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Cultural Continuity is Essential

A Place In Time

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While I sit in the old home-turned-office of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission chatting with Dan Morrill, the HLC's consulting director, he tells me a story from his youth that perfectly underscores his role in preserving Charlotte's landmarks today.

In his younger days, Morrill was into theater. Specifically, he was interested in set pieces.

"I was in a play, and I've always been influenced by the set," he recalls. "I got so wedded to that set, and I went to the next play that was after the one I did and I said, 'Oh shit.' Everything was gone. It was a whole new arrangement."

For decades now, Morrill has ben fighting to save us all from having that "Oh shit" moment every time we step on the set of the play that we call our lives in Charlotte.

Morrill likes to talk about "the built environment" and "cultural continuity." The built environment refers to that set piece we move in every day.

"The manmade environment has tremendous impact on human beings — what they see, what they interact with, the spaces and places," Morril says. "Many people don't think about that, but it does."

As for cultural continuity, it refers to keeping that set piece steady, savoring a sense of history within your built environment. Morrill references one of his favorite books by renowned urban designer Kevin Lynch called What Time Is This Place?

"That really is the question. What time is this place? I think built environments are much more evocative if they have a sense of cultural continuity," Morrill says.

Morrill has worked over the years to stay one step ahead of Charlotte development, buying historic buildings and placing restrictive covenants in the deeds that protect them from the eyes of overzealous developers who would rather see a new condo in their place.

That's what he did with the old Hand's Pharmacy building in NoDa in the mid-'80s. He brought the streetcar to South End. Although that streetcar is long gone, its operation set the scene for what is now the Blue Line light rail.

Interestingly, Morrill says HLC has been "in the lead" for gentrification. While that sounds almost villainous as stated, what he meant was that an important part of his job is to see gentrification coming and step in to ensure that the major cornerstones of some of these neighborhoods will remain, even if the residents don't.

"Any given neighborhood has a couple of structures that define it," he says. "If you lose things like the Morgan School in Cherry, that's the kind of thing that really, you've cut out the soul of the neighborhood."

For this week's cover story, I wanted to focus on that one set piece and the role it plays in a neighborhood's identity. However, you can't tell any story about Cherry without talking about redevelopment and displacement — the folks coming in and the folks going out.

Even for all his passion toward the "built environment," Morrill understands the real soul of a neighborhood is in its people.

"If you completely replace a culture, and you bring in a different culture, you could even save all the structures, but you've profoundly changed the place," he says.

That's what people fear is happening in Cherry, a historically black neighborhood that is now just 35 percent black, with expensive homes popping up, and affluent homeowners moving into them.

It happened in South End, it happened in NoDa. While many structures remain there, the culture has changed.

For one of the newcomers to Cherry, however, all the negative talk around gentrification is off base, as what he's experienced since moving in last obtober is not something he's seen in any news article.

"When we talk about gentrification in Charlotte, we talk about it like it's a binary thing of affluent people coming in and poor people going out and that's just not what is happening," says Keith Alyea. "I watch the basketball games on the court at Cherry Park, I will tell you, that is not affluent people playing one time and non-affluent people playing another time. It is everyone playing together. That's what happens in a city.

"The people coming into the neighborhood want to be part of the neighborhood as it already exists, not take it over, not change it in a way that is negative to the neighborhood. We want to become a community."

While that is all well and good, there are still people in Charlotte asking an important question: , "At what price?"

rpitkin@clclt.com

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