by Jane Porter
Photos courtesy of the City of Raleigh / Nicole Steele

Events at 308-acre Dorothea Dix Park draw the crowds...

The thunder and rain showers cleared up by late afternoon on a Sunday in mid-July. A promised cold front brought relief from the sweltering air. Dozens of Raleigh residents, intent on enjoying the waning hours of their weekends (not to mention the fleeting eighty-degree weather) packed up blankets and lawn chairs, coolers and picnic baskets. They descended on Harvey Hill for Big Band music courtesy of the Raleigh Jazz Orchestra, the penultimate Summer in the Park concert at Dorothea Dix Park.

Stepping in as host for Pullen Park while it was under construction this year, the 308-acre Dix property – and an alternating companion space, Fred Fletcher Park – drew hundreds to its rolling green hills over the summer months to hear some of Raleigh’s most compelling performers. Food trucks kept the hunger at bay, B-Y-O-beer-and-wine kept the spirits high. Music, nature, and fellowship all played their parts in capping off the warm hours well-spent.  

For Dix Park, the Summer in the Park concert series – a Raleigh tradition more than a decade old – was one piece of a prelude to programs and events that will parallel the city’s two-year-long master planning process for the park, which kicked off in July. And now, with Raleigh’s balmy fall season ahead, fun, free events will be the norm most days and evenings, rather than the exception.

“Our whole philosophy is, let’s just get people to the park, let them experience this special place for themselves,” explains Kate Pearce, a planner with the City of Raleigh who’s charged with helping to chart the property’s course from obsolete mental health hospital campus to a world-class civic space. Pearce says art, preservation of the natural environment, and telling the story of the property’s past are the city’s priorities for Dix Park going forward.

“But we’re also inviting people out to have a good time, and we’ll ask them about what they want for the future of Dix park,” she says.

To this end, in September, the city will host invasive species removal days for volunteers and two-mile, guided walking tours on the property. It will also hold a screening of Going Sane, a documentary on the state of mental health care in the US, produced by North Carolina filmmakers, as well as a talk on “bold ideas” for the park from architect and environmental designer A. Ghigo-DiTommaso at the City of Raleigh Museum, in partnership with the city’s Urban Design Center.  

In October, the park will host the NC Recovery Fest, a celebration for people in recovery from addiction, and the Sir Walter Smoke-Off for competitive chefs and barbecue lovers, to raise money for the forthcoming, new Oak City Outreach Center facility for Raleigh’s homeless population. Also in October, the Dalai Llama will travel from Tibet to Raleigh to make a high-profile visit and bless the park.

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Sprinkled in between all of these events will be movie nights and fitness classes, stargazing and sunrise yoga, portrait painting and urban sketching, and anything else Raleigh residents can dream up and request a time and space for. A pop-up dog park is in the works, Pearce says, as is a parkour course, the winning idea from a recent competition, iDEARaleigh, where participants suggested ways to activate Dix Park. Best of all, all of these events are free to attend, thanks to funding from the city’s non-profit partner, the Dix Park Conservancy.

Pearce is upfront about the property’s current limitations. There aren’t always port-a-potties available, and there’s no running water and electricity. And, with limited parking – and connective greenway access and an iconic aerial transit system still on the horizon – the property isn’t quite as accessible yet as it will be two to seven years from now.

Still, as all the plans for the park, both long- and short-term, demonstrate, Dix Park is already becoming something extraordinary for Raleigh’s residents and visitors. And Pearce, who says she receives around 10 emails a week from citizens with ideas for how to use the property – from building a model yacht racing lake, to an ultimate frisbee stadium, to a tennis center – says there’s no shortage of excitement and creativity in the community.

“Dix Park is not going to be your traditional neighborhood park,” says Pearce. “We believe it has so much more potential to bring something new, undiscovered, and inspirational to this community.”

To find out about upcoming events, follow Dix Park on Facebook, or search “Dix Park” events at eventbrite.com.

If you have suggestions for classes, events, or other programming, email Kate Pearce at kate.pearce@raleighnc.gov