Jun 27, 2022 - Development

How bulldozing Brooklyn cost Black Charlotteans millions in generational wealth

Photo illustration: Maura Losch/Axios. Photos: Courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Anna Jean Mayhew.

Jacqueline Stowe’s great-grandchildren look at her with confusion when she tries to show them the neighborhood where she grew up in Uptown.

The church she worshipped at is now part of Interstate 277. The NASCAR Hall of Fame hovers over where the shotgun house she lived in, along an alleyway on a dirt road, once stood.

  • There was the Lincoln Theatre where she used to watch movies with her friends … the gambling houses she would walk into to collect money from their fathers to see the movies … the doo-wop groups performing in the streets.

“All that is just gone,” she tells me. “It’s erased. It’s like we never existed.”

Why it matters: Everything Stowe sees in her memory was part of Brooklyn, once the largest Black neighborhood in Charlotte.

She is part of a generation of Charlotteans who lost their community when Brooklyn was torn down in the name of urban renewal in the 1960s and ’70s. It is impossible to quantify the harm that razing a neighborhood and disrupting social connections causes.

  • But an Axios review of some deed records reveals that homeowners, churches and other institutions were forced to sell property for a fraction of what some of Charlotte’s most prime real estate is worth now.

The big picture: That loss of wealth rippled throughout Charlotte’s Black community and set families back for generations.

  • Urban renewal, redlining and other intentional policies set by government leaders helped ingrain the challenges Charlotte faces today with economic mobility.

Many deeds listed the same sale price — $100. That was a standard practice for deeds in the post-war era, historian Michael Moore tells me. So it’s difficult to ascertain how much those property owners were actually compensated.

  • But in some cases the sale price was recorded, often when the city was required to pay people more for their land by a court.

One of Charlotte’s most successful Black families at that time, the Alexanders, were paid just $13,000 for property at what was then 415 East Stonewall Street (now Brooklyn Village Avenue), near the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

  • That’s according to Moore, who, despite the deed listing $100 for the sale price, calculated the true price using the revenue stamps in an analysis for Axios.

Kelly Alexander Sr. and his wife, Margaret Alexander, who died in June, were longtime civil rights activists with the NAACP. Kelly had three brothers, one of whom, Fred, became the first Black person to serve on Charlotte City Council since Reconstruction.

Using an inflation calculator, we determined that the four Alexander brothers and their wives brought in the equivalent of $125,823 in today’s dollars from the Stonewall Street sale, total.

  • The property that includes the NASCAR Hall of Fame is now worth $197 million, per county property records, $29.5 million of which comes from the land alone.

Quantifying loss

The plaza in front of the NASCAR Hall of Fame now sits on the site of the Brevard Street Library, the first library serving the Black community in the state. Photo illustration: Maura Losch/Axios. Photos: Courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Danielle Chemtob/Axios.

As a child, Stowe swung her legs back and forth in the church pews, wondering when she would grow up and her feet would reach the floor.

  • But that day never came.

In 1969, a court ordered the Charlotte Redevelopment Commission to pay the church Stowe still worships at, Bethel AME Church (now Greater Bethel), $62,500, plus interest, for its property.

  • That’s just under $500,000 in today’s dollars.
  • The site (not the building itself) was 5,100 square feet, according to the court order reviewed by Axios. So the church received about $12.25 per square foot, or about $97 in today’s dollars.

The property doesn’t exist as it did then due to the construction of the highways and reconfiguration of streets. But land records for nearby sites provide a glimpse of the wealth that could have remained with Black landowners.

  • Marshall Park is valued at $31.9 million today, per the latest county assessment, and it’s 236,530 square feet, meaning it’s worth about $135 per square foot. That’s more than ten times what Bethel AME received in the 1969 sale.
  • First Baptist Charlotte, which sits next to Marshall Park, purchased its land for around $439,000 in the 1960s, according to the Observer and land records, on a site that was once part of Brooklyn. The land value alone from the five acres it owns today is $30 million, or around $6 million per acre.

For two years after it was forced out of Brooklyn, Bethel AME wandered in what felt like the wilderness, members describe, while looking for a permanent location.

At one point, they worshipped in a trailer-like building. Sometimes, they sat on cardboard boxes outside.

The former Bethel AME Church location. Photo courtesy of Greater Bethel AME Church.
  • On Friday or Saturday, Jeanne Holtzclaw remembers receiving a call from the church’s trustees and stewards who would tell her where Sunday’s service would be.
  • Stowe’s family didn’t have a telephone, so they had to receive messages about the services on their neighbor’s phone or through word of mouth.

In 1971, deed records show, the church purchased property on Grandin Road at the intersection of West Fourth Street, before moving to Shannon Park, where it remains.

  • That land, at 5232 The Plaza, is valued at $26,160 per acre today, meaning First Baptist Church’s land Uptown is worth 229 times as much.

A sense of community

State Rep. Kelly Alexander Jr., son of Kelly Sr., says his childhood in Brooklyn was like growing up in a 1930s “Our Gang” film (later “The Little Rascals” franchise).

  • A few steps from the back door of their family’s home, there were sunflowers growing six to 10 feet tall, and nearby was the “big jungle,” where children played on the bank of a creek.
  • “If you did something in the community, by the time you get home, somebody else would know about it,” says Kelly Jr.’s brother Alfred.

Brooklyn was also busy for adults, with everything from gambling houses and clubs to community fish fries.

  • Former residents describe two major events: the Second Ward and West Charlotte high schools rivalry football game, and the annual convocation parade for the United House of Prayer For All People featuring Bishop C. M. Grace, known as “Sweet Daddy Grace,” which drew massive crowds.

Originally known as Logtown, after the cabins built there, Brooklyn sprung up in the Jim Crow South, a time when Black people were shut out of virtually every opportunity.

  • The establishment of the first graded school for Black students in Mecklenburg County drove Black families to Brooklyn to educate their children, according to the Levine Museum of the New South.
The United House of Prayer parade. Photo: Courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library
  • It was also a place where laborers could live close to factories nearby, says Willie Griffin, assistant professor of public history at UNC Charlotte.

But after World War II, industries moved to the outskirts of the city, and leaders turned their eye to the value sitting underneath Brooklyn.

Plotting Brooklyn’s demise

The federal government provided billions to cities for urban renewal, or as critics call it, “negro removal” (based on a quote from James Baldwin).

The United House of Prayer’s old church on South McDowell Street, now part of Marshall Park. Photo illustration: Maura Losch/Axios. Photos: Courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Danielle Chemtob/Axios.
  • It lasted until 1974 and was purported to be about cleaning up “blight,” but it also “changed who cities were made for,” in an effort to lure suburbanites who had fled urban areas back into cities, according to the “Renewing Inequality” project from the University of Richmond.
  • Across the nation, urban renewal paid for proposals to rebuild 363,637 acres, equivalent to half of Rhode Island.

How it happened: Charlotte leaders and local media painted Brooklyn as a “slum.”

  • The Observer published a series of articles in 1960 about Brooklyn, the first of which was titled “Our Slums Are A Losing Proposition.” It claimed the cost of city services like policing was far higher than the tax revenue the city received from the area. But if redeveloped, it had the potential to become a “tax bonanza.”
  • Brooklyn’s demolition did boost the city’s tax coffers, a 1973 Observer article reveals: the assessed value of the neighborhood increased from around $3.4 million in 1961, to $7.2 million by 1972.

In order to receive federal funding, local leaders had to prove that the area was legally a slum. Newspaper articles and government documents from the era often quote a statistic claiming Brooklyn was more than 77% blighted.

  • Historians say it was actually a mixed-income community, where low-income residents and the city’s most successful Black leaders lived side-by-side, a product of segregation.
A famous photo of three boys looking on as Second Ward High School is destroyed. Abel Jackson’s “Historic Brooklyn” mural at 219 South Brevard St. depicts part of this image, but places the boys in front of Black leaders Thaddeus Lincoln Tate, J.T. Williams and William C. Smith — because Jackson wanted the boys to be looking up at something positive, instead of demolition. Image courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library
  • For instance, Stowe’s family lived in a narrow shotgun house (so called because it was said that you could shoot a bullet through the front door and it would come out of the back door without hitting anything) next to the Alexanders.
  • Stowe still remembers peering through the fence into their house to try to glimpse at the television, because her family couldn’t afford one.
Shotgun homes. Courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

At least half of Brooklyn residents owned their homes, Griffin says, and those who did maintained them. To get to the 77% figure, he says leaders persuaded homeowners to move to new west Charlotte neighborhoods like University Park and Oaklawn Park.

  • Where there was blight in Brooklyn, it was often because absentee landlords let the homes they rented out fall into disrepair.

Between the lines: The biggest loss from Brooklyn’s demise was the social capital, Griffin says.

  • When Stowe transferred to Irwin Avenue Junior High School for eighth grade, she lost the connections she had with the teachers and classmates at Second Ward High School, many of whom were her neighbors.
The home of Dr. John Taylor (J.T.) Williams, one of the first three Black doctors licensed in North Carolina. Courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library
  • She graduated in the top 10% of her class at West Charlotte High School, but talked herself out of attending college because her family couldn’t afford it. She didn’t know there were scholarships available.
  • “I lost that contact where I would have people to help me,” she says.

The Black community in Brooklyn was split after urban renewal: the middle- and upper-class went to those areas like University Park, and many poor residents relocated to low-income housing.

  • “When this community was intact, if you are a poor African American growing up … you had examples of what it meant to be a successful African American right at your fingertips,” Griffin said. “The splitting up of these neighborhoods kept poor Blacks in the same vicinity of other poor Blacks.
  • “It’s hard to see yourself in a different light if you are trapped in poverty and all you see is poverty.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’re still talking about these issues today: how to create mixed-income neighborhoods that help people escape from the cycle of poverty. But when our city had an example of that, we destroyed it.

  • In all, the city tore down nearly 1,500 homes in Brooklyn, and displaced more than 7,000 people.

Kelly Alexander Sr. and the NAACP called on the city to build new housing for the Brooklyn residents it was forcing out. But Charlotte never did.

  • The city soon embarked on more urban renewal projects in neighborhoods like Greenville and First Ward, forever changing the landscape.

The cycle of displacement didn’t stop with urban renewal. Around the same time, the building of interstates spliced and cut off Black neighborhoods.

  • Stowe’s family relocated to a home on Andrill Terrace near Johnson C. Smith University when she was 13. But they would later be uprooted again due to highway construction and move to Howie Acres.
Courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

Dismantling Black main street

Where a street now named for Martin Luther King Jr. meets Brevard, Charlotte razed the center of its Black main street.

The intersection was once the hub of one of two main Black business districts in Brooklyn.

  • Just on Second Street, which later became part of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, there were: drug stores, grocery stores, restaurants, beauty and barber shops, the Lincoln Theatre and more. That’s according to city directory records analyzed by author Anna Jean Mayhew, who wrote “Tomorrow’s Bread,” a novel based on the story of Brooklyn.
  • They were some of Brooklyn’s approximately 216 businesses.

Alexander Funeral Home is one of the only ones still standing.

  • Founded by Rep. Kelly Alexander Jr.’s grandfather Zechariah Alexander Sr. in 1914, it’s now the oldest African American owned and managed business in Mecklenburg County.
Businesses along Second Street in Brooklyn. Courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

The move from its Brooklyn location at 323 South Brevard Street put pressure on the business, says Rep. Alexander, demanding a large amount of cash upfront.

  • First, the family had to identify a piece of property (which they found on Irwin Avenue), then it had to be refurbished, he says. Over time, because the building was smaller than the Brooklyn location, they would expand it and add parking.
  • “Back in those days, the method of financing was beg, borrow and steal,” Alexander says. “Because banks just really didn’t pay attention to working with Black business.”

One of his first jobs at the funeral home was to sort case files in the basement. That’s where he found thousands in uncollected bills.

  • Alexander believes part of the reason so many customers owed money is that many had themselves been kicked out of Brooklyn.
An old ad for Alexander Funeral Home. Courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library
  • “Everybody in Brooklyn to some degree was being affected by that same lack of resources: a strain that was put on an entire community to maintain its fabric,” he says.

What does justice look like?

Reparations are often brought up in the context of slavery, drawing controversy over who would receive money and who is responsible for actions that took place over 150 years ago.

But Brooklyn, Greenville and other areas were leveled in the 20th century. Many of their former residents and their children and grandchildren — are still alive.

The site of Alexander Funeral Home, then and now. Photo illustration: Maura Losch/Axios. Photos: Courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Danielle Chemtob/Axios
  • Records, although they are spotty, document at least some of the financial portion of the loss.

And in recent years advocates, including some former residents, have pushed the city to make up for its actions.

  • In 2019, a group of advocates protested the redevelopment plan for the old Brooklyn neighborhood. Historians believed it was the first demand from key community figures for what was effectively reparations in Charlotte history, I reported with my former Observer colleagues.
  • The Brooklyn Village development will consist of offices, retail, hotel rooms and more than 1,200 homes.
  • But the group, called Restorative Justice CLT, wanted space set aside for Black-owned businesses, a greater share of affordable housing, and for former residents to be prioritized for housing in the project.

Dr. Ricky A. Woods, senior minister at First Baptist Church-West, which was driven out of Third Ward in an urban renewal project in the 1970s, believes reparations are owed, but he says they should be about more than financial compensation.

“I think at the heart, a reparation has to be a policy shift: a policy shift that makes it illegal to use taxpayers’ money to do harm to taxpayers,” he tells me. “Because that’s what happened with Brooklyn. This was done with public money. And so the people were paying for their own demise.”

Stowe questions why the city isn’t setting aside some of a $250 million racial equity fund for former residents like her.

Dr. Ricky A. Woods, senior minister at First Baptist Church-West, in front of an image of the church’s old location in Third Ward. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

Earlier this month, I stood beside her on the back side of the concrete parking deck for Whole Foods Uptown, looking over what was left of the church’s old location.

  • “This is where I was born and raised for 12 years of my life. And now it’s this,” Stowe said, gesturing at the cars whizzing by just past the wire fence and a patch of grass.
Jacqueline Stowe with a map of the former Brooklyn neighborhood. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

We looked across to the new Charlotte, the apartment towers in South End rising in the distance. Stowe told me on the one hand, she likes what Uptown has become.

But there was a cost to that progress. A cost that meant destroying the old Charlotte: the Charlotte that raised her. She calls it “root shock.”

  • “Here I am a native Charlottean, and I have no roots,” she said.
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