Whether you’re new to Charlotte or you’ve lived here for decades, it’s likely that there are still parts of the sprawling city you have yet to explore.
The city has seen a lot of history unfold here since it was founded in 1768. Neighborhoods like NoDa and McCrorey Heights, for instance, were centers of activity for labor unions and the Civil Rights Movement.
Charlotte City Walks let natives and newbies stroll back in time and learn about the city’s rich history and communities through neighborhood walking and bicycle tours during the month of May.
Inspired by the work of 1960s activist and writer Jane Jacobs, similar tours take place around the globe to commemorate Jacobs’ birthday during the first week of May. Charlotte’s tours extend throughout the month of May.
“The walks began as a way for folks to do what we don’t do — we drive everywhere, we don’t walk. You see things differently when you walk,” says urban designer David Walters, who taught students as a professor at UNCC. “Her main point was that you’ve got to be aware of your neighborhood in context. Neighborhoods are the building blocks of the city.”
Mary Newsom, of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, heard about Jane Jacobs’ walks in other cities. “I thought it would be a great way to learn how our city works,” she says.
Beginning in 2012 with local historian Tom Hanchett leading a luncheon tour of eateries along South Boulevard, the program has expanded every year since, with Hanchett’s popular Munching Tours of ethnic restaurants, bakeries and markets. There are also walks along the rail trail, and others that focus on neighborhood ghost stories, history and the creative arts.
This year, there are more than 20 tours throughout the first three weeks of May, with the majority taking place on weekends.
“The neighborhoods with historical character are the most popular,” Newsom says. “We’ve already had to close out the arts walk in the Plaza-Shamrock neighborhood, where artists are going to open their studios in a neighborhood that people don’t think of as an artist’s neighborhood.”
Last week, Emiene Wright co-led a tour of her McCrorey Heights neighborhood and Johnson C. Smith University, where she’s assistant director of communications.
“McCrorey Heights has been a strangely preserved little enclave. It almost feels like you’re in a time machine,” says Wright of the original ’40s and ’50s-built ranch homes that still line the streets. “Not only is it aesthetically beautiful, it’s also historical. The majority of important progess moments in Charlotte’s racial history had roots in this neighborhood.”
McCrorey Heights was once home to Harvey Gantt (Charlotte’s first African-American mayor) and civil rights activist Reginald Hawkins. The first African-American to run for governor, Hawkins was instrumental in desegregating the city.
Wright also talks about the history of the university’s famous bell tower and its oldest building, Biddle Hall.
“It was built by freed men and women that were only a few years out of bondage themselves — people who probably couldn’t read themselves, but were dedicated to ensuring their descendants and their children could have that opportunity,” Wright explains.
Subjects are limited to the past, though, and developers’ tendency to flatten 100-year-old structures to make way for new condos and town homes (what Walters’ calls Charlotte’s Achilles heel) makes the walks particularly timely. Walters’ tour of lower South End’s industrial district largely focuses on the future of the area.
“It’s full of 1960s and 1970s brick, light-industrial buildings built for moving and making stuff. Now, these very anonymous, humdrum little old brick buildings are basically the only old buildings we have left,” Walters says. “Jacobs said cities need old scruffy buildings. Artists, creative folks and entrepreneurs need cheap space. Lower South End is going fast, but there’s still relatively affordable space there. The tour is to help people understand the importance of having older buildings in a city.”
This week’s walks
Saturday: Dilworth Ghost History Biking Tour, 9:30 a.m.; Plaza Midwood Stroll District, 10 a.m.; Rail Trail SouthEnd Art Walk, 1 p.m.; Lower SouthEnd, 2:30 p.m.
Sunday: Hebrew Cemetery, 3:15 p.m.
Tuesday: Oakhurst, 8:30 a.m.
Saturday, May 19: Chantilly, 9:30 a.m.
Tuesday, May 22: Romare Bearden Park Design Walk, 6:15 p.m.
Thursday, May 24: Belmont Neighborhood, 6 p.m.
Details: Register and view the entire schedule at http://plancharlotte.org/?q=story/2018-charlotte-city-walks-schedule#Register1.