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NoDa: An oral history of an arts district

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In the shadows of Uptown Charlotte, just two miles to the north, sits NoDa — short for North Davidson — the quirky neighborhood where artists blend with yuppies like specialty java drinks from Smelly Cat Coffeehouse. It's a walker's paradise, replete with colorful eye candy and clashing music, where sounds of folksingers, rock bands, slam poets and hip-hop acts bleed out onto the streets from local clubs, where art galleries and shops cater to the bohemian chic out looking for the latest outfits or funky artwork.

It wasn't always like this. Many of those who stroll artsy NoDa today wouldn't have set foot here in the early '80s. Back then, drug dealers clashed with police amid boarded-up buildings and dilapidating homes.

That didn't stop Paul Sires and Ruth Ava Lyons from finding an oasis at the corner of North Davidson and 36th Street. They saw possibilities for artists in this former mill village. Cheap rent, lots of space. In the quarter-century since these two pioneers moved in, NoDa has transformed from a dangerous neighborhood into a hipster strip that now also attracts bankers and other professionals who live vicariously amid all the creativity. But one man's face-lift is another's gentrification. For early NoDa denizens and longtime residents of North Charlotte, it's all just a little bittersweet.

CL decided to let the folks who live there tell NoDa's story.

The 1980s

Sires: In 1986, it was pretty well boarded up. There were a couple of bars. There was a machine shop — McCullough Auto and Electric — and there was a print shop. That was pretty much it. It was kind of abandoned and just a handful of artists. But it was a cool neighborhood. Mostly mill houses that were still intact. We could afford to buy our building for the studio space. Because it was a little business district, we could see something happening there as opposed to other parts of town with their long, long roads and lots of buildings. Our initial building, we renovated over five or six years. It was four storefronts and three upstairs. We'd rent space out to other artists.

Only a few blocks over, the residents of North Charlotte were experiencing a very different side of life. While artists were setting up shop on Davidson, Swanson (who goes by one name only) saw the neighborhood spiraling out of control.

Swanson: In 1987, I was just coming back because I had moved away. By that time, crack cocaine had been introduced, and it was a lot different around here. It went from being the neighborhood that it was to more like a gang war between cops and drug dealers. The regular people were just caught in the middle. You had everyday people just trying to live a normal life, living in a neighborhood that police had deemed a drug-infested area, which to me was a bogus profile — you can get drugs from anywhere in Charlotte.

When you came outside, you had to deal with the drug dealers making sales in front of your house and making it look bad for you. Then the cops show up, and they harassed any and everybody walking down the street. You couldn't even go to the store, and you couldn't wear nice clothes. If you did, they were jumping out on you, slamming you on the concrete, slamming you against the cars.

Another lifelong resident, Damon Crawford, recalls growing up in North Charlotte long before the drug dealers or NoDa existed.

Damon Crawford: There were businesses here. You had two or three meat markets in the neighborhood. You had all kinds of stores and businesses. During the summer, you had something to do with Parks and Rec. Everything was black-owned, the people in the neighborhood looked like you. The neighborhood could be dangerous, but no one was going to walk up and do something to you.

Sires: People were afraid to come there, but for us it seemed like a natural thing to do. We'd moved to Charlotte from Detroit and Cleveland. There were artist areas [there], artist-run galleries, and it was natural to have artists taking control of their own destinies and not waiting around for someone to say, "Here, let me help you." We moved to Charlotte pretty well penniless. We put everything we had back into our studios and into our art and kept plugging along.

The 1990s

Revitalization came to North Charlotte by the '90s, and as more artists moved into NoDa, the old mill houses got face-lifts.

Sires: In the '90s, we opened [Center of The Earth] gallery and immediately after, other galleries opened. There was a lot of energy and a lot of guerilla-art movements, but to our frustration, we had an incredibly difficult time convincing other artists and other people to come out and invest in the neighborhood. It seemed to take forever. The next big event in the neighborhood was when [the restaurant and punk club] Fat City opened, and it gave people in the area some place to eat and gave the bohemian crowd sort of an epicenter.

Swanson: You had some private people come in and buy out the old houses, and they made them look better. Then you had the Belmont CDC [community development center] over here on Harrill Street. They're trying to build houses and get people back into new houses, and they started calling it the Belmont Community instead of North Charlotte.

Crawford: This neighborhood really went to hell when Pat McCrory got in office [in 1995]. The city started treating North Charlotte like a third-world country. All of the businesses started to disappear. You couldn't have a bar in the neighborhood, but I could go and drink alcohol on Davidson Street [in newly christened NoDa]. But all of this is North Charlotte — I don't give a damn what you call it. The best changes I've seen is black folks starting to own their houses. That's doing away with a lot of rental properties. People started realizing that right here in North Charlotte, you're seven minutes from everything.

The 2000s

Galleries were thriving. Center of the Earth was joined by new places, such as Green Rice Gallery and The Rat's Nest. More people were gathering at restaurants like Boudreaux's and Smelly Cat. In 2005, NoDa School of the Arts opened. That year, Marcus Kiser moved into Mecklenburg Mill Apartments, where he and others formed the God City art collective.

Kiser: It was an eclectic art scene going on. As an artist looking for galleries to display your work, I thought it was a cool area. A lot of the guys I admired stayed over there, and I wanted to be surrounded by the artists in the area. I knew Wolly [another member of God City] stayed over there, Q from On Q Productions. It was inspirational.

Wolly: I liked to draw, [but] up until we formed the group, I didn't start taking things more seriously. Before that, I was just drawing and doing designs for shirts. I didn't really consider it art. But when we linked up in the Mills, I started seeing things.

A year later, the Mills were shut down, allegedly due to termite infestation, and the residents, mostly artists, had to relocate to hotels across the city.

Kiser: Wolly lived below me, and we were in his apartment working on some art, then we get a knock at the door. It was someone from the leasing office, and they were like, "We need you to come down to the leasing office because we need to talk to you." It was a weird situation. I think it was a lot of politics behind it. I didn't buy the whole termite thing. You know me: I'm one of those guys that questions everything.

Wolly: Half the people weren't even at home when that happened. But when you watched what was going on and saw how NoDa was changing — we're living here at reasonable rates and getting better or the same space as the new people who just moved in up the street at crazy rates — you knew something was going to happen. Gentrification happens all of the time. Some people didn't want to look at things for what they really were, but I'd seen the changes in NoDa on the art side. When that situation happened, it put a general distaste in my mouth for the people inhabiting NoDa. None of those people came to our aide, none of those people offered support.

Kiser: You lost a lot of diversity when that building shut down. Back then, it was like a college atmosphere. I remember walking down to RealEyes Bookstore [now closed] and hanging out with Darren. I loved it. It was kind of amazing.

Darren Vincent, former RealEyes owner who currently owns Red @28th, recalled the effect the closing had on the neighborhood.

Vincent: Once they were gone, our profits dropped dramatically. The clientele that was here before, it was really a community. It's just not that community anymore. You have a lot of people from the outside coming in. We used to know each other in NoDa. I don't know anyone in this neighborhood anymore.

For Smelly Cat owner Cathy Tuman, 2006 was the year she underwent a personal change. The formerly conservative California native and mother had moved to Charlotte, purchased the coffeehouse and began opening up as a progressive thinker. At the same time, Lee Lally — owner of Custom, a jewelry shop — was purchasing a condo in NoDa, moving into an area he'd always thought was cool. Their transitions came with challenges.

Tuman: I felt like I was in a fishbowl initially. We weren't from the neighborhood. We weren't from North Carolina. The neighborhood matriarchs and patriarchs were checking us out. I would say that took a good year. The neighborhood wanted to see if there was a like-mindedness in lifestyle, in being receptive and accepting of different lifestyles, if we were going to be judgmental or supportive.

Lally: When I moved over here, I was still young, so it was the only thing I could afford and it still be nice. I knew it was a cool place. NoDa is its own neighborhood, and it's set off from everything else. I like Plaza Midwood, but you can't live over there for less than a quarter of a million dollars. I bought my condo in 2005. It was still a little bit sketchy. I had my car broken into a couple of times.

The crime spurred Lally and others to form a neighborhood association and work for better police response, something longtime North Charlotte residents found ironic.

Swanson: You know, back in the day, there were clubs and bars on North Davidson Street, and the police would sit out there waiting and watching us. As soon as you stepped out of the door with a cup in your hand, you'd get stopped. But now, look at NoDa — you see people walking around with wine in their hands all the time. That's not right. All of the things that we were doing in the neighborhood was wrong, but now it's OK.

Today

The recession has shut the doors of many galleries, and higher-priced homes have made NoDa unaffordable for young artists wanting to follow the paths of trailblazers like Lyons and Sires. But for the most part, residents remain optimistic.

Lally: It's still a place for artists. They come in the shop all the time. It's a very tight-knit neighborhood. I think it has the potential to be Charlotte's next up-and-coming neighborhood because of its proximity to Uptown. The rail line will help, too.

Sires: When the light rail goes through and we have a station at 36th Street, that is going to energize that whole corridor, and five years from now there's going to be another conversation about how NoDa has changed. I think it's going to have a super-positive impact on the neighborhood.


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