In Greenville's spacious Neighborhood Park, Thomas "Pops" Sadler blows a whistle and spreads his middle and ring fingers apart, making a Trekkie-like symbol to his neighborhood band. Phillip Sadler, his grandson and captain, changes the cadence to "sweet thing," one of the 130 the band knows, each signaled by a different hand sign.
Pops has gray hair, glasses and a gentle, grandfatherly voice. Nodding slightly and tapping to the beat, he watches over his kids. There's E.J., 3, on a red tenor drum; Shawn Hall, the oldest in the band at 18, on a six-piece quint attached to a wooden harness; a 6-year-old girl in braids at her very first practice looking behind her to emulate the moves of her older peers.
Pops started the Greenville Community Combined Youth Organization in 1991 and has had more than 1,200 drummers and dancers beat and saunter their way through his marching band. In addition to giving the neighborhood kids a clean extracurricular activity, the band has brought the neighborhood together. "We have dads that will be here assisting in one way or another. Moms will be out talking to each other. If it wasn't for this band, on Saturday mornings, they'd all be off doing different things."
The median household income in Greenville -- an area near downtown, bordered by Oaklawn Avenue, Seabord Street, Statesville Avenue, and the Brookshire Freeway -- is $32,583. About 20 percent of its residents receive food stamps. Yet at .8 of a percent, the crime rate is below the city's 1 percent average and has been on the decline for 15 years.
Greenville is one of 92 neighborhoods (out of 176) the city classifies as "stable." Of the 92, Greenville has the fourth lowest median household income ($39,882 less than the average for stable neighborhoods) and the fourth lowest average house value ($109,199 less than the average for stable neighborhoods).
Pops remembers when Greenville was one of Charlotte's major slums. A third generation Greenville resident, Pops grew up in the neighborhood in the 1950s. He lived with his parents and grandparents in a rented shotgun house, named because the kitchen, living room and single bedroom could all be hit if someone fired a shotgun through the house. Old landlords never bothered to track down their deadbeat tenants, so when Pops' family got too far behind in rent, they would move to a vacant house, call the new landlord and tell him they were now leasing his home. Everyone pulled this trick.
Greenville's nickname was D.C., which stood for Dope Country. Bootleg houses and heroin addicts populated the streets. Competing gangs fought over drug territory: the Posse, the Mustang Gang, the Black Patch. The first time Pops' wife Marie came to visit him in Greenville, she saw two women arguing over a man. The skinnier lady sliced a heavyset woman with a straight-laced razor across the chest, causing her breast to flop out of her body. The most common activity in the neighborhood was to run out of the house at the sound of gunfire to see who was shooting whom. A front page story ran in the Observer on May 11, 1966, with the headline "From This Pit Oozes Crime."
When the city decided to tear down the entire Greenville neighborhood in 1968 to put up the Brookshire Freeway, the destruction of a neighborhood and the displacement of its citizens wasn't seen as a drawback to the project.
But Pops always saw a different Greenville -- a vibrant Greenville where poverty was irrelevant.
Ministers and bootleggers lived next to each other and would walk to the market together, knowing each other's lots but still finding things to talk about. Neighbors took whole families into their homes if they were down and out.
Greenville kids used to climb up the ladders of the grain silos on Seaboard Street to capture pigeons in sacks. They would raise them in coops and train the pigeons to tumble, trying to outdo each other with their pigeons' tricks. On special occasions, or on paydays, people would go to Pioneer Restaurant, the only fine dining establishment in the area, run by a man known as the Preacher.
Pops' own family was part of the drug problem, he says. Though he never got involved in drugs, Pops wasn't a saint. When he was just 16, Pops was sentenced to two years at the Caledonia Prison Farm for robbing a school. He was the youngest kid at the maximum security prison. After he got out, his mission was to save as many kids from following his path as he could. He started in his back yard.
Ten years after Greenville was torn down, a historical society formed to orchestrate the rebuilding process. In the 1980s, though, Greenville continued its old ways. So Pops got active. He started a neighborhood association, formed the band, and researched and found a variety of places to fund grants for projects like a community center and a computer lab. Pops required all people who took the computer class to sign an agreement saying they would teach what they had learned to future classes.
Many Charlotte neighborhoods, like J.T. Williams and Ponderosa, have sought Pops' council in trying to clean up their crime-ridden hoods. A small town by the NC coast offered Pops a job and a house to be the Pops of their community. He was about to go, but at the last second, he realized he couldn't leave Greenville and the kids that depended on him.
With the Music Factory now linking Greenville with center city, some developers have speculated that gentrification will be a likely by-product of the project and downtown's rocketing expansion as a whole. But Pops, who has seen the neighborhood rise from the dead, isn't concerned about changes in the neighborhood.
"We have die-hards. They don't want to hear anything about moving. We've had folk move away from here and come back to say it was the biggest mistake they've ever made."
Pops is thrilled with how the developers of the Music Factory project, the Ark Group, have treated the neighborhood. Ark has hired six unemployed Greenville residents for full-time construction jobs and is interested in including some Greenville residents as tenants for businesses.
Sherry Reid is one interested neighborhood business owner. Currently, she owns Statesville Market Café down Statesville Avenue, on the outskirts of Greenville. Besides the benefit of relocating to a more trafficked location, moving to the Music Factory would be a homecoming. Reid is the daughter of the Preacher and helped run the Pioneer restaurant until she and her parents were forced out by condo development. There is now a Subway where the Pioneer used to be.
"I still dream about that place. I grew up there. It was sort of like a homestead. Moving back to the area would be full circle."