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Charlotte - A Commitment to Neighborhoods and Urban Revitalization

by Darrel Williams

February 5,2006

Over the past 25 years, Charlotte has done a great job preserving and revitalizing many of its finest neighborhoods. While there is still much work to do, Charlotte is the envy of other cities throughout the country relative to its commitment and investment throughout many of these communities. Some of these neighborhoods, which are located within a three mile radius of the center city, are precious remnants of streetcar suburbs. Charlotte’s success is also a result of its corporate support, strong business community and clean government.

Despite what has been done, there is still much work to do. However, it will require a commitment beyond what government can do. These neighborhoods reflect the range in economic and social challenges that are apparent throughout America. While many areas hardly experience any social challenges, since the years of urban renewal, several of them suffer poorer health, fewer successful small businesses, crime, violence, and fragmented families. How much of that is the result of the dispersion and destruction created by urban renewal? What would it mean for all citizens to live in safe neighborhoods where they can walk to a store, to church or to work with trees and greenery, with a range of small businesses that employ neighborhood adolescents and where people know and trust one another?

Across this country, in the years between urban renewal and the birth of mega shopping centers, we lost one inner city neighborhood after another. The bulldozers destroyed much more than physical structures. With the past destruction of the Brooklyn neighborhood in Second Ward, Charlotte was no exception. Urban neighborhoods of our childhood like Brooklyn had distinct rhythms, relationships, flavors and aromas. They included people of all ages and incomes. Residents in Brooklyn understood the significance of the barber and beauty shop – much more than a place to get a hair cut! They knew that the local soul food restaurant was as much about who was there and the bonds that were forged as the goodness of the food that was served. They were community! Like other cities, Charlotte has learned from the mistakes of its past.

In recent years, it has become increasingly evident that people of all ethnic, social and economic levels yearn for the neighborhoods of their childhood of the 50’s and 60’s. From the west coast to the east coast, downtown areas are being re-claimed with new housing and mixed-use public-private development projects. These trends along with billions of dollars being spent on alternative modes of transportation, new infrastructure and land use plans are bringing deserved attention to urban neighborhoods on the fringes of America’s central cities, and Charlotte is no exception. With rising fuel prices, the costs of commuting and time spent to and from the suburbs, along with better understanding the real purchasing power and economic potential of central city neighborhoods, the real estate and development community is starting to see the light.

The “new urban residential towers” currently underway in Uptown are largely succeeding in bringing vibrancy and real life to our center city. This resurgence of new residents will help fill the gaps that are generally missing in most downtown areas and help influence some major retail in the center city. While the new urban towers bring vibrancy and life to the center city, we must be cautious about creating vertical versions of the gated communities that continues to rise up in the suburbs – notably devoid of that human interaction and neighborhood character that is the foundation of community. Also, we must ensure that the economic development opportunities in the center city, does not end at Brookshire Freeway and I-77.

Rising fuel prices and increasing commute times make these neighborhoods vulnerable to vertical urban sprawl that rips out the heart and soul of urban neighborhoods. Government cannot attain the balance between new development and urban revitalization alone. Preserving diversity – economic, cultural, racial, and age – is a challenge to be met by the public and private sector working cooperatively and intentionally with existing residents. Vibrant urban neighborhoods are successful because of the shared history and experience and interaction of those who live and work and play in them – not simply a visual return to the past. Diversity is our history, our power and strength.

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