I moved out of Villa Heights in east Charlotte three years ago this month, still holding on like a wistful ex. “Remember the good times?” I might say to a personified Villa Heights. “Remember the way we used to be, the way you used to be?”
Villa Heights, in this personified fantasy, would respond, undoubtedly, “I’ve changed. I’ve progressed. I’m not the neighborhood you used to know.”
Perhaps Villa Heights has progressed in ways I have not, which would account for its unwavering penchant for growth and my propensity for visceral response when driving the streets I once knew. Humble, attainable mill houses that once accommodated the families of textile workers from the mills lining North Davidson Street have been gutted, torn down, gargantuan craftsman-style homes now in their stead.
“It’s progress,” Villa Heights would say.
I moved in to a completely different neighborhood in 2010 than what now sits nestled between NoDa and Plaza Midwood. In 2010, my draw to the neighborhood was the simplicity, the diversity, the $800 per month rent for a house with a yard. We’d moved in, my family and I, after our SouthPark townhome caught fire and we were forced to quickly find new housing. We wanted to be in a place representative of our city’s demographics so our children would grow up co-mingling with and living by people different from themselves, hoping for those differences to be the norm.
Five years after moving in, two of which were spent as the president of the Villa Heights Community Organization, after a divorce, after slowly watching our low-income neighbors be moved out as luxury real estate and high-earning millennials moved in, my two children and I moved out, joining the ranks of those who had gone before us, knowing, like them, we would never price back in to this place we’d so lovingly called home.
For years the elementary school across from our house remained vacant as neighborhood children were bussed to low-performing schools like Derita and Walter G. Byers. Cordelia Park was wrought with graffiti and vandalism, police helicopters circling overhead as if to tell us and our neighbors, “I’ve got my eye on you.”
Now, in the three years I’ve been gone, Villa Heights Elementary School is slated to re-open as a neighborhood school, though school board member Dr. Ruby Jones swears it has nothing to do with the newer, whiter, wealthier demographic now taking up residence. Cordelia Park has been up-fitted with a new playground, community center, and gated parking lot, sending a message that undesirables need not waste their time.
Crime is down, which is certainly a positive, while rent, of course, is up, keeping out families like mine — people who contributed with or without deeds in our names — people no longer able to afford the opportunity to live in a once-humble setting in close proximity to the city.
Villa Heights is progressing and the neighborhood seems to be thriving without me or the presence of my family. When I go back, trying to picture it the way it was through the haze of tears in my eyes, I can almost hear Villa Heights speaking to me through the construction and the change.
“I’ve moved on, honey,” it’s saying, “and maybe so should you.”