 1970s.
I didn’t expect the latter to come up and commend her and those affiliated with Dix Park who see this as more of an opportunity for acknowledgment and reconciliation. That is very important for many places throughout North Carolina and throughout the world.
Kate offered a wealth of knowledge and was even willing to share a couple of her favorite places to visit in North Carolina.
She gave shoutouts to the following places:
Those exciting developments are going to pair nicely with the fun you can already have at the park. If you’re within a drive of Raleigh or plan to visit sometime, I hope you’ll make use of Dix Park.
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NC Travel Chat #9 Transcript
Kate Pearce Intro Snippet: [00:00]
How can we be honest about the places last and recognize that the idea of this place as a park, as a place, we want people to experience freely? We want people to come and enjoy and laugh and have all of these great experiences. But at the same time, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to talk about that complex history.
Carl Hedinger Intro Narration: [00:21]
Parks are important for the escape they provide us. It’s equally crucial to acknowledge the history of our public spaces. Whenever that opportunity presents itself. Now, Kate Pearce, who you’re hearing there, from the City of Raleigh joined us to talk about Dix Park, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary.
And it was great to learn about the park from someone like her who knows its ins and outs. I mean, it was almost impossible to find something she didn’t know about. We cover a bit of everything, including the pioneering woman behind the name, where to find the best views of the Raleigh skyline, sunflowers, yoga, and more. This is NC Travel Chat. And I’m your host, Carl Hedinger.
Kate Pearce: [01:04]
My name is Kate Pearce and I am a planning supervisor with the City of Raleigh. And what that means basically is that I’m in charge of all of the planning, current operations and stewardship of Dix Park.
So I’m basically the City’s project manager for the creation of Dix Park.
Carl Hedinger: [01:27]
So have you been with Dix Park from its beginning?
Kate Pearce: [01:31]
Yeah, the city bought the property July 2015 and I was hired in November 2015 to lead the project.
Carl Hedinger: [01:37]
Wow. So I guess take us into what is Dix Park? What do people expect if they stop by and visit?
Kate Pearce: [01:44]
Dix Park is this beautiful piece of land, less than a half-mile from downtown Raleigh. It’s 308 acres and right now it’s a lot of what you would have seen. I mean, historically so big, beautiful open fields, lovely Meadows, lots of great trees in the city of Oaks and a lot of old buildings.
The Department of Health and Human Services still has its administrative headquarters there. And they occupy about 85 buildings that are still on the campus. That was once the state’s mental health institution.
Carl Hedinger: [02:19]
When did it stop serving as the state’s mental health hospital?
Kate Pearce: [02:23]
So in the early two 2000s, the State did a feasibility study to investigate what was the best way to serve the patient population and what they decided was that a large institution, like Dix, wasn’t necessarily the best way to serve a declining patient population.
They decided to move more into community-based services and they, the last patients left Dix in 2012, but there’s still a lot of emotion tied to the hospital closing. And so we’re very sensitive to the idea that for a lot of people, the hospital was this very sacred place that saved their lives.
There are still some emotions that the hospital is no longer active. So some of the patients were relocated to Butner, North Carolina, to the Central Regional Hospital, and some were, um, have moved into community-based services.
Carl Hedinger: [03:17]
I guess the name is another thing that’s intriguing to me. I really loved looking into the background of Dorothea Dix.
If you could just speak a little bit about her.
Kate Pearce: [03:26]
Yeah. Dorothea Dix was this really interesting figure in American history. She was. A woman in the 19th century, basically personally responsible for the establishment of 32 different mental health hospitals in the US. She never married and kind of forged her own path and was part of that really progressive era in our history is time.
She was the superintendent of nurses for the union army during the Civil War. And she just really accomplished a whole lot. She’s also not an uncomplicated figure. If you look at a lot of her history, she did a lot of good for a lot of people, but, she was also a product of her time.
Carl Hedinger: [04:07]
Is there something that is probably not as bright about her history?
Kate Pearce: [04:13]
He didn’t believe in mental health care for treatment for all. So if you were of Irish descendants or if you were African American, or if you were Native American, if you were from continental Europe, she believed that your brain chemistry was different than the Anglo Saxon, White chemistry.
So she really did advocate for mental health treatment, but she did it for a select population.
Carl Hedinger: [04:39]
And with today’s park, are there any sort of plans to reconcile?
Kate Pearce: [04:44]
Definitely. So one of the big things, if you think about the history of the park, You know, that land has seen so much.
It was Native American hunting grounds. It was a working plantation for 150 years. And it was the state first mental hospital that served only Whites until about the late 1960s. So how do we reconcile and talk about all of these themes of race and treatment? And enslavement and, in some cases, incarceration at a state hospital and be very honest and open about all of the things that happened.
They’re not just healing side, but also the, and potentially more complicated stories. So for me, one of the things I always like to think about, yeah. How can we be honest about the place’s past and recognize that the idea of this place as a park, as a place we want people to experience freely? We want people to come and enjoy and laugh and have all of these great experiences.
But at the same time, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to talk about the complex history of the land. And so that’s something we’re really interested in doing in a lot of different ways. So whether it be sorry, or we’re working with some local artists to help kind of metabolize that history.
Um, and so I think you’re going to see a lot coming out about the legacy of the place, both.
How it was this healing refuge for a lot, but how also it was a place with a lot of bad memories for some folks.
Carl Hedinger: [06:13]
And, and otherwise, I mean, one really big thing. And then, I mean, this doesn’t have a lot to do with the history per se, but one of the things that makes Dorothea Dix special to people like me is things you can do there.
If you could just go into that.
Kate Pearce: [06:29]
Yeah. So, what’s really amazing is that most cities have these beautiful parks right downtown, right? You think about New York and Central Park or Boston and the Boston Common, but all of those are made back in the 1850s and 60s.
Today, we’ve got this opportunity to create this amazing “Central Park” for North Carolina, right in downtown Raleigh.
And you can go out there today and take long walks and feel like you’re a million miles from downtown. You can run through the big field and, you know, it’s become a place where everyone goes and flies kites, or, you know, uses their model airplane or drone. You can get lost in some of those wooded areas near the Rocky Branch Creek.
And it really is this amazing experience in nature, right downtown. If you’re walking through that Big Field and you get to this certain point and you can’t see anything around you except rolling green. And I think that’s a really special experience, especially when you’re so close to the State Farmer’s Market and NC State and downtown Raleigh.
It’s just this real, amazing escape to nature in the heart of the city.
Carl Hedinger: [07:37]
Yeah. I love that. I was recently there and, I didn’t have any luck flying my kite because there wasn’t any wind, but you know, uh, that’s where we are right now. But, uh, but I did see a couple of guys trying to fly their drones and it’s funny because I feel like I’ve always seen those same guys there.
Kate Pearce: [07:55]
I think that was their secret park for so long. And so they’re probably like, hey, who are these new people coming out to our turf? But those model airplane operators and drone operators have been some of the folks that have been using that space for a long time.
Carl Hedinger: [08:13]
Do they get involved with the park at all?
Kate Pearce: [08:16]
We’ve been intentional about kind of talking to them and that’s why that Big Field area is designated as an unmanned, aerial aircraft safe place. So, yeah. We actually designated the Big Field there because there are a lot of rules and regulations around where you can and can’t fly drones and model aircraft.
And so, because they’ve always been there, we wanted to respect that, you know, that’s how they recreate. That’s how they enjoy being outdoors and in space. And, um, so the big field is designated as a place for that.
Carl Hedinger: [08:48]
I didn’t realize that. That’s cool. Where would you say would be your favorite views like of Raleigh?
Kate Pearce: [08:54]
Yeah, so that’s the other thing. There are some really obvious ones. If you’re standing on the eastern side of the property in an area, we called “the Grove,” there’s this picture postcard-perfect view of downtown Raleigh. You know, it’s the sloping green, and then you see the skyline and the cranes and it’s pretty amazing.
But there are also some really beautiful, hidden views. And those are the ones that I like. So there’s this kind of mound on the backside of the old soccer fields that you can climb up and see a completely different view of downtown Raleigh. And I don’t think a lot of people have experienced all the different views of Raleigh.
And then, you know, you could be in an area, we call the “Flower Field” and downtown is one direction, and then you turn the other direction. It’s the new Catholic cathedral. And so it’s just got all these little interesting views, the NC State bell tower in the distance, the smokestack from the Governor Morehead School.
So they’re all these little views or little vignettes that I think are one of the things that make it really cool just to go out and explore because I think you always discover something.
Carl Hedinger: [10:04]
The view from the sunflower field is the cover image that we use for this podcast. And also for our Raleigh page. Because it’s such an awesome view of the skyline. I don’t know if you can beat that view.
Kate Pearce: [10:20]
Yeah. You know, it’s, um, it’s a pretty special place. And if you think about it, It was intentionally picked as this kind of Haven on the Hill, right? Like this high point in Raleigh. And so, um, the fact that it’s now becoming this public park, this public space is I think a pretty cool way to open Raleigh up to the state and, and the world.
Carl Hedinger: [10:41]
And speaking of opening it up, uh, there are some events that happen throughout the year. I know this year is a different year, but what normally can one expect regarding events at Dix Park?
Kate Pearce: [10:54]
If this had been a normal year right now at Dix Park, you would have been walking through four acres of sunflowers. You would have just come from one of our most attended events, which is called SunFest.
We had over 25,000 people attend last year, and it’s really the celebration of art and music and sunflowers and nature. We do smaller programs that could be anywhere from, you know, six little, five to six-year-olds learning about nature too.
Huge events like SunFest, where we partner throughout the community and just bring in a lot of people to enjoy the space. So we really try to speak to a lot of different things. The history of the property, nature, community, food, fun, like how can we make this a place that people really want to come and be, and celebrate together?
Obviously that’s challenged us a lot this year and we’ve done some really cool virtual programming, but it’s not the same as being out of the park. The other thing though, is that I feel like this year, the park has really shown how important it is to the community. So when it was cooler in March and April, the park was working.
It was the place people wanted to go and a place where they could be too together, but safely apart. Because it’s just so big. I’d go there and so it was really emotional for me and inspiring to see so many people using it as a public park, you know, it’s kind of had this growing attendance or visitor-ship over time.
But since the pandemic hit, it’s really become, I think, this place for people, you know, we can’t go to the movie theater. We can’t have our street festivals, but we can go to Dix Park and throw a Frisbee or have a picnic. And it’s been really special to see all that happen.
Carl Hedinger: [12:43]
Anytime I go there, it’s just amazing to see people out there enjoying themselves, walking around. I think I even saw some yoga recently.
Kate Pearce: [12:51]
The city puts on some yoga classes, but there are also individuals that go out there and teach small little yoga classes or, um, you know, I think. So many people are doing their baby or wedding or engagement photos. And so it’s really nice to see people just make it their own.
Carl Hedinger: [13:09]
Yeah. You alluded to what some virtual things you’re doing. Are there any other things that Dix Park is doing to cope with all this?
Kate Pearce: [13:19]
Yeah. So, one thing we’re doing is we’re starting a number of park improvements. The Conservancy, which is our 501-C3, has pledged some money to help improve the daily park visitors’ experience.
For example, more benches, more trashcans, more picnic tables, and some very limited play structures. We are going to add some potentially more gravel parking lots along the big field. How can we do some small things while we’re waiting on big projects forward that just make the daily park visitors experience better?
Because to date, we’ve really just let the land be the attraction. And now we’re going to transition to kind of bringing some more formalized picnic areas and shaded areas so that people can use it.
Carl Hedinger: [14:09]
That’s interesting. I look forward to seeing that. This might be something that you might not be able to discuss, but I’m just curious, like the recent Outdoors Act that was passed will that in any way affect Dix Park.
Kate Pearce: [14:23]
That’s a good question. And I’m not as up on it as I should be. We’re a city-owned park. So all of our budget either comes from the City of Raleigh or the Dix Park Conservancy. So I’m not sure if there’s going to be any impact from the Outdoors Act.
Carl Hedinger: [14:41]
Okay. Just thought I’d ask. Because that’s been a huge one that just came out. Is there anything you’d like to tell people about Dix Park that maybe we didn’t talk about?
Kate Pearce: [14:50]
The only thing is that we’re really excited about, is what’s coming in the next couple of years.
We’re doing all these early park improvements. We hope to open our first indoor space, which is going to be a rehabilitated, rehabilitated chapel. That’ll open at the beginning of 2021. Then, we’re starting the design for our first major project, which is called the “Plaza in Play.”
That’s really going to be probably the first playground/fountains/garden rooms/place for family reunions on the East Coast. This is our goal.
We hope to be into construction two years from now and an opened probably 20 to 22 months after that.
That’s it in short. In a project development timeline, that probably seems long to listeners to be three to four years before it’s open, but just imagine like the coolest playground and your kids running through fountains and grandparents over there having an ice tea and family reunions and cookouts, that is something we’re really excited about to get going.
Carl Hedinger: [16:00]
Will that take place anywhere specific on the property?
Kate Pearce: [16:04]
It’s along Lake Wheeler Rd. If you come into Raleigh and you exit on I-40 past the State Farmer’s Market, it’s going to be the first thing that greets you at Dix Park.
There’s some frontage right there. That’s going to become this amazing public gathering space.
And so we don’t have a name for it yet. We call it “Plaza and Play,” which is pretty boring.
And we hope a name comes out of the design process, but it’s something really exciting to look forward to.
Carl Hedinger: [16:33]
That’s really cool. I look forward to seeing that. Otherwise, where can people find info about Dix Park?
Kate Pearce: [16:39]
And you can also check out our partners, the Conservancy at their social channels or on their website, DixParkConservancy.org.
Carl Hedinger Narration: [17:01]
Now, before I let Kate go, there was one other thing that was on my mind and it just relates to where she’s from and what she likes to do in North Carolina.
I saw somewhere you mentioned that you were a Texsippian, is that right?
Kate Pearce: [17:16]
Yeah. I grew up in Texas and Mississippi.
Carl Hedinger: [17:20]
Okay. And how long have you been in North Carolina?
Kate Pearce: [17:24]
I’ve been in Raleigh for about five years and I was in Charlotte for about five years.
Carl Hedinger: [17:30]
Okay. So about 10 years in North Carolina. Do you, do you have a place that you love going outside of Raleigh? Even Charlotte?
Kate Pearce: [17:38]
Yeah, well I’m very lucky that I have cousins in Asheville and cousins in Wilmington.
So it’s nice to be able to go to the mountains and hike around and, you know, cool off. And it’s equally as great to go to the beach and, you know, go for, go on the boats. And that’s the one thing about North Carolina. It’s the kind of diversity of experiences you can have in one state. Um, you know, growing up in Texas and Mississippi, In Texas, you had to drive 10 to 12 hours to get to the coast.
And there definitely weren’t mountains, unless you went, it went down to Big Bend. So all of the different experiences you can have, whether it be in the mountains or the Piedmont or the coast is pretty special. And I love that about North Carolina. Also, I didn’t grow up with seasons.
It was like, you know, hot or cold in the two places I lived. And so it’s nice to have some seasonality and see leaves turning and, and all of that.
Carl Hedinger: [18:36]
So I’m going to put you on the spot. If you were to choose one, would you say Asheville or Wilmington?
Kate Pearce: [18:43]
Man, that’s tough right now. I’d have to say it’s Wrightsville in Wilmington because it’s summer and I, yeah.
You know, my, my cousins, they, um, I have a boat and you can’t really be summer on the water, on the beach, going to Mason’s inlet or Masonboro and tooling around. Um, it’s pretty special.
Carl Hedinger: [19:06]
Do you go shelling over there?
Kate Pearce: [19:06]
We do. I’ve got two little cousins that, you know, they’re just coming out of the age where shelling is a little less cool than it used to be a couple of years ago.
But it’s a lot of fun. Right now, it would be the beach, but in a few months, it would probably be the mountains because I’m the leaves turning.
Carl Hedinger: [19:27]
Thank you so much, Kate. And I really wish you all the best with everything going forward with Dix Park.
Kate Pearce: [19:34]
I appreciate it. And hopefully next time we can be out at the park and maybe there’ll be something interesting to see and do.
Carl Hedinger End Narration: [19:41]
I appreciate Kate’s patience with me, bugging her to choose between two really awesome places in our state. Very sorry, Kate.
Hopefully, anyone from Asheville or Wilmington will bear with me on that one too.
Also, I loved her honesty in bringing up the less sunny sides of Dorothea Dix’s legacy. I didn’t expect that to come up and I really commend her and everyone else affiliated with Dix Park, who seemed to view this as more of an opportunity for acknowledgment and reconciliation.
It is very important for many places throughout North Carolina and throughout the world. If you’re within a drive of Raleigh or live in the city or plan to visit sometime, I really hope you’ll make and use of this space because Dorothea Dix is really one of our favorite patches of green space in the area, included it in our guide to a weekend in Raleigh, which you can find on NC tripping.com.
We’ve also included it in our free things to do in Raleigh guide and quite a few other places. So just go to our site and search for Dorothea Dix Park. And you’ll find a few stories about it.
Thank you for listening. We look forward to sharing more amazing places and the people behind them with you.