Why this matters: The razing of the Brooklyn neighborhood, which impacted a generation of African-Americans in Charlotte, is an important part of the city’s history.
By Bernie Petit
Not much is left of the predominately African-American Brooklyn neighborhood, which once stretched from East Trade to East Morehead streets in Charlotte’s Second Ward.
Only a handful of structures remain – the high school gymnasium, the city’s first black YMCA, Grace AME Zion Church and the old Mecklenburg Investment Company office building, financed in 1921 by a group of black professionals to provide the first office building open to blacks.
A few blackberry bushes, once abundant in the neighborhood, still ripen in June on a dead-end street off Stonewall Street just behind Actor’s Theatre.
But like any trace of Brooklyn, they can be hard to spot.
“As a historian, it breaks my heart that the visual cues that help us realize there is a history, that people did important things before we got here, those visual cues aren’t here,” said Dr. Tom Hanchett, former historian at Levine Museum of the New South.
“Losing the key cues that say people have tried over time and accomplished good things, that hurts.”
City leaders razed the neighborhood in the 1960s in the name of “urban renewal,” displacing more than 1,000 families, 200 businesses and a dozen churches. Despite promises, no new school or residential units were built to replace those demolished.
Lost were Carnegie Library, the first public library for black people in North Carolina, and Second Ward High, the first urban black high school in Charlotte. So too were businesses like the Queen City Pharmacy in the heart of Brooklyn, the A.M.E. Zion Publishing House that made Charlotte a prominent center for the religion and the famous El Chico restaurant, known for its burgers and bologna sandwiches.
But perhaps the biggest loss was the sense of community that permeated through the neighborhood.
“I’m a white guy,” Hanchett said, “and I give talks where there are black people that remember Brooklyn. And they start saying, ‘I couldn’t misbehave because everybody knew my mom, and if I misbehaved over here, I’d get a whack on the bottom and by the time I got home, the word would have gotten to my mom and I’d get more than a whack on the bottom at home.’”
A City Within a City
There is a misconception that Brooklyn was nothing more than slums, said John Howard, administrator for the City of Charlotte’s Historic Districts Commission.
The city’s 1960 Brooklyn Area Plan referenced substandard housing, high crime rates and low health standards as reasons for redevelopment.
“There’s nothing about the churches, nothing about the nice bungalows, the business buildings, the merchants, nothing about that at all,” Howard said.
To be clear, the neighborhood did include some of the city’s worst housing, particularly the section known as “Blue Heaven.” Scores of shotgun homes filled Blue Heaven, which sat behind where the Sheraton Charlotte Hotel and Le Meridian Charlotte now stand. Many of the residences were built as slums and barely maintained by landlords.
“That low-lying area was not a very good place to build, so that’s where the homes of the poorest people were,” Hanchett said. “It was called ‘Blue Heaven’ because everybody had wood smoke pouring out of their chimneys and the air was blue with smoke.”
It’s believed that Brooklyn took its name from the New York borough, considered a “city within a city.” And Charlotte’s Brooklyn, similar to most cities, contained a poor section and a well-to-do section – which in this case was along Brevard Street.
It was a mixed-use, mixed-income community long before such communities were trendy. Picture the built environment of Charlotte’s Plaza-Midwood neighborhood – some big houses, some bungalows, brick store buildings – and you come close to what the heart of Brooklyn looked like.
Replace the houses and bungalows with condos and a hotel, and it’s possibly a glimpse into the future of Second Ward.
Brooklyn New and Old
While “it won’t look anything like the old Brooklyn because we’re a big city now and back then we were a small town,” Hanchett said, proposed redevelopment for the area is expected to bring mixed-use, affordable housing and a tangible tribute to the community’s history.
The name, Brooklyn Village, will also harken to the Brooklyn of yesteryear. The hope is that it brings new life to an area that feels cold, sterile and institutional today.
“Think back to how un-cold it used to be, with House of Prayer being at Marshall Park and then a church on every block almost and then the vibrancy of people walking around every day, all day, not just Monday through Friday from 9 to 5,” Howard said. “You had activity going on constantly. It’s hard to imagine this being that place.”
There are still folks who remember. Many are older. Others were there for only a few years, not quite long enough to experience the full impact of the community.
Stories were passed down, too.
“[W]hen my mother told stories of Charlotte’s Brooklyn, I thought of the iconic borough in New York,” wrote Dr. Jeffrey B. Leak of UNC Charlotte in an essay for Charlotte Magazine. “For some reason, as a boy, I imagined that we had created that Brooklyn—subways and bridges—down here, not a Southern version of black achievement.”
By the time Leak came around, Brooklyn was gone. Residents relocated to the Beatties Ford Road corridor, to the Belmont, Villa Heights or Wilmore neighborhoods or elsewhere. So did the churches and businesses that survived.
Lessons From Brooklyn
The next time you visit the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture at Levine Center for the Arts, pay attention to the building’s design. It was inspired by the wood-frame Myers Street School, which was Charlotte’s first black public school when it opened in Brooklyn in 1882.
The school was referred to as the “Jacob’s Ladder” school because of its exterior stairs and because of the biblical story, “a metaphor for striving upward and bettering oneself, and that’s what education offered,” Hanchett said.
The concept of advancement is expressed in the Gantt Center design’s modern interpretation of Jacob’s Ladder through the use of prominent stairs and escalators that frame the building’s glass atrium.
Myers School, of course, is no more.
“When people say we tear down our history, that’s true in uptown especially and that’s part of our story,” Howard said.
But the Gantt Center design and the redevelopment plans for Second Ward show another part of the story – that Charlotte remembers and learns from its history.
Back then, “government planners were regarded as experts who knew what to do,” Hanchett said. Now, “we largely see the role of planners as listeners who shape policy in response to lots of community input.” Housing policy has also improved, Howard added.
And we realize we need more Brooklyns.
“We now understand that cities are an ecology,” Hanchett said. “You can’t sort out the butterflies from the flowers. It doesn’t work. They both die. You’ve got to have everything together.”