Finding Home: Can The Changing Optimist Park Accommodate Old And New Residents?
“Earlier today at the Habitat Home site working continued on 14 new homes,” a television announcer reads over WBTV footage showing former President Jimmy Carter, his wife and daughter visiting Optimist Park to build houses. Back then, the neighborhood was almost entirely black, according to a city report. Crime, poorly maintained houses and unemployment plagued the community.
“The entire project will continue through Friday,” The WBTV anchor continued, “And then there’s real reason to celebrate because then residents are expected to move into their new homes.”
Optimist Park has changed a lot since its start as a mill village in the late 1800s. According to historian Tom Hanchett, mill villages and subdivisions built in the area were erected during Jim Crow — meaning the area had only white residents and stayed that way until the 1950’s when many whites moved to suburbs. And for years after, it remained mostly working class and black.
But the population has recently begun to shift again. The most recent census data from 2017 shows about 40 percent of residents are white and just more than 50 percent are black.
As development continues in the Charlotte area, there’s sometimes friction between longtime residents and people moving in. But they can also share something in common: A desire for an affordable place to live, even if the influx of new people changes the makeup of the neighborhood.
That’s clear in Optimist Park, where many of the new businesses are geared toward the people who have and will move into the hundreds of new apartment units near the LYNX Blue Line Light Rail.
James Atkinson, 54, lives at the intersection of the old and new. His family moved into a Habitat home in the 1980s. He’s now lived there nearly 10 years. Next to his one-story blue house is the new blue line and behind it is a large apartment building under construction.
“The building up here. Look around it.” Atkinson said. “When I look at it, it’s an invisible force because it can’t be stopped.”
Atkinson, who is black, said he knew change was coming when one day a few years ago he saw a white woman jogging through the neighborhood. To him, this was unusual and a warning sign. He said he’s seen other areas of Charlotte gentrify.
“You wake up and you do see the future coming,” he said. “You gotta say, ‘where is my position in it?’”
Atkinson said he believes there is strength in numbers. He’s now president of the Optimist Park Community Association, which he is trying to keep strong.
“I’ve walked these streets hundreds of times since I’ve been on the association,” he said.
And he’s even tried to include new residents in the big box apartments going up all around the neighborhood. There are hundreds of units. Many studios and one-bedroom apartments going for more than $1,000 a month.
Atkinson is realistic. He said he knows that in the next several years, more people will probably end up selling their homes to developers. He gets offers to buy his place almost daily. But he said he’s not ready to move yet. He finds he doesn’t frequent many of the new business, including the multiple breweries that have opened up. But people from other neighborhoods are making their way to Optimist Park to do just that.
On an early evening at Birdsong Brewery, the place is packed with people and dogs. John Michener, 59, lives a few miles away and frequents the brewery multiple times a week to unwind after a long day at work. He’s sipping on his drink at a table facing the main drag in Optimist Park — North Davidson Street. The brewery is right next to the cargo railroad crossing. For Michener, the traffic along the road when the train comes by is a barometer for how popular the area has become.
“I see traffic getting worse because when the railroad goes by, it backs up traffic,” Michener said. “It backs it up!”
Michener said he sees more change coming. He pointed to construction across the street – more apartments. Spencer Mead, 29, said he also loves coming to the brewery from neighboring Villa Heights to get a drink with friends.
“There’s like 15 breweries within a 5-square-mile radius of this place,” he said.
Mead said he feels labeled as a young white man living in a changing neighborhood. He said he feels the stares from his black neighbors who have lived there for years. According to Mead, he just went where he found reasonable rent.
“I mean I didn’t have any strategic plan for your demise,” Mead said, “But yeah, sometimes it seems that way. In another aspect its like, this sucks. These people have had two generations in this neighborhood and it just like all falls apart.”
Atkinson said he sees that shift in the neighborhood as inevitable. He said at community meetings in a church basement he tells the handful of residents, who are mostly older and black, that change is happening and fast.
“We have to make sure that we stay current,” Atkinson said. “We have to know about our community. We have to know what’s happening in our community. We have to know who’s living in our community. It’s not no black and white thing no more. This is an aggressive progress that is coming.”
On this night, two younger white men are here to tell the neighborhood about their plans to build another brewery across from the light rail line and next to another big apartment building. Mike Salzarulo is one of the owners.
“I moved to Charlotte, changed careers altogether, so did Ryan, for us to build brewery brand together because it’s a passion that we’ve had,” Salzarulo said.
His business partner Ryan Owens said the area was exactly what they were looking for.
“Southend has been done. This area is changing like gangbusters,” said Owens, “So why not be a part of that to help hopefully direct it and shape it in a way that is a positive one?”
In the meeting, he told residents they want to be involved with the community and even have events where they give money back to the neighborhood. When asked if they felt the tension as two white men and relative newcomers to the area in a room of mostly longtime black residents, Salzarulo said:
“We don’t want to move anybody out of here. We don’t know the background of these people. So we are open to anybody, we are welcoming of everybody. So we want to be that for everybody.”
Owens added, “At least from our perspective, we don’t let race make it awkward. For us, yes, there is a little bit of awkwardness when it comes to age.”
Gentrification of Optimist Park started long before they decided to open a brewery. And while appearing somewhat skeptical, the residents seemed receptive. But even if the new businesses and apartments aren’t intending to force out longtime residents, the fabric of the neighborhood is shifting. Atkinson said he just wants to make sure people leave on their own terms.
“It’s going to be an oppression coming, you know,” Atkinson said, “But don’t oppress yourself like the oppression that’s coming. That it be so great it suffocates you.”
He said he tells residents to take care of their property to get the best offer they can.
WFAE is taking a year-long look at Charlotte’s affordable housing problem through our series, Finding Home. Every Monday in 2019, we’ll have stories that examine the problem, seek solutions, and bring you stories from neighborhoods small and large, both in and outside Charlotte. Don’t miss a segment. Sign up for the Best of WFAE weekly newsletter to get the latest Finding Home along with the other most important news of the week.