Highway construction harmed Black neighborhoods in Charlotte. Now leaders are trying to “untangle” past mistakes
Along Beatties Ford, older buildings slated for redevelopment are being cleared out. Chain-linked fencing has gone up around the vacant lots where construction crews will soon start moving dirt.
An infusion of public money is helping spur a wave of development. The area is part of the city’s “Corridors of Opportunity” program, a $24.5 million investment in six different Charlotte neighborhoods. Developers have a number of projects planned on or near Beatties Ford, including revamping old buildings to house new tenants like JPMorgan Chase. Another building will house a pharmacy, sweets shop, and pizza joint.
“People are ready for change,” councilman Malcolm Graham said at the announcement of the investment project last month.
To be sure, some people are ready for change.
Others are skeptical, their hesitation rooted in decades of decisions that either left them out or pushed them out. One of the worst and most damning actually flows underneath Beatties Ford Road. It’s the Brookshire Freeway, which decades ago split neighborhoods apart.
It’s one of the less-discussed and deep-rooted causes of inequality in Charlotte: Construction of our highways.
The topic underscores most of the development discussions in 2020, as Charlotte tries to shift from being car-centric to more pedestrian-friendly.
We see the shift in the partial closure of major streets like Tryon in Uptown. City council just approved a plan to build an entire apartment complex that’s car-free. Discussions over social media, serious or hypothetical, about turning Interstate 277 into a river highlight a broader theme about moving away from cars.
[Related Agenda story: The future of Beatties Ford, in renderings and promises]
Now, as city planners work to decide the future of transportation in Charlotte, they’re having to rectify some of the infrastructure decisions leaders made decades ago.
“We’re in the untangling phase,” says John Howard, a transportation planner with the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS).
“Now we’re really in the mode of, how can we do better? How can we help fix the infrastructure that was poorly planned 50 years ago, a generation ago?”
In the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, new expressways sliced right through historically Black areas close to Uptown, displacing hundreds of households and businesses. Schools were torn down for pavement. Commercial activity in those neighborhoods paused. Property values next to the highways plunged.
Arguably the most prominent Charlotte neighborhood broken up is Brooklyn. The construction of Independence Boulevard in 1949 cut a “long gash” through the once-thriving neighborhood, “exposing blighted areas of the worst sections of the neighborhood,” UNC Charlotte records show.
On the west side of the center city, highways cut through neighborhoods such as McCrorey Heights, Lincoln Heights, and Washington Heights.
Just north of Uptown now, interstates 277, 77, and 85 wrap around historically Black neighborhoods, forming a giant, concrete triangle-shaped barricade.
Less than half a mile from Johnson C. Smith University, but on the other side of 277, is McCrorey Heights. It’s a charming, tree-lined neighborhood with redbrick ranch-style homes and manicured green lawns. It’s quiet, except for the whir of traffic on the other side of a line of trees.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the area flourished, rising to prominence as the preferred neighborhood of Charlotte’s Black upper middle class. Doctors, attorneys, ministers, bankers, and politicians lived in McCrorey Heights, as did JCSU professors and university officials. Civil rights activist Dr. Reginald Hawkins lived there, in a brick ranch. Nearby, businessman and real estate investor Romeo Alexander, whose daughter-in-law Vi Lyles became Charlotte’s first Black female mayor, lived on Patton Avenue.
In the early 1960s, local officials began planning the Northwest Expressway. A $10 million project, the highway was the first phase of the 20-year Charlotte Thoroughfare Plan, a joint effort between the city and State Highway Commission. The plan called for the expressway to cut right through McCrorey Heights, “one of the finest Negro residential areas in the city,” the Charlotte Observer wrote in April 1962.
In a public hearing at Ovens Auditorium that month, McCrorey Heights neighbors spoke out. They didn’t oppose the project outright, but rather asked that the city re-route the expressway a few hundred feet to the southwest.
One of the speakers, Rev. J.W. Smith, told local officials that McCrorey Heights residents had few options for a new place to live, should the project displace them. “If you live as a minority, it’s hard to get a first class place.”
Another speaker, Mrs. J.T. Jones, made a prescient appeal.
“There is a choice here of what kind of progress should be made,” Jones said. “McCrorey Heights represents progress, the kind of progress our people need.”
In 1968, construction began anyway. Later, the expressway was renamed after Stan Brookshire, a four-term Charlotte mayor in the 1960s.
A number of homes sat in the project’s way, though, such as those on Fairview Avenue and Van Buren Avenue.
Darnell Ivory grew up in a brick ranch on Van Buren with her mother and two older brothers.
Her father passed away years before her family moved to McCrorey Heights, and her mother wanted to be near family. Ivory’s aunt lived up the street, on Madison, and her grandmother lived nearby, too, on Patton.
“It was sort of like the village raising the children. She had her sister and mother there to help,” Ivory says. As a child, she remembers playing out in the creek that used to run along the back of the homes on her side of the street.
McCrorey Heights, Ivory says, was the kind of family-oriented neighborhood where everybody knows everybody. Parents could trust their children to go into anyone’s house, and the kids could play outside, care free.
In late 1966, Ivory’s mother received a letter from the State Highway Commission claiming eminent domain. Instead of selling her house to the city to be torn down, Ivory’s mother decided to have it moved up to Hyde Park. The Highway Commission paid to move the family’s belongings; Ivory’s mother, a schoolteacher, had to pay to move the house itself.
The move meant an uprooting of the family and a shift in its lifestyle. It meant they’d lose the familiarity, and the closeness to the rest of Ivory’s family.
“It was not something they were excited about. We were in a neighborhood that was predominantly African-American because we couldn’t integrate neighborhoods back then,” Ivory says. “It was like the Ballantyne equivalent.”
Although most of the original homes in McCrorey Heights remain, the highways disrupted the community.
For instance, in 1966, city leaders sold Biddleville Elementary, where Ivory attended, to the N.C. Highway Commission for just over $251,000. The all-Black school was a “beacon for education for that side of town,” says Tom Hanchett, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library’s historian-in-residence.
The school, which stood about a quarter-mile from Romeo Alexander’s house, was then torn down to make way for the Northwest Expressway.
“A lot of times people don’t understand it. They don’t see the small slights and the large projects that created deficits in the African-American community,” Lyles tells me.
“It’s a history that people try to avoid, but it sits in front of us every day.”
Over time, highway construction helped erode the walkability of neighborhoods through which new expressways ran.
In a 1970 op-ed in the Observer, John Summersette, a Black college professor from Charlotte living in California, wrote about Fairview School, which he attended in the 1920s. He heralded the school as “a shrine of Black education.” It was the first all-brick school built for Black children in Charlotte, he wrote. Located near where the Music Factory is now, the school boasted new technology and passionate teachers.
Children would walk, Summersette wrote, from the Beatties Ford Road and Johnson C. Smith area three or four miles a day in all kinds of weather to get to the school. Students who lived in the Greenville neighborhood had an even shorter commute.
When the Northwest Expressway went up in the late 1960s there, it cut off the school from Greenville. It soon closed as part of the city’s desegregation plans.
Before the highways, walking was easy, and it was common, Hanchett says. You could walk from McCrorey Heights, where a lot of the school teachers lived, to Oaklawn Park Elementary, for instance, he says.
“What’s hard to imagine now is the extent to which the west side of Charlotte was one continuous blanket of neighborhoods,” Hanchett says. “That walkability between the Black part of town and the white part of town was massively disrupted. That has been a problem to this day.”
Anthony Foxx grew up on Crestdale Drive in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood, in a home that his grandparents bought in the early 1960s.
Soon after his grandparents bought the house, Interstates 77 and 85 were constructed, mowing through the neighborhood and cutting it off from the rest of the surrounding areas.
A few years ago, Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte, was back in town speaking to a gathering of the Charlotte Rotary’s weekly luncheon in Uptown. It wasn’t until his freshman year at Davidson, Foxx told the group, that he was finally able to get a pizza delivered to his house.
For Foxx, a Black man who would become the Secretary of Transportation under President Obama, Lincoln Heights was a glimpse into how transportation decisions can affect generations of people. Those freeways that went through Foxx’s neighborhood were meant to carry people through it, not to it, he said.
“Instead of connecting us to each other, highway decision-makers in a sense separated us,” Foxx said.
“Today, if you live near a freeway, the chances are very high that you’re poor.”
Local data show that properties in neighborhoods next to highways sell for less than they do in the rest of Mecklenburg County. In some areas near freeways, home prices actually fell in recent years.
In Washington Heights, the average sale price of a home in 2013 was $50,250, compared to the county-wide average of $267,916, according to UNC Charlotte’s Charlotte/Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer. By 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, the average sale price of those homes fell to $32,500, while county-wide it rose to $273,064.
In Lincoln Heights, the average sale price of a home plunged from $114,727 in 2013 to $59,906 in 2015. In McCrorey Heights, it crept up from $82,917 in 2013 to $88,500 in 2015.
By comparison, in Dilworth, only about three miles away, average home prices surged from $391,928 in 2013 to $467,716 in 2015.
“If you are inheriting your parents’ or your grandparents’ property, if you live in one part of the city, the value of the property that you’re inheriting pales in comparison to the other side (of town),” says Willie Griffin, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, who grew up in Lincoln Heights.
“Had those highways not been built, it might have been a different story.”
Foxx’s message those years ago to the Rotary Club is the same one that drives infrastructure decisions today: Prior local leadership made mistakes when it came to building highways. Don’t repeat the same mistakes; try to figure out a way to fix them.
Griffin calls past decisions flat-out racist. Decisions like where to put highways, Lyles says, went ahead without much regard for long-term impacts. It was just the way things were.
Just like today, back then Charlotte wanted to be a big city. They wanted an advanced highway system to connect the region.
“We’re trying to figure out how we can leverage some of these current projects to help improve some of the mistakes that were made,” says Howard. “And to provide access to jobs, educational resources, entertainment, parks and recreation.”
Access is a theme driving decisions like where to place stations for the streetcar that’ll eventually run along Central, for instance. Howard’s also part of the team planning the Silver Line. The 25-mile rail line will stretch from Gaston County to the west down to Union County in the east.
The Beatties Ford corridor was the heart of Charlotte’s Black business community.
A streetcar, which ended right where a commercial district took shape, helped bolster the area’s growth. Nearby, supermarkets, barber shops, and other establishments prospered.
In 1940, a man named Jimmy McKee and his wife Minnie opened the Excelsior nightclub on Beatties Ford. Over time, the club, now a historic landmark, became a posh social hub for political events and would host countless renowned musicians. Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong each performed there.
Eventually, the onramp to the Brookshire Freeway went up a few yards from the Excelsior.
Recently, the corridor has had its share of troubles.
At the Burger King on Beatties Ford, CMPD shot and killed a young man named Danquirs Franklin last year. Over the summer, during an otherwise peaceful Juneteenth celebration, there was a mass shooting in front of the neighborhood Food Lion that left four people dead.
Many residents of the area welcome the investment coming in. Carlenia Ivory, Darnell’s sister in law who served on city council, lived near that Food Lion when she was a college student at JCSU. She remembers how vibrant and walkable the corridor once was.
Especially after this summer’s shooting, Carlenia Ivory says she’s glad to see new development.
“Is it going to increase traffic? Yes. Is it going to price people out? I think people have been waiting to be bought out,” Ivory says.
But Mayor Lyles says it’s a delicate balance.
People want to own their homes and run their own shops and doctors’ offices and banks. Just like they did decades ago when the highways went in around Charlotte. How do you preserve that, without forcing anyone out? Lyles wonders.
“Beatties Ford wants revitalization and opportunity but in a way that retains our culture and our ownership. That’s hard to do,” Lyles says.
“The things that we’re trying to do now, that’s what the neighborhood had then.”
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