by Rick Thurmond
On a warm November Thursday in the fall of 2017, I found myself just outside the gateway to Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black university on Charlotte’s west side. I was working in a small plaza at a spot known as Five Points—five streets once converged at the intersection. Using precut boards, I was helping to assemble kiosks that would host local vendors the next day.
Nearby, a group of men eyed me warily. The plaza was their usual gathering place; I was an outsider. Daily, they made time to sit under the trees, swap stories, or just sit quietly in each other’s company. Most the men were African-American; I am white. The neighborhoods surrounding the plaza—Seversville, Biddleville, Smallwood, have been predominantly working-class African-American for decades.
For a while, I focused on my work. We had a lot of furniture to build in a short time. Near me, another small group of people were painting a design on a strip of pavement that cars no longer used. In the street, another crew was painting green bike lanes and white crosswalks. Finally, one of the men, who had moved from their usual spot to a clearing next to the adjacent convenience store, asked me what I was doing. In fact, he asked if he could walk in the area—the same area he walked in every day. The implication was clear. I had just showed up, a white guy they had never seen, and started putting together furniture where he usually sat. Clearly, I was signaling, this was not for them. Whatever I was doing, it was for someone else.
Chagrined, I introduced myself and asked his name. I explained to James that I was a volunteer. We were setting up for a community event that would be that night and the next day. The event was for him and his friends and anyone else who wanted to come. I asked if he wanted to help.
James did. Before long, a few of the men were helping put together benches and haul boards. One of the men made suggestions on where to place things. Another was negotiating to pick up the hay bales we were using to separate the bike lanes from traffic. Apparently, he kept a few farm animals. Most said they would stick around or come back for the festivities that evening, which included a DJ and a couple food trucks. Many of them did. Neighbors danced to the DJ late into the night.
The next day was a beautiful November Saturday. Poets, rappers and singers performed on a temporary stage while neighbors lounged in Adirondack chairs that had been put together and painted by JCSU students the previous day. Local vendors sold art, jewelry, and apparel. A church yard hosted a temporary library and projects for children. A coffee shop opened for the day in a vacant storefront. Its walls were decorated with art commenting on gentrification. Volunteers noted how and where people crossed the street and surveyed attendees. City planners showed off their designs for a coming renovation of the plaza. This event, called a Better Block, was testing those same designs.
It wasn’t all a success. A local brewery had set up a small beer garden. But they didn’t sell any beer, packed up, and went home. Actually, let’s call that a success. The local community displayed their preference and got the desired results.
Over the past two years, I have attended several community events in Charlotte’s Historic West End. This was one of the first at which I had seen a truly diverse crowd—black, white, newcomers, long-timers, visitors, students. That wasn’t an accident. Months of grassroots community engagement preceded the event. An organizing committee met weekly. Subcommittees tackled various aspects. Word spread. Volunteer turnout for the two-day build was lower than we hoped for (I was one of the organizers), but several neighbors and JCSU students did show up on a weekday to work all day in the sun.
All of that pre-work was designed to cut through layers of history that has led this community to distrust any new project or idea that originates from outside the neighborhood. But you know what also made a difference? Showing up, doing the work, looking James in the eye, asking him his name, and inviting him in to the process.
Physically, Historic West End, which is located a mile from the thriving city center, is made up of streets shaded by mature trees and charming homes. It’s also the site of major public investment in the form of a new streetcar line and other infrastructure upgrades.
Infrastructure investment is how government signals where it desires economic development. In this case, it is working, as housing prices are skyrocketing and new people are moving into neighborhoods that, for the most part, have seen little change in years if not decades. That, of course, can cause tension. Signals of inclusion and exclusion are everywhere.
In Wesley Heights, one of the neighborhoods of Historic West End, a developer is building a townhome project. First signal: the name: Uptown West Terraces. The name makes zero reference to the rich heritage of the area surrounding it. Instead, the name tells a prospective buyer that the townhomes are near the city center. Second signal: the marketing. All of the people pictured on the sales website are white. The first two nearby businesses touted on the site are a hipster urban market and a brewery—both well-known hallmarks of gentrification.
The development is still early in the construction phase. But I have a pretty good guess as to who will end up living there.
Gentrification is reaching farther out west-side neighborhoods as well, albeit more slowly. In one neighborhood, most of the housing stock has been rentals. As land values increase, some of these homes are turning over into owner-occupied. Many of these new owners are newcomers to the neighborhood. They bring with them familiar methods of organizing, such as homeowners’ associations. By definition, these organizations exclude renters. Even if an association decides to admit renters, a variety of small things can make a renter feel excluded. The day and time of the meetings, how the meetings are advertised, the lack of availability of child care. Even the way the meetings are run can alienate. Imagine if your version of community are the neighbors you see at the bus stop or the corner store, or the little plaza near JCSU. You’ve never been to a formal board meeting. You overcome the odds to attend one. And all of a sudden you’re presented with Robert’s Rules of Order—motions and seconds, prescribed times to talk and not. Ostensibly, it’s a system designed for fairness, but it’s only fair and inclusive if you know the rules. That creates, as one community leader in this neighborhood put it, “general distress for everyone.”
Neighborhoods also use technology to include and exclude. On the one hand, tools like email, Facebook, and Nextdoor make it easy to distribute information to large groups of people. But only people with access to the technology have access to the information. Twenty-one percent of Charlotte households have either no Internet access at all or only dial-up. Large portions of the county have no access to broadband. The lower the median income of a neighborhood, the more those percentages increase.
Nextdoor, in particular, can be a tool of exclusion. The site is known to be a hotbed of racial profiling. Scroll any active Nextdoor page for a predominantly white neighborhood, and it won’t be long before you find a post urging neighbors to be wary of the dark-skinned person seen walking down the street or driving in a car. (Since the linked article, the company has taken genuine steps to address this problem, but unfortunately it persists.)
I’ll close with one of my favorite Charlotte happenings. According to its website, Open Streets 704 “aims to build a better, healthier, more connected community by encouraging Charlotte and Mecklenburg County residents to walk, bicycle, and experience the city together in a way that’s just not possible in a car.”
Twice a year, a three-to-five-mile span of Charlotte streets are closed to cars. Residents and business along the route are encouraged to participate however they want, with only two basic rules: You can’t sell anything, and try to have something to do. Some residents set up free lemonade stands or host open mics. There are lots of lawn games in the street. Kids decorate streets with chalk. A few areas have stages for bands. Businesses activate the area in front of their doors with pumpkin painting, cornhole, or even a bounce house. And the streets are filled with as many as 25,000 people on foot or two wheels.
Why are there so many people? Because everyone feels welcome. Open Streets winds its way through mainly residential neighborhoods. Signal number one: No cars allowed in the street. Come, walk, bike, bring your kids, enjoy! Signal number two: Neighbors in their front yards. Signal number three: Activities for all ages. No matter your age, you can’t cover a tenth of mile along the route without finding something interesting to do or see. Signal number four: lack of police. Or rather, the police’s role is to keep cars out so that people can freely come and go.
Contrast this approach to a Halloween block party in my neighborhood, a predominantly white, upper middle class area near an upscale mall. A relatively large, annual affair organized by a few families, it is named for the neighborhood and includes games, a haunted house, potluck desserts and delivery pizza. But it’s considered invitation-only, ostensibly to control the numbers. My family lives three streets over and we know a few families who live on that street. But folks from our street have never been invited because we live “on the other side” of the neighborhood. You gotta draw the line somewhere, right?
We finally crashed it last year, had lots of fun, and weren’t asked to leave. Our seven-year-old daughter didn’t know the difference, but as I made small talk with folks at a party named for the neighborhood in which I’ve lived for 15 years, I couldn’t shake a nagging question in my head: Am I supposed to be here?