“Before there was a NoDa, there was North Davidson Street.”
The comment came from one of the dozens of speakers who addressed Charlotte City Council last week, drawing applause and cheers from the packed crowd.
It was a simple statement with a lot packed in it: Race. Money. Gentrification. And a changing city.
There are deep-rooted causes behind the sometimes-violent protests that have rocked Charlotte for nearly two weeks, following the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police. Foremost among them, of course, is the national spotlight on police shootings of black men.
But the speaker, a lifelong Charlottean named Brandon Miller, was pointing to one aspect that hasn’t been talked about as much: Many of the city’s neighborhoods are changing fast, and people who have lived in them their whole lives are being displaced. Miller said many feel dislocated and disconnected from a city that’s rapidly reshaping itself around them.
“The gentrification process is how we were removed from there,” said Miller, who’s now the executive director of the Youth Educational Society, focused on mentoring at-risk young people. “What we’re looking at now, that’s the effect.”
That sense of dislocation alone isn’t what propelled hundreds of people into the streets this week, both to protest peacefully or to throw rocks through windows. Still, it helps explain the explosion – as Miller said, people feel that they’re literally “dying to be heard.”
Predominantly African-American, low-income developments such as Earle Village and Piedmont Courts have long been torn down. In some cases, the people there were themselves former residents of Brooklyn, the African-American neighborhood uptown that was declared a slum and demolished in the 1960s and 70s.
Developers, for their part, point out that when areas are redeveloped, the housing there often improves, property values rise, jobs are created and new residents are brought to areas. Neighborhoods in and around uptown where some people would have been afraid to walk around at night two decades ago are now home to young families, joggers and yoga classes.
In an interview last week, Miller, 35, told me about his experience growing up in parts of the city that have been radically changed – the now-demolished Earle Village public housing uptown, now-booming NoDa before it was hip, Grier Heights.
Crime was a problem in those places, Miller said, but there were communities where people felt connected and knew each other. And when they were redeveloped, there was nowhere in the new neighborhoods where the former residents could afford to live, as house-flippers bought properties, fixed them up or demolished them, and sold at a big profit. Longtime homeowners who stayed sometimes found themselves gradually priced out as property taxes rose in their whole neighborhood.
“The moment there was a reinvesting in those particular neighborhoods, it was to tear things down, not to build up,” Miller told me. “Families such as my mom weren’t invited back to the party. It was too expensive for individuals to move back to the community.”
His point wasn’t lost on the audience Monday night. “Gotta move us!” someone shouted. And if you look at Charlotte’s older neighborhoods, it’s not hard to see the signs of change that are still reshaping whole swaths of the city.
Craftsman-style homes selling for $700,000 or more are replacing small houses often occupied by renters in Charlotte’s Cherry neighborhood, a black enclave for more than a century. You can see the same happening in Belmont, Villa Heights, Wesley Heights and Wilmore.
While some homeowners can sell and make a profit, in other cases longtime tenants are pushed out, forced to move farther out to find any comparable properties to rent. And a big chunk of Charlotteans feel like the new city isn’t meant for them.
It’s a feeling with a long history, stretching back at least to the “urban renewal” program that demolished the Brooklyn neighborhood in Second Ward during the 1960s and ’70s. More than 1,000 families were displaced in the name of clearing “slums.” The city didn’t build new housing for them, and the families scattered.
Today, the average rent in Charlotte is $1,052, up from $780 five years ago – a 35 percent jump. Almost half of renters in Charlotte are “cost-burdened,” spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent, according to a study from Mecklenburg County last year.
Snazzy new apartment communities loaded with amenities from dog washes to saunas to heated saltwater swimming pools have replaced older apartments on Park Road, Commonwealth Avenue and Monroe Road. While the new communities are undoubtedly nice places to live, they’re out of reach for many, if not most, of the former residents.
All of this is taking place against a backdrop where Charlotte ranks dead last for economic mobility: A child born poor in Charlotte is more likely to stay poor than in any other major city, according to a 2014 study. Charlotte ranked at the bottom of 50 cities in the study by researchers from Harvard. Children here have the worst odds of moving from the lowest fifth of incomes to the top fifth compared to any big city in the U.S.
Miller said he knows there aren’t any easy answers to the questions posed by gentrification and changing neighborhoods. He hopes to motivate people to get more involved in local politics, push for more spending in distressed communities, improve the schools in their neighborhoods and make sure their voices are heard in the zoning and development process.
And in a city that can feel perpetually new and shiny, fresh and free of deep roots, Miller wants people to remember: Before there was a NoDa, there was North Davidson Street.
This story originally appeared on CharlotteObserver.com.
Photos: Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer; T. Ortega Gaines/Charlotte Observer