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The Voice of the Black Community

Local & State

Riding streetcar to revival – or ruin – of historically Black neighborhoods
Gold Line changes dynamic of Historic West End
Published Thursday, June 10, 2021
by Hadiya Presswood

Residents and advocates of Historic West End are balancing anticipation and wariness about the CityLynx Gold Line’s impact on the northwest corridor. As new infrastructure and development comes to historically Black neighborhoods in west Charlotte, residents are concerned longtime homeowners and businesses could be forced out as a result of gentrification.

Ron and Deb Cureton have seen decades of change in Historic West End.

There was desegregation, gentrification and community preservation initiatives. Ronald’s parents grew up in Matthews and were sharecroppers. Deb’s mother was from Davidson and her father grew up on Alexander Street in Second Ward. They met and eventually moved to University Park, where both grew up. In 2003, the Curetons moved to their current home in Hyde Park.

“We have seen the growth of this area,” Deb said.

As teenagers, the Curetons saw first-hand the effects of sweeping public transportation reform on their community. They are wary as more change approaches.

The CityLynx Gold Line is a 10-mile streetcar project that connects east and west Charlotte. When completed, its 37-stop route includes cultural destinations and major employers in the urban core; Novant Health Presbyterian and Central Piedmont Community College in the Elizabeth neighborhood to the east and Johnson C. Smith University in Historic West End.

Phase 1, which stretches from Elizabeth Avenue in the east to the Charlotte Transportation Center, has been completed. Phase 2 extends service to French Street in the west and Phase 3 ends at the Rosa Parks Place Community Transit Center. Service to the east will stretch to Eastland Community Transportation Center.

The 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan, in conjunction with the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan, seeks to revitalize select neighborhoods, referred to as corridors, that have not developed as fully in comparison to other communities. While these initiatives speak of promises to amplify these neighborhoods, historically, whispers of Black communities in the west being cut out of progressive measures are audible.

The Gold Line’s progression raises questions regarding community and neighborhood development, diversity and inclusion, amendments to traffic patterns and the ability to preserve and maintain the history of Historic West End.

“The city has to make sure that it understands the legacy of that area,” said Willie Griffin, historian at Levine Museum for the New South. “The full legacy, and not just that Black people live there … This is an area that has celebrated a history of black home ownership and that side of the city was developed by and for African Americans.”

Whispers of the past
Post-Reconstruction, Charlotte was divided into wards by race and income, with the most notable Black neighborhood being Brooklyn, located in Second Ward. Brooklyn was a thriving community that was diminished by city policies attached to federal urban renewal programs that promised to demolish poor-quality slum housing and replace it with affordable quality homes.

In reality, the tactics destroyed more housing than they created and along with the construction of I-277 – today’s John Belk Freeway – effectively forced Black residents, businesses and institutions out of Brooklyn and into the northwest corridor.

“There was a lot of economic value, it was a lot of small black-owned businesses all up and down Beatties Ford Road, especially in the Oaklawn area towards Johnson C. Smith and back towards LaSalle Street,” Ron Cureton recalls. “All up and down Beatties Ford Road.”

Deb Cureton added: “In University Park we went to school in our neighborhood schools until they started bussing. Before they started busing, we had our own library, we had our own grocery stores, we had our own movie theaters, we had our own dance studios, our own doctors and the city provided University Park with a community center. It was just an amazing environment.”

Public transportation has always had an intimate relationship with the Black community, as evidenced by the streetcar built for Washington Heights, the trolley that serviced Biddleville and buses that still connect the Black community to the city at large.

“There were no such things as malls during that period,” Ron Cureton said. “Malls, they had not been in existence in Charlotte, so all shopping was done downtown. A lot of people use the bus system, so the Square [at Trade and Tryon streets], that was where the hub was for the transit. If you didn’t have a car, you used the bus. There was a lot of street traffic; people walking up and down the streets, going from, from one bus route to the next bus route, during the transfers.”

Bringing people together
Public transportation has the power to connect individuals. Although many are excited for the potential economic boom for business, job growth and health benefits because of the Gold Line, there are equally valid concerns regarding property taxes and homeownership.

Mattie Marshall is president of the Historic Washington Heights Neighborhood Association and served on the Streetcar Advisory Committee under former mayor Anthony Foxx. She believes the Gold Line represents an opportunity for growth.

“When we were talking about the streetcar and City Lynx Gold Line during the Anthony Foxx administration, we wanted to see more connectivity between the East and the West, which was not there,” she said. “We would advocate; we residents advocated for the streetcar to connect the west and the east side. … We looked at this as our economic engine, not displacement.”

Along Beatties Ford Road, several properties have been bought, including two on LaSalle Street and one on Rozzelle’s Ferry Road, that will seat tenants who are business owners. The influx of business can increase clientele to that area and jumpstart community economics.

Marshall is also excited by the health and environmental benefits of the Gold Line through the reduction of carbon emissions that cause air pollution. The streetcar and bus routes could reduce the concentration of traffic and pedestrians along Beatties Ford Road.

“That’s my number one concern,” said Colette Forrest, a community activist and Wesley Heights resident. “When you’re talking about Black Charlotteans that are predominantly getting to work, picking up their children or getting their groceries on the bus system, or even, you’ve got a neighbor or friend that is allotting some time out of their schedule to take you here and there. They’re not going to have the patience if they’re going to get stuck behind this Gold Line. I am concerned about traffic and the impact that it will have on Black Charlotteans on Beatties Ford Road.”

Charlotte Area Transit System hasn’t provided information whether the bus currently servicing Beatties Ford Road will be rerouted once each phase of the Gold Line is completed. Project updates from the city of Charlotte are available via email and text message.

Pushing people out
A concern among Historic West End residents is being subjected to gentrification. Part of West End’s legacy is that many of its residents are long-standing or multigenerational homeowners. If the area undergoes the kind of economic boom that came to neighborhoods in the north and south along the Blue Line, the worry is that it will raise property values and lower-income homeowners will not be able to keep pace.

“I’ve lived in Wesley Heights since 1997,” Forrest said. “I’ve been paying my mortgage and the home is mine, and I went from a tax bill that was barely $1,000 to this recent property evaluation that the county has done, and my tax bill was over $3,000 …

“If I could show you the stacks of letters that I get every week – they’ve lightened up a bit from every day – about people that want to buy the home, and some even have the audacity to have a contract ready for me to sign for $200,000.”

John Howard, a transportation planner with CATS, says that the city is aware of these concerns. Several departments, such as CATS and Housing and Neighborhood Services are working together to avoid that consequence.

“The city was working on anti-displacement studies or strategies before the Gold Line was coming online,” he said. “We’re already experiencing that on the west side, especially for displacement in single family homes, way more than the east side. The west side has mostly single family and the east side has mostly multifamily; there are two different kinds of displacement things going on. Before the rail was even in the ground, we were seeing housing pressure already happening on the west side, that’s been going on for years.”

Part of the city’s challenge is to overcome previous housing pressure that is remnant of historical policies such as redlining that deterred investment in Black communities. As a result, home values in Historic West End have lagged behind predominantly white neighborhoods, undercutting a prime vehicle for generational wealth.

“Whether or not the rail exacerbated that or not is kind of hard to say given location, land values historically and land prices historically,” Howard said. “It was really one of those national [practices] where the investors come in and they buy a portfolio, and they buy individual properties, and after that the light switch is on and it’s tough for us to beat the market.”

Gentrification has become the buzzword as Charlotte continues to undergo extensive and rapid development. Even with high hopes for prosperity throughout West End, residents are wary of the cost and who the beneficiaries will be.

“I’m for progress ... I’m [concerned] that when you have seniors in their home, and you have gentrification at the same time, then the seniors’ tax value runs up so high that they can’t afford to stay in the home that is paid for,” Ron Cureton said. “I think that’s wrong of government to force people out of their homes in their senior years… They know you’re on fixed income, and they’ll change your tax value to the point where you can’t live there anymore. That happens a lot in Black neighborhoods under gentrification.”

Gold Line champions like Marshall encourage residents to take advantage of available assistance. Organizations like For the Struggle and Aging in Place help elderly people, perceived to be the most at-risk for displacement, evade that fate.

“I was talking about moving this corridor along into the future,” she said. “It’s just been a corridor where there has been so much disinvestment, we need to move forward and grow. I think we were planting that seed to grow, so naturally, you’re going to have an increase in businesses but that doesn’t mean that you have to be displaced … There are many programs, many opportunities [to assist homeowners] where you can take advantage of, and we don’t always know that they exist.”

Marshall believes education creates assurance, mitigates fears of displacement and provides actionable steps for people. She says it’s time to move forward so that residents can become active participants when it comes to the changes in their community and preserving its legacy.

“Fear is not a necessary ingredient to moving forward … stop putting this fear in my people,” Marshall said. “Stop it. And every time I hear those words, displacement or gentrification, don’t you know your freakin history?

“We’ve been through this stuff! Washington Heights has been here, and it’s one reason we fight so hard to maintain the history of Washington Heights. It’s been a neighborhood since 1910. Do you know the challenges and the things that we had to go through to be here at this place today? … We had to persevere, we had to endure, we had to keep the faith, but stop with this stuff about doom and gloom. That’s not us. That’s not who we are.”

Shifting behavior
Another concern the Gold Line brings is the disruption of culture of neighborhoods as people unfamiliar with its history visit or move into West End and development shapes what properties are allocated towards.

“You have companies coming in and buying up houses in a particular neighborhood. In essence, that particular company controls the value of those homes and controls the value of that neighborhood,” Ron Cureton said. “I believe that when companies come in, only a small percentage of those homes can actually be sold as properties that are owned by those large companies. They shouldn’t be able to own 50% of the neighborhood.”

Historic West End can maintain its culture and legacy through collective advocacy, establishing neighborhood programs, petitioning and making the history accessible. Residents also have the option to create community benefit agreements, in which they pledge their support for development projects and in return receive tangible benefits and amenities from developers.

West End residents feel a deep pride for their neighborhoods and history. As they are being presented with new opportunities, it is essential for neighbors to have a cohesive and clear sense of identity and what preserving it looks like. For Deb Cureton, the feeling of unity she experienced growing up in University Park has diminished over the years due to divisions that began with desegregation.

“Growing up, [going to school] was like a big thing,” she said. “By the time you got to sixth grade, you were so excited about going to Northwest [Middle School], and then you knew automatically when you left Northwest you were going to go to West Charlotte [High School]. Everybody always looked forward to going through all the different schools because you knew your siblings went there or your neighbors or your friends went there. It was just an understood thing.

“Once integration started, our community was divided in half; some went to West [Mecklenburg High] and then some went to West Charlotte. And so, there was a divide in the community there. Same thing with middle school. They messed our schools up. Ron had a sister who went to five different elementary schools. When I went to middle school, I never had a sense of belonging because I was taken out of my community to go to another school, a white school, and they didn’t want us there.”

Moving forward
Change can invoke feelings of excitement, anticipation, cynicism, hope, uncertainty. When discussing the reasons why, Historic West End advocates agree it’s crucial to understand history and how it impacted different communities as well as avoiding negative consequences of the past. An inclusive plan is a good place to start, but many are looking for tangible benefits.

“What does all that wordsmanship and those flowery words, what does that actually look like for Black people,” Forrest said. … “I don’t trust anything the city says until I see it.”

Like Charlotte’s Brooklyn community and across the United States, racist practices like urban renewal, redlining, housing and banking discrimination and contract selling pushed Black residents out of their homes and neighborhoods.

Publicly-funded highway construction – like I-277 – often sped the process of wiping out entire residential areas.

“This 2040 Plan, this Gold Line, this is not about Black people,” Forrest said. “This is about the whites that are gentrifying and coming into our neighborhoods, because I have been where I am for 21 years. If the city wanted to do something for Black people, they would have done it when the neighborhoods were all Black. They don’t care about Black people. They care about these white folks that are moving into our Black neighborhoods and they want to make sure that they’re comfortable.”

The city’s plans are supposed to revitalize neighborhoods that have not developed as fully in comparison to other communities. Time will tell how successful the measures were implemented.

“I totally agree with progress, but what I’m so afraid of is that economically, our people will be forced out with nowhere to go … The quality of living on Beatties Ford Road will get better with the Gold Line, I do realize that, but I’m afraid that our people will be left behind,” Ronald Cureton said.

In previous years, there was not a concentrated full-fledged effort to provide resources on the westside. Now they’re being devoted to inner city Black communities, essentially an admission of prior omission.

“I think that there’s a lot more awareness around what’s happening in the West End corridor with the Gold Line and hindsight is 20-20,” said Griffin. “People are talking about the long-term effects that urban renewal had on the black population in Charlotte … How we get information is so much more advanced than it was … so that keeps people a little more informed.”

The hope for revitalization efforts is to remedy injustices, support existing efforts and create a more even distribution of resources while limiting forced displacement. Unlike 1960s Brooklyn, West End’s residents view themselves in a central role and position themselves as advocates, investors and owners who will use their voice to shape development for their needs.

“I think the city leaders are trying to do the right thing, but I always say that Charlotte has always been held up as a progressive city,” Griffin said. “I think one of the reasons that it has is because they have always tried to do the right thing and they’ve tried to do the right thing when there was no model for doing the right thing.”

There are a number of changes in store for West End. When asked what they wanted to see, the Curetons and Forrest said additions to health options, support for emerging businesses and transparent community communication.

“I would like to see more Black businesses in the area and better [grocery] stores that give you healthier options for eating and cooking,” Deb Cureton said.

Ron added: “I would like to see a business incubator so that we can take some of the graduates from Johnson C. Smith and UNCC and put more business infrastructure in this area so that we can turn money over in our own neighborhood. With gentrification, I don’t know. I think that might be a thing of the past. I don’t know what the next 20 years will hold for this area.”

Said Forrest: “They can do a better job getting out on the street and educating individuals in the neighborhood. You can’t tell them one way or the other to sell their home or keep their home but let them know if you sell your home. If you sell it for this $200,000 offer that’s being mailed to you, let me show you what that will get you in Charlotte now, because Colette is going to go ahead and say that you can’t buy jack in Charlotte for $200,000.”

Marshall acknowledges West End’s future is complicated – layered by history, legacy, race, culture, and prosperity. The benefits, she argues, outweigh the risks.

“We have to acknowledge the systems that have always been out there to try to take stuff away but we’re at a different place today, people,” she said.

The complexity of change spurs conversations that address previous injustices and present inclusive solutions. From these conversations, informed discourse shapes the possibilities of a positive outlook.

“As African Americans, it behooves us to complicate every issue. We can’t have a short memory of what the press is trying to say about that,” Griffin said. “We have to be able to have a long-term memory and be able to analyze that. And that’s what the implications are for all of these things, looking at it from a much further and long-term view of it.”


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