LaCa Projects, a recently opened arts center dedicated to the promotion of Latin culture, sits on a warehouse-studded side street by the intersection of Freedom and Morehead, not far from the arterial traffic of I-77. A few hundred feet from LaCa's doors are buildings of chipped brick and exposed plaster — some abandoned, some reclaimed — and neon signs beckoning to dives both old and new. A bit farther away are suburban-style houses tailored to the young professional, and at an equidistant measure in another direction lie worn homes of unmovable native-born Charlotteans.
These features are all a part of Charlotte's latest emerging neighborhood, FreeMore West. Bounded by Ashley Road to the west, Tuckaseegee Road to the northeast, Mint and Cedar Streets to the southeast, and Wilkinson Boulevard to the south, this neighborhood is an amalgamation of new and old, developed and preserved.
LaCa is the most recent installment — the first fine arts center in the community — in a series of progressions that allowed the neighborhood to develop from a recent period of struggle. Those advancements include the opening of new restaurants and retail, such as The Burger Company on Morehead and the Wilkinson Boulevard Shopping Center; the improvement of infrastructure through repaved roads, new stoplights and renovated buildings; the building of new residences, such as Wesley Village; and an increase of police presence in the area.
"I definitely think that the city has been encouraging development in the area," said Neely Verano, LaCa's gallery director. "They're definitely trying to make it more suitable for businesses down here."
Charlotte's west side, the section of town that FreeMore West bloomed within, is a mixed bag of nostalgia and struggle that contains landmarks like Camp Greene, a lasting World War II base; Open Kitchen, where the first pizza pie was served in the Queen City; and Bar-B-Q King, a drive-in that opened in 1959 and is still serving its own riff on classic Carolina barbecue to this day.
According to Pinky's co-owner and lifelong west side resident Greg Auten, FreeMore West is also one of the few neighborhoods that missed the migrant influx from the North that began in the '90s. The area remains home to a large population of Charlotte natives.
"It's always been a working class area; it's kinda one of the last true Southern neighborhoods left," said Auten. "The people here are simple, and I don't mean that in a bad way — they're good-ol' working class people."
The west side has long had a reputation for problems with crime — specifically violent and drug-related arrests. Now, things are changing. In fact, despite a recent rise in citywide crime, CMPD's west side Freedom division saw a 3.5 percent decrease in overall crime, as well as a 21.7 percent decrease in burglaries, in 2012.
"Now that change has come in, it's better for the neighborhood; we've got more streets open, more street life, more stop signs," said Blossom Cooper, who has lived on Walnut Avenue for 30 years. "I feel safer walking on my streets. I do, you better believe it."
Gentrification, the dirty word blamed for general cultural depletion, has yet to follow in the wake of development. Despite the progress, there's still a beautiful grit to the area — a preserved reminder of its blue-collar roots and fortitude despite the tests of time. There are no highbrow restaurants or upscale retailers in the area; development, in fact, seems to have embraced the neighborhood's feel.
"I like Pinky's and the Burger Company because they fit into the neighborhood," Cooper said.
There are some changes in the landscape, like the Uptown-esque Wesley Village — where apartments boast "trendy and chic" urban living with yuppified amenities like valet trash pick-up and wine tastings — and the futuristic-neon-meets-reclaimed-industrial interior of the new (and vegetarian-friendly) burrito joint Picante on Morehead. But it's the integrity of the old set alongside the refreshment of the new that makes FreeMore West such a promising emergence in the landscape of the Queen City.
"It's always been a versatile side of town; it keeps surprising me," said Auten. We're getting the best of both worlds over here."
Putting together this year's neighborhood guide has really made me appreciate how cool this city is.