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Residents get proactive in the fight against gentrification on the west side

Taking back the neighborhood

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At 86 years old, Martha McAfee is known affectionately as "Granny" by her Enderly Park neighbors. Since 1976, she has raised 10 children in her home on Morson Street. She's worked as a nurse's assistant at Mercy Hospital and Presbyterian Hospital. Outside of her home sits a sign altered to read, "We are not to be bought."

McAfee's cautiously optimistic feelings about plans for investment in the West End that seem to be coming from all directions now that rapid growth in Uptown has begun to expand outward are not uncommon in the area. "If they do what they say they are going to do, it's going to be good," she says.

With all the newfound attention from investors on the west side, McAfee says she receives weekly offers to buy her house. "I am not fixing to sell it," she says. "Good place to live as long as you are respectable between each other. I love my neighborhood. I don't have to live here."

She's not the only one sharing that message. This summer, signs like the one in McAfee's yard began popping up alongside sidewalks and in yards throughout west Charlotte. Most of the signs are altered versions of the "We Buy Houses for Cash" signs that are all too familiar on the west side. The signs, plucked from the ground and reworked by artists and advocates within the neighborhood, read "Don't Steal Our Neighborhood"; "Nope, we are strong, resilient"; "We are in this together"; and "We cannot be bought."

Signs that once read “We Buy Homes” have been repurposed and placed back on the streets to support the fight against gentrification happening in west Charlotte. - DANIELLE HILTON
  • Danielle Hilton
  • Signs that once read “We Buy Homes” have been repurposed and placed back on the streets to support the fight against gentrification happening in west Charlotte.

As urban sprawl has fixed its eyes upon the historic black neighborhoods of west Charlotte, planners have come out of the woodwork with ideas about how to make this part of town shine brighter, but many long-time residents worry that not enough is being done to preserve the history of the West End and make sure residents aren't pushed out by overzealous home-buying companies or skyrocketing property taxes.

Much of the resulting debate has revolved around a word that many use yet few know the definition of: gentrification.

Ruth Glass coined the term 'gentrification' in 1964 to describe what was happening in neighborhoods in London, England. At the time, she said, "One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class — upper and lower ... Once this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed."

In America, this "invasion" has often occurred along racial lines, equaling a sort of reverse white flight in which a working-class, often majority-black neighborhood suddenly becomes hip among a city's younger, white population, which begins to move in and eventually pushes out those who have had homes there for generations.

Charlotte's community leaders and residents have long been actively fighting against the gentrification that Glass spoke about in 1964. Displacement of whole communities, a disregard for culture and history and the racial and socio-economic divides that are created in these newly redeveloped neighborhoods are not new topics here. It happened recently in Cherry and as far back as the 1960s, when Brooklyn was developed over. Now in 2016, long-time residents of west Charlotte are at risk of being displaced from the neighborhoods they have lived in for decades.

J'Tanya Adams, 53, is a native Charlottean. Adams moved to West End because she knew the neighborhoods needed help and she wanted to be an active participant in fostering change. She is president of the Seversville Community Organization and founder and president of Historic West End Partners, a group dedicated to celebrating and preserving the West End's rich history.

"I think there are a lot of dynamics around gentrification. When you look at gentrification from an investment perspective, thoughtful investment is always welcome, especially when you have been asking for it for over 20 years," Adams said. "It's not that no one desired or asked. Now it's coming because possibly someone else moved into the neighborhood. The anger is, why is it only coming when somebody else comes? Why is it that the investment follows them?"

Considerable strides have been made in improving the West End in recent years, but Adams is quick to acknowledge the many seniors in the neighborhood who have worked for the same thing for decades. "There's nothing new under the sun. [Senior citizens] worked on trying to recruit retail in their own way, preserve history and culture, housing improvement. [They were] champions for fresh food, health and wellness," she says.

On one warm August evening, about 25 Charlotte residents gathered at the Levine Museum of the New South's free monthly forum called Civic By Design. The topic, the future of Historic West End, drew a diverse crowd of young and old, black and white. Alysia Osborne, director of Historic West End for Charlotte Center City Partners, presented 22 slides outlining the history of the development plans and current tactical strategies.

During the forum, Osborne explained why she doesn't use the term gentrification.

"I don't use it. I don't like it. It does have a negative connotation, but I think it is often used without consideration for solutions," she said. "If we are going to talk about it, let's talk about displacement. Are there people, communities and businesses being displaced in West End?"

So the question is: are folks in charge taking a serious look at who's really impacted by new development and investment?

John Howard has been the planning manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department for 13 years. He wrote the West End Land Use and Pedestrian Landscape (Pedscape) in 2005, taking into account previous plans developed in 1985.

Howard surveyed the neighborhood associations, special-interest groups, business owners and public for feedback. Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) and Charlotte Department of Transportation (CDOT) were included in discussions about street conversions, bike lanes, road capacity and future growth. Dr. Ronald Carter, president of Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), a historically black university, also worked with Howard to define the stakeholders and craft plans for off-campus projects.

Dr. Carter has been president of JCSU since 2008 and will finish his tenure there in spring 2017. The school's campus sits at '5 Points' — where Beatties Ford Road, W. 5th Street, Rozelles Ferry Road and two sides of W. Trade Street (one now closed off) come together. The campus is in Biddleville, the oldest African American neighborhood in Charlotte with history dating back to 1867. It's now at the forefront of the gentrification debate.

"When [Dr. Carter] first came to Charlotte, he convened different types of groups that could talk about street cars and talk about future development, linking east and west," Howard says. "He was really a catalyst in terms of honing in that conversation."

Mosaic Village. - RYAN PITKIN
  • Ryan Pitkin
  • Mosaic Village.

Mosaic Village — a mixed-use, 124,00-square-foot development that opened on W. Trade Street in October 2012 — was one direct outcome of that project.

"Major concerns at that point in time were displacement of seniors and lower income residents. On the flip side, it was attracting new development that people have been wanting for years," said Howard. "We want to make sure we grow, but make sure that the people who have been here a long time can stay."

Howard explained that the discussion focused on improving safety, quality of life and economic conditions of the corridor. They discussed keeping the character of the buildings and the feel of the neighborhood intact.

In an interview with Creative Loafing, Carter issued a challenge to the city of Charlotte: "If the city is really concerned to have strong corridors, then why not go the extra mile to ensure that as businesses are growing, that they find black Americans living in those communities who can run those businesses? Why not create a partnership that opens up that opportunity for them to move up that staircase of social mobility? I call that self-gentrification."

While residents like Adams enjoy Mosaic Village, rather than sit back and hope their feedback is included in upcoming plans to revitalize the West End, she and others have been taking more active roles in educating their neighbors about what's coming and working to affect those plans.

The 5 Points Community Collaborative (5PCC) is a project Adams has spearheaded with other community leaders. 5PCC was formed so that neighborhoods connected by the Irwin Creek and Stewart Creek greenways could work together planning events and advocating for the neighborhood as a whole.

Justin Harlow, 28, grew up in Atlanta and moved to Charlotte after finishing dental school at UNC Chapel Hill. He's now president of the Biddleville/Smallwood Neighborhood Association in the West End.

Harlow, who works alongside Adams as a lead organizer with 5PCC, believes the group can leverage their collective efforts and influence change. His view of new growth and development, like McAfee's, is both optimistic and cautious. "[We are] trying to present this unified West End as it continues to get rebranded," he says.

According to Harlow, it is mostly young middle- to upper-middle class white families that are moving into the neighborhoods. "There are a few black families like us here, but the majority of black people that live in this neighborhood are elderly. They have been here 30-plus years."

Harlow believes that association meetings, picnics, progressive dinners and community events are some ways to find common ground among residents. He's not against the rising housing and land prices, but believes there needs to be a balance.

"Some people would say that that's the price of progress. That's a one-sided or limited view of it," he says. "I believe in free market economics. I believe that if a person is willing to pay a certain value and reset the market, then so be it. That is part of a capitalist market, but we have to figure out a way to respect history and understand that in this part of town, there's so much more historical value that people moving over here don't recognize. As bluntly as I can put it, a lot of white people don't recognize that."

Harlow believes that people want a mixed community in a safe environment. Many elderly residents worked for decades to build the neighborhood and are thrilled to see the changes happening. Harlow explains that showing the respect to these older residents goes a long way, "I know you paved this path for us." Harlow said, "There have been a lot of dreams deferred on the west side."

Harlow is well-aware of the displacement concerns. He has spoken with county commissioners about how to keep seniors in their homes. He mentioned grandfathering them into an earlier property assessment, starting an abatement program and/or creating a flat tax with new residents realizing that they are supplementing the residents who have lived there for so long.

"From a neighborhood association standpoint, there's not much we can do," says Harlow.

There are government funds available for homeowners who meet the requirements. The county tax office administers the Homestead Exemption Act, a statewide program to reduce property taxes for homeowners who meet the age, income and/or disability requirements. Leaders in Historic West End are concerned that the $29,000 income limit is too low to help many of the long-time residents in the affected neighborhoods.

Long-time residents whose homes face code enforcement penalties have become a point of contention in some West End neighborhoods. Some believe that the new residents are calling code enforcement on the older residents who may not be able to pay for costly repairs. Neighborhood and community associations are trying to make residents aware of established programs that can help them with the cost of home maintenance. Charlotte's Neighborhood Development has a Safe Home Housing Rehabilitation Program to fix code violations and to make general property improvements for those who meet the requirements.

Amalia Deloney, 42, lives in Seversville with her husband. They chose to live in the West End because they wanted to live in a place that reminded them of the black neighborhoods where they grew up, with lots of history and culture.

According to Deloney, gentrification is already going strong in Historic West End, despite the involvement of organizations like Historic West End Partners and 5PCC.

"I went to a neighborhood association meeting within the first two or three months [of living in the neighborhood] and it just confirmed all the things we had been noticing about where the tensions were," she says.

Deloney observed that the meetings were not representative of the neighborhood. Few people were original residents, and about 90 percent of the attendees were white and new to the neighborhood.

"They were making decisions and holding conversations that were not at all representative of the community they live in. That disconnect was incredibly profound three years ago and has only grown," she says.

Deloney is a strong proponent of including renters, older residents and single-parent families in the discussion. While newer residents discuss walkability, safety, strollers and Montessori schools, Deloney thinks the conversations need to include school integration, busing, early childhood education and post-secondary opportunities for single parents.

"The kind of robust conversations that are needed to improve the living conditions for everyone, they don't exist," she says.

Greg Jarrell, co-founder of Queen City Family Tree, a non-profit community organization, also proudly displays one of the altered "We Buy Homes" signs in his Enderly Park home. He could only smile when asked directly if he was involved with creating the signs. Jarrell and his family have lived in the Enderly Park neighborhood for 10 years and have become a positive force there.

Jarrell, 37 and white, has been outspoken in the Charlotte community about his feelings on gentrification and displacement.

"I would say that gentrification is always injustice. It is about outside control determining the lives of poor people and people of color," Jarrell says. "Rising rents is where the most harm is done. In Enderly Park, 70 percent of the people rent. The immediate harm is when the rent goes up, poor people get displaced."

Now, Deloney and a group of community advocates including Jarrell are in the process of forming a community land trust in an effort to balance the interests of homeowners and individuals with those of renters and the community. It's the first of its kind in Charlotte.

The idea of a community land trust is to form a collaborative similar to 5PCC but with the goal of acquiring land and holding that land's value at a certain affordable point. The trust started out in Enderly Park but organizers soon saw the need to expand it to the entire West End. They now see the trust as the foundation from which groups like 5PCC will be able to accomplish more.

Organizers with the West Side Land Trust (working title) discuss which neighborhoods should be included in the trust at a recent meeting. - RYAN PITKIN
  • Ryan Pitkin
  • Organizers with the West Side Land Trust (working title) discuss which neighborhoods should be included in the trust at a recent meeting.

"All of the work up until this point has really been about getting here." Deloney says. "You have to have the relationships, you have to have to the political education and understanding of what the power dynamics are. And through all of these processes, what continues to surface is that none of the other collaboratives, none of the other organizations will be able to execute their vision if we don't have community control over our actual geography."

The trust is still in its preliminary stages. It's still not been named (West Side Land Trust has been used as a working title) and organizers spent their most recent meeting breaking down what its board representation might look like and mapping out which neighborhoods may be represented. Deloney believes it will take two to three years of educating, fundraising and organizing before the trust will be able to begin acquiring land through purchase agreements and donations.

"There's nothing about this that's easy, for sure, but it's also the only option that we have in front of us to be able to put a dent in the development machine that is just kind of engulfing the community," she says.

For Deloney, a lawyer by training, the formation of the trust is an exciting new step in her longtime path of community organizing. It gives her confidence that longtime residents of the West End can effectively fight the type of gentrification that has done away with historically black Charlotte neighborhoods like Cherry and Brooklyn.

"I'm optimistic about this because we have used good power analysis to surface what the real issue is, and the real issue is control over our natural resources and the territories within the communities we live in," she says. "This gives us an opportunity to present a different form of ownership; ownership in the community's interest. This is no Band-Aid solution."

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