Michael Doney hates the term "urban pioneer," usually reserved for relatively affluent individuals who are the first of their peers to venture into gritty neighborhoods and set up shop. Still, Doney, owner of 5 Points Realty, fit the profile when he purchased a home in Wesley Heights almost 15 years ago.
Doney says buying in wasn't easy. Many residents sold properties to family members or passed them down. It took almost a year of hand-shaking and attending neighborhood gatherings before he purchased a bungalow, but his community involvement didn't stop there. At one time, he was active in three separate neighborhood associations.
"I spent a lot of time walking around meeting people, so by the time I moved in, I already knew most of my neighbors," he says. "For me, I knew I wanted to be part of the neighborhood and wanted to be part of the community. So I went to neighborhood meetings right away and got very involved."
Doney says there is a right and a wrong approach to moving into any new neighborhood. Ignoring rules of etiquette and not introducing yourself to your neighbors? Bad. Joining the Neighborhood Watch? Good.
But not all urban pioneers care to maintain the fabric of their new community, nor a place for its long-time inhabitants. City Council hopes to stem some of the negative results of gentrification in a new effort, spearheaded by the Housing and Neighborhood Development Committee.
On Wednesday, June 11, the committee met to address issues of gentrification — and possible solutions — raised by Councilwoman Vi Lyles in a letter written to the mayor and Council on April 26 that had been deferred to the committee. Lyles wrote of Cherry, which "is experiencing the buying and renovation of houses and stores in what was a deteriorated, yet historic and close-knit urban neighborhood," after Council had agreed in April to a rezoning that upset many residents. A local developer bought several acres of land in the neighborhood and plans to raze duplexes in poor condition and build in their place multi-family housing. Several residents told Lyles that the new development would essentially kick them out of their homes. "They were angry. And they are victims of what is the best and the worst of our economic vitality," she wrote.
The committee's members present at the meeting, including Patsy Kinsey, John Autry and Al Austin, represent neighborhoods in different phases of gentrification.
"So many old neighborhoods in District 1 are seeing this," said Kinsey, who represents Plaza Midwood, an old conquest of urban pioneers, among other neighborhoods. "It's been frustrating because we do a good job of trying to provide affordable housing yet we still go and vote for developers to develop these old neighborhoods. We have to have some political courage to say, 'No, this doesn't fit with the neighborhood.'"
Autry and Austin, who represent parts of east and west Charlotte, respectively, spoke of the certain impending threat of gentrification in their neighborhoods.
"I see it coming down the track," Autry said. "As the Gold Line makes its way in, I would hate to see some of the pioneers, especially in commercial areas that had come in and staked a claim to those areas and taken advantage of those depressed values to set up their own vision," be affected.
The city has already addressed or taken up many of the proposals Lyles offered in the letter, including increasing affordable housing, setting up rental assistance to keep residents in their communities, and using city-owned land to build affordable housing and incentivising affordable housing developers with city-land contributions.
Committee members requested city staff look into another proposal, tax abatements, before they meet again, in September.
Austin raised an issue that has plagued city-led discussions about gentrification for years: simply defining the term. In 2005, a "City Council committee voted in December to remove language from a city planning department report that downplayed gentrification's threat to neighborhoods," according to a USA Today story.
"If you go back to the '70s, when I was here, gentrification was one race taking over another race in a community," Austin said. "What I'm seeing [now] is income-oriented ... I see a lot more wealthy African Americans and Hispanics moving in. This is just our evolution — it's becoming more of a division of the haves and the have nots."
After the meeting, Autry admitted he wasn't sure whether the city had the tools to curb rapid development.
"There is no real good example around the country where anybody's been able to address the issue in an equitable manner," he said. "We've got to blaze some new territory here if we're serious."
Part of the problem is, as Lyles put it in her letter, a result of Charlotte's economic vitality.
"[Developers] are making speculative moves, and they have the capital to move it, and they bring a lot of benefit and help improve the tax base of the city," Autry said. "It's going to be a tough balancing act for Council. I don't have a solution, but I know that we just can't keep pushing people out of the way purely for someone's monetary gain."
The solution might not come from the city at all.
Christopher Dennis learned how to be a good neighbor from a homeless man called Carwash.
Eight years ago, Dennis moved into the Lockwood neighborhood, recently ranked by F.B.I. data as one of the 25 most dangerous neighborhoods in America. Tucked away between North Graham and North Tryon, and West 12th and 24th streets, its location offers easy access to the heart of the city, but a high concentration of renters and violent crime have deterred buyers. Still, Lockwood's exceptional views of Charlotte's skyline and the beautiful tree canopy immediately attracted the accountant, who gladly traded his University home for near-Uptown living.
Washing his truck on Sylvania Avenue one day, Dennis was approached by a homeless man he'd seen around the neighborhood, who offered to complete the job. Dennis never saw his car cleaner than when Carwash was finished. As Dennis got to know his neighbors, he was struck by the knowledge gaps that kept his new community from being its best: seniors losing their homes because they didn't know how to appeal new tax assessments, kids dropping out of school with no interventions. Dennis started a nonprofit, Community Dream Builders, in 2008 to direct people in trouble to existing organizations that can help, and found no stronger ally than Carwash. He hired his new friend to pass out fliers for Dream Builders' 5K Rock and Run, its premier event that starts at the N.C. Music Factory and takes runners on a route through the neighborhood. Carwash also frequently talked to youth about avoiding some of the choices he'd made, and helped set up for events. Dennis hasn't seen Carwash in the neighborhood for more than a year now, and he worries for his friend. The last time they met was to visit Carwash's mother in the hospital.
"Most people would have discredited Carwash, but Carwash was valuable," Dennis says emphatically. "Through him, I learned the most important factors of a community are family connections, social connections and financial connections. Without those, people forget how to be neighbors."
Dennis says that to maintain a community, original residents have to be more than residents, but stakeholders in their neighborhood. Showing up at public meetings and forums and sharing information with neighborhood organizations is part of that. So is building relationships with nearby businesses, to create access and opportunities for youth.
"It's not a short journey, it's a long-term journey," Dennis says. "Community is where we all change. That's everybody getting out in the center, shaking hands and looking at our differences but finding our commonalities."
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