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The Neighborhood

For LeVelle Moton, playing the game of life means rebuilding his Idlewild neighborhood in North Carolina

The N.C. Central basketball coach leading effort to restore dignity and sense of community where he grew up

When Elizabeth Magie created The Landlord’s Game, the precursor to Monopoly, in 1903, she didn’t do it purely for entertainment. She was flexing deeply held beliefs while attempting to educate. Magie was self-made and self-sustained. She earned her own as a secretary, a writer, and a stage comedian. She wanted people to understand the importance of creating generational wealth through land ownership while protesting the oppressiveness of greed.

Her game came with two sets, each guided by a different perspective and endgame. The anti-monopolist set treated wealth creation as a benefit to everyone. The monopolist set was about consumption and dominance at the expense of opponents. Of course, the latter set became popular. In the early 1930s, in the throes of the Great Depression, Charles Darrow — per Mary Pilon’s 2015 book The Monopolists — was introduced to the Landlord’s Game by friends. Darrow adapted it, called it Monopoly and began peddling it himself. Parker Brothers bought the copyright from Darrow (and eventually from Magie) and began pushing the board games in 1935.

But more than a century later, the principles brought to life by The Landlord’s Game, and the intentions of Magie live in the heart of LeVelle Moton in Raleigh, North Carolina. The North Carolina Central University men’s basketball coach is carrying out the legacy of wealth creation benefiting everyone.

Moton’s affinity for Monopoly stems from his desire to become a business executive as a teen. As a man, he sees this game as a microcosm of how to navigate in the real world as he came to that realization while witnessing the gentrification of his old neighborhood on Idlewild.

“If you think about the game of Monopoly, you have to sit down at the table to have a chance,” Moton, 47, told the Undefeated.

“Now, as you go around this board, you have to be able to purchase as many properties, homes, hotels, and utilities as you circle around this board as much as you possibly can. Because if you don’t, and when you come back around, chances are you will land on someone else’s property and then you will have to pay them.”

Moton is playing a game of Monopoly in real life. On his board, basketball is but a detail in a grander scheme, a pixel in the bigger picture.

In his game, it’s not about owning the most land — instead, it’s the strategic acquisition of important land. For Moton, that’s the land that molded him, created the fibers of his being. Idlewild. The land that instilled in him the grit, swagger, and resilience he used to rise from a kid in the projects to become a star hooper, college graduate and 2017 coach of the year in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

The land Moton is playing for is more valuable than the game’s Boardwalk and Park Place. His grandmother’s house and the surrounding area boast a rich history, one he plans to restore by bringing affordable housing his old neighborhood, thus reinjecting the lifeblood of his once-great community, the people.

Sentimentality makes it the perfect place to begin the kind of monopoly he envisions.

“That’s what I want to do more that anything, to serve as purveyor of hope and inspiration for kids and families in these underserved communities. To let them know that anything is possible.”

From Boston to Raleigh

Moton’s story began in the Orchard Park Projects in the Roxbury section of Boston, famous for producing the R&B legends New Edition. Singer Bobby Brown was his neighbor. But Moton didn’t have the singing talent to get out of Orchard Park. And with the rise of the crack epidemic, not many from his neighborhood were making it. So his family moved in search of a better, safer existence. A roll of the dice landed him on 911 E. Lane St. in Southeast Raleigh.

This was one of the first primarily African American neighborhoods established in Raleigh. Idlewild was built following the establishment of Saint Augustine’s University in 1867 and part of a collection of neighborhoods planned around the college. Being within walking distance of Saint Aug made it an attractive place to settle.

“Idlewild,” said Johnny Blaylock, a resident and community activist, “has always been a community of people who have worked hard to be a part of home ownership and the American dream.

“A lot of people who stayed on Idlewild at the time were schoolteachers, professional people. A lot of your college professors stayed in this area.”

Geographically, Idlewild is three blocks away from the North Carolina Executive Mansion. Politically, as a progressive and self-contained community, it was light-years away. Professional, working-class African Americans lived near Oakwood, where the white politicians and power brokers lived.

But the same crack epidemic that chased the Motons from Boston made its way to Idlewild. The toll on the community was great.

LeVelle Moton outside of the apartments on East Lane Street in Raleigh, North Carolina.

LeVelle Moton

“The next thing you know,“ Blaylock said, “we became a blighted community.”

The blight is what Moton experienced growing up in Idlewild. Desperation was just part of the existence.

“We all saw our moms,” Moton said, “… working their fingers to the bone and just barely being able to provide and put food on the table. Also, we were the first generation of fatherless kids. So we got all of these things going against us.”

Eventually, the elderly people who made it Idlewild a thriving community died. Many of their heirs sold their property and left town. Landlords bought the houses at low prices, flipped them and turned them into rentals. The Black ownership Idlewild was once known for was decimated.

But what never left the community, clinging to the gravel and embedded in the soil, was hope and love. Even at Idlewild’s lowest points, Moton remembers the legacy of goodness still being passed down.

Central figures in the community, such as his grandmother, Mattie McDougald, kept ahold of time-honored principles. Moton grew up watching his grandmother serving meals and nursing those who needed medical care. Frank Williams, who ran the local Boys Club, became a pillar in Moton’s life. Many in the neighborhood refused to give up. The sense of supportive community is why he established his ‘Velle Cares Foundation, why Raleigh native John Wall has done so much work in his hometown.

Imagine the sense of obligation, the honor of duty, when Moton learned his grandmother’s home was for sale. His house was a block over. But he spent as much time at his grandmother’s house. This was just as much his home. What’s more, this was a chance to acquire the first piece on the board. His grandmother’s house was on the last parcel of land for sale in Idlewild, valued at $1.45 million. It also represented Moton’s essence and the legacy of his grandmother and countless others whose DNA is infused into the soil. For a man who prides himself on having 10 toes down, how could he not seize this opportunity?

“I would hate for someone to come in and buy my grandmother’s property and just turn it into a million-dollar townhome. I couldn’t ride by and look at this no more.”

So Moton became business partners with Terrell Midgett and Clarence “CJ” Mann, his childhood friends. They formed the Raleigh Raised development partnership that aimed to preserve communities and create opportunities benefitting Black developers to .

Raleigh Raised’s first mission is Idlewild, seeking to buy properties and renovate their neighborhood. It’s been decades since the area was dense in Black ownership. But if they are to generate wealth for their community, ownership is the key.

“We don’t control any decisions on the dirt unless we own the dirt,” Moton said.

“If not, you are at the mercy of what someone else wants to do, and I don’t like us being in that position.”

The Cottages of Idlewild is a started at owning that dirt. The Cottages are a 13-unit planned subdivision for residents who make between 50% and 60% of the area’s median income. Which according to the US Department Of Housing and Urban Development was $88,000 in a 5-year span. The $4 million project is part of Raleigh’s on-going efforts to build more affordable houses in the community. Moton is committed to leading the way.

To avoid that, Moton and his team reached out to Kia Baker, a Southeast Raleigh native and then the executive director of Southeast Raleigh Promise. Baker and Moton have collaborated on initiatives in the area before. She led the Raleigh Area Land Trust (RALT), an initiative started three years ago to create permanent affordable ownership opportunities for first-time homebuyers. RALT also protects neighborhoods from the affordable housing crisis by ensuring working families can remain in their neighborhoods.

Moton and his group met with RALT interim director Rhett Fussell at a community park in Idlewild. As fate would have it, the park was named after Moton, who also has his jersey retired at nearby Daniels Middle School. So when Moton made his vision clear to Fussell, how relity set in.

“I want this particular property to bear something that was a true and fair representation of who I am and the people of this community as well,” Moton said of what he conveyed to RALT. “It has to continue the legacy and bare the soul of this community, my grandmother, her friends and so many people that were pillars in this community when the city didn’t bother to allocate any funding or resources to this community.”

The collaborative was established. The real-life game of monopoly was on. History was officially in the making.

Raleigh Area Land Trust & Haven Ventures

Moton and RALT are co-leads. RALT will oversee development while Raleigh Raised will oversee community involvement, from fund raising to choosing minority contractors from the area.

Together, they work on reviving Idlewild, a project driven by civic pride more than accumulation. It’s impossible to miss the presence of Idlewild’s history, the sense of community and the passion of its residents. This is about getting back what was lost, re-carving out a part of the board where they belong.

“And, we wanted to be a part of moving that success forward and remembering what was there and what can be maintained there,” said Fussell, “It was one of the first areas where African Americans were given the opportunity to own a home and we want to bring that back to this specific site.”

The Cottages of Idlewild will be designed as two u-shaped cottage court concepts that will feature surrounding duplexes. According to Fussell, the design will allow for the residents to share a common court in the middle to provide community interaction.

Scheduled to break ground early next year, The Cottages will also re-create the look and feel of the original Raleigh Land and Improvement company’s intent for smaller homes and lots.

With his land secured, Moton now has a seat at the table. He can play. But he isn’t just focused on snatching up Pennsylvania, Pacific and North Carolina Avenues. His “landing” on Idlewild is the chance to create a sort of Community Chest.

“One of the things that we really imagine,” Baker said, “is just being able to insure that people in our community who have been a part of our community, who built our community, whose ancestors built our community, have the opportunity to live in the place they identify with. To live in the place that they love and to raise their children and their families in a way that connects with their identity.”

And as owners again of their community, they won’t have to play the landlord’s games.

Jannelle Moore is a contributor for The Undefeated. The North Carolina native writes about the NBA for various outlets. Her work can also found at BasketballNews.com, Complex Sports, and Carolina Blitz. She is also the founder and one of the hosts of the Stepback Sisterhood podcast for Blue Wire Network/Blue Wire Hustle.