Analysis: Charlotte’s longstanding crescent and wedge narrative is crumbling

Analysis: Charlotte’s longstanding crescent and wedge narrative is crumbling

Pegram Street in Villa Heights. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

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Three times over the course of his life, 80-year-old Robert Johnson has witnessed firsthand the cycle of displacement that destroys Black communities.

  • Most recently, the development from Plaza Midwood and NoDa started to creep into his neighborhood of Villa Heights. As other longtime residents in the once-majority Black area started leaving, he followed suit, and moved to Kannapolis six years ago.

State of play: Johnson’s story is part of a shift in the neighborhoods in Charlotte’s “crescent,” which wraps west, north and east around the city. That’s where communities of color and low-income people were historically concentrated.

  • Then there’s the wealthy and mostly white “wedge,” a sliver of southeast Charlotte that has long held the political and economic power in the city.

Those two shapes defined Charlotte for decades, as government policies intentionally separated the city by race.

Yes, but: Those patterns are beginning to fade.

Driving the news: Once majority-minority neighborhoods within a few miles of Uptown are losing people of color as new investment prices out longtime residents, while the suburbs are becoming more diverse.

Why it matters: The crescent and the wedge emerged in the 20th century when our city was nearly all Black and white. But Charlotte is no longer a tale of two cities. It’s a tale of many.

  • Yet, leaders use these outdated narratives to shape the way they respond to nearly every social challenge, from food and housing insecurity to economic opportunity. If we target aid only to a handful of neighborhoods, it leaves out thousands of residents across the city who have already fled to the outskirts.

    Context: Using Census data, Axios analyzed and mapped the shifts between 2000 and 2020 in Charlotte’s demographics. We found that:

    • Crescent neighborhoods like Wesley Heights, Wilmore and NoDa have lost more than two-thirds of their Black populations in 20 years.
    • Meanwhile, populations of color are growing at the city’s fringes outside of the crescent, like in Steele Creek in the southwest, Mallard Creek in the north and west/northwest toward Mountain Island.
    • The Hispanic population, which has skyrocketed in that time, is not only concentrated in east Charlotte, the city’s international corridor, but also in places like South Boulevard, around Northlake and near the Catawba River.
    • Immigrant communities are expanding in those places too. The zip code with the largest share of foreign-born residents is 28217, stretching southwest from the lower edge of South End to Shopton Road and West Boulevard.
    Data: U.S. Census; Map: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

      Of note: Longstanding disparities still exist in the crescent and need to be addressed. But as Charlotte’s grown, communities’ needs become more spread out across the city.

      “We can’t just look at I-277 plus a mile or two outside of it,” says former Charlotte City Council member Justin Harlow, who recently moved from Biddleville near Johnson C. Smith University to Steele Creek.

      • “Those neighborhoods are being developed, they’re being gentrified, they’re eventually going to be overpriced. So now it becomes okay, well, do we start supporting the places where people who can’t afford those things are living? And those will by nature be the outer ring neighborhoods.”

      How we got here

      Context: Before around 1900, Charlotte wasn’t separated by race and income. There was no “exclusive” residential neighborhood, historian Tom Hanchett writes in his book, “Sorting Out the New South City.”

      But the white supremacy campaign at the turn of the century, zoning regulations, deed restrictions and redlining solidified the crescent and wedge.

      • Like in other cities, white families fled neighborhoods close to the center city and flocked to the suburbs in the mid-20th century. SouthPark mall, for instance, opened in 1970 on a former dairy farm.

      By the 1970s, Hanchett wrote, those with “money and choice” clustered in the wealthy, southeastern wedge. And almost all Black residents lived west of Tryon Street.

      • “Discovering this history, I began to see segregation not as an age-old given but as the result of deliberate choices,” he wrote.
      • In 2000, for example, most census tracts along Providence Road were around 90% white or greater.

      An old deed restriction from the early 20th century. Courtesy Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds

      Today, the crescent and wedge are part of the everyday vernacular in the places that have the money to fix our problems: city hall, nonprofits, foundations.

      Reality check: Segregation remains entrenched. Most parts of the wedge, though its boundaries are shrinking, are still over 70% white, per 2020 census data. But the biggest changes have been in the crescent, where investment has historically lagged. It has seen an influx of wealth and development drive out lifelong residents.

      Losing diversity

      Every year, thousands gather in Cordelia Park in Villa Heights for the North Charlotte family reunion. People who grew up in the area come back to grill and celebrate for hours, community advocate Angela Ambroise says.

      • But most of those families no longer live there.

      As a realtor, Ambroise has helped many of them move — around 30, she estimates.

      Robert Johnson is one of them.

      He still remembers the cold floor of his childhood home in the Brooklyn neighborhood: There was no insulation, and you couldn’t walk barefoot on it because you’d get splinters. But his family house became rubble when the city razed nearly 1,500 structures in Brooklyn in the 1960s and ’70s in the name of urban renewal.

      • Johnson’s family moved to Earle Village, a former public housing community in First Ward, which was torn down in the 1990s.

      In 1987, after serving in the military and living in Washington, D.C., he purchased a house on Pegram Street in Villa Heights in for less than $20,000.

      But Villa Heights is no longer a Black neighborhood. Over 10 years, it has gone from being over three-quarters Black to less than one-third.

      • White residents went from 15% to the majority in that time.

      It’s a trend mirrored in the data across north and west Charlotte.

      • The share of Black residents in NoDa dropped by 85% between 2000 and 2020, census data show, one of the steepest declines of any census tract in Charlotte. The neighborhood went from being 46.6% Black to 7.1%.
      • In Wilmore, southwest of Uptown, the Black population share fell from 92.2% to 21.2%.

      When Candace Oliver and her husband Kirk started renting in NoDa in 2007, before moving into the house they built a few years later, it felt like family. And though they weren’t the majority, there were other people of color, she says.

      Now, she says she could walk two blocks down North McDowell Street, where she lives, and not be able to point to a single house where a person of color lives.

      • “My son could walk around the corner and see himself,” she said. “He really can’t do that now.”

      Flashback: Many of these neighborhoods witnessed a racial transition over 50 years ago, but in the reverse. The dynamics that prompted it, however, were very different.

      • Neighborhoods in north Charlotte (which referred to Villa Heights, NoDa and the nearby areas) and some in west Charlotte were predominantly white. The textile mills, around which north Charlotte houses were built, employed mostly white people, Hanchett previously told Axios’ Katie Peralta Soloff.
      • But Black residents began moving in after they were uprooted by urban renewal in the 1960s.
      • Blockbusting, in which real estate agents pressured white homeowners to sell for below-market prices in fear of the neighborhood’s transition, was rampant. Eventually, the neighborhoods became nearly all Black.

      Then, for decades, little government or private money poured into the crescent. The construction of highways to transport people commuting from suburbs sliced up Black communities.

      • “You can almost count from the time that we were displaced with the redevelopment land agency in Brooklyn to where we went to in Villa Heights to now,” Johnson says. “It’s a 55-year cycle.”

      State of play: Gentrification is also displacing businesses and residents in Charlotte’s international corridors.

      The Midwood International and Cultural Center on Central Avenue, where the International House is located. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

      International House, a nonprofit that serves immigrants, is one of several multicultural organizations that must relocate this year after Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools sold the Plaza Midwood building they are housed in to a developer.

      The Asian Corner Mall off Sugar Creek Road was a hub for Charlotte’s Asian community, but the fire department shuttered it this year. The property housed two grocery stores, restaurants, professional services, salons and more, surrounded by a census tract where nearly 40% of residents are foreign-born.

      • Developer Beauxwright purchased 40% of the mall, plus land surrounding it, and in a statement to Axios, declined to disclose its plans. The firm said it is aiding businesses with their transition, but that 80% of the mall space was vacant or occupied by tenants already planning to move out.
      • Beloved banh mi shop Le’s Sandwiches and Cafe will reopen in a new space onsite this year.
      • “Charlotte is going to be priced out of its own culture,” says Saada Revan, finance and resource organizer for SEAC Village, an organization supporting Southeast Asian and Black communities that was located in the Asian Corner Mall.

        Ambroise believes the local government’s failure to invest in north Charlotte neighborhoods left the area vulnerable to gentrification. For example, if there had been resources given to small businesses, it may have made it easier for them to stay and thrive in the area, instead of being pushed out when the wave of development arrived.

        “Nobody had a crystal ball,” she says. “But if you were looking at some things, you could see the movement, you could see the changes within these neighborhoods … Nobody really swooped in for any help.

        “It was almost like it was intentional, like they were trying to clear out a certain population.”

        Where people are moving

        In the eight years Justin Harlow lived in Biddleville, Charlotte’s oldest surviving Black neighborhood, he became entrenched in the community: first as a neighborhood advocate, then at 29 years old, winning a seat on Charlotte City Council.

        But last year, Harlow and his wife Kiara packed up their house and moved 25 minutes south, to Steele Creek, where he had also opened a location of his dental practice five years earlier.

        The couple wanted the things they didn’t have growing up for their three children, ages 6, 4 and 3: a big house with a backyard and a pool. They couldn’t do that in their more urban neighborhood of Biddleville, he says.

        Justin Harlow and his family. Photo courtesy CharMarie Photography.

        By the numbers: Harlow isn’t alone: Data reveals that people of color are driving the growth in Charlotte, but especially in its outskirts.

        • In Southwest Charlotte, the census tract surrounding the Charlotte Premium Outlets in Steele Creek went from 0% Black to one-third between 2000 and 2020. Several tracts along South Tryon Street that were more than 70% white in 2000 are now less than one-third.
        • In the North, parts of areas like Mallard Creek and Highland Creek that were previously 70% or 80% white are melting pots. The two adjacent census tracts in the county with the largest concentration of Asian residents are both in University City, near IBM Drive and Mallard Creek Road, at 74% and 50.5% Asian. The area was around 10% Asian in 2000.

          Between the lines: Today, there are 12 census tracts in the county where the Hispanic population is 50% or greater. Only three of them are in the traditional Hispanic enclave of east Charlotte. Some are in crescent neighborhoods like Hidden Valley.

          • But others are on the fringes, like Dixie-Berryhill, west of the airport. One census tract there saw among the largest increases in the Hispanic population: from 2.8% to 58.7% from 2000 to 2020.

          Monty Witherspoon, pastor at Steele Creek A.M.E. Zion Church and recent school board candidate, said when he moved back to Charlotte from New York, he struggled at first to figure out who needed help in the community.

          • Poverty is more dispersed throughout Steele Creek.

          In some parts of Steele Creek along Lake Wylie, like the master-planned Palisades development, the average income is over $100,000. Most of the area is close to or above the countywide median household income of $69,240.

          But a cycle of displacement in the center city that started with urban renewal has pushed residents farther south. Witherspoon found some families that pack two or three generations into one apartment to afford rent.

          The big picture: American cities in the last two decades have witnessed a “suburbanization of poverty,” says Katie Zager, a research associate at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

          • Nationally in urban areas, poverty rates have been rising in the suburbs faster than in center city areas, she explains. Part of that is because the population is increasing faster in the suburbs in general, driven by lower housing costs.

          “I think the threat to poverty now is that it can be hidden in plain sight,” Witherspoon says.

          Monty Witherspoon inside Steele Creek A.M.E. Zion Church. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

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