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NoDa: An oral history of an arts district

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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.


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