New Developments In Historically Black Neighborhoods: New Mixed-Use May Rebuild Charlotte's Second Ward, But It's No Replacement
Arthur Griffin grew up in a three-room shanty three blocks from the largest black neighborhood in Charlotte.
“It was the Ballantyne and the Myers Park of Charlotte today. It was the soul of the black community,” he said.
When Griffin was 12 years old, he and his father were forced from their rundown home and sent to live across town in the name of urban renewal. Over the next few years, homes in the Second Ward, known as Brooklyn Charlotte, were destroyed, and the city planned to build affordable housing in their place.
Yet, no residences were ever rebuilt in Brooklyn — Griffin never went back.
“There was no place for us to return,” he said.
Decades later, that is about to change.
In 2016, Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners selected BK Partners, a team of three companies — Charlotte-based Conformity Corp., New York-based The Peebles Corp. and Alberta-based Stantec — for a $683M mixed-use project called Brooklyn Village.
It is a sweeping project with more than 1,000 residential units, including low-income housing. But with an emotional history that left many in the black community feeling lied to and neglected after their neighborhood was destroyed, will Brooklyn Village ever come close to replacing what has been lost? And even if it does, is it “too little, too late” for the African-American community displaced decades ago?
Brooklyn's Heyday: A City Within A City
For more than 60 years, Brooklyn was downtown’s most prominent black neighborhood.
From 1900-1968, black-owned businesses, churches and upscale homes thrived within the walkable, mixed-use community, according to historian Tom Hanchett. The area also contained some of Charlotte’s worst housing slums.
As a child, Griffin would walk from his home in First Ward over to Brooklyn, spending his days watching movies at Lincoln Theater or at Brevard Street Library, the state’s first black library. Nearby was the first privately run black hospital in the United States, Good Samaritan, where Griffin was born.
Elegant homes and churches once lined the walkable streets this boy called home.
Black-owned doctors’ and dentists’ offices were at the Mecklenburg Investment Co. building, an office building built for black professionals.
In the 1940s, James Marshall, an engineer and former Charlotte city manager, created a master plan to ease congestion on city streets. Independence Boulevard, parts of which were later renamed Stonewall Street, Carson Boulevard and Charlottetowne Avenue, was built through Brooklyn. The busy thoroughfare, mostly paid for by the Federal Highway Act of 1944, split the once-vibrant area.
With its proximity to downtown, the fractured Brooklyn became an additional target for urban renewal in the 1950s. Federal money was given to cities, including Charlotte, to bulldoze blighted neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods, Hanchett said, were a nationwide target for demolition because plans were in place before the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“African-Americans had almost no say in what was going to happen to their neighborhood. If you were an important leader and you wanted to do something, well, heck, do it right through the middle of the black neighborhood — because nobody’s going to complain,” Hanchett said.
In 1960 during the summer after sixth grade, Griffin was looking forward to starting at Second Ward High School, the city’s first black high school. That was the summer he was forced out of his home and his neighborhood.
Between 1960 and 1968, the city bulldozed Second Ward, ultimately displacing 1,007 families, 216 businesses and about a dozen churches.
“The demolition of Brooklyn was one of the great tragedies in Charlotte history, and it’s worse because it was done in every major American city,” Hanchett said.
Families were told they could return once the city used its federal urban renewal funds to create affordable housing. But no residences were ever rebuilt in Brooklyn. The Charlotte Redevelopment Authority got the attention of Federal Urban Renewal Administration officials in 1962, who threatened to pull funding if housing was not built in the area.
As a response, the city razed part of First Ward to create one public housing complex, but with fewer residential units than had been destroyed to create it.
“People purposely lied to the African-American community, with respect to the future of Brooklyn,” Griffin said about the city not rebuilding affordable housing in Brooklyn. “As a result of that, it really had a significant negative impact on the African-American community here in Mecklenburg County, here in Charlotte.”
The 12-year-old boy whose home was destroyed grew up to become the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County school board chair from 1997 to 2003. There, Griffin used his voice to fight for his neighborhood to be remembered.
Brooklyn Today: Parking Lot Desert, Few Original Buildings
In the 1970s, some of the cleared land in Second Ward became the site of Charlotte’s Government Plaza, with other portions used as open space, a hotel and a white church. In 1973, Marshall Park was built on 5.5 acres and named after the city manager who was behind the street that ultimately led to the demise of Brooklyn — Independence Boulevard.
But much of the land in Second Ward was paved over as parking lots.
“There was a belief all across the United States that if you tore down old neighborhoods, developers would rush in and build all this new stuff,” Hanchett said. “What sprang up in its place was very sterile. People then came to realize that if you remove all the stuff that was there, there’s no synergies; there’s no reason for a developer to come in and do anything, so those lands tended to stay vacant for a long time.”
The only remaining buildings that are verified as part of the original Brooklyn are Grace on Brevard (once Grace AME Zion Church); the Mecklenburg Investment building, which housed black doctors and dentists; the former black YMCA; and the former Second Ward High School gym.
While Griffin was the head of the school board, the city and county wanted to develop the former gym, but without any mention of the old neighborhood.
“I stopped them in their tracks.”
It is time to honor the promises of the past, said Griffin, who now serves as head of the Black Political Caucus. “It took several years to get to where we are today.”
The gym is undergoing a renovation and will include a museum by the Second Ward High School Alumni Association.
After Grace AME Zion moved its congregation out of Uptown, the new owner decided to use the church as an event venue. Director Jonell Logan said the space, now called Grace on Brevard, is available to support creative entrepreneurs with emerging businesses in Charlotte.
The church and the Mecklenburg Investment Building were designated as a historic landmark complex in the 1980s. The Investment building has a sign advertising space for lease by New South Properties. Broker Holly Alexander said the company is not in a position to discuss plans for the building at this time.
The former YMCA is being used as storage by United Way, which owns the property.
Brooklyn Tomorrow: Mixed-Use Project Merging Past, Present, Future
Peebles Corp. CEO Don Peebles said the new Brooklyn Village will be reflective of Charlotte’s needs but also respectful of its complex past.
“The name Brooklyn Village recognizes the historical significance of the community we’re building and developing. We’re building a new Brooklyn Village, one that is reflective of Charlotte today and Charlotte in the future,” Peebles said.
Peebles Corp. is the largest African-American-owned real estate development and ownership company in the United States. Black Enterprise has named Don Peebles one of the most powerful African-Americans in business.
A 17-acre mixed-use development in two parcels will be built in space that includes the Walton Plaza site, Marshall Park and land that was once part of the Brooklyn neighborhood.
Plans include 1,070 residential apartment units, including 107 affordable workforce units; 170 condominiums; 680K SF of office space; 250K SF of retail; two hotels; 1.9 acres of public green space; 4K SF of cultural space; a pedestrian throughway called Myers Passage; and $13.5M in infrastructure improvements.
“It’s a living neighborhood that’s essentially 24 hours; people work here during the day, and people live here,” Peebles said. “That’s our goal, to do that with transformative and creative architecture and design.”
Emphasis On Minority-Owned Businesses And Black History
Peebles plans to lean on two underrepresented groups in the commercial real estate industry, women and minorities, to build Brooklyn Village.
“Our goal is to create an environment that provides access for minority- and women-owned businesses, especially African-Americans,” he said. “We want to make sure the project provides talented professionals the opportunity to work on the project as well as the construction and implementation phase.”
“There should be an expectation that any developer building in any places such as a community as diverse as Charlotte should strive to make sure the economic opportunities are reflective of the diversity of the community they build upon,” Peebles said. “I would think that people would see me as someone who would be very sensitive to it because of my personal experience, and I think they would be right to do that.”
Part of BK Partners’ commitment includes 3,700 SF of cultural space, a building to be designed by architecture firm Perkins+Will's Phil Freelon and Zena Howard. Perkins+Will designed the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“We want this property to be a symbol of equal economic opportunity,” Peebles said.
Stantec has been working with the Second Ward High School Alumni Association to embed pieces of history into Brooklyn’s public realm, including parks and sidewalks.
“We’re working to create a reservoir of history,” said Stantec principal Craig Lewis, who is an urban planner on the project.
A Sticking Point: The Replacement Of Marshall Park
Since 1973, Marshall Park has taken up 5.5 acres of county-owned land in the heart of Second Ward. It has been both criticized and celebrated for being a frequent gathering spot for protesters.
The new Brooklyn Village plans will mean Marshall Park will be taken away, but almost 2 acres of green space will be given back to the community.
A statue of Martin Luther King Jr. and a Holocaust statue will be removed from the park. Critics say park space is being taken away as a means to keep protesters from having a gathering spot, and that Charlotte is already desperately lacking in green space in its center city.
When county representatives voted to sell the park to BK Partners, Commissioner Pat Cotham was a dissenting voice.
“To lose 5 acres of a park Uptown made no sense to me. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s our gift to the future,” she said. “The day they cut those beautiful trees down, let me tell you, I’m going to be standing there.”
Developers say the new space will be much more usable for everyone — protesters included, who rarely use more than a small space around the park’s fountain for gathering.
Marshall Park was one of Uptown’s only parks for a long time, Lewis said. The pond mostly serves as a drainage area, curved cement pieces are unusable for crowds, and the typography change means groups end up congregating on a hill.
“It has largely been one of the most underutilized spaces in Mecklenburg County, although the ducks like it a lot,” he said.
Brooklyn Village’s new park will absolutely be protester-friendly, Lewis said.
What Does The Brooklyn Community Think?
Those who once called Brooklyn home, with wounds from the past that never healed, say they do not know if they can trust the same city to make things right with Brooklyn Village.
“It will have Brooklyn’s name. That's about it,” Griffin said.
“It's certainly not a response to the original promises that people could move back into Brooklyn,” he said. “That was a public policy response, that we were going to renovate and upgrade, and families could move back into Brooklyn.”
Brooklyn Village may even turn out quite nice, but it will not help the former residents of Brooklyn, Griffin said. Although the planned affordable housing is a nice gesture, he said it will not be a substantial enough amount.
Grace on Brevard’s Logan said it is important to remember that the story of Brooklyn is relatively recent history; many who experienced it firsthand are still alive and members of the Charlotte community.
“Now, there’s this movement to revive these communities; there’s a sense of nostalgia that’s tied to that. That can be challenging,” she said. “The Brooklyn neighborhood itself may have been razed or fractured, but it is still present, and so I think that is something that is incredibly important to remember.”
Mecklenburg County and BK Partners are in negotiations to fine-tune the approved proposal. BK Partners has said it expects to break ground in 2019.
The History Of Second Ward
1898: White Supremacy campaign of 1898 is formed in North Carolina. This made it very difficult for African-Americans to live and work where they wanted to, historian Tom Hanchett said.
1900: Brooklyn Charlotte is formed as a response to the White Supremacy campaign. The black mixed-use walkable neighborhood with homes of all income levels and black-owned businesses functions as a city within a city.
1940: Charlotte opens its first assisted living property, Fairview Homes.
1946-1950: Independence Boulevard built using money from the Federal Highway Act of 1944, and parts of the thoroughfare cut through the heart of Brooklyn neighborhood.
1948: Charlotte enacts Standard Housing Ordinance, requiring every home to have running water, an indoor toilet, tub and shower, a kitchen sink and window screens.
1948: Arthur Griffin is born at Good Samaritan Hospital. He grows up on Sixth Street, just a few blocks away from Brooklyn.
1949: Urban Revitalization Federal money was given to cities, including Charlotte, to demolish blighted neighborhoods
1960: Urban renewal demolition begins in Brooklyn.
1960: Arthur Griffin, 12, and his father are displaced from their home and sent to live at Fairview Homes. They were told they would be able to return when urban renewal was complete. His father gives him 20 cents a day for bus rides to and from Brooklyn so he can attend Second Ward High School over West Charlotte High School.
1962: Charlotte Redevelopment Authority got the attention of Federal Urban Renewal Administration officials, who threatened to pull funding if the city did not erect low-income housing.
1965: Voting Rights Act of 1965 is passed, allowing African-Americans the right to vote. Plans were in place already for urban revitalization and thus could continue.
1967: Brooklyn Charlotte is largely gone, 1,007 families have been displaced and 216 black-owned businesses closed. Most never reopened. About a dozen churches closed. Still standing was Grace AME Zion, which continued to operate until its congregation moved to David Cox Street between 2006-2008. The building now serves as an events center called Grace on Brevard.
1967: Public housing complex Earle Village was created in First Ward, with fewer units than were destroyed to create it.
1969: Second Ward High School closed.
1970s: Remainder of First Ward cleared, displacing 216 families and 62 businesses.
1972: First service held at First Baptist Church, a white church that still stands today.
1973: Marshall Park built.
1999/2000: City reveals a vision plan including condos to be built in Second Ward. Arthur Griffin, now head of the school board, reminds the city of the promises it made to former residents of Brooklyn.
2016: Charlotte County Commissioners selected BK Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based developer, to initiate the Brooklyn Village project, a mixed-use project of mixed-income apartments, retail, hotel, offices and green spaces. Part of the plan includes the demolition of 5.5-acre Marshall Park, and 1.9 acres of green space, including a park, will be built to replace it.
Present day: Original Brooklyn Charlotte buildings that remain: Grace on Brevard, Mecklenburg Investment Co. building, former YMCA, former Second Ward High School gym. The former Phyllis Wheatley YWCA was located on the same grounds as a First Baptist Church building, but it is unverified whether the building is the same.