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Sweeping the City Clean: The Social Costs of Maintaining a Corporate Utopia

By Kacie Ward (B.Arch candidate) | This column examines the rise of corporate growth in Charlotte’s Uptown district alongside the long history of racial marginalization in Charlotte, North Carolina. The writer asks her readers to think about the social costs of marginalization, both to the groups immediately displaced by urban development as well as to the general character of the region.


From an outsider’s perspective, the city of Charlotte is a quaint, clean and youthful city that is in the process of developing into something bigger. One can see that the character of the city fabric at street level mirrors that of its skyline, which is made up of international banks and big businesses; venues that offer sparse opportunities for unscripted inhabitant-created culture. Suits, ties, and heels blur past the windows of a luxury sedan on its way to the office. Yet the careful observer might note a few single notes of non-conformity. While sipping Starbucks coffee at the corner of Trade and Tryon, one can hear the faint angry protests of local citizens all the way from Marshall Park; an exiled public space placed away from the hustle and bustle of the city center. From the view of the businessman daily life in Charlotte is an organized routine, rehearsed for years with no major changes besides, perhaps, which parking decks offer the closest route to the office. However, a few citizens of this city–those not fortunate enough to play a role in this ubiquitous corporate performance–have made it clear that they have grown tired of its monotony. Many of those marginalized by Charlotte’s corporate culture, such as recent Black Lives Matter activists, have become brave enough to ask for the changes that our city planners have so skillfully avoided until now; brave enough to question the direction of development that has contributed to a sense of injustice in the city. Where is diversity of culture in Charlotte’s Uptown? Where do I belong if I don’t work for these companies? Such questions are reminiscent of a time–not so long ago–when the residents of the original Second Ward, or Brooklyn as it was called, were displaced to clean up the image of the city.

Ward 1

The social and economical predicament of the Second Ward has long been buried under the unoccupied Marshall Park, “an Urban Renewal-era assemblage of concrete, grass, and shrubs” as Mary Newsom of The Charlotte Observer describes it. Buried along with it are the memories of the 1,007 families and 216 businesses it displaced in the 1960s and 70s. As Dr. Thomas W. Hanchett, author of Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, explains, Brooklyn was officially designated a residential slum for the purposes of urban renewal. However, it was home to many functioning families, churches, and schools and its demolition provided no real alternatives for those displaced. Some residents of Charlotte’s Second Ward began searching for a new life in the First Ward, which already housed many professional black residents. But as the less professional began moving in, dynamics changed and attention was drawn. Soon, as Hanchett further explains, even the black landmarks in the First Ward were not safe, as they too were plowed down by the Urban Renewal destruction.

Ward 2

This idea of sweeping the city clean of all things “black” for the sake of urban renewal implanted the notion that Charlotte could not, and would not, successfully grow without segregating the area, plowing down the old and worn and building on top of the debris before the dust of destruction could settle. This all too familiar attitude towards blacks and other minorities incapable of portraying the trappings of middle-class life has been a problem in our country since its founding. Janet L. Abu-Lughod, in her introduction to Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, briefly reviews the fate  of racial integration throughout American history. She tells us that although European and Asian immigrants entered the conversation long after the black-white binary had taken shape in this country, they eventually gained acceptance in the forms of hyphenated race labels and social capital. The more recent south-of-the-border immigrants simply continue to check off “other” when requested, as they intend to avoid attention as much as possible, which hasn’t gone well so far. Besides, we have translated every visible English word into Spanish for them now, making it impossible for them to feel unrepresented. Yet after all of the historical cycles of racial tensions and integrations, the black-white divide still remains a pertinent issue in Charlotte, proving Abu-Lughod’s claim that race is “socially constructed” to be true.

Certain consequences of such “socially constructed” or artifically maintained racial barriers are apparent in the general urban fabric, or lack there of, within Charlotte. Throughout the city’s development, diversity has been shoved aside, putting it out of sight, in order to create a clean corporate environment and anesthetized urban sphere, just as Charlotte’s Second Ward was uprooted to replace it with a “cleaner” new urban space. Following those that came before them, Charlotte’s city planners of today have allowed their similar fears of the dirty, poor, and less fortunate to drive their design decisions resulting in repeated monotony. It became a place for banks to grow their roots, for big businesses to thrive, and businessmen, businesswomen and their families to reside, with room for nearly nothing else. A never-changing flavorless combination of one suit and briefcase after another.

These consequences are not only apparent in the built environment, but are also largely a part of the social and political issues within current day Charlotte; issues that cannot be ignored or hidden any longer. Beginning with the Ferguson case in Missouri, and continuing with the Randall Kerrick trial in Charlotte, black social movements such as Black Lives Matter are creating a growing presence within cities across America. Multiple organized gatherings, marches, and demonstrations have occurred over the last couple of years. When court rulings in the Ferguson case were announced in November of 2014, people rallied all over the country, including thousands in Charlotte. Most recently, just a couple of months ago, a large group of citizens protested the mistrial in the Kerrick Case that was announced on the same day as the Charlotte Knights game, played at the BB&T Ballpark. Shutting down the nearby streets, protestors made their presence known, marching along North Tryon St., past the Bechtler, at the Bank of America Stadium, near the Charlotte Transit Center, and even outside of the precious BB&T Ballpark. Those inside the gates of the ballpark watched, contemplating who to send their complaints to about the announcement of such disruptive news on game day. Those outside the gates and police lines were less worried about the game and more focused on making their presence known the only way they can: by interrupting the perfect, untouched lives of those with the privilege of regularly inhabiting the stadiums and other “public” amenities of Charlotte.

Ward 3

Ward 4

Ward 5

Without lashing out in this way, these unwelcomed people, our fellow citizens and concerned residents from nearby states, would have no alternative but to be corralled into Marshall Park, surrounded by police officers, too many blocks away from anyone that should be listening. According to one resident in a comment on the article “Marshall Park is Terrible,” by Jeremy Markovich, that is exactly why this park is beneficial to our city—it keeps the riffraff out of sight: “…CMPD can keep a good eye on them there and they don’t pose any problems to the public at the park (since we don’t frequent it anyhow)… I always feel better when I hear some group is at Marshall Park venting as I know CMPD can keep them controlled in a timely manner.” I am not so sure this is what journalist Markovich had in mind when he was describing the criterion for a successful urban space. In fact, the spatial isolation of Marshall Park is precisely the reason why it is dysfunctional. This strategy of containment reveals the ethical lapse with which Charlotte’s politicians and city planners deal with those who are marginalized by the economic culture of Uptown.

Hopes for change were awakened, however, with a visit from a group of urban planning experts in July of 2014. Upon arrival in Charlotte, the group was just beginning their exploration into civic spaces, studying their potential value to an urban center. In an article from The Charlotte Observer, Eric Frazier tells us that during the meeting, the phrase “’suit-y’” was used to accurately describe North Tryon Street. Following the meetings, the Foundation for the Carolinas and the Charlotte City Center Partners came together and drafted the Charlotte 2020 vision plan: another display of a lack in understanding the crisis that is the development of Charlotte. While the Charlotte Center City Partners explain that the North Tryon area “will feature a range of urban uses and spaces… [creating] a diverse mix of people—including researchers, office workers, students, artists and families…” there is no evidence of these changes.

Looking at the city a year after the falsely hopeful meetings, not much seems to promise “a range of urban uses and spaces,” nor “a diverse mix of people.” Rather than seeing construction of affordable living spaces, culturally diverse business opportunities, or public spaces that are truly meant for a range of user group types, more of the same is being created. Luxury apartments loom over business towers and parking garages, casting the tallest shadows of all over what once was the Second Ward. Rather than using this time to begin re-integrating the original, apparently out-of-date, inhabitants of what Charlotte was before it became what it is today – a city growing fast and furiously in a single, predictable direction – those in charge of deciding this city’s fate are continuing to build a population of the wealthy upper class.

As  constant construction roars on, any hope in a shift of focus for Charlotte’s development slowly disappears with each passing dust-filled day. Even though the city planners and architects threw out words like “inclusivity,” “urban renewal,” and “sustainable,” within their written false promises of a more diverse Charlotte, it has become apparent that they either do not understand such language, or have simply decided to disregard the needs and desires of the city once a better business opportunity presented itself. Reading only through the first few sections of the Charlotte 2020 Vision Plan, once could pull out sentence after sentence as proof that this plan has been disregarded. Listed under a section proudly labeled the “2010 Enduring Vision” are phrases that deem this entire document void: “ The enduring vision is [to]…Make Center City…more sustainable by promoting growth and jobs of different types…more diverse and affordable by providing a wider range of housing options…” It even goes so far as to call the changes made in the last five years “accomplishments.” Overall this document provides a platform for critique taller than the four million-dollar apartment high-rises currently being added to the city skyline.

Whether these large apartment buildings will eventually result in a mix of classes, races, and spaces, or whether they will become yet another replicated vertical dollar sign plastered along the skyline, it is hard to tell as of yet. Ultimately the fate of Charlotte’s Uptown lies in the voices of its citizens. As the current social movements, including Black Lives Matter, are trying to get the leaders and creators of urban space to realize, it is time for a change. The architects’ and planners’ of Charlotte must begin paying attention to its needs, allowing for the growth of a culturally diverse city, rather than stunting its growth through political strategies and racial barriers. No longer can there be streets and parks kept clean for the wealthy; no longer can there be separate, neglected spaces for those lesser-valued local citizens. It is the combination of these populations that make up Charlotte, and it is the combination of their cultures that will create a successfully diverse and activated urban fabric.

Bibliography

Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Oxford:     Oxford UP, 2007. Print. [a critique of major U.S. cities and their spaces focusing on the         topic of racial tensions and riots]

“Brooklyn Timeline.” Brooklyn Timeline. UNC Charlotte, n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.  <http://www.history.uncc.edu&gt;. [a timeline of the planning and development of Charlotte]

Construction along Independence Blvd. in the 70s. Digital image. <i>Brooklyn 1950’s</i>. N.p., n.d. Web.<http://www.cmstory.org/aaa2/places/content_brooklyn.htm&gt [an image of construction in the Second Ward of Charlotte]

Destruction in the Second Ward. Digital image. <i>Brooklyn 1950’s</i>. N.p., n.d. Web.             <http://www.cmstory.org/aaa2/places/content_brooklyn.htm&gt [an image of    construction in the Second Ward of Charlotte]

Frazier, Eric. “Wanted: More ‘funky’ Public Gathering Spaces in Uptown Charlotte.” The Charlotte Observer. N.p., 18 July 2014. Web. 20 Sept. 2015. [an article summarizing and      commenting on a meeting between the Foundation for the Carolinas and the Charlotte Center City Partners about urban spaces within Charlotte]

Hanchett, Thomas W. “THE CENTER CITY: The Business District and the Original Four Wards.” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2015. <www.cmhpf.org>. [a grouping of text gathered from a book about the historical development of Charlotte’s Four Wards]

“Hundreds Rally in Charlotte after Grand Jury’s Decision in Ferguson.” WBTV 3 News. WBTV Web Staff, 25 Nov. 2014. Web. 20 Sept. 2015. [a description of gathering that took place after the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson 2014]

Inc., MIG, Cole Jenest & Stone, Kimley-Horn & Associates Inc., and Wray Ward. Charlotte        Center City 2020 Vision Plan. Charlotte: Charlotte Center City Partners, July 2011. PDF. [a drafted document listing the plans for current and future development in Charlotte]

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. 1st ed. New York: Division of Random House, 1992. Print. Vintage Books Edition. [a book discussion the uses and designs of major existing cities]

Katz, Jonathan M. “Mistrial for Charlotte Police Officer in Death of Unarmed Black Man.” The New York Times. N.p., 21 Aug. 2015. Web. 23 Sept. 2015. [An overview of the thoughts and actions of those affected by the mistrial in Charlotte 2015]

Katz, Jonathan M. “No Retrial for North Carolina Officer Who Killed Unarmed Man.” The New York Times. N.p., 28 Aug. 2015. Web. 21 Sept. 2015. [An overview of the thoughts and actions of those affected by the mistrial in Charlotte 2015]

Lange, Alexandra, and Jeremy M. Lange. Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2012. Print. [a text describing the various approaches and topics to writing about architecture]

Markovich, Jeremy. “Marshall Park Is Terrible.” Charlotte Magazine. N.p., 03 Mar. 2014. Web. 20 Sept. 2015. [an article criticizing Marshall Park in Charlotte]

Newson, Mary. “Will People Love Romare Bearden Park or Will It Languish in Uptown?” The    Charlotte Observer. N.p., 07 Feb. 2014. Web. 21 Sept. 2015. [an article debating the success or failure of new park in Charlotte]

“Plans for North Tryon Revitalization Announced.” Foundation For The Carolinas. Charlotte      City Center Partners, 19 Dec. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015. <http://www.fftc.org/&gt;. [a document announcing that plans for developing Charlotte have been published]

“Two Arrested during Protests in Charlotte following Mistrial in Kerrick Case.” Two Arrested    during Protests in Charlotte following Mistrial in. WBTV, 21 Aug. 2015. Web. 23 Sept. 2015. [a brief description and gallery of images of riots in Charlotte]

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