To most Charlotteans, the saga of Eastland Mall is one of the saddest economic stories to be told in such a fast-developing city.
To visit the site now is to traverse an abandoned parking lot, separated at points by chain-link fences holding up bright red Restricted Area signs. No remnants of the mall are to be found, all hauled away after its 2013 demolition.
The lonely Eastland Community Transit Center sits waiting to take its position as the final stop for the CityLYNX Gold Line if it ever reaches completion. The construction of a QT gas station at the western side of the site shows that life may be ready to return to this corner of east Charlotte where Sharon Amity Road, Central Avenue and Albemarle Road converge. Now, two local men are hoping to spark a small-business revitalization in the area by hosting an Open Air Market during weekends in the southeastern section of the lot.
Theodore Williams is a Guyanese immigrant who moved into the Eastland area 13 years ago, just as anchors began leaving what was once North Carolina's largest mall and crime began to take hold. Errick Curtis-Pulley has lived in the area for eight years. Last year, he left his job at an insurance firm to focus on recording music and becoming an entrepreneur.
On August 15, Williams and Curtis-Pulley successfully pulled off the first of what they hope to be many Open Air Markets to be held at the site. More than 40 vendors showed up, including food trucks, mobile clothing stores and entrepreneurial residents from the area. Charlotte City Council District 5 representative John Autry hopes the market is a harbringer of a much-needed rebirth in the Eastland Mall site and surrounding areas.
"Everything has to start somewhere," Autry said. "I believe last weekend was a good start. We must show private investors that we can turn people out for activities, events, etc. and that those people will spend their money."
Miss C of Miss C U'Neaq Boutique said she had been going to Dallas or Monroe to similar events to sell her purses, accessories and other items, and is happy to keep her money in her own community now.
"I think their main goal was to show that the eastern part of the city can be just as productive and be great for businesses like anywhere else; for small businesses, large businesses and entrepreneurs." Miss C said. "To me they reached that goal. It's definitely a positive thing for the community. Look at all of this land going to waste. We don't need to waste any land, and this market is great for the area here. It shows that we can all come together."
Lucille Ivey has lived in the Eastland area for 25 years and said she felt lucky to have come across the market on Saturday, which she wasn't aware existed until driving by.
"It's a great opportunity for the people of east Charlotte to learn what's going on in east Charlotte. There are a lot of small businesses here that can't afford to advertise, so this is a great opportunity to get the word out," Ivey said. "Families need to know what's in our area. You may read things on Facebook, but this is a hands-on opportunity to find out what's going on in our community."
Creative Loafing met with Williams and Curtis-Pulley as they worked to clean the lot in the days before the Open Market's first day. They spoke about what they want to bring to the abandoned mall site.
Creative Loafing: What brought about the idea to host an Open Air Market?
Theodore Williams: In Guyana, our markets are not like in the United States here where you have established chains and franchises and whatnot. They are primarily based on what you would call flea markets here. We have giant markets with individual vendors and small businesses throughout the whole thing. I suppose the origination of this is that we were planning on doing a race event here, drifting. A friend that hosts these events, his idea was to do it every fourth or fifth weekend. I decided we needed something to do that would be every weekend, and that can help out the community as well. The idea came of a market and I consulted Errick and that's how the whole thing started. We proposed the idea to the city and here we are now.
What do you hope to contribute to the community with this market?
Williams: Right now, we know this area needs some life. People we know in the area, they have nothing to do. Everything is outside of Charlotte. They have to go here or go there. In east Charlotte, if you're a partyer or drinker then there's things to do, but family-wise, bringing out a whole family and stuff like that, there isn't much for us.
We think that having the Open Air Market here, there will be a place to come for families and interaction. Small businesses will have an opportunity to have a front door as opposed to paying $2,000 a month to have an actual store. In so many ways, everybody wins.
We're hoping in September we can construct a stage and have local bands and DJs come out and play. It's called Open Air Market because we don't want the stigma of a flea market, we want it to be so much more. We want you to bring out your kids, have fun, buy food, listen to music and everything else; a park and a flea market together that's family oriented and where people can conduct business.
Errick Curtis-Pulley: There's another piece that's very big: on the east side of Charlotte, we know there a lot of different nationalities and if you come over here and want something different to eat from some other type of country, this is the place to come to. We realize that this will also be a multicultural piece of east Charlotte, so that people of different nationalities will come to this one place and bring their families.
You mentioned food while speaking about the diversity in this community. Will that play a part in the Open Air Market?
Curtis-Pulley: We realize that food is one of those things that brings people out and brings people together, so it's going to be one of our central themes, one of our focus points.
Williams: We've encouraged the food trucks, local farmer's markets, people of different ethnicities, whatever individual from whatever culture or country, we want them to bring their food here. We want them to share it with the community, which will provide growth and exposure for everyone and we will all grow from that. We encourage everybody to bring out what they have.
What's the process been like since you were approved by the city?
Curtis-Pulley: We've done a little bit of work every day for the last three weeks.
Williams: We've been cutting grass, cleaning up, everything. Just to get the glass out of here was hard work. It was a mess. Now we're cutting the grass for a second time, just trying to make it pleasing to people. It was really a mess.
Creative Loafing caught back up with the men as they walked the premises on the day of the market's first opening and asked their reaction to the turnout of both vendors and shoppers.
Curtis-Pulley: Man, I'm excited. I'm happy to see that it's so well-received and happy to see the people came out. We've got 40 to 45 vendors out here and we didn't even know where we were going to fall in this line. People are buying stuff, people are making money, it's a great thing. People are just overwhelmed, saying they didn't know this was here.Williams: It's awesome. We really didn't expect the volume that we have today. It just surpasses our expectations for the first day. We're hoping to keep it building. I spoke to a lot of vendors and everybody seems happy. Of course, we have improvements to make, but they're happy to be here and happy that the event is taking place. We are ecstatic and just want to keep building.