Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Time-traveling to a lost era in city history

I spent rather too much time yesterday looking through a new website that lets you view old maps of Charlotte a century ago, pegged to the 100th anniversary Friday of artist and native son Romare Bearden's birth. The site,, (put together via a partnership of the Levine Museum of the New South and UNC Chapel Hill) superimposes old photos and information about Bearden on an old Sanborn map. You can see old building outlines, where the streets used to be. (Note the small lot sizes, compared with today.).

I got interested, also, in the companion site, another collaboration by the Levine's historian, Tom Hanchett and UNC. It uses 1911 Sanborn maps and city directory information to show you, for instance, where people holding different jobs were listed as living. You can locate where the boarding houses were, by race, as well as attorneys, mill workers and "bag agents." The slider bar lets you superimpose an aerial photo of today's buildings atop the century-old maps.

Of course, using this site, I scrolled out to see my own neighborhood  –  a subdivision whose official plat name is Pharr Acres. I'd heard it was "old man Pharr's farm."  Yep, there on Providence Road, just south of  Briar Creek, is a dot labeled "W S Pharr." Into the late 1970s the large, old farmhouse house still stood. Like so much else on the map, it's gone now, with a cul-de-sac subdivision in its place.

The Bearden site also offers some opportunity to mourn, including for the segregated world into which he was born, and for the loss to this city of a talent like his, when his parents moved North in search of a better life. As Levine historian Hanchett says in his article for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute's website (disclosure: my workplace) "Bearden’s 1911 birthplace: A fateful time for Charlotte," a city where downtown neighborhoods had been comparatively integrated was hardening into rigid segregation during the years before Bearden's birth. A new city park was closed to black residents. Black passengers were ordered into the back of streetcars.
But as you look through the Bearden locations and see photos of what's there today,  mourn this, as well:  Most of it is gone. The good, the bad, the spacious front porches, stores, churches almost everything. Including, in some cases, even streets  What you'll see in photos showing today's scenes in the places where Bearden and his family lived is not newer buildingsafter all, cities do evolve but surface parking areas, empty grass-covered lots. It's one thing when old buildings are lost but replaced by newer ones that also over time contribute something to the city's life and, then, its history. That is not what has happened here. We've just lost the reminders of the past, without gaining anything. At least this online exhibit can, if only virtually, restore something of what went before.

Photo: Artist Romare Bearden, born in Charlotte 100 years ago, moved to New York. His great-grandparents are shown in the photo next to him, on the porch of their Graham Street home in Charlotte.


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