Best Of 2017

Critics' Picks: City Life
Best of Charlotte 2017

"The gentrifiers shall be welcomed as liberators." (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

"The gentrifiers shall be welcomed as liberators." (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

It's been a rough year in Charlotte, and the television will have you believing there's only bad news happening out there. Well, that's hogwash. The following is our tip of the cap to those fighting for good in our fine city, and a reminder of what we should and shouldn't be paying attention to.

Local Hero: Braxton Winston

Last fall, thousands watched Braxton Winston's livestream as he marched to protest the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, and they were watching a new community leader emerge. Winston didn't organize the Charlotte Uprising, but for days, he delivered its raw footage to a worldwide audience, with expert commentary. He developed a rapport with police on the ground and provided tactical advice to protesters to keep his group as safe as possible. When the protests ended, the fire that had been ignited within him did not.

Braxton Winston. (Photo by Alvin C. Jacobs, Jr.)
  • Braxton Winston. (Photo by Alvin C. Jacobs, Jr.)

The Davidson grad began attending and streaming nearly every community event related to inequality. He continued to provide expert commentary to the public. He brought his concerns to lawmakers, and in an iconic moment, he sang "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" to a dumbfounded Charlotte City Council.

Shortly thereafter, Winston decided to run for council on a platform of equity, accessibility and interconnection. In the September primary election, he received the second most votes for an At-Large seat, besting all but one incumbent. At his election night party, he had no prepared remarks. He bought drinks for his friends and supporters, and chased his young daughter around the room. He's not a politician. He's a concerned citizen who has decided to be the change he wants to see. He is the hero this city needs.

click to enlarge Austin Chaney.
  • Austin Chaney.

Best Instagram account - Austin Chaney (@neverend_creative)

When it comes to Instagram, Austin Chaney gets it. We don't want to see pictures of your food. We don't want to see pictures of your kids. And we sure as hell don't want to see selfies of you. We want to see some straight-up killer photography, and that's what Chaney delivers. He goes beyond the obligatory Queen City skyline pics by blending a nice mix of portraits, landscape shots and everyday cool shit from in and around Charlotte and wherever he happens to be for the day.

Best Twitter Account (Brand) - Carolina Panthers

We're not going to lie: We rolled our eyes when the Panthers Twitter account made headlines across the country with a gimmick they ripped off from someone else in July. But it was disappointing only because The Panthers' amazing social media team is capable of so much more. Over the years, the account has become more and more consistent at serving up fire tweets, and over the summer it rolled out an aggressive campaign to get people hype about new draft pick Christian McCaffrey. We're here for it. Just keep it original.

click to enlarge @Sir_Hurizzel (Photo by Celest Images)
  • @Sir_Hurizzel (Photo by Celest Images)

Best Twitter Account (personal) - @Sir_Hurizzel

In the Trump era — and let's be honest, for years leading up to it — Twitter can often feel like a black hole of outrage and political spin. People are still screaming at each other about Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, for Christ's sake. That's why it's all the more refreshing to follow Sir Hurizzel, a Spiderman cosplayer who tweets with a mix of childlike enthusiasm and hilarious NSFW insight about all things anime, superheroes and gaming. Hell, we've even laughed at his wrestling tweets a few times.

Best Hope for the Future - Young political candidates

This was the year millennials decided they've had it with local government and decided to take matters into their own hands. The exact catalyst is unknown, but it's easy to speculate: The Charlotte Uprising in 2016, the HB2 fiasco, endless apartment construction wiping out beloved neighborhood gathering spots and the city's dead last ranking in economic mobility all are likely contributing factors. Millennials could've also been inspired by the waves young politicians like Jeff Jackson are making at the state level, or by President Obama encouraging young people to enter public service as he left office. Or maybe it was watching the horror of what came after him unfold. Trump's policies hit home quickly with ICE raids, the potential Muslim ban and the attempted rollback of multiple popular Obama policies.

Almost 20 candidates under 40 ran for a seat on city council, and among them, six won their primary races in September. It was a surprise for everyone, not the least of which were ousted incumbents like Patsy Kinsey, who lost a seat she's held for 14 years to first-time candidate Larken Egleston.

The candidates who didn't win their primaries gained a wealth of experience and name recognition, and it would be foolish to think they won't run again — most of them are just getting started, we hope. It's also important to note that Charlotte has the fastest-growing millennial population in the country, so even if we can't pinpoint an exact reason for all the fresh young candidates, what was clear this year is that their time has arrived.

Best Demonstration of the People's Power - A Day Without Immigrants

On Feb. 7, the arrest of two men in a work van at a QuikTrip gas station in east Charlotte began what would be a week of paralyzing fear for the city's immigrant community. In the coming days, word spread on social media that Immigration and Customs Enforcement had begun staging raids and traffic checkpoints in the area. Rumor and fact blended, and it became hard to know what was true.

A Day Without Immigrants. (Photo by Jasmin Herrera)
  • A Day Without Immigrants. (Photo by Jasmin Herrera)

Over the next week, however, one thing became clear: ICE was ramping up efforts to detain undocumented immigrants, and were going to new lengths to do so. For the next nine days, children stayed home from school, adults feared walking to the neighborhood supermarket for groceries and local businesses suffered. But on Feb. 16, Charlotte's immigrants stepped out from the shadows.

That was the day 10,000 immigrants marched on Uptown in a show of political force unseen in the city before then. Although the Women's March that took place the month before was believed to have brought more people, A Day Without Immigrants differed in that it made an economic statement, as business owners around the city closed shop and countless others skipped worked to march and prove their value.

Best Middle Finger To Trump - Golden Door Scholars

Golden Door Scholars didn't begin as a middle finger to Trump, and that's still not its stated mission. The scholarship program for DACA recipients has sent 158 undocumented students to college since 2012. It will continue to focus on sending even more, despite Trump's recent announcement that he will end the Dream Act.

Golden Door was founded by Red Ventures' CEO Ric Elias, who reportedly invested $1 million of his own money to jumpstart the program. Not only does it provide full college scholarships to high-achieving students, it also provides mentorship and, in some cases, job placement.

Another way to put it: Golden Door takes kids who are way smarter than our President and makes sure they get the resources they need to one day create a better situation in a better country than the one they currently find themselves in.

Best Light In a Dark World - ourBRIDGE for Kids

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, the day after Donald Trump won the presidential election, kids shuffled into ourBRIDGE for Kids classrooms as they do on any other day at the after-school program for immigrant and refugee children. However, a dark cloud hovered over the room during the daily group discussion. It wasn't until a child mentioned that he had a bad day because of the election that the other kids started buzzing, some admitting they had already been told by classmates that they'd be sent "home" soon.

The thing is, these kids are already home, and that's what ourBridge founder Sil Ganzo and her staff are sure to emphasize for their students every day. Now, the organization that's done so much to welcome others to their new home has a new home of its own. In September, Ganzo moved the whole crew over to a bigger and better center off Shamrock Drive. There's none more deserving than ourBridge to have a nice, safe place to call home.

Best Effort to Come Together - Oak Tree 30

The residents of Twin Oaks, an affordable housing complex next to the NoDa Bodega on East 36th Street, had lived for a couple years with the fear that their apartments would eventually be demolished for a development project rumored to be in the works on the land they called home. But when they were informed in July that they would have just 30 days to find new homes or be put on the streets, they were flabbergasted. Reginald Howard, a 58-year-old man living on disability in the complex, feared that he would have to live out of his car.

"I don't have nowhere," Howard said. "All this week I've been racking my brain, trying to go different places to try to find somewhere, and everything is booked up. They want you to have twice as much as your gross income a month, which is just impossible for me. My health is really bad. I called it success to be moving into this place last year, but now this has come up, and I have nowhere to go at this moment."

Molly Barker, a resident at the neighboring Wesley Corner at NoDa complex, heard about the situation her neighbors were facing and got together with a group of about 30 of them one afternoon under the large oak tree in front of Twin Oaks. They started discussing solutions. Eventually, Barker and other concerned neighbors helped extend the deadline and got more money for the residents, then found permanent homes for 16 of the 18 families living in Twin Oaks. The others found temporary residences in motels, funded by local nonprofits, while they continued their search.

Speaking a few days after the deadline, Barker spoke about a certain power that the Twin Oaks residents didn't know they had until they came together for a common cause.

"I found intense joy and it was the hardest work ever," Barker said. "But then I think, OK, that was 60 days of my life — everybody over there has lived with this hard work their whole life. So certainly, if they can somehow manage to stay sane in all that, then I'll learn that from them."

Best Way to Take the Community Back - Westside CLT

Residents in west Charlotte had been seeing the signs, both literally and figuratively. "We Buy Ugly Houses" signs started popping up regularly in 2015 and seemed to multiply from there, a clear precursor to the gentrification slowly creeping into the Five Points area near Johnson C. Smith University and the Biddleville and Smallwood neighborhoods.

Early in 2016, people started snatching up the signs, repurposing them with artistic messages of resistance against greedy developers aiming to profit off the displacement of people who had been there for generations. Around November, residents got more organized, forming a land trust that aimed to acquire land in the area and hold it at an affordable point.

In the year since, Westside Community Land Trust has become an official 501c3 and began to build a membership base. Boardmember Greg Jarrell said he plans for Westside CLT to start acquiring property in 2018, whether it be empty lots or houses that need renovating. For now, though, he's taking things step by step.

"There's a learning curve that I think we've been working pretty quickly along," Jarrell said. "The challenging part, but also the most important part, is building the membership, which forms the power base of the organization, and we want that to be really focused within west Charlotte. That's the most important work right now, and also the slowest."

That's the only way win the race.

Best Crowd-Funded Move - Charlotte Art League

click to enlarge Charlotte Art League will be closing its doors in January 2018. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Charlotte Art League will be closing its doors in January 2018. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

The folks at Charlotte Art League saw it coming. Over the last couple of years, they had watched all of their Camden Avenue neighbors — places like Common Market, Black Sheep Skate Shop, Phat Burrito — get shut down and sent to other areas of town. Still, when the letter came at the end of August saying the Charlotte Art League would have to be out by January 24, 2018, it made things real.

"When the letter came it was kind of like, 'Ugh, oh man,'" said Cindy Connelly, the CAL's executive director. "We had been working on it, because we knew it was inevitable, we just didn't think it was going to be that short of a timeframe."

The Charlotte Art League relies on grants that wouldn't allow it to shut down for any length of time, and the loyal team of staff and volunteers there have no intention of doing that. But they need help to afford a bigger space to continue to grow their partnerships with 25 organizations, many of which are nonprofits. In late September, shortly after Creative Loafing reported on CAL's relocation, the team launched a crowdfunding effort to raise $50,000 by New Year's Eve ( This is not about helping a bunch of privileged art snobs get a fancier home — the community work Charlotte Art League does with groups like the UMAR social services organization and youth development program Studio 345 can't be overstated.

Best Privately Funded Move - Time Out Youth

When Creative Loafing spent the afternoon at Time Out Youth in February, the kids there couldn't have been happier, but it was clear the LGBTQ youth support center had outgrown its space, as staff members and kids would sometimes find themselves traffic-jammed in the hallways moving from room to room. The center experienced nearly double the number of sign-ins in 2016 as in the previous year, and in January 2017, the TOY board announced it would be moving to a new space on Monroe Road, nearly 2.4 times the size of the one they were in on North Davidson Street.

click to enlarge Time Out Youth. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Time Out Youth. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Time Out Youth made the move this summer, but is still in the midst of a five-year campaign to raise $3.4 million, which will help to build a 10-bed transitional shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth. A study released by TOY in 2016 showed that LGBTQ youth make up 40 percent of homeless youth in large urban areas.

Perhaps the most surprising part of this campaign was the enthusiasm with which some of Charlotte's most well-off families made public donations to help the campaign. The Levine family made a $100,000 matching gift challenge in May, following a $100,000 donation from the Myers Park Baptist Church and an amazing $1.5 million gift from Sara Belk Gambrell of the Belk stores family.

Best use of Six Weeks - Educate to Engage

Once Patrice Funderburg watched a live-streamed video of Philando Castile slowly dying in front of his daughter and girlfriend after being shot by a police officer in Minnesota in July 2016, she knew she had to join the fight for justice in some way. Inspired by Michelle Alexander's best-selling book The New Jim Crow, Funderburg launched a free, six-week study group inviting residents to go through the book and discuss the implications of America's broken justice system one chapter at a time. She had planned to hold the class just once, but as she wrapped up that first six-week session, Keith Lamont Scott was killed in northeast Charlotte and the Charlotte Uprising followed. Funderburg saw the need to continue her Educate To Engage sessions, and has now carried out six of them.

Patrice Funderburg at an Educate To Engage session. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Patrice Funderburg at an Educate To Engage session. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

"I would call it community engagement as activism," Funderburg said. "People learn differently, and how they learn affects how they show up. I'm a learner, I'm an intellectual person, and so delivering information in a unique and descriptive way that causes people to behave differently is essentially organizational development."

More recently, her partnership with amalia deloney of Co-Learning for Action has Funderburg trying new things, such as integrating interactive storytelling into her educational sessions.

"[She] is using words that I know but have never applied before, like cultural organizing and storytelling," Funderburg said.

And that's word to everybody learning something.

Best New Politician - Dimple Ajmera

click to enlarge Dimple Ajmera. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Dimple Ajmera. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Last January, Dimple Ajmera became the youngest woman and first Asian-American ever to serve on Charlotte City Council. She was appointed to a District 4 seat, but in September, Ajmera showed she has the community support to win an election, securing a Democratic nomination for an At-Large seat in 2018. She did it despite Mecklenburg County Republicans making a big fuss over her saying on a local news show that Trump's supporters have no place in Charlotte government (a completely reasonable viewpoint that more and more Republicans now hold).

During the short time Ajmera served on council, she's driven forward the previously stagnant Eastland Mall site redevelopment strategy. She's rejected ideas that would gentrify the surrounding community and focused instead on making nearby residents and businesses owners a part of the process. She recently brought in 40 development companies to check out the site, then organized a forum for their feedback. When a hate crime occurred against Central Market, a business in her district, Ajmera was on the scene alongside police and firefighters to ensure the business owner understood his community was behind him, and to encourage him to stand strong instead of relocating.

Best Use of a Camera to Fight Injustice - Alvin C. Jacobs, Jr.

On February 26, 2012, Alvin Jacobs, Jr., was attending the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando. About 200 miles south, in Miami Gardens, Florida, Trayvon Martin was being chased, beaten and executed by George Zimmerman. Jacobs, after returning to his then-home in Texas and realizing what had happened in the same state he was in without any acknowledgement from the community (at the time), was shocked. Weeks later, after moving to Illinois, he took part in the "Million Hoodies March," shooting photos as he went. He hasn't looked back since, and now travels the country shooting photos of the struggle against injustice everywhere, from Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City.

Looking back, Jacobs recalled how he witnessed the formation of a new civil rights era. "[In 2012], activism wasn't really cool — and I need to use that word carefully, because it's not cool now, but it definitely wasn't cool then," he said. "It was like, 'What are you doing? There's nothing to protest about.' Then there were just days and weeks and months of nonstop — at one time it was every 28 hours, I believe — that someone was being killed by a U.S. police officer. So now it's like, 'So wait a minute, this is happening again?'"

Jacobs created To Speak No Evil, a website in which he shares his images, which eventually included those from the Charlotte Uprising in his own city, where he's lived for five years. Flying home from Washington, D.C., to cover the protests made things different for him, he recalled in a recent CL interview.

"There was an increased responsibility and anxiety, because I knew what was going to take place," Jacobs said. "Not the magnitude of it, but the individuals that were going to be plugged in were going to be friends of mine, community members that I had relationships with."

Best Leadership in the face of Adversity - Calla Hales

click to enlarge Calla Hales. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Calla Hales. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

We all hate walking into work on a Monday. Now, imagine walking into work on a Monday while some unhinged preacher from out of town screams horrible things at you and your coworkers, telling you that you will burn in hell, pelting you with personal verbal attacks. Now, imagine that happening every day. No rest on Saturday, either. In fact, on Saturdays, it gets worse, as hundreds of local churchgoers often flock to your workplace and stand behind these men who yell on the loudspeakers, screaming all sorts of horrifying, disgraceful things to your clients as they come through the door, sometimes traumatizing them.

This is the reality that Calla Hales, co-owner and head administrator at A Preffered Women's Health Clinic in east Charlotte, faces on a daily basis. Things have only worsened over the last year, as protests have gotten bigger and Hales has faced harassment following an article in Cosmopolitan in which she opened up about being the victim of a sexual assault after telling her date what she did for a living. Throughout all of this, Hales has kept a surprisingly even-keeled facade as she deals with enraged Christians and apathetic police. We're not sure how she does it. But we're in awe.

Best Homecoming - Elexus Jionde

Elexus Jionde has always been outspoken, but when she graduated Ohio State University, she was even more so after having been awakened to issues surrounding racism as it still existed here and how it related to American history.

click to enlarge Elexus Jionde. (Photo courtesy of Intelexual Media)
  • Elexus Jionde. (Photo courtesy of Intelexual Media)

Then, on September 11, 2016, Jionde took to Twitter to point out the irony and hypocrisy of white people's annual #NeverForget movement on that sacred day, and things blew up. She gained about 25,000 followers overnight, and suddenly had the platform she had always deserved. She has since founded Intelexual Media and released her first book, The A-Z Guide to Black Oppression.

Creative Loafing sat down with the Garinger grad in March, as she had returned home just before the release of the new book, to talk about why the work is so important to her.

"I'm trying to make college education more accessible to my own people," she said. "At Garinger, only 11 percent of the people in my class went to college, and most of them were going to community colleges and the rest were going to small [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] around North Carolina. I was one of a handful who went to a bigger research institution, and that's where I learned how to research, how to think objectively. I've always loved history, but that's where I learned true critical thinking about history."

Jionde's homecoming was short-lived, as she's since moved to Atlanta. Her next book, Angry Black Girl, is available for preorder on October 20.

Best Book by a Charlotte Native - Lower Ed, by Tressie McMillan Cottom

click to enlarge Tressie McMillan Cottom. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Tressie McMillan Cottom. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

If you're shocked at the complete implosion of Charlotte School of Law earlier this year, you shouldn't be. Tressie McMillan Cottom saw it coming. While serving as an enrollment representative at a for-profit college in Charlotte, she learned about some of the more unsavory and predatory enrollment practices used by the schools. One experience, in particular, convinced Cottom that she had to leave the business, and she has since earned her PhD and now teaches sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In between her studying and teaching, Cottom kept her thoughts on the predatory for-profit colleges operating in Charlotte and around the country. In February, she released Lower Ed, which exposed the for-profit industry and gained her national recognition, including an appearance on The Daily Show.

While she was working on the book, ITT Tech closed a campus in Charlotte and Charlotte School of Law began its downward spiral. When we caught up with Cottom in May, as she wrapped her book tour here in her hometown, we spoke about what makes Charlotte so vulnerable to these predatory educational institutions.

"It's got all the perfect ingredients. The demographics are just right," Cottom said. "You've got plenty of working-class white people, a healthy African-American community — which is sort of their No. 1 one constituency — and a growing non-white population, whether that be Hispanic, Asian American, etc. Those are the perfect demographics for for-profits, because it's basically anybody who doesn't have an intergenerational relationship with college. So it's perfect."

Best Catfish - Ken Buck

click to enlarge Ken Buck.
  • Ken Buck.

When everyday Charlottean Ken Buck started getting tweets aimed at Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck in 2010, he didn't think much of it. But in 2014, when the other Buck actually won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, things got a little crazy. Fueld by heightened bipartisanship, Rep. Ken Buck's detractors from both sides of the aisle began overwhelming the Charlotte Buck's Twitter acount with vitriolic garbage (he had landed the straightforward @KenBuck handle before the other Buck ever joined Twitter).

All along, however, Buck has approached the situation with a sense of humor, sometimes playing along with the mistaken pundits, not saying that he is U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, but not saying that he isn't either.

It all came to a head when Buck found himself in a three-day debate with Bette Midler, employing nothing but sarcasm while she and her followers unwittingly lambasted him from their keyboards. In the end, Midler realized her mistake and apologized, but not before giving us all something to laugh at in a world filled with dumb political arguments on the internet.

Biggest Shitshow of a News Story - Cam Newton and Jordan Rodrigue

Once upon a time, Cam Newton said he thought it was funny that a lady sports reporter — who had been covering the Panthers for more than a year — asked him a question about "routes" because she was a "female." Media pounced. Outraged ensued.

The following day, we found out that once upon a time, that same reporter, Jourdan Rodrigue of The Charlotte Observer, was comfortable retweeting a Bill Nye parody account using the n-word and laughing at her dad's racist jokes. Twitter pounced. Outrage ensued.

They both issued the obligatory apologies, but the internet doesn't let things die, and Rodrigue was harassed to the point where she didn't even travel to Detroit to cover the next Panthers game against the Lions, and hasn't been heard from in the pages of the Observer or on Twitter since Oct. 5. For his part, Cam was hit with a label that will probably stick with him for years to come, torn apart in the media for a full week and stripped of his endorsement deal with Dannon yogurt. The rest of us gained nothing and lost a lot of time and energy talking about this shitshow for far too long.

The end, we hope.

Local Issue That Needs More Attention - Mistreatment of Construction Workers

Everywhere you look in Charlotte there's a brand new apartment complex or some other type of development going up, which is all well and good if you're able to ignore the displacement of residents and removal of cultural spots like what's happened in South End.

Ignoring that part, this growth is all good, right? More jobs for everyone, right? Well, it's not so simple. A report titled Build a Better South, released this summer by the University of Illinois at Chicago, detailed the alarming abuses and rights violations that run rampant in Charlotte's construction industry.

Creative Loafing spoke with Alexis Gonzalez after the report's release. Gonzalez had joined four coworkers on a strike from their job at Borders Rebar. "I was a worker. I was part of it," Gonzalez said. "I'm proud to be a part of building Charlotte's future, but the working conditions here are not something that Charlotte can be proud of."

Gonzalez and others with the Justice and Respect in the Reinforcing Industry Coalition have called on Charlotte City Council to approve policy that would force developers in Charlotte to disclose their contractors' employment practices, to no avail.


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