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N.C. Plans to Revive Black Area

August 5, 2002

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ More than 30 years after a black section of town was bulldozed and thousands of people were evicted in the name of urban renewal, Charlotte wants to undo the damage and put life back into the neighborhood.

Civic leaders are drawing up a blueprint for a long-range effort to bring back walkable streets, stores and affordable apartments to the Second Ward, which was called Brooklyn and was the very heart of black Charlotte before it was razed in the 1960s in favor of bland government offices and a little-used park.

``I’m delighted that they’re bringing residential development back to Second Ward,″ said Harvey Gantt, an architect who in the 1980s was the city’s first black mayor. ``It probably never should have left.″

Richard Petersheim of the firm LandDesign spent much of the past year working on the ``urban de-newal″ plan that is expected to be adopted by the city and county governments later this year. The goal is to get 2,700 people living in the neighborhood within 25 to 30 years. There are no permanent residents there now.

In the segregated South of the mid-20th century, Brooklyn was Charlotte’s ``Second City,″ recalled 69-year-old Vermelle Diamond Ely, who grew up there and graduated from its Second Ward High School.

``We were like a city within a city, because we couldn’t go to the movies, things like that,″ she said. Instead, Charlotte’s blacks built their own movie theater, drugstores and insurance agencies.

The Block _ on 2nd Street between Brevard and Caldwell streets in Brooklyn _ was the center of black Charlotte.

``You came to see and be seen on The Block,″ recalled 79-year-old Price Davis.

There were more than a dozen churches in Brooklyn, too, including the home church of the United House of Prayer for All People, the Pentecostal denomination started in the 1920s by C.M. ``Sweet Daddy″ Grace.

Urban renewal erased all that, with government bulldozers demolishing shotgun shacks and well-kept two-story homes alike.

``They said it was a ghetto, it was a slum,″ Ely said. ``Sure, there might be a shotgun house next door, but they were property owners, too.″

Ely said her father refused to sell the family’s home until a city official called to say, ``The bulldozer will be there Monday morning. Your check will be downtown.″ ``We didn’t have the political power to stop it,″ she recalled.

Some residents moved to black neighborhoods farther from the city center. Others ended up in public housing.

Urban renewal replaced the 15 blocks of gritty but vibrant Brooklyn with five institutional-size blocks, and a freeway, Interstate 277, that loops around downtown Charlotte, enclosing Second Ward on two sides. Much of Brooklyn’s street grid was lost. The park created in the neighborhood is frequented mostly by homeless people and a flock of geese.

``It’s kind of like a dead corner,″ said Charlotte-Mecklenburg County planner Dan Thilo.

Other cities that undertook sweeping urban-renewal projects in the 1960s and ’70s _ among them, Baltimore, Cleveland and New Haven, Conn. _ have also recognized the damage done and attempted to reverse it.

The difference in Charlotte is that the city of more than 540,000 people _ one-third of them black _ is an affluent and fast-growing regional center, making it possible to think in much broader and more ambitious terms, said former New York City planning director Alex Garvin, a consultant on the project.

The ultimate cost of the project is not clear yet; it depends on exactly what developers decide to build.

In planning the new neighborhood, Petersheim and others consulted former Brooklyn residents like Ely, who runs a foundation and museum dedicated to Second Ward High and its alumni. From them came a proposal to make the school’s former gymnasium _ one of the few remaining old Brooklyn buildings _ a community center that would anchor a new park at the neighborhood’s core.

``That was the epicenter of Brooklyn,″ Petersheim said of the gym. ``They were adamant that it stayed, and we made it an essential part of the park.″

There are also proposals to revive lost Brooklyn street names and to dot the neighborhood with markers and signs that tell the story of Brooklyn.

Garvin said the plan acknowledges the past while looking to the future.

``It seems to me that we’re building for the 22nd century,″ he said. ``You don’t do that by repeating the mistakes of the 19th century, and the 20th century’s equally mistaken destruction of a neighborhood.″


On the Net:

Public Library of Charlotte-Mecklenburg County site looking at black life in Charlotte, circa 1957: http://www.cmstory.org/aaa2/places/main_menu.htm

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission’s Second Ward site: http://www.charmeck.nc.us/ciplanning/secondward/index.htm

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