East Side Story: The Future for Charlotte’s Most Diverse Area
As Charlotte continues to build, community leaders are making sure residents don’t get left behind
A BRISK FRIDAY in early December, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Mark Jerrell was on his way to the Far East. That’s what he calls this area on the eastern edge of town, where strip malls and four-lane intersections give way to farmland and woods. His Ford F-150 was the second car in a convoy of two: To socially distance, Charlotte City Council member Matt Newton drove City Manager Marcus Jones in a separate car. As they caravanned down Plaza Road Extension, Newton and Jerrell explained via speakerphone how infrastructure in the Far East has not kept pace with growth. They wanted to show Jones the consequences in person. Minutes after he returned to the office, Jerrell tells me he hopes the ride-along with Jones and Newton will help bring public attention to a neglected part of town.
“I was talking not only as a commissioner but as a resident and constituent as well, because I live out there,” Jerrell says. (Newton, who represents Council District 5, and at-large City Council member Dimple Ajmera live in the same area.) But Jerrell’s responsibilities extend far beyond his own neighborhood, Reedy Creek. He represents county District 4, which stretches from close-in neighborhoods like Plaza Midwood and Elizabeth through the urban sprawl along Eastway Drive and East W.T. Harris Boulevard, all the way out to Interstate 485. Jerrell refers to his vast district in sections—Near East, Middle East, and Far East. Like Asia writ small, this swath of Charlotte is too diverse to understand as a monolith.
I spoke with east side community leaders to try to connect the dots. I found an impressionist landscape, a collection of individual brushstrokes that represented the work of various neighborhood associations, developers, and the city and county. The more residents I talked to, the more I realized how many perspectives I was missing. The more I learned, the more I understood how much I didn’t know. Finally, I had to step back and squint at the jumble of color. I saw a city grappling with growth as it celebrates development successes in some areas while others still struggle for essential services. But I also saw a network of community leaders determined to invest the east side’s surplus of possibility into a better quality of life not just for residents but for all Charlotteans, present and future.
THE EAST SIDE REPRESENTS what historian Tom Hanchett calls “salad-bowl suburbs.” The small city of Charlotte grew from the 1950s onward, and beginning in the ’90s, immigrants from all over the world settled along the Central Avenue and North Tryon Street corridors. But immigrants weren’t the only ones to flock to the east side. U.S.-born people of all races settled here, attracted to its convenience and affordability; today, about 220,000 people live in Jerrell’s district. With time, these communities remained distinct, hence “salad bowl” instead of “melting pot.”
Despite growing density, the eastern suburbs maintained a characteristic dependence on the car. In the last decades of the 20th century, a trip down Central Avenue was a trip through time: The historically walkable “stroll zone” of Plaza Midwood, where businesses lined the sidewalks, petered out into a busy thoroughfare, where cars clogged intersections on their way to the iconic, million-square-foot Eastland Mall.
“It didn’t seem like Christmas to me until I went to Eastland,” says lifelong east side resident Patsy Kinsey, 79, a seven-term council member and 1959 Central High graduate who briefly served as mayor in 2013. She still has the ice skates she took to the mall, where skating on the indoor rink was among the east side’s quintessential experiences. The mall closed for good in 2010. The city bought it in 2012 and demolished it a year later. Since then, the 80-acre property has been an invitation to imagine the future of the east side.
For more than a quarter-century, the mall was a focal point for the area, and since its demolition, the site has continued to dominate discussions about how to revitalize the east side (see pg. 14). But the east side, with all its ills and opportunities, is a slippery, many-tentacled creature. “The basic problem in what folks call the crescent, which is the less well-to-do neighborhoods across the center of Mecklenburg County, is the legacy of disinvestment,” Hanchett tells me by phone, “where government spent less—where the people have less political power and therefore the government spent less—but also where you had your speculative real estate folks not investing robustly.” The result is a slice of Charlotte with a fractured identity, a place that often escapes public attention. But the lack of investment has also kept this side of town affordable, making it a haven for the immigrants, refugees, artists, and young professionals who spur innovation citywide. “The central question,” Hanchett says, “is, how much change is good change?”
ASSISTANT CITY MANAGER Tracy Dodson is on her third separate stint as a city official—her first began in 2005—and has worked on the Eastland redevelopment project during all three. Of all her experiences with the project, a town hall from the summer of 2018 stands out. “I understand mixed-use projects. I’ve built them, I know how they work, I know how to put them together,” she says. “And I remember a citizen standing up at the meeting and saying, ‘You know, you seem to have a résumé, and you seem to understand how to do development, but that doesn’t mean that you understand how to do this one.’” His point, Dodson explains, was that the city and developer would have to listen—really listen—to the community.
The trouble was that the east side’s “community” is really dozens of communities. They speak Spanish, Bosnian, Yoruba, and Bengali. There are the skaters who built a full-fledged skate park on the Eastland site and the vendors at the informal open-air market nearby. “I don’t think that there’s ever a scenario where we can say we nailed it and we did it perfectly,” Dodson says. “Having said that, I think that the team did in fact do a lot to really try to reach people in unique ways.” Tim Sittema, managing partner of Eastland site developer Crosland Southeast, reckons they held 15 or 16 community feedback meetings. He attended every one. “I can’t remember a development I worked on,” he says, “where I had as expansive a community engagement strategy as this one.”
Part of Crosland Southeast’s imperative was to contribute toward ambiguous city goals such as “unify local communities.” CharlotteEAST, a nonprofit founded in 2006 to build social and economic capital across the east side, helps identify and advocate for concrete methods to achieve those vague ambitions. The group was essential in soliciting and providing community feedback to the developer. CharlotteEAST treasurer Maureen Gilewski says many members of the board, which includes Kinsey, were disappointed that the site won’t have a bigger park. But she’s pleased that the plan now includes public meeting places. Breweries, parks, and community buildings are “really important for social engagement and improvement of social capital,” she says. “We don’t have those further out here in the east community, so it’s always a challenge to find a place where community can gather, and I think they’re hitting on that with the Eastland development.”
When I talk to Sittema, he’s celebrating the hard-won result of the community feedback process. Two days before, on November 9, the City Council unanimously approved Crosland Southeast’s plans, which include a grocery store, retail, office space, housing, and a Major League Soccer youth academy. After years of complications, the vote was seen as a major victory for all involved, with the possible exception of the skaters and market vendors. But Dodson knows the development alone won’t achieve the city’s goals. “The redevelopment of that site isn’t the silver bullet to fix everything,” she says. “It is a catalyst. And our work isn’t done.”
JERRELL’S SMALL CONVOY pulled to a stop off Harrisburg Road near Albemarle Road, in front of a county park next to the public Charles T. Myers golf course. A historic Black neighborhood, J.H. Gunn, sits across the street, just down the road from a slew of construction sites, where forest is clear-cut to make way for housing developments. Jerrell, Newton, and Jones stepped out of their cars to look around.
The city manager was taken aback, Jerrell says. He took photos as Jerrell and Newton explained the problem: “The seniors can’t even cross Harrisburg Road to get to the park for any sort of recreation,” Jerrell tells me. “There’s nothing to even allow them to stop traffic to allow them to cross, which is such a simple fix.” Harrisburg Road has gotten so busy that residents are trapped on the other side. The infrastructure failure has wider implications, Jerrell continues, his voice rising. “Imagine a county asset like a park. If it’s going to be in front of a neighborhood, but the neighbors can’t access it, what good is it? And we say, ‘Oh, they don’t use the park, they don’t need the park, and there’s no need for us to do upgrades, because the park’s not used.’”
THE FIRST THING VIVIAN LORD tells me when I call her is that the Far East has been violated. The UNC Charlotte criminology professor emeritus moved from Concord to the McCarron Way subdivision 15 years ago, and she’s part of an initiative Jerrell is organizing, the Far East Neighborhoods Coalition, to advocate for this part of town.
“There is no regulation to speak of,” she says, then goes on to list some of her and her neighbors’ frustrations: busy roads with no shoulders; no pedestrian or bike infrastructure; distant bus stops; the lack of developer impact fees; and—not unrelated—the lack of funding for school expansion despite a booming population. For those who would point to this area as a solution to Charlotte’s affordable housing crisis, Lord has choice words. “If you want affordable housing for people, you build it where they can get on a bus, where they can get on the light rail, where you have employment around them,” she says. “You don’t put them 10 miles away, where the only attraction is that they can put their car that they don’t own on 485.”
Lord thought the city had a plan. She and about 50 other Far East residents attended a City Council meeting a little more than a year ago to make their concerns known. They described rampant development with little oversight, subdivisions of 135 or more “matchbox houses” with no amenities or infrastructure planned to support them. Without impact fees, which are typically used to fund public infrastructure, how will the city and county manage the growth? Even more laughable, Lord says, is the pledge to protect Charlotte’s tree canopy. (She invites me to drive down Harrisburg Road myself: “Bring lots of Kleenex if you care about the trees and the birds.”) The City Council’s response did not encourage hope. “There was some agreement by the Planning Department that night that we were there that said, ‘Well, yeah, you know, we probably should have something, but we don’t have anything in our plan,’” Lord recalls. “They don’t care.”
Part of the problem, which extends across the east side, is branding. “When I first joined this board 12 years ago, it was always the discussion of, ‘Our problem is perception,’” says CharlotteEAST’s Gilewski. She helped out with Taste of the World for several years to improve it. The event, which bused participants on an eat-and-greet tour of the east side’s international restaurants, celebrated the area’s diversity, one of its greatest assets and one of the features that unite the Near, Middle, and Far East. Buford Highway, a similarly diverse corridor in Atlanta, has earned a national reputation for international fare. Its marketing success is a reminder that an area’s development and identity don’t have to look like South End, Ballantyne, or even Plaza Midwood.
“For families who grew up here back in the ’70s or ’80s, the closing of Eastland was like the closing of the casket, a funeral. It was the end of the east side that they knew,” Hanchett says. “And I think it’s real easy, if you grew up in that world, to miss all of the new entrepreneurs who are filling all of the other spaces.” Certainly the east side has its challenges, but public perception seems to be of a community in decline, epitomized by the concrete wasteland where Eastland Mall used to be. But Hanchett points out the high occupancy rate for businesses in that part of town: Drive along Central or Eastway, and you’ll see nary a vacant storefront. There’s a marketing catch-22 at work: The east side wants to highlight and unite behind its diversity to win public engagement, but that diversity—and the lack of political power that comes with being an immigrant, refugee, or minority—has likely kept this community from having a prominent seat at the table to begin with.
NIMISH BHATT MOVED from New York City to Charlotte in 1993 because he liked the slower pace of life here. The son of missionaries, he’d spent his childhood in Uganda before his family fled the brutal Idi Amin regime in 1972 and settled in his parents’ native India, where he studied civil engineering. From 1998 to 2000, he led the development of Yogi Nagar, a small subdivision of international residents just off Idlewild Road, and he’s the ex-president and current vice chair of the Carolinas Asian-American Chamber of Commerce. I catch Bhatt on the phone on a Wednesday morning, and his reaction surprises me. Everyone else I’ve talked to has spoken highly of the Eastland plans and process, but Bhatt believes Crosland Southeast and the city didn’t go far enough in listening to and building for the international community.
“The system is such that it serves the interests of people who have power and position,” Bhatt says, and he believes that the city hasn’t paid much more than lip service to the notion of diversity. In October, when Dodson presented the Eastland plans to the City Council, Mayor Vi Lyles floated the idea of installing a sign to designate the adjacent section of Central Avenue as “International Way.” Bhatt believes that’s the kind of empty gesture that absolves elected officials of their failure to engage with the truly marginalized rather than their preferred emissaries from the international community. “Who do they listen to?” he says. “Those who sing their song and play the violin in tune with their music.” He calls himself a “rascal” whose job is to fight for human rights and a good standard of living for his neighbors and residents throughout the east side. “My community,” he says, “is a diverse community, is the Charlotte community.”
Rocio Gonzalez, director of memberships and programs (and former president) of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, was instrumental in reaching out to Latino communities for feedback on the Eastland proposals. She found that they wanted to be involved because the results would affect their families and children, but they often had to juggle work and school schedules that left little time for community meetings.
“Sometimes it was a hard sell,” says Gonzalez, who’s also on the CharlotteEAST board, “because we want to convince them that, yes, their voices need to be heard and that their voices are important.” The immigrant community, she says, “has very much the same needs as any microbusiness”: a safe environment, salaries and wages families can live on, public transportation, good education, quality health care, and comfortable shopping. It’s just that many are unfamiliar with the process in the United States.
The process can be intimidating, even for those who are intimately involved. Gilewski tells me about a plan to route the Carolina Thread Trail, a network of greenways, under Albemarle Road. The vision is alluring. But then she explains the hurdles: The city had to contribute funds for improvements at the road level, but the trail is a project of the county’s Park and Recreation department, and on top of that, Albemarle is a state road (N.C. Highway 24/27). When the city was ready to invest, the county wasn’t prepared to move forward. I begin to understand how daunting it is to engage in the bureaucratic wrangling required to build a community where people love to live.
EAST SIDE COMMUNITY ADVOCATES and activists have embraced that painstaking task. Nancy Pierce, a photojournalist who lives in the Merry Oaks neighborhood, spearheaded the addition of the Arnold and Masonic Drive section to the Briar Creek Greenway. Mimi Davis of the Grove Park neighborhood regularly treks uptown to City Council meetings to highlight east side issues from the public comment lectern. Lucien Edwards, who’s part of the Liberian Community Association, brings his community’s concerns to Jerrell and other elected leaders. Allen Nelson runs the Commonwealth-Morningside Neighborhood Association and frequently convenes leaders from other Near East neighborhoods to discuss issues like greenways, rezonings, and transportation.
Pierce moved to Charlotte in 1979 and to Merry Oaks for its affordability; also, she had friends just up Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood. Once she’d settled in, she appreciated the east side’s array of artists, immigrants, and young families. “I just fell in love with it,” she says, in part for its potential: “I’d rather create something or be part of creating something than go somewhere that’s already cool.”
The untapped promise drew Nelson, too, along with its proximity to the city center. He grew up in south Charlotte and scoured the region, as far away as Mooresville, for a place to live. Now 42, he and his family live in the Commonwealth neighborhood, between Plaza Midwood and Elizabeth, in a house he bought in 2007. Nelson fondly remembers ice skating at Eastland. But today, he thinks the experience that best captures the east side is a bike ride that includes stops at the area’s local breweries.
Biking came up often in my conversations: Residents want to be able to walk and bike. But Plaza Midwood’s beautiful new bike lane stops suddenly at The Plaza’s intersection with Parkwood Road, a busy, dangerous street for cyclists. The city recently completed a pilot program for bus and bike lanes on Central Avenue, a tentative attempt to unyoke the Middle East from its historic addiction to the automobile. In the Far East, bike infrastructure seems a distant dream when busy thoroughfares don’t even have crosswalks.
A little more than a week after his ride-along with Newton and Jones, Jerrell, 50, was sworn in for a second term as county commissioner. For the next two years, he’ll continue to advocate for the east side by celebrating what’s there and drawing attention to what’s missing. The east side’s success, he believes, is the county’s success.
“You can hear people speak in languages from Spanish to Swahili. You could go to a restaurant that is Ethiopian, that is Czech, that is Thai, Vietnamese,” he says. “And if we just expand this footprint, it’s going to be certainly beneficial to all of Mecklenburg County, but the surrounding counties as well.” When I ask Jerrell about the experience that defines his district, he mentions the kaleidoscopic culture.
But then he says the true east side experience doesn’t exist yet. It’s the one that resides in our imaginations, the one he and others are working to bring to life. “The decisions that we’re making are not for today,” he says. “They’re for 20 years from now. They’re for another generation.”
ALLISON BRADEN is a contributing editor to this magazine.