First impressions are important, 73-year-old Dorothy Waddy believes – and she worries people coming to town for the Democratic National Convention will get a bad first impression of Charlotte if they drive in along West Boulevard.
Nearby East Boulevard is all gussied up and pedestrian-friendly, reduced from four lanes down to two or three, with manicured medians shaded by pretty cherry trees.
And across the railroad tracks on West Boulevard?
“Oh my God, people are going to think, is this what the city looks like?” Waddy said. “Is this how they keep their roads, their buildings and so forth? Why aren’t the streetlights on? Why are people waiting in the dirt for the bus?”
Waddy is president of the West Boulevard Neighborhood Association, and she knows one of the quickest ways into Charlotte is through her community, no matter that airport signs direct motorists to Wilkinson Boulevard.
So why, she wants to know, doesn’t someone do something about West Boulevard?
“East Boulevard was four lanes and then they made it two lanes and beautified it. Nothing came to the West Boulevard corridor,” Waddy said. “The streetlights are spotty, and people jaywalk and hang out at the local convenience store.”
On maps of Charlotte, East and West boulevards appear to be one continuous 8-mile thoroughfare. But from ground level, the divide between the two streets is as stark as white and black. Although Charlotte was once known as “the city that made integration work,” we still go home to mostly segregated lives. And nowhere is the divide more obvious than on East and West boulevards.
Leafy, pedestrian-friendly East Boulevard cuts through predominantly white Dilworth where some homes cost more than $1 million (and where, in full disclosure, I live in a bungalow.)
Literally across the railroad tracks at Camden Road is West Boulevard. It extends 6.4 miles through a predominantly black part of town with some nice middle-class neighborhoods, a YMCA and other new facilities. But there are rough spots plagued by drug deals, littering and loitering.
West Boulevard began life as a two-lane road lined with crepe myrtles, the main gateway from the airport. Traffic became so heavy in the 1950s, the road was widened to four lanes. Like other neighborhoods near the center city, the area was predominantly white until white people fled to the suburbs. As they moved out, traffic continued to move in.
“It’s like you hit an imaginary line,” said Curtis Watkins of the Wilmore Neighborhood Association. “Everything on East Boulevard gets a lot of focus. Everything on this side definitely doesn’t get the same attention.”
Never the twain shall meet
The city spent about $2 million on an East Boulevard Pedscape project that reduced the number of traffic lanes along the 1.7-mile stretch, added landscaped medians, bike lanes and crosswalks. Since the traffic-slowing project was completed in August 2010, traffic has done just that – slowed down.
In 2000 and 2002, the city spent about $1.15 million on two projects along the much-longer West Boulevard, including decorative fencing and lighting, pavers, pedestrian lights and landscaping.
Residents along West Boulevard want fewer lanes of traffic, too, and some questioned whether they don’t have them because their neighborhoods include poorer people. West Boulevard is one of the least pedestrian-friendly streets in Charlotte, according to% WalkScore.com, a website that rates the walkability of neighborhoods, compared with the “Very Walkable” East Boulevard.
John Howard, who works for the city, said he doesn’t think race played a role. Howard is African-American and lives off West Boulevard. He pointed out that the city completed traffic-calming projects in other predominantly black parts of town, including Beatties Ford Road, West Morehead Street, Freedom Drive, Tuckaseegee and Rozzelles Ferry roads.
“Those corridors feel more like business corridors,” Howard said, “and their volume of traffic was way less than West Boulevard.”
Complicating changes to West Boulevard is the fact that it is a state road.
Other issues, Howard said, have taken precedence, including housing code violations.
Waiting for the bus
From the airport, the most direct route home for me is West Boulevard. The last time I drove there at night, three people sauntered out in front of my car. I had to slam on the brakes. And it has happened before. I used to travel that way regularly when my children attended elementary school at Barringer Academic Center.
Waddy invited me to revisit the area. We met at her brick ranch house, and she drove me along West Boulevard, beginning at Billy Graham Parkway. From there for about half a mile there is no sidewalk on the right side of the street.
“There’s a bus stop right here in somebody’s yard,” Waddy said and pointed to a patch of clay where people had worn away the lawn. “Here’s another bus stop on the side of a hill. There’s no sidewalk. There’s no shelter. You’re really almost standing in the road.”
We stopped and the embankment was so steep, photographer Todd Sumlin had to help Waddy down to the small piece of flat ground that qualified as a bus stop, and he had to help her back up again.
We didn’t feel comfortable standing there while cars flew by. A sign on a telephone pole behind us warned “Private property. No trespassing.”
A Mustang sped past at what must have been 80 mph in a 45 mph zone. “Look at it!” Waddy exclaimed. “Just look at it!”
We continued on toward town and saw several people walking from a bus stop across four lanes to the public library. There’s nearly a mile between two stoplights on that stretch of road. In between are houses, apartments, businesses and the library, and pedestrians dodge traffic all day long.
A first impression
Capt. Stella Patterson of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said crime in the corridor is down 46 percent over three years, but acknowledged that problems persist.
“Our biggest challenge is just to keep West Boulevard and Remount Road clean, to drive out the drug sales and encourage legitimate business to come there,” Patterson said.
Nearby neighborhoods are safe, Howard said, despite the bad impression. “It’s that main drag that people see,” he said. “It’s what they remember.”
Waddy knows the big problems won’t be solved any time soon, certainly not before the convention. Still, she hopes to find some money to spruce up the area before September.
“I don’t believe people who live in the city look this way,” she said. But she predicts outsiders will look, curious as they drive into town. She’s embarrassed for our city that visitors will see people standing in the mud, inches from traffic, waiting for buses.
“Is that,” she asked, “the impression we want them to have of Charlotte?”
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