Walking down North Davidson Street in its namesake NoDa neighborhood today, it's clear just how much things have changed since Ruth Ava Lyons and Paul Sires began turning what was once known as North Charlotte into an arts district where the Queen City's most eclectic folks could feel at home.
Today, the scene is much different, as the neighborhood is filled more with bars and restaurants than anything else. On Friday night, people from around the city gather in NoDa not to participate in the once-popular gallery crawl but to check out the new row of restaurants that have popped up in the last 15 months; Haberdish, Mango's Caribbean and The Red House Café all opened right next to each other, adding to an already impressive line-up of food options.
Afterward, you might see these same folks lining up at the new Reigning Donuts window attached to Growlers Pourhouse for dessert, or Popbar, which opened in December 2016, the same month Haberdish kicked off this new foodie frenzy.
A block from North Davidson Street, running parallel to the ever-changing corridor that runs all the way into Uptown, is the reason the owners of these new businesses have reason to be optimistic.
The new Lynx Blue Line light-rail extension is set to begin running on Friday, March 16, and NoDa business owners have been long awaiting its arrival, putting up with the closure of 36th Street — one of the neighborhood's busiest entry points — for the last three years in hopes it would be worth it for the incoming hordes of people arriving from South End, Uptown and University City.
But while bar and restaurant owners can be sure that the influx will mean more money in their coffers, some folks are watching the impending storm with a little more anxiety.
Lori Krzeszewski, executive director of Behailu Academy, an arts-based youth development organization housed in the center of NoDa, said she's hopeful about the opening of the Blue Line just feet from her front door, but also realistic about what it could mean for her nonprofit in the long run.
- Krzeszewski with her students.
Behailu has been running programs in a 5,000 square-foot space on East 36th Street for six years. Its mission is to give children access to the digital, visual and performing arts that they may not get in their schools or neighborhoods.
The academy also hosts community events, such as its March 19 public discussion titled "Exploring Social Class: Upper, Middle, & Lower: What Does It Mean and How Did We Get Here?"
For an organization that's built around access, having the light rail pass by the building seems like a godsend.
Behailu, which transports students from four feeder schools — Cochrane Collegiate Academy, Eastway Middle School, Garinger High School and Garinger Focus Academy — can't afford to go and pick up children from other schools who would like to attend the free programs there.
"To keep transportation costs somewhat manageable, we have to concentrate on just a specific area of Charlotte, because we just can't have drivers going over to the west side. We just can't afford it," Krzeszewski said. "But we get a lot of calls from the west side, we get a lot of calls from south Charlotte, people wanting to send kids or kids wanting to attend and not being able to get here. We do have some students that take public transportation, [and] we're excited because what it will mean is if they can get themselves to the [light rail], then very quickly they're going to be able to get to us."
- Lori Krzeszewski
Krzeszewski said she hopes the light rail will not only help bring kids in, but help Behailu provide more trips out of the building. Companies or organizations often will donate free tickets to a theatrical performance or a Hornets game, but the cost of transportation can be costly when taking transportation and parking into consideration.
She said her hope is that the light rail will open up opportunities to bring students Uptown for events or north to UNC Charlotte for programs and other trips that could be helpful for the students.
"It's just about being able to connect them to more opportunities," Krzeszewski said. "There are times that we'll have people reach out to us with internships or job opportunities for our young people, but logistically it's just the transportation here has made it next to impossible. So thinking about having the Blue Line open up and come so close, we're just excited about what that will mean for our kids."
On the other hand, Krzeszewski is also realistic about what the light-rail opening means for the neighborhood as a whole. Developers have already begun building condos and buying properties all along the Blue Line. For a nonprofit like Behailu, which rents the space it is in, it might be impossible to keep up financially with the boom.
When I met up with Krzeszewski at the academy on a recent afternoon before students started arriving, the large room in the building sat empty, with musical instruments off in one corner and art supplies in another. She said the company that owns the space, Guy Properties, has been helpful in giving the organization a decent rental rate during its first six years, but she's concerned that when her lease runs out in 2019, someone might buy the property or the temptation to raise the rent to match those in surrounding buildings could prove to be too much.
"It hasn't necessarily been a struggle to stay here so far," Krzeszewski said, "but our concern is just like everyone else in the neighborhood: As the property value goes up, will this generosity continue or are we going to see a huge rate hike that makes it so that we can't stay?"
- Inside Behailu Academy. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
It's a familiar story in NoDa, where for the last 10 years, arts spaces have had a tough time staying open in the neighborhood that the arts made popular in the first place.
In 2017, Dupp&Swat became the most recent victim when it was pushed out of the NoDa&28th shopping center. As Kia Moore reported for Creative Loafing back in July, Davita Galloway, co-owner of Dupp&Swat, addressed the move during a Creative Mornings talk.
"You see it. Venues are closing. You see it," Galloway said. "Rent is increasing, forcing different businesses and organizations out. And after five years, that thing came knocking on our door, and we were forced to close."
It's also a familiar story for Krzeszewski, who said she's seen a similar style of gentrification happen in South End, where she's been a resident for 16 years.
"What I see here [in NoDa] is exactly what I've seen [in South End]," she said. "The neighborhood is not where I moved into originally. There's a lot of good and great things, but I've also seen a lot of my neighbors that have been in their homes 20 or 30 years bought out — or not even just bought out, but pushed out, and losing that sense of belonging that it was their neighborhood. So we do worry about what it means for our students and the families as this side of Charlotte grows."
Krzeszewski said she's been keeping an eye out around town for new spots, but she hopes it won't be necessary. She said many people have suggested she partner with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to run programs out of school buildings, but an important part of the organization is that it stays open at all times, rather than be limited by time constraints.
She also mentioned that kids have recently been talking a lot about the fear they feel in schools; fears of gun violence and other anxieties. She values being able to offer kids an escape from those concerns.
"One of the things that makes us successful is being based in the community," Krzeszewski said. "Being able to be in the community and have our doors open all the time and allow people to come and go freely has been really important, and so we hope that we'll be able to stay here. We are also trying to put feelers out to other folks that are in the neighborhood if there are buildings and spaces that are underutilized or available. We're always just trying to prepare for the 'just in case.'"
As we wrapped our conversation, Krzeszewski tried to stay positive about the changes light rail will bring, but the looing realities are impossible for her to ignore.
"It's exciting, but at the same time..." she said, trailing off before switching gears. "For us, all of our programs are free. Everything we do is at no cost. So we're like, 'Yay, because then we could figure out how to get more kids here and consolidate costs and grow our mission,' but that doesn't necessarily always work. We can't compete with money."