Why this matters: ASC’s Culture Blocks program brought residents along the Beatties Ford Road Corridor together to create art and history that reflects the community.
By Giovanna Torres
Marketing and Communications Coordinator
In 2017, Culture Blocks, a community partnership between the Arts & Science Council, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Mecklenburg County Park and Rec designed to bring arts and cultural experiences closer to where residents live, approached Johnson C. Smith University to see if they were interested in working on a community project.
Fast forward and you’ve got RCLM 37— an experiential exhibition of art and history that reimagines past, present and future narratives of the Beatties Ford Road corridor.
The project was divided in three phases: Oral history collection, artifact preservation and exhibit conceptualization. The goal? To collect, document, and preserve the history of the Beatties Ford Road Corridor/Biddleville community.
During months, JCSU held free photo scanning services at Beatties Ford Library, West Boulevard Rec. Center and Levine Museum of the New South among other locations, as well as frequent community meetings to make sure that community members were involved every step of the way. This allowed JCSU to stay true to the voices and true to the community as much as possible. “Often times you create but forget to have the voices of the people who live in the community. We did the opposite. That’s what makes our project powerful,” said Monika Rhue, Program Director and Director of Library Services and Curation at Johnson C. Smith University.
Through Mecklenburg County funding, Culture Blocks was also able to support the James B. Duke Memorial Library in transcribing 52 oral history interviews, developing the Digital Smith online archival repository to host the interviews and transcriptions, and to hire a Creative Director to conceptualize the exhibit.
The digital component [Digital Smith] will house all the artifacts that make part of the exhibit, making it easy for old and new residents to access the oral histories and photographs that chronicle the Beatties Ford Road corridor history. I say new and old because RCLM 37 serves more than one role. It not only celebrates the people who are here, but also exposes the people who are coming to the legacy of this community. “Sometimes you move into the community and might not know or think there is a legacy, but there is,” explains Rhue. “Understanding and appreciating the community they are becoming a part of is very important.”
After years of hard work, the exhibit is opening April 7, 2019. The space is formatted to create multiple vignettes of collaged images playing off of the concept of a storybook; it is connected in such a way that there is no beginning or an end, and a continuum of time exists in which these events, people and places continue to endure.
Janelle Dunlap, mixed-media social practice artist and Creative Director of RCLM 37 is responsible for tying it all together and projecting the history of the Beatties Ford Rd corridor into the future through art. She brought in a team of local artists to help out, making every detail resonate and every space of the exhibit intentional.
“Influenced by the cultural aesthetic of Afrofuturism, RCLM 37 places Black people in the future of neighborhoods where that presence and history is witnessing the threat of erasure,” Dunlap explains. Afrofuturism is several things “It’s a philosophy, an art form, a form of literature…its different creative ways to reinterpret the future. Afrofuturism puts a specific spin on it- addressing what is often times the absence of black people in the future. Afrofuturism is projecting people of the African diaspora into the future, into roles, identities, spaces that we are often times left out of.”
She explains that the vision for RCLM 37 is inspired by the selfless dedication of Judge Shirley Fulton, who dedicated years to the restoration of the Wesley Heights Neighborhood. “She [Fulton] said something that stood out to me: “”We [African Americans] seek options and opportunities to get out of communities that often times reflect our history, and once we make it out we desert the spaces that we come from.”” She also mentioned that one of the real issues of gentrification is abandonment, so it’s our role to reclaim those spaces, reclaim our grandmothers neighborhoods, reclaim the worn down neighborhoods we came from,” added Dunlap.
A celebration of history and a call to action
The significance of the exhibit title RCLM 37 refers to the Beatties Ford Road exit 37 off of Interstate 85, or as Dunlap refers to it, “the center of the corridor; where the heartbeat is”. In the 1960’s, the creation of the Interstate-277 expressway loop and the presence of I-85 split the Beatties Ford Road Corridor/Biddleville community and wiped out several homes, schools, and businesses. Although Biddleville was not totally destroyed by urban renewal during the 1960’s and 1970’s, the longtime residents in this community are now witnessing gentrification as more white and high-income residents relocate to the neighborhoods.
“Through time, even despite being displaced essentially twice, this community [West Charlotte] has been able to remain intact even through urban decay, the crack epidemic, urban renewal. That is why it’s important to create art that influences people to be more responsible. I’m trying to project an optimistic view for the future when we label it with afrofuturism cause we are claiming our space for the future.” said Dunlap.
Art plays a big role in our daily lives. It beautifies neighborhoods, but, along with personal stories “it can facilitate engagement in emotional topics like urban renewal” says Rhue. “We hope to change the attitudes of individuals on the important role in preserving, sharing, and displaying positive narratives of the Beatties Ford Road Corridor/Biddleville. We would like to give voices to long-time residents and provide a historical perspective to new and incoming residents as this community transforms culturally.”
The RCLM 37 exhibition opens April 7, 2019. The opening reception starts at 3 p.m. with African Drumming and Dancing with Life As Art Production, self-guided tours, live music with Isaac Gonzalez a rhythm and blues singer/songwriter known as Gino Mathias, food, and a meet and greet with the artists. RSVP here.