Friday, May 8, 2020

Anti-vaxxers. Boosterism beating science. Sound familiar?

Charlotte's first zoning map from 1947 shows development patterns that continue today almost 75 years later. Hanchett's book, with a new preface, describes how government actions like zoning shaped today's racial and economic segregation. Today's wealthiest area of south and southeast Charlotte appears here in green at the lower right corner, because the map is not oriented north-south.
“Today’s decisions, consciously or unconsciously, rest on the platform of the past.” 
–– Tom Hanchett, Sorting out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975, second edition

People who find history boring and irrelevant must have scars from repeatedly touching hot stoves. The past has lessons, if we’ll listen. This is about a couple of century-old events in my city, Charlotte.

My original plan here was to write about the second edition of historian Tom Hanchett’s Sorting out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975. It’s a stunning book, one I regularly recommend when people ask what to read to learn about Charlotte. When I first read it in 1998, it was like having a light flick on in a darkened room; you see things you previously sensed only in shadowy outlines.

The meticulously researched look into how Charlotte’s neighborhoods went from racially diverse after the Civil War to strictly segregated told a story new to many of us – not the fact of segregation but how it happened across decades. He described how government – local, state and federal – was a key actor in creating and enforcing racial segregation. (To learn more about government’s role in U.S. housing segregation, see Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.)

Hanchett, the retired historian for the Levine Museum of the New South, today is historian-in-residence at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. His powerful new preface brings his work up to date and makes the point that since current inequities of wealth, well-being and education resulted from deliberate government action, then government action can help reverse them.

But … pandemic. Most Americans are now stuck at home, trying to stay 6 feet from anyone outside, many having lost jobs. We’re all viewing the world through a coronavirus lens and living through a history-making pandemic, the the most serious since the 1918-19 flu, estimated to have killed at least 40 million people globally.

These days some politicians urge reopening stores and businesses, and not a few Americans agree, saying the cost to the economy is so cruel it counterbalances the obvious cost in suffering and death. Many states are re-opening, some more speedily and others, like North Carolina, more gradually.

So here is history caution No. 1: A remarkable Charlotte Observer article in April – “The Big Lie: 102 years ago Charlotte leaders downplayed devastation of Spanish flu” – offered a powerful look at government deceit, medical advice ignored, and the resulting death toll. Reporter Mark Washburn studied death certificates, obituary reports and local newspapers. He found that Charlotte Mayor Frank McNinch and Mecklenburg County health director Dr. C.C. Hudson brazenly misled the public about the flu’s deadly impact, under-reporting deaths by at least half. “At the height of the epidemic, when citizens were dying at the rate of more than 10 a week,” he wrote, “they under-reported the scope of the crisis by two-thirds.”

After a one-month quarantine in October 1918, as flu cases receded, the city, pressured by businesses and churches and hearing an inaccurately low total of fatalities, lifted its quarantine against the advice of the medical society. “And influenza roared back into the community,” Washburn wrote, “killing hundreds more.”

Why did they do it? Washburn has no definitive answer, but recounts how the city and county later bragged for decades of escaping the worst of the flu. Was it boosterism? Civic braggadocio? Or a way to keep businesses open, despite the deaths it caused?

Read Washburn’s full story. A complacent press took the mayor’s and doctor’s accounts as truth. Politicians cared more about commerce than people dying. Apply these lessons as you will to today’s situation.

History caution No. 2 comes straight from Hanchett’s book. It shows what happens when a marginalized community distrusts and resists health advice from the establishment.

The time was the 1890s and early 1900s. Southern agriculture hit hard times, and Charlotte’s textile mills lured thousands of workers and families from the farms. The era saw sometimes violent labor protests, a piece of the city’s past that today is all but ignored – a topic for another day. Hanchett tallies walkouts: 45 workers at the Louise Mill in 1897, 100 at Charlotte Clothing Co. and 150 at Highland Park Mill in 1900.

The mill workers lived in company-owned villages lacking city water and sewers and endured 60-hour work weeks and child labor. Wealthier Charlotteans saw how diseases spread easily in the crowded, unsanitary mill villages and among workers with “a pallor peculiar to the cotton mill.”

In the early 1900s, work at N.C. textile mills was harsh, with 60-hour work weeks and, often, child labor. In November 1908 photographer Lewis Hine visited Gastonia's Loray Mill to depict typical scenes like this. His notes say, "Girls running warping machines in Loray mill, Gastonia, N.C. Many boys and girls much younger. Boss carefully avoided them, and when I tried to get a photo which would include a mite of a boy working at a machine, he was quickly swept out of range. 'He isn't working here, just came in to help a little.' " Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, [reproduction number, LC-DIG-nclc-01342]. See more of Hine's photos at the Library of Congress.

Prosperous residents showed open disdain for millhands and their families, Hanchett writes. “They talked of “textile ‘trash’ and ‘the ignorant factory set.’ ” He quotes one Charlottean: “Mill operatives are responsible themselves themselves for the disgrace that seems to rest upon them.”

The owner of Charlotte Clothing Co. triggered a walkout when he used profane language in the presence of female employees. Workers objected, but the owner responded, “There are no ladies working here.”

Into this climate in 1900 arose fears of a smallpox outbreak. After a few reports of smallpox among black visitors to Charlotte, Hanchett writes, officials began a vaccination campaign. Such vaccinations were relatively new and involved scratching the arm to give a mild form of the disease, which could create flulike symptoms for a few days.

The campaign started with public schools. But when the vaccination team moved into the mill villages they met resistance. Some workers were afraid of the vaccination, saying they had been sick. (Taking time off for illness would likely cut into their pay). Some of those early-day anti-vaxxers were even jailed, including a woman and her 4-year-old boy.

The next day doctors went to the Gingham Mill with the police chief and a squad of officers. Seeing them coming, workers scrambled out doors and windows and would not return until the medical officials left.

Distrust. Misinformation leading to flawed government decisions. Resistance to health advice among people who felt scorned by the powers-that-be. Hmmm.

As Mark Twain is reported to have said, history does not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.

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Park Road Books at Park Road Shopping Center is taking orders and delivering curbside. See the website for hours and details. For now, the store is closed Saturdays and Sundays.

WANT TO DISCUSS HANCHETT’S BOOK? Here’s a discussion guide

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

When North Charlotte turned into NoDa

The corner in NoDa where a scruffy deli-live music venue called Fat City once lived. Where the dumpster sits in this photo is where, 20 years ago, you would find bongo circles on Friday nights. Photo: Google Street View
Through a roundabout way, someone emailed me something I wrote in 2002 for The Charlotte Observer about the NoDa neighborhood. It seems, today, oddly prescient.

Almost two decades later, I can look at the neighborhood, which retains some of its original spirit, and at the column I wrote and see a description of organic, urban change, the kind where small investments create a diversity of uses, and where over time you see what Jane Jacobs called “the self-destruction of diversity,” or “the tendency for outstanding success in cities to destroy itself – purely as a result of being successful.”

I tried to add a link to the piece in the The Observer’s archives but a Google search didn’t turn up anything. So instead of helping my friends there with a few clicks, Ill make a pitch for daily metro newspapers, which are essential to understanding the place where you live and holding your government (which is, in reality, all of us) accountable. Heres how to subscribe. Better yet, buy an ad.

Feb . 22, 2002: Loving NoDa to death?

The first time I saw the NoDa arts district, it wasn’t NoDa and it wasnt artsy. It was the early 1980s, and I was looking for a bakery up on 36th Street that someone had recommended.

I found the bakery, just off North Davidson Street, in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood of emptied-out storefronts. Next door was an aging theater, which I think housed a church, though my memory on that point has dimmed.

The neighborhood was a memorable remnant of another time and an older Charlotte. It was obviously a mill neighborhood, with a nucleus of half-century-old store buildings and, lurking a block or so away, the hulks of a couple of brick mills. Surrounding it clustered small, almost identical wood-frame mill houses.

By the ’80s a ghost-town air was seeping into the mortar. Its businesses were fading; their location far from booming south Charlotte meant the aging buildings werent even being demolished but were settling into a twilight of abandonment.

As it happened, I knew that the little mill neighborhood had a name: North Charlotte. North Charlotte is singled out in The Observer’s stylebook, the official reference we use for capitalization, punctuation, spelling and other usage. North Charlotte merited its own entry because of its capital-N North, which recognized it as a distinct neighborhood, not just anything in the general northern part of town, which would be lower-case-n north Charlotte.

The cake I bought at the bakery wasnt all that great. But having discovered North Charlotte, I kept an eye on it over the years. I thought it had potential. It seems I was right.

Around 1985 an artist couple bought a dilapidated block of buildings on North Davidson and in 1990 opened the Center of the Earth Gallery. Other arts types followed, including former used-car salesman Terry Carano, who opened a populist gallery in a scruffy building across Davidson.

People in this buttoned-down, money-hungry banking city flooded North Charlotte for gallery crawls, concerts, coffee houses and off-the-wall theater. The place was unique in Charlotte: It was scruffy – the opposite of upscale – and it had a sense of place. You could find weird art, people playing bongos, vegetarian food and other deviant urban pursuits. People loved it.

After a few years, people started calling it NoDa, as in North Davidson. I guess they thought it would be hip, like SoHo in New York. Looking back, that might have been the clearest sign that North Charlotte’s authenticity was at risk.

NoDa is booming. Real estate signs uptown hype NoDa lofts. New restaurants and bars are open.

Last week came news of a development proposal. The scruffy building housing the un-slick Pat’s Time For One More bar and two weirdly populist galleries is to be demolished. In their place would go a well-designed three-story building with stores and condos.

As urban buildings go, this one will be better than about 98 percent of everything getting built in Charlotte. Yes, it will bring investment to the neighborhood. Yes, cities evolve, and this evolution is a sight better than what is evolving out on the outerbelt. And yes, amazingly, über-suburban developer Crosland will do this little urban infill.

But. But.

Can you tear down the blue-collar bar and the most avant-garde and wacko gallery and still hold on to what attracted the young, alternative thinkers to start with? The cheap gallery space and the bar serving truckers, punks and artists are an essential part – though not the only part – of the formula that turned North Charlotte into NoDa.

Can NoDa survive the loss? Maybe. I hope so.

But of course, that’s NoDa. I think North Charlotte may be gone for good.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Open Streets, funding culture and arts, densifying single-family zoning, etc.

This photo shows the event known as Manhattanhenge, when the setting sun aligns with the east-west street grid in New York City. I took it July 12, 2018, at Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan. It has nothing to do with this blogpost. I just like the picture. And I like the idea of Manhattanhenge, named after England’s Stonehenge. And I like a good street grid.
I haven’t posted for weeks, due to a variety of life events including travel, the flu and a death in the family.

So to give Naked City Blog readers something to read that is not Trump news, here’s some of my  writing from recent months published in The Charlotte Observer and Charlotte Five,  which some non-Charlotte readers may not have seen:

How should Charlotte pay for the arts?

Does Charlotte really need an environment committee?

This festival is just the start of opening up Charlotte’s streets

The racist roots of single-family zoning

Saturday, June 8, 2019

‘Charlotte doesn’t have a brand’? Here’s an idea

The famed Excelsior Club, possibly to be demolished, in keeping with local tradition. Photo courtesy Dan Morrill
Even in the chest-pumping venues of deep-booster Charlotte, an inkling of the problem sometimes creeps in. Janet LaBar, the new CEO of the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance even said it out loud in an interview with the Charlotte Observer. “I think Charlotte doesn’t have a brand,” she told reporter Deon Roberts.

The comment came up today at a regular weekly rump session over eggs, biscuits, livermush and bacon with a group of mostly long-time Charlotte residents, several of them Charlotte natives. I recalled the one-time civic discussion of a possible monument at The Square, the symbolic heart of the city at Trade and Tryon uptown. There was a time when folks were trying to figure out what could be an image that would capture the city’s essence. The late Doug Marlette, then the Observer’s editorial cartoonist, proposed an Eternal Barbecue Pit. Of course, other N.C. barbecue fans noted that Charlotte was famed, not for barbecue, but for being a place without authentic N.C. barbecue joints. Whatever.

What got put up at The Square was four didactic, symbolic statues representing Commerce, Industry, Transportation, and The Future. Visiting poet Andrei Codrescu once described them on NPR as Socialist-Realist and noted that the gold nuggets pouring on a symbolic banker’s head looked like turds.

And there’s a nice old-fashioned-looking clock in a small park on one corner. That park is modeled on the terrain of the Pacific Northwest, or maybe it was the Appalachian mountains – neither of them exactly representative of Charlotte’s terrain. It was built after the city used eminent domain to take and demolish the only antebellum store buildings uptown, which were offering not a heavily symbolic statue but actual Commerce.

Which leads me to the idea our rump session this morning devised. Because when asked, what iconic image does “Charlotte” bring to mind, people said: There isn’t one because Charlotte tears everything down.

After discussion digressed for a short time into various houses folks had owned and raised kids in only to see new owners tear them down for bigger houses, the idea emerged organically. The iconic image of Charlotte is of buildings being torn down.

Hence this modest proposal: Create a monument to Charlotte that is a building. It might be a small model of a historic building that should have been preserved. Maybe the Hotel Charlotte. Maybe the Independence Building. Maybe the Masonic Temple. I hope the Excelsior Club does not join this list.

Then every year on the city’s birthday, the model building is demolished. A new one goes in its place. It will last one year, and then, with pomp and ritual, it too is demolished. And so on. Erasing the past, year after year after year.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Greening the greenway

 Trees about to be planted beside Briar Creek Greenway. Photo: Mary Newsom

I was walking a short new segment of greenway beside Briar Creek on a sunny day and, about a mile south of the Mint Museum Randolph, I spotted a mass of young trees in plastic pots.

Of course I had to inspect them. Each plant had a TreesCharlotte tag identifying the species. I had stumbled on a large planting project destined for later in the week for that section of the greenway.

This was a cheerful discovery. The greenway, built by the Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department, runs generally beside a stretch of Briar Creek, from the Mint Museum Randolph and its park downstream to Meadowbrook Road. That creek segment has just been re-engineered in a project by Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Storm Water Services. The project aims to improve water quality and mitigate flooding. But it left the creek banks bare.

Looking upstream along toward the Mint Museum Randolph, with the Eastover neighborhood at left. The Storm Water Services creek project left the Briar Creek banks bare. Photo: Mary Newsom
The planting is a partnership among TreesCharlotte, the Catawba Lands Conservancy,  which protects several dozen acres of wetlands woods through which the greenway runs, and Piedmont Natural Gas, which paid for the trees and which will help with tree stewardship.
TreesCharlotte’s goal is to protect and expand Charlotte’s tree canopy, which is diminishing because of development as well as the aging out of trees planted a century ago.

It was good to note that the more than 200 trees planted were almost all native species. Here’s a partial list, based on labels on the trees I saw:

Witch hazel blossoms in late winter.
Paw paw (Asimina triloba)
Little Gem magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
Fringe tree, and spring fleecing fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus)
Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)
White oak (Quercus alba)
Burgundy hearts redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Oklahoma redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Overcup oak (Quercus lyrata)
Cherokee princess dogwood (Cornus florida)
Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)
Arnold promise witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis).

Of that list only the witch hazel (pictured at right) is a non-native. This particular variety is a cross between a Japanese and Chinese witch hazel. Other species to be planted include tulip poplar and black gum.

Why does it matter that they’re native species? Invasive plant species are a huge and growing threat to our environment and its biodiversity. They crowd out native species – think kudzu or wisteria – which alters food sources for wildlife, including insects. Among the major problem plants are privet, English ivy, Japanese stiltgrass and honeysuckle. (Learn more here and here.)

Piedmont Natural Gas’ participation is part of a required mitigation for environmental disruptions elsewhere.

Magnolia trees awaiting planting. Photo: Mary Newsom

Monday, March 11, 2019

Is the “economic development” tail wagging the transit dog?

Map from Charlotte Area Transit System shows current plan for the Silver Line light rail, which would be built after funding is found for it. A closer view of the west section of the route is below.
Some controversy continues over the decision by the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) to route the proposed Silver Line light rail outside of the heart of uptown Charlotte, bypassing the most convenient transfer points with the existing Blue Line. ) See “Five key takeaways from Charlotte’s newest transit plan”)

The Silver Line would run from Matthews, through uptown, out Wilkinson Boulevard to the airport and west to the Gaston County town of Belmont. One idea studied would have run it through uptown via a tunnel under Trade Street. That would add roughly $1 billion to construction costs. In my reporting, I referred to the tunnel idea as costing less to operate over time and shortening travel time considerably. But Brock LaForty, the Carolinas area manager for the consultant WSP, which CATS hired to study Silver Line routes, contacted me to make clear that WSP’s analysis found the tunnel route would save two minutes per trip, a difference he and CATS officials both called marginal, and he said WSP had not analyzed whether the tunnel would cost less to operate over time.

The statements about travel time and lower operating costs were the personal opinions of Ron Tober, a former CATS CEO with extensive transit planning and operating experience in multiple cities, who was working for WSP as a consultant on the project.

Tober’s remarks created a bit of a stir between WSP, CATS and Tober. Tober told me he was deliberate in speaking out about CATS’ decision to opt for a route bypassing the heart of uptown Charlotte and the Charlotte Transportation Center in favor of one farther north, along the side of the Brookshire Expressway. Tober said he recognized there might be blowback if he went public with his concerns. And there was. Tober was to have left WSP at the end of March. Instead, he left last week.

CATS Chief Executive John Lewis told Steve Harrison of WFAE, Charlotte’s public radio station, that the decision not to select the tunnel option was influenced by the city’s goals for economic development. “From a purely mobility standpoint, the tunnel was a great alternative for us,” Lewis told Harrison, but said CATS couldn’t look only at mobility. “Lewis said CATS is a part of the city of Charlotte and the city has other goals, like economic development. The area around I-277 is mostly empty today,” Harrison reported.

He quoted Lewis: “And being a part of the city, we had to look at it beyond just the mobility aspect of, how do we move people from one point to another” Lewis said. “There were the economic development goals, there was supporting affordable housing.”

Remember, Lewis works for City Manager Marcus Jones. And the City Council, as well as many others in the community, have deep and appropriate concerns about the city’s need for more affordable housing. Putting affordable housing along the city’s new light rail lines is a longtime – if under-realized – goal.

But look at the areas near the Brookshire and North Tryon Street where the Silver Line would go. The area is already redeveloping and gentrifying. Residents and small businesses in Belmont, Optimist Park, Druid Hills, Lockwood and the Greenville neighborhood are already worried about land prices zooming upward. (See “North End Is Hot, But Can It Handle Coming Change?”) It isn’t as if those areas will see no new development without the light rail. To contend the Silver Line is needed for “economic development” is – to put it diplomatically – misguided. Some might even say untethered from reality.

Plus, there is no funding to build the Silver Line. Today’s GOP leadership at federal and state levels are either virulently anti-transit or just not interested in spending more money on it. Any new taxes to support CATS and the Silver Line would need a state legislative OK and would presumably involve surrounding counties which have not in the past two decades offered to tax their own residents for transit. Do not hold your breath that anything will happen until well after 2020, and quite possibly 2030. In other words gentrification will have swallowed the area now being eyed as needing economic development long before the Silver Line gets built. A deep concern that development needs a boost is, to my eyes, misplaced.

Is this just the latest impatient development push from Charlotte’s uptown leaders, who have not in my 40 years of residence here ever met a glitzy development project they did not welcome? Are they embarrassed that North Tryon Street is not yet glossy enough? After all, there are two facilities for the homeless on North Tryon near where the Silver Line would run, and the area can look at bit down at the heels. Can’t have that, can we?

I’m not a transit analyst and not equipped to say whether long-term cost savings of the tunnel would make up for the extra cost to build it, or whether the inconvenience of the Silver Line bypassing the heart of uptown will be a serious impediment to ridership, or not. That deserves clear-eyed study. The local nonprofit Sustain Charlotte contended just that in comments to the Metropolitan Transit Commission. Assessing the way the route will affect real estate development deserves some clear thinking as well.

“Economic development” brings higher land prices to an area. That makes affordability even harder to provide. The city has not to date ensured that any affordable housing gets built near its existing light rail line. It hopes to rectify that, which is admirable and I wish them well. But so far those plans are embryonic, not a proven and successful strategy.

So do they want “economic development,” or do they want affordable housing? It is very hard to have both at the same time in one place, especially if that place is in an extremely hot development market, like Charlotte.

I’m left with this question: Should the city reject without further study what may be a better mobility option – which would benefit all transit riders – in hopes that its still elusive transit-oriented affordable housing wishes bear fruit?

A closer view of where the Silver Line would run through west Charlotte, across the Catawba River and into the town of Belmont. Map courtesy of CATS

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Five key takeaways from Charlotte’s newest transit plan

The chosen Silver Line route is shown in green, at right, along 11th Street. The blue line shows where the Trade Street tunnel would have run. Other options not chosen are a surface route along Trade Street (purple) and a route along the existing Blue Line.
No tunnel uptown. A light rail line crossing the Catawba River into Belmont. Finally light rail to Pineville?

When the Charlotte Area Transit System’s policy body on Wednesday unanimously adopted an update to its 2030 Transit System Plan, those optimistic visions became part of the official CATS planning process.

Note to readers: CATS doesn’t currently have money to build any of those things, estimated to cost $6 billion or more. Just so you know.

But here are some key takeaways from what the Metropolitan Transit Commission adopted.

1. No tunnel uptown. CATS hired consultants WSP (the former Parsons Brinckerhoff) to study a tricky issue – how would the proposed Silver Line (formerly known as the Southeast Corridor), get across all the freeways encircling uptown, then through uptown and head west on its route to Charlotte Douglas International Airport and over the Catawba River?

CATS’ existing light rail line, the Blue Line and Blue Line Extension, travel through uptown on a pre-existing rail corridor. The proposed Silver Line would not. It’s planned to run alongside Independence Boulevard and then head west, thereby adding the former West Corridor to the Silver Line. Any way you look at it, getting that sucker through uptown will mean complicated engineering and high costs.

One option WSP proposed was to tunnel under Trade Street to the existing Charlotte Transportation Center, a hub for most bus routes as well as a Blue Line light rail stop, and up West Trade Street to the not-yet-built Gateway Station, which would also hold a new Amtrak station. Gateway Station is also envisioned as the terminus for the long-proposed-but-still-distant Red Line commuter rail to north Mecklenburg. More about that later.

The MTC opted not for the tunnel but for a route running the Silver Line above ground, beside 11th Street, then alongside the existing Amtrak route beside Elmwood Cemetery, over to Gateway Station and then heading west to the airport. It’s less expensive to build, although the tunnel route would have cost less to operate, over time, the consultants said, and would have shortened Silver Line travel time considerably. (Update as of March 8: Brock LaForty, the Carolinas area manager for WSP, says the consultants’ analysis found the tunnel route would save two minutes per trip, a difference