East Charlotte sometimes gets a bad wrap. The Central Ave./Plaza corridors, NoDa and Eastland Mall area have certainly had their share of unique challenges over the past decade. The housing crisis, aging infrastructure, business real estate troubles and sensationalized crime have converged on the area to give it a reputation that is, at best, mixed. Other factors — opportunities that are sometimes disguised as challenges — have also contributed to East Charlotte’s changes; an influx of various immigrant communities, in particular, has brought new cultures, customs and languages to the area.
The dreaded Independence Blvd. corridor hasn’t helped the public perception of East Charlotte. Widening projects have turned a once four-lane road and bustling economic center into an expressway that’s left business owners high and dry and empty, deserted big box storefronts and small shops alike dotting each side of the roadway. To be completely honest, traveling through East Charlotte can at times be quite depressing.
But as any resident of East Charlotte will tell you, myself included, this little corner of the world is our home and a beautiful one at that.
Over at the day job, we focused on telling stories of social justice in our recent May 28, 2011, print issue: A gay father and his sons preparing themselves for a global journey to make change; an LGBT youth service organization celebrating 20 years and forging into the future to help a whole new generation of queer kids; two choruses in North Carolina’s Triangle-area that teamed up recently to raise a melodic voice on breast cancer awareness, education, research and prevention; and the Freedom Center for Social Justice, a new, Charlotte-based national organization that seeks to spotlight areas for change in education, equal opportunity and wellness.
Unity Fellowship Church’s Bishop Tonyia Rawls is already doing great work with her new center. Coupled with the church’s new capital campaign to build a new facility at the corner of Eastway and Kilborne Drs., literally right next door to my apartment complex, the Freedom Center for Social Justice is positioning itself to make a real and lasting impact among communities of color, the disadvantaged and LGBT people — communities that each find a unique home in East Charlotte.
From my write-up at QNotes:
Though national in scope, Rawls says the tutoring project is a good example of the center’s social justice focus and its willingness to keep an eye on Charlotte.
“While we are doing national work it is impossible to do that without thinking of our own house and for us that is this region,” she says, pointing to a list of challenges ranging from housing, healthcare and education.
“We can go down the list of all this bad stuff and we have those [in East Charlotte],” she cautions, “but we also have some of the best numbers — some of the wealthiest people in Charlotte live in this ZIP code and some of the greatest growth in the city is happening in this ZIP code. There’s also some really dynamic and progressive work that is happening in this ZIP code.”
She says her church’s and center’s neighborhood is a “complex area” with unique needs. Such a situation presents both challenge and opportunity.
“I think East Charlotte is a gift to Charlotte,” she says. “What we have there is an incredible opportunity to build something really magnificent that I think can showcase the best of us all.”
Charlotte’s eastern neighborhoods are home to large and growing diverse communities. Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, Indians, white folk and those from a host of Middle Eastern nations call this portion of Charlotte home. In one moment, you can drive down the street and see a decades-old barber shop still opening at a bright and cheery 5 a.m. each morning; in another, a brand new business opened by an immigrant entrepreneur out to make a buck and live the “American dream.” It’s a beautiful sight: Main Street America at its finest.
Additionally, numbers from the 2000 Census show that the 28205 ZIP code, which encompasses most of East Charlotte, is home to the largest number of gay and lesbian residents in the entire state. Though that’s likely to change when new 2010 Census data are released, I’m willing to take on a good bet that 28205 will remain high on that list.
What makes East Charlotte unique is also its greatest gift. And, as the Independence project continues to develop, our neighborhoods’ special concerns not only impact our immediate neighbors and friends but also the city — indeed, the entire region — as a whole.
That’s why East Charlotte is a great case study in the making and should be used as an opportunity for the city to support increased neighborhood and community development and growth. It’s both a worthwhile and challenging case study waiting to happen. Imagine the possibilities when each of these diverse communities come together to create real and lasting change. The power of such diversity could shape East Charlotte in ways never seen: Bolstered entrepreneurial spirit among minority, immigrant and LGBT communities; community education and healthcare initiatives; safer and cleaner streets, neighborhoods and parks; better schools; local and independent art; and so, so much more.
As I once outlined in an editorial at QNotes, East Charlotte LGBTs — with our high numbers of residents and business owners — have the opportunity to take a lead in these efforts to organize and develop community. The many non-LGBT issues affecting East Charlotte affect us, too, and we can and should partner with non-LGBT organizations and communities to make positive change in our own backyard.
Together East Charlotte residents can rid our neighborhoods of the blight handed us by the economy, media, government policy and other contributing factors. We can make and shape our own destiny in ways that bring us closer and unite us in one common cause. Our home — beauty found in its people — deserves all the sheer determination, grit and hard work we’re willing to pour into it.