Here’s an illuminating pair of stories about race, planning, economics, and destiny in Charlotte.
A boy grew up in his grandmother’s house in Lincoln Heights, a black neighborhood just north of downtown. When his grandmother bought the house in 1961, it was a stable community with longtime homeowners and locally owned businesses. Later in the 1960s, two crisscrossing interstates cut Lincoln Heights off from its neighbors. Homeowners moved out; businesses dried up. As a teenager in the ’80s, the boy couldn’t even get a pizza delivered to the house. “The people in my community were not invisible,” Anthony Foxx would say years later. “It’s just that at a certain point in our history, they didn’t matter.”
A girl moved with her family to Belmont, a neighborhood just east of downtown, a half-century ago, when she was 5. She made the majority-black community her home, serving for years on the board of its neighborhood association, even as it devolved into one of the city’s most violent and drug-infested areas in the late ’80s and early ’90s. She’s still there, renting a rickety one-story house for $465 per month, but in the last few years new people and new dollars have been pouring into her once-desolate corner of the city. She’s thrilled by the sudden prosperity, though it carries a new threat. She’s worried about a steep rent hike when her lease comes up for renewal in May. “I live between two $300,000 houses now,” says Brenda Erwin. “It’s kind of pushing people out, ’cause the majority of the people I grew up with don’t make that kind of money.”
Anthony Foxx and Brenda Erwin lead very different lives from each other today. Foxx, 45, is the US secretary of transportation, a native Charlottean who just a few months ago launched a nationwide speaking tour to explain how the highway planning of the past still disrupts the lives of poor people and people of color to this day. Erwin, 55, just hopes her landlord won’t price her out of her home. But between them, their pasts encompass much of the social and economic history of modern-day Charlotte, a gleaming Southern city and financial dynamo with no significant history of civic disruption—until last week, when the police shooting of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott ignited massive demonstrations and city-center rioting that left another man shot dead and numerous businesses vandalized and looted.
The violence came as a profound shock to a city whose government and business leaders pride themselves on what they call “the Charlotte way”—a legacy of amicable cooperation and shared solutions to civic problems. Charlotte’s larger neighbor and rival, Atlanta, was dubbed the “city too busy to hate” in the 1960s, but the label has applied more to Charlotte in the last two decades. It’s home to the nation’s second-largest financial-services sector, behind only New York City. Its population has nearly doubled since 1990, bringing about its status as the nation’s 17th-most populous city. In the last decade, the city has built new museums, won the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and constructed a light-rail line that’s transformed a dismal area of warehouses and abandoned textile factories into a hip neighborhood called South End, filled with craft breweries and townhome complexes.