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King's Dream?

In Charlotte's suburbs, a racial drama is unfolding

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It happened almost by accident, University City leaders say.

If you moved to Charlotte 10 years ago and couldn't afford a $300,000 house, your real estate agent most likely directed you to the new subdivisions of east Charlotte that grew up around UNCC. At that time, thousands of African-Americans were moving to Charlotte. They, together with many white newcomers, wound up settling in the University area. Because of the wide range in housing prices, many of these newcomers stayed on as their careers advanced and incomes grew.

"If you look at University City, at those three zip codes, it's one of the few places that you can come in and rent your first apartment, buy your first house at $80,000, move all the way up to $500,000 and still be in the same five-mile radius so your child is not at risk, technically, of moving schools," said University City YMCA Executive Director Mike DeVaul.

The result has been a pocket of suburban diversity that's rare in Charlotte — and just about everywhere else. While whites in other areas of Charlotte have fled by the thousands as African-Americans moved in, the University area has managed to maintain a precarious racial balance that is almost utopian — and, some believe, too good to last.

The University City area is only 67 percent white now, down from 78 percent in 1990; a quarter of the area's population is now African-American. Part of DeVaul's job is to track the changing demographics of the community the YMCA targets and make sure the Y's membership reflects it. His maps show that the University area's African-American community is largely spread out across neighborhoods of all income ranges.

In zip codes such as 28269, where the median income is $71,700, there seems to be a greater dividing line among the lower, middle and upper middle classes than there is between people of different races. Between 1990 and 2000, 17,700 whites and 8,100 blacks moved to zip code 28269, which is located between East Field and Mallard Creek roads and I-77. Upper income types tend to choose the eastern part of the zip code, toward the county line, while people of lesser means, regardless of race, are more likely to be found on the western side.

Because of that, many of the schools in the area, such as North Mecklenburg High School, have minority populations of 35 percent or more.

"When people look at the [racial breakdown] of North Meck today, they are just shocked," said DeVaul.

While the University area and east side in general seem to be most popular among African-American newcomers to Charlotte, all but five of the county's 30 zip codes saw double-and triple-digit increases in the percentage of African-Americans in the last decade and a half.

In the process, the large influx of African-Americans to the county — 61,000 new faces since 1995 alone — has radically altered the social landscape here so quickly that the area's leadership has been left in the dust.

The problem, say many who have closely followed Charlotte-Mecklenburg's rapidly changing demographics, is that most of our leaders are operating under the assumption that this county still looks like it did 10 years ago.

When DeVaul ran into former mayor Harvey Gantt at O'Hare airport recently, the YMCA executive gave Gantt an earful. DeVaul's message was simple. The people making decisions in Charlotte should get on a bus and take a field trip to the suburbs sometime to see what's really going on.

"I said, 'Harvey, you've got to change everybody else's paradigm,'" said DeVaul. "Yours is changing, but it's not for the people around you who are making decisions about the schools. They have the same old filter, and most of them live in the center city and south Charlotte and that is their filter."

Civic activist Madine Fails came to Charlotte in 1986. "I can remember when we moved into Highland Creek when it first opened and my son might be the only black kid there in the swimming pool," she said. "Now, when I take my morning walks and see people along the parkway, there are just all kinds of African-Americans who have moved into the neighborhood."

Houses in the massive subdivision, which opened in 1993 and has expanded to thousands of homes, run from $100,000 to $300,000. Fails said she often wonders how many white people will put their houses up for sale as time goes on if African-Americans continue moving into the neighborhood.

So far, large numbers of both whites and blacks are still moving into the middle and upper-middle income east side.

"If the neighborhood is ritzy, there are some places where class can trump race concerns," said Charles Gallagher, a professor at the Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies at Georgia State. "If someone that is black moves into the neighborhood, the assumption is that if these folks can afford a $600,000 house, they must have all the kinds of values that whites see themselves as basically having."

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