Steve is packing up his eight-color screen-printing press, disconnecting the conveyor heater and boxing up the ink ... again. Tina is fighting with the steel bolts that secure photo-developing equipment to the concrete floor. Jesse and Nate are planning one last party for the bands.
From behind my drum kit, I'm watching my friends and bandmates scramble for a new home after being kicked out of the place we've been calling Docklands for the last couple of years. Moving on isn't the hardest part; running out of options in Charlotte is.
Gentrification has slowly changed Charlotte's landscape. While it's redeveloped some neighborhoods, including NoDa, it has displaced some residents, mostly the creative and working class.
One of Charlotte's newest developments will reduce NoDa's Newco Fiber complex — the center of which its occupants have dubbed "Docklands" — to rubble starting Jan. 12. Docklands and its adjoining brick warehouses stand at the foot of the future CATS Blue Line extension and NoDa's upcoming light-rail station. Though the city had planned to work around the building, the complex's owner sent tenants word in November that it decided to demolish most of the complex before it was locked in by light-rail construction. (Attempts to reach the owner to comment on this story were unsuccessful.)
It's no secret that the 150,000-square-foot complex is out of date. As with many of the historical structures that link to NoDa's industrial past, the Newco Fiber complex wasn't built to last, and years of neglect by past owners pushed the cost of repair well beyond recoup for the current owner. Portions of the complex are still sound and visually striking, but past neglect has made it unsuitable for the general public to use as commercial space.
"I don't want to look like a victim," said Jesse Reaves, the guitarist in our band, Black Market, "because we're not. We knew it was going to happen eventually."
Still, as the complex is destroyed, so is one more affordable work space for artists and galleries often priced out of the market in the name of urban renewal.
THE U-SHAPED COMPLEX covers an entire city block, from 35th to 36th streets, and sits between the two rail lines that carve up NoDa. The center of the U is Docklands' namesake: a terraced concrete courtyard of loading docks and pathways once used to pack trucks and freight trains. It's also named after one of London's great feats of urban renewal — docks along the Thames River belonging to the Port of London, which were converted for commercial and residential use.
The Charlotte Roller Girls practice their derby skills in the belly of the U; five Charlotte bands share rehearsal and studio space in the room that was once the electrical "brain" of the complex. Two screen printers, a jeweler, a darkroom studio, a club for vintage motorcycle enthusiasts, a dance studio, the Chop Shop music venue, the less-glamorous tire warehouse and Ultimate Gym also occupy the industrial brick buildings. The musicians who make up the "control room" portion of Docklands converted it into a recording studio, rehearsal space and musicians' collective.
The last most publicly visible use of the complex was by the Dugg Dugg Gallery, which, for an all-too-short period of time in 2009, occupied the vast upstairs of the oldest warehouse, which was built in the 1900s. The gallery was forced to leave after it couldn't afford to comply with fire codes. Though empty, the space is still beautiful. Hand-hewn wood planks span several hundred feet and dust and splinters catch the light from the full wall of windows overlooking the Johnston Mill. The ceiling cupola features a panoramic bay of windows which can be hand-cranked from an elaborate system of metal bars, connected to open the space for better ventilation.
At press time, the portions of the complex not slated to meet the wrecking ball were The Ultimate Gym and The Chop Shop, which occupy the two furthest tips of the "U."
ON ANY GIVEN DAY in Docklands, the warm smell of tube amps and electrical transistors mix with gasoline fumes and exhaust from next door as the motorcycle club works to restore vintage and cafe-style bikes. Over the top of a half-demolished, 30-foot interior brick partition, the smells of metal-smithing and darkroom chemicals mix with the cold must trapped in the porous concrete floors, scarred and stained over a long life.
My buddy Steve Shipman knows this place well. In 2011, he leased space for his screen-printing business, Pandemic Printworks, in the white annex facing East 36th Street, but as rent continued to climb, he relocated into the center.
"It is dark, cold and dirty, but I think of my move ... to the Docks as a big step forward," Shipman said. "I was looking for other spots, and I felt like I needed to stay in the 'hood, so that was the only place I really considered as an option at the time. Over a year later, everyone in the Docks is super cool, and we all found a way to make it work."
Many of the artists and business owners in Docklands traded comfort for affordable space and a community that revolves around sharing resources.
"Docklands was a great community for us as a band," said Black Market guitarist Reaves. "Charlotte is pretty spread out and fragmented for musicians, and our goal has always been to expand our circle and meet new and like-minded people. Once we started using Docklands as our epicenter and started hanging out with the other groups who shared the space, we started to feel less like a band without a home. It kind of felt like Andy Warhol's factory or something — always someone around doing something interesting."
Because of the center's intricate layout, you wouldn't even know the Charlotte Roller Girls were practicing.
"This is the space I have called home and looked forward to coming to four times a week," said skater Total Lizaster. "It's where I learned to skate and where I became a Charlotte Roller Girl. I've had so many amazing memories on that track. I love the warehouse. The grunginess, the way my voice echoes over the rink, the random stuff that gets stuck to my wheels from rolling around in it. My heart will break when it is demolished to a pile of rubble."
THE GENERAL FIRE EXTINGUISHER CO. began building the complex in the early 1900s to provide fire safety for the neighboring Highland, Johnston and Mecklenburg textile producers. The pairing of textiles and fire prevention is evident throughout the complex, in the miles of red pipes snaking along the ceiling and in the intricately designed mechanical systems. The automated sprinklers the company developed are still used to protect buildings from fire.
In the '30s, New England Waste Co. (later Newco) moved in and pioneered fiber and textile recycling, selling and shipping the scraps from the nearby textile mills. The scraps and fibers were processed several ways, in different parts of the complex, and turned into the tiny strands that made up dollar bills, or they met their demise in the giant furnace rooms now home to the Chop Shop.
Warehouses and additional space were later built to stretch the complex closer to Highland Mill and 35th Street, and annexes were added as recently as the '60s. The oldest and most architecturally striking structure, Dugg Dugg's former digs, sits on East 36th Street, facing the Mecklenburg Mill.
Joe Kuhlmann, a long-time NoDa resident and owner of the nearby Evening Muse, was one of the first residents to begin to re-purpose and occupy the building, in 2002. He leased space in the upstairs annex and spent weeks shoveling out fibers to build a studio and control room that would eventually become 36th Street Studios. Over the next 22 months, before he moved, Kuhlmann produced more than 40 records for various major labels and local up-and-coming acts, including the The Avett Brothers and justincase.
"The factory environment was very inspiring and raw," he said. "It allowed for musicians to feel free to spread out and bounce around. I miss that special space; lots of great music emerged from those walls."
To find a new home, the creatives who have inhabited this building for years will likely need to migrate further away from the heart of Charlotte's arts district. Such a migration could render the district obsolete except in name. That's not to say there will be no art left in NoDa — the neighborhood association advocates for affordable housing and to retain a connection with the working artist. But without the help of the city and forward-thinking developers, the availability and affordability of space for the creative class will continue to suffer.