Hidden Valley neighbors Carolyn Johnson and Sheila Marrow live near the intersection of North Tryon Street and Sugar Creek Road, a blink away from where several tributaries converge to create the head of Little Sugar Creek. When I tell Johnson and Marrow I'm trailing the creek through the Charlotte area, they roll their eyes in disgust.
"A neighborhood is supposed to be full of families and kids playing; instead, we got this," Johnson said, gesturing to the marshy field across the street from her front yard. "It's got mosquitoes, bugs, frogs; it floods when it rains, and it stinks!"
Little Sugar Creek, named in colonial times for the Sugaw Indians, has developed an unsavory reputation over the years. For decades, it's been beleaguered by sewage spills, runoff, litterbugs and stalled renovation projects. I decided to follow the 20-mile creek as it winds past mill houses, mansions, urban cores, suburban sprawl, old bridges and new interstates.
As Johnson suggested, the creek gets off to a less than illustrious start. The dank water is littered with a bicycle tire, hubcap, beer cans and other refuse. In 2002, Wayne Weston, director of Mecklenburg County's Park and Recreation Department, told me Little Sugar Creek was "the most polluted creek in North Carolina." The following year, the county implemented the Hidden Valley Ecological Garden project, and officials have since built small ponds and implemented other ecological measures to improve the 13-acre habitat. To Johnson and Marrow, it's too little, too late.
"They wouldn't let this happen in Myers Park," Johnson said. "But they figure we'll put up with it. Where else will we go?"
The creek gradually branches away from North Tryon Street and parallels North Davidson Street. It runs alongside Cordelia Park, then crosses under Parkwood Avenue, where one of three Little Sugar Creek Greenway systems start. A wide, paved walking path follows alongside the creek as it flows through the heart of the Optimist Park, a working-class neighborhood between NoDa and Downtown. The creek then passes by modest, well-maintained homes as well as condemned, boarded-up houses littered with trash. The creek is littered, too -- with bottles, plastic bags, even a bicycle and grocery cart.
Still, the greenway offers a serene, heavily wooded respite from the nearby urban sprawl. As I walked along the greenway and crossed 15th Street, I spotted about 10 men lounging in the front yard of a house, watching another guy wash several cars parked on the street.
At Belmont Avenue, Little Sugar Creek passes through an overgrown and inaccessible stretch until it reaches Alexander Park on East 12th Street. Across from the creek is the back of Piedmont Courts -- rows of dilapidated, red-brick apartments.
From Alexander Park the creek continues south, skirting Interstate 277, and then convenes with Kings Drive and emerges from under the old parking deck of what used to be Midtown Square. As I walked along Kings Drive, I came upon a man sleeping on a mat near the creek's edge under the Baxter Street bridge.
As the creek continues to parallel Kings Drive and crosses Morehead Street, it becomes deeper, wider and cleaner, with landscaping that's meticulously maintained. This is the Liz Hair Nature Walk, named for the first woman elected to the Mecklenburg Board of Commissioners. Ryon Chao, a third-year med student at UNC, told me he uses the Nature Walk to get from Carolinas Medical Center to a pediatrics clinic. "I love not having to get in my car and bother with traffic," he said.
Still flowing south along Kings Drive, the creek goes under East Boulevard and through Freedom Park, where another paved greenway sprawls for more than two miles. From there, the creek winds through several other parks and neighborhoods, and then convenes with Briar Creek near Tyvola Road just as it passes by the Sugar Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, which dumps into the creek.
From there, the waters continue flowing, through Huntingtowne Farms Park off Park Road, and on to a third greenway section.
This greenway is a haven for wildlife. As I made my way through the heavy brush to the creek's edge, a thick black snake slithered out of the water and on to the sandy bank. About 20 yards downstream, a giant gray crane sat atop a sewage pipe that runs across the creek.
Barbara Rose can see this section from her upstairs bathroom window. She and her husband have lived along Little Sugar Creek for 38 years. In that time, this area has seen some of the great demographic changes that mark the region. Today, the creek runs alongside a recreational area where Hispanic soccer players chatter amongst themselves and affluent suburbanites play tennis and lounge by a pool.
From Huntingtowne Farms Park, the creek crosses 485 and enters Pineville, where it continues past Hwy 51 just west of Carolina Place Mall, then along the James K. Polk Memorial and Hwy 521. The final section winds through remote and inaccessible areas south of Pineville until it becomes Big Sugar Creek before flowing into the Catawba River.
Thousands of people undoubtedly drive along or over Little Sugar Creek every day without even knowing it's there. Yet Charlotte was built -- and in many cases torn down -- along the embattled waterway, which cuts across social, economic and racial lines. It is a symbol of the Queen City's history, its people, its successes and failures -- and its future.
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