Bolted to a wall in the back of the historic Morgan School building in Charlotte's Cherry neighborhood is a rusted-out sign facing a wooded area.
"School maintained in this community for benefit of its citizens. Please protect against damage and abuse to your buildings," the sign reads. It's a message to its neighbors from the local school board, but now, as the building sits abandoned, it reads more like a cry for help.
The Morgan School was built in 1925 and opened two years later as a school for black children in the historically African-American neighborhood of Cherry. It operated as such until 1967, and continued to offer different educative programs after that, serving as a school for pregnant teens in the '80s and for emotionally and behaviorally handicapped students in the '90s.
In 1997, the Morgan School became Community Charter School, and stayed that way until the end of the school year in June 2017, when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which still owns the building, declined to extend the lease. Community Charter had been struggling in recent years with declining test scores and enrollment, and CMS officials decided to sell the property.
Now, as CMS undergoes a change in leadership, any plans for the historic building have been placed on the back burner.
The school sits empty today, the grass growing longer. A wooden stage in the back goes unused, colorful but empty benches facing it in anticipation.
- Benches sit empty outside the present-day Morgan School. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
Dan Morrill, consulting director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC), is hoping that whatever the future holds, the historic brick building, built by renowned Charlotte architect Louis H. Asbury, is saved.
"It's the icon of the neighborhood," Morrill says. "It's the most significant structure in that community, done by a very prominent architect. Obviously, there are people who have strong feelings about that."
Although the building itself remains in relatively good shape, driving by it gives Morrill a bad feeling. His Randolph Road office is just a mile or two from the old school, and he's been sad to see the building going unused and uncared for. It's the first time in his memory that the school has sat abandoned.
"I drove by the Morgan School today, and I was a little bit alarmed because the grass is being allowed to grow up, and that clearly communicates that it's an abandoned building, and that is an invitation to vandalism," he says.
Morrill and the HLC put in an offer to buy the building in late 2016, when it became clear that Community Charter would no longer be operating there. He says he was told the city had showed interest in potentially purchasing the building and that he should wait to see how that plays out.
He was OK with that, but now he's getting anxious for some plan to be announced.
"From my own particular perspective, it would be really beneficial to have a preservation plan in place, where either we move ahead or the city moves ahead or somebody else moves ahead," he says.
Representatives with CMS say there's no plan in place for Morgan School's future at the moment, and no one with the city could be reached who had any knowledge of efforts to buy the school.
If the HLC were to buy the building, Morrill's goal would be to stabilize the structure — replacing the roof, windows and the foundation, if needed — then place restrictive covenants in the deed that would protect its future before reselling it to someone or an organization with a viable plan for long-term adaptive use. He carried out a similar plan in the '80s with the old Hand's Pharmacy on North Davidson and 35th streets, now home to Cabo Fish Taco.
The HLC, unlike the county or city, is not regulated to sell properties to the highest bidder. They take factors such as the long-term viability of any potential use into consideration before selling. This helps Morrill make moves based on preservation over profit.
"The marketplace has no sentiment, it's going to be driven by highest and best use, and highest and best use is defined by how much money can you make on something," Morrill says.
"You cannot just listen to the marketplace. Every last bit of Cherry would be gone. Every bit of Cherry will be gone, in my judgment, if the market is simply allowed to do what it wants to do."
- A basket-less basketball goal at the present-day Morgan School site. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
To this day, Myers Park and Cherry, both designed in similar fashion by renowned local planner John Nolen, stand in stark contrast to one another in terms of average income and home prices.
Morrill notes how a simple drive through the two serves as a powerful lesson.
"I remember years ago when I would take people on tours of Charlotte and I wanted them to understand the impact of racial division on the built environment, I would purposefully take them into Cherry and then take them right into Myers Park and, boom, you go half a block and then, whap, it's just unbelievable," he says.
One of Charlotte's oldest neighborhoods, Cherry began as a town separate from Charlotte in 1891. Cotton planter John Springs Myers, owner of the 1,000-acre Myers Plantation, founded Cherry two decades before his plantation would become the nucleus for the Myers Park neighborhood.
Myers, known in his time as a philanthropist for the African-American community, included institutional, recreational and commercial facilities within Cherry, things that were rarely seen in black neighborhoods at the time.
He included relatively inexpensive lots throughout the planned community, and by the time the Morgan School was built in the mid-'20s, home ownership in Cherry was more than 60 percent, extremely high for a black community at that time. Morgan Park, which sits directly across from the school and is known now as Cherry Park, was the first city park to serve a black neighborhood.
Myers died in 1925, the year the contract was let for Morgan School. His son and later his grandchildren became responsible for managing the community. As development pressure grew due to the construction of Independence Boulevard in the '40s and the opening of the nearby Charlottetowne Mall in 1958, Brevard Myers successfully campaigned against the wholesale clearance of Cherry due to urban renewal plans that would do away with other black neighborhoods like Greenville and Brooklyn.
Despite Brevard Myers' efforts to save the neighborhood, he and John Dwelle — both grandsons to John Springs Myers — began consolidating their holdings in Cherry throughout the '50s and '60s. By 1970, home ownership was at just 17 percent.
At some point in the 1960s, however, Cherry residents stepped up and took control of their neighborhood. Neighbors formed the Cherry Community Organization, a neighborhood association that also acted as a land trust, and bought out the remaining holdings of Myers and Dwelle.
In 1985, the first new construction in 25 years began in Cherry. Over the years, development and construction would change the borders of Cherry, but the foundation of the neighborhood, the center of which is Morgan School and Cherry Park, remained intact.
In recent years, however, due to rapid development and urban sprawl, the face of the neighborhood has changed dramatically. In 2015, the percentage of black residents living in Cherry stood at 37, compared to 66 percent in 1990.
Since the end of the 2008 recession, developers have moved in on Cherry at a rapid rate, building $600,000 homes where housing worth a fraction of that once stood.
Mike Gordon, owner of Gordon's Barber Shop at the corner of Baldwin Avenue and Baxter Street, just a block from Morgan School, says he has witnessed a dramatic change in the decade since he moved his shop into Cherry.
"It was a majority black community, and what I've found out over the years is they were renters, they were ran out in that capacity and now it's more luxurious spots, the $600,000 houses," he says. "It's almost like it's pushing out the minorities from certain parts of the city.
- Cherry barber Mike Gordon. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
Sitting in a coffee shop in Uptown on a recent afternoon, Rhonda Fisher-Duncan and Keith Alyea look like the embodiment of the term "gentrifiers," and they know it.
The well-coiffed, sharp-dressed pair just scream affluence, and it's a label they've been trying to shake since they recently moved to Cherry.
Fisher-Duncan moved into the neighborhood two years ago with her husband in search of a shorter commute to their Uptown jobs. The two were empty nesters, and wanted to downsize from their large suburban home.
Alyea moved from South Charlotte to the Metropolitan with his husband a few years back and they kept their eyes on Cherry's development. When a row of Saussy Burbank homes went up last year, they jumped on the opportunity, and moved in officially on October 1.
Fisher-Duncan spent some time before our meeting combing the web looking for articles that paint Cherry's development in a negative light. She says she has 30 links saved from searching for just a short time, with none that tell the positive stories of the neighborhood's evolution.
Alyea emphasizes that he was attracted to the neighborhood for its diversity.
"We did not move to Cherry because we wanted it to become a completely gentrified, washed-out neighborhood," he says. "I don't want to live in South Charlotte again."
Fisher-Duncan nods in agreement. "Exactly, that's why I moved. That's what I moved from," she says.
The two say they have tried to get involved in the neighborhood through community meetings held by the CCO, which still owns 10 properties in the neighborhoods, but doesn't operate as your typical neighborhood association.
The CCO holds "information sharing meetings" but doesn't allow input from residents in attendance. Attempts to reach CCO leaders for this article were unsuccessful.
Alyea says he was frustrated at a meeting regarding the future of Morgan School — when a merger between Community Charter School and Davidson Charter School was still on the table at the end of 2016 — after his calls for a floor vote on one particular issue went completely ignored.
"There's the feeling that we just don't know how to get involved to help drive any of the decisions that are going on in the neighborhood," says Fisher-Duncan. "My husband and I were very aware when we first arrived that it wasn't something where we just wanted to go in and say, 'Here we are.' But we really want to get involved and I think with the diversity of the people that have moved in we could bring a lot of good ideas and creativity and things like that into the neighborhood and help make it better."
That effort could begin with plans for the Morgan School.
Larken Egleston, a candidate for city council District 1, where Cherry is, has suggested the school be turned into affordable housing. Alyea and Fisher-Duncan say they'd rather see it remain in the public space.
They point out that, although Cherry gets a bad reputation as being a poster child of sorts for gentrification, the 163 units of affordable housing already in the neighborhood or currently under construction make up around 45 percent of all housing in Cherry, a higher percentage than any "fringe" neighborhood near Uptown. A potential rezoning could also open the door for a proposed development of 200 income-restricted units for "workforce housing," as well.
Around the neighborhood, many long-time residents and newcomers alike agree that if there will be no school in the building, it should be used as a community center of some sort.
Gordon, whose granddaughter attended Community Charter School, shoots down the suggestion of a rec center, saying he's "sick of basketball and football" and wants to see the kids learning something that will help them in school.
"We've got an issue here with a lot of killings in Charlotte, in the community," Gordon says. "We need to have a place where the kids can go and get educated for things to get better. That place is a great place to have a center with computers and educational stuff so kids can more or less go and see there's more to life than what they see out here in front of them.
"As a kid who grew up on the streets of Philadelphia, by not having outlets, you felt like that was all there was. That building could be a great place for kids to envision beyond where they're at."
Fisher-Duncan's hopes for the property echo those of her neighbor Gordon.
"We need something we could use in the community because we don't really have a place; some kind of arts center, a women's center maybe. It used to be a center for pregnant teenagers, so it used to function in that kind of way," she says. "My vision would be a center where people could go to learn skills of some sort, to educate them, be it on basic finance, how you operate a checking account, a savings account, things like that."
Regardless of their feelings on the neighborhood evolution, the one thing almost everyone in Cherry can agree on is that the Morgan School building needs to stay. For Gordon, losing the school would be a last straw, the complete erasure of a bygone era.
"I don't even know the neighborhood anymore because of all the stuff that they did," Gordon says. "The school is a landmark for us in this area. I believe if you take that kind of stuff away, the community is gone, it's over."
[Editor's Note: An original version of this story said Cherry was in District 2. That was a typo. Cherry and Larken Egleston's campaign is in District 1.]