Dr. Ronald Carter's first real look at the Northwest Corridor, or Beatties Ford Road, came as a shock. Detailed in Let There Be Light: An Anthology Exploring How Charlotte's Historic West End is Shaping a New South, Carter describes driving under the I-77 bridge on North Tryon Street back in 2008.
"I thought I had entered another world. It wasn't a gradual decline, but rather an abrupt and dramatic demarcation between the city's haves and have-nots," Johnson C. Smith University's president writes in the book's foreword.
Six years later, from his plush office on Johnson C. Smith's campus, the university president elaborates. "I saw the empty lots and boarded-up buildings. And I was saying, 'How could it stop the way it stopped?' It's a question, and the answer may be innocent, but if you're raising that question, we need to understand what goes into these decisions."
Let There Be Light illuminates some of the factors from decades past that impacted the Northwest Corridor, both when it was on the rise and when it began to deteriorate. Carter, who envisions it as the first in a series of anthologies, plans to go further with the next installments and dig into the back room conversations that are behind some of the policy decisions affecting the area. He recalls a public meeting about mass transit in which a city councilman called the proposed Gold Line down Beatties Ford a gimmick.
"What does that say about us," Carter says, "that we would allow that kind of narrative to be told, that to invest in the Northwest Corridor is a gimmick, a waste of resources? There's gotta be debate around these critical issues."
Carter hopes Let There Be Light sets the stage for this mission. The collection of essays by historians, journalists, government officials and activists positions itself as a tool to change the conversation about Beatties Ford Road. Instead of anecdotal musings on its deterioration, the anthology steps back and offers a fuller historical picture of the place that was once and may still be the closest thing to a black Main Street in Charlotte.
Carter and editor Ron Stodghill assembled a gathering of local thought leaders and asked what they wanted to talk about. It was important to both men to make sure the community stayed in control of their own narrative. The assembly outlined the issues that were foremost in their minds, with the history of the Northwest Corridor first on the list.
The book is split into three sections: The Soul of the Northwest Corridor, The Workings of the Human Heart and Things That Matter.
The first portion surveys the creation of many of Charlotte's black neighborhoods, from working-class Biddleville to Hyde Park's suburban spreads, all strung along with Beatties Ford as the spine. Tom Hanchett's chapter reads like a guided tour through time, and is rich with details on some of Charlotte's most well-known and respected African-American families. Mary Newsome takes on the gentrification of Wesley Heights and other center-city neighborhoods with facts and numbers that may astonish and definitely leave a more informed idea of Charlotte's past.
But the book is strongest in the middle, where Sow Much Good founder and 2013 CNN Hero Robin Emmons shares in breathtaking honesty how her brother's mental illness and addiction propelled her down the path to advocacy. Traveling from her well-paying corporate job to her south Charlotte digs, she sometimes caught glimpses of her sibling, then homeless, slipping onto city buses in the winter cold. "The sightings broke my heart," she writes, "and frankly, the weight of my superficial success became unbearable." She eventually founded Sunset Road Urban Farm to address some of the inequities she saw. The book's third act, Things That Matter, details challenges facing the Corridor now. Eric Frazier gives an excellent timeline of the school closings of 2010, which disproportionately harmed the educational prospects of Charlotte's black, low-income students. Healthcare, JCSU's community-building projects and faith-based outreach are all covered, some in less detail than would be ideal.
The anthology suffers in spots from back-door bragging, and some essays can feel teacherly and dry. But it's invaluable as a comprehensive history of one of Charlotte's most important and ignored districts. And the exciting fact is that it's only the beginning.
"We've got to say to folk, we will no longer sit and listen; we will begin to ask questions and say you need to tell us more about this," Carter says. "If it's a waste of taxpayer money, let's hear more about this conversation — and let's record it. Let's get it in writing. So that 15 years later, maybe you're right. Maybe you're wrong. But you'll never be able to say, 'I didn't say that.'"