The story of the transformation of the Center City begins in the 1940s. Though Charlotte residents began driving automobiles in the early 1900s, it took several decades before this new transportation mode had a noticeable effect on land use patterns in the Center City. The beginning of the changes came in 1946 when the first section of Independence Boulevard opened. The expressway sliced through the heart of black Second Ward and then eastward through the Elizabeth and Chantilly neighborhoods.
The expressway soon began to draw businesses from downtown to the cheap farmland at the edge of the city. The trend accelerated in 1956 when Park Road Shopping Center opened at what was then the southern edge of the city. Developed by Charlottean A. V. Blankenship, it was the region's first major strip shopping center. It was quickly followed by a host of others, including Charlottetown Mall in 1959, which was one of the first enclosed malls in the Southeast, and the luxurious enclosed South Park in 1973.
Inside Charlottetown Mall
As suburban lures pulled some businesses out of the Center City, a combination of the automobile's need for parking with investment and property tax policies pushed out others. Until the mid 1970s, federal and state tax laws rewarded new construction but not renovation of existing structures. At the same time, property taxes were lower on vacant land than on land with buildings. In this climate, investors demolished hundreds of the two and three story structures that lined Church Street, College Street, other side streets, and even parts of Trade and Tryon. They believed they could get a better return leasing the land for parking with the hope of new construction in the future, rather than renting the existing buildings for business. An uncounted number of small businessmen were pushed to suburban locations or forced into early retirement. In the early 80s, it is probable that fewer retail businesses remained within a four-block walk of the Square than existed there at the turn of the century when Charlotte was a small town of less than 20,000 residents.
The weakening of the commercial core was accompanied by the demolition of the ring of housing around it. As early as the 1940s, Charlotte's city fathers had begun considering "slum clearance". At first, the phrase meant clearing up slum conditions, not demolishing buildings. Despite anguished cries from a few property owners that it was "unnecessary, unreasonable. . .socialistic and un-American," the city began to enforce a Standard Housing Ordinance in 1948. It required that every Charlotte dwelling unit have running water, an indoor toilet, tub and shower, a kitchen sink, and adequate window screens to control flies. Minimum room sizes and provision of hot water were considered, but the city agreed with the protesting real estate association that this would be too much to ask. Though some houses were demolished, much of the city's worst housing gradually began to be improved, as national magazines in the early 1950s noted.
When the U. S. Government began its Urban Renewal program in the 1950s, thought in Charlotte shifted from helping low income residents. With an apparently unlimited supply of Federal money in sight, it now seemed possible to eradicate all low income housing and replace it with sparkling new business, office and higher income residential structures. To head the new Urban Renewal department, the city brought in Vernon Sawyer, who had experience with redevelopment in Norfolk, Virginia. "Heart of Norfolk Blitzed in Urban Renewal Project," the Charlotte News enthusiastically headlined a 1960 article on the new director's past work. "This 250-year old seaport has never been bombed by an intercontinental ballistic missile, although it sometimes seems a little that way."
Sawyer began clearance in Charlotte's Second Ward, also known as Brooklyn, the long-time black residential area. The ward contained some of the city's worst housing, crowded mid-block alleys barely maintained by landlords. The area also held many of the city's black businesses, churches, and homeowners. Between 1960 and 1967 Sawyer's Redevelopment Commission razed the area in five stages, displacing 1007 families and 216 businesses from a 213 acre tract. Over the next decade, the cleared land became the site of Charlotte's glistening Government Plaza, with the remainder being sold at reduced rates to private investors primarily for office development. Not a single new residential unit was built to replace the 1480 structures demolished.
Federal Urban Renewal officials were alarmed at the displacement and threatened to cut off funds if Charlotte did not build new public housing. In response, the city bulldozed the black residential core of First Ward, and in 1967 erected Earle Village Homes, a 409-unit public housing project. Opponents pointed out that the development actually contained fewer units than had been demolished in First Ward to create it, and that it thus did little to redress the Brooklyn displacement. Although Earle Village's individual low-rise brick units by Charlotte architect Louis Asbury have won praise for their home-like design, many observers questioned the wisdom of such a large, self-contained concentration of poverty, and as a result Charlotte today has a policy of "scattered-site" public housing, small groups of units blended into neighborhoods around the city.
Aerial view of a portion of Earle Village (left)
The early 1970s saw the clearance of the remainder of First Ward surrounding Earle Village, scattering 216 families and sixty-two businesses. When a lawsuit was filed in an attempt to require renovation of existing homes instead of wholesale clearance, the city responded by moving half a dozen homes to Eighth Street at great expense and renovating them, a project the newspapers were quick to dub "The Gilded Row."
A major portion of the residential area of Third Ward was demolished at the same time. Three blocks of the city's commercial core along East Trade Street were also leveled with Urban Renewal money in these years, the site of the present Bank of America tower, the Civic Center, and a third block at East Trade and Brevard. In addition to massive public demolition, hundreds more buildings were destroyed privately. Generally relaxed building code enforcement allowed landlords to run houses down, and when crackdowns came periodically, owners usually stood to profit more by demolition than rehabilitation.
By the end of the 1970s these policies of urban renewal had cleared almost all Charlotte's areas of deliberately built shanty housing. They had also resulted in clearance of the city's finest Victorian residences, in both First and Fourth Wards, and destruction of most of Charlotte's commercial area. The final stages of clearance ironically came at a time when renovation of Victorian homes became highly popular, and also at a time when public officials slowly realized that there were not enough developers waiting in line for the glut of vacant Center City parcels, even at low prices.
The federal Urban Renewal program was replaced in the 1970s by the Community Development Block Grant program. It focused increasingly on improving residential conditions through renovation and some new construction, rather than on clearing residential areas for non-residential use.
The redevelopment of Fourth Ward in the late 1970s and early 1980s set a new direction. The city's 1966 master plan, prepared by architect A. G. Odell, called for the old residential district to be cleared and replaced with high-rise residence towers and open space. Instead of backing this demolition, however, citizens influenced by the growing nationwide historic preservation movement salvaged a few of the remaining old houses. Around this nucleus a large amount of low-rise condominium construction took place. For the first time in decades, a Center City neighborhood was once again a highly desirable residential area.
Fourth Ward's success led to other projects. The few remaining blocks of the old "Woodlawn" suburban area, now simply called "Third Ward," underwent housing rehabilitation and condominium construction modeled on Fourth Ward. The city sponsored creation of a plan for First Ward that took as its first premise the retention of all remaining buildings, and proposed new low and moderate income housing plus commercial development. On North Tryon Street (Old) First Baptist Church reopened in the late 1970s as Spirit Square, a city-funded "arts shopping center" with theaters, studios, and galleries. Across the street, Discovery Place, a glistening new science and technology museum, opened in 1981. It, Spirit Square, and the existing Public Library reestablished the Center City as a cultural nucleus for Charlotte.
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
The Center City: The Business District and the Original Four Wards; Dr. Thomas W. Hanchett
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass