The morning began with a prayer in the empty parking lot of Fire Station No. 11 on West 28th Street. Under the city skyline, a circle of people bowed their heads and listened.
"Dear Lord, we thank you for the people who have assembled here to do something positive in our neighborhood. We ask that you be in the midst so that none of us suffer from any injuries today."
After a harmonizing "amen," the group of UNC Charlotte students and residents of the Graham Heights neighborhood, lined up beside a silver Toyota Scion to accept a pair of work gloves and a rake.
Graham Heights, off North Graham Street in Charlotte, is one of five neighborhoods selected to participate in the Charlotte Action Research Project, or CHARP, a program through UNCC that teams graduate students with neighborhood leaders. The idea is to come up with a plan to make each neighborhood better.
Neighborhoods are picked by the city of Charlotte's Neighborhood and Business Services, which looks for communities with a strong potential to succeed. Graham Heights had a neighborhood association, which city officials said shows the residents' desire to grow and improve where they live. Since the program's launch in 2009, four other neighborhoods have taken part in projects, which usually last one to two years.
"The first thing we do is sit down with the existing leadership and we talk goals of leaders and residents," said Liz Shockey, CHARP coordinator. "For some neighborhoods it could be youth involvement. In other neighborhoods it could be cleanup efforts."
In Graham Heights, residents chose first to beautify the community.
Joe Howarth, a UNCC graduate student, serves as the school's liaison for the Graham Heights project. The morning of the cleanup, he loaded his silver Toyota with dozens of new gloves and rakes. He also brought eight college volunteers.
Together, they picked up brush on dead-end streets and litter mixed in with fallen leaves along the quiet blocks.
"It's going to be guided by the residents," Howarth said. Neighborhood leaders eager to begin had provided him with a list of ideas. The tasks ranged from creating computer classes for adults to placing garbage cans along stops on the bus line that runs through the neighborhood.
Howarth won't do the work for them. He'll show them how to get it done themselves, and keep it going.
Four other neighborhoods have been improved or are in the process of doing so through CHARP. In Reid Park, Habitat for Humanity has been called in. In Windy Ridge, the neighborhood entrances have been re-landscaped by an architect who lives in the community. Farm Pond and Lauren Park subdivisions have also entered the program.
In many ways, Graham Heights flies under the radar as a quiet neighborhood resting beneath a forest of mature trees within close view of uptown. It's not a high-crime area. The houses, built in the 1950s, are modest, mostly around 1,000 square feet. Many of the people who bought homes there in the late 1960s still live there.
But during the years, there has been a struggle in the neighborhood. Many of the people who lived there have died. Many of the houses were sold to landlords who don't take the same pride in them as the previous homeowners did. Weeds grow thick. Some houses sit vacant and become targets for crime.
"I've been on them. I've been running them out of there," LaVon Quick, 53, said to neighborhood president Rosalyn Davis, as she walked along picking up trash on Catalina Avenue. Quick, who lives on the street, said four of the houses across from him are vacant and frequently looted. "I can see at night where the house is lit up. I peeked in the window. They go in there, steal all the copper," he said.
Quick moved to Graham Heights six months ago. He had a friend who lived in the neighborhood more than a quarter-century ago, and he remembered the close-knit feel back then. "I loved the neighborhood. I said, 'I'm coming back to this neighborhood.' "
But time has marched on, and it's not quite the same.
Davis, 54, who moved to the neighborhood in fifth grade, sighed after talking with Quick. "That brick house used to be the prettiest house in the neighborhood," she said, staring at the run-down structure across from Quick's home. "A lot of changes."
The residents, many now elderly, struggle to keep Graham Heights from surrendering like other neighborhoods, but the battle is constant.
Four brown bags with empty liquor bottles rested beneath a stop sign. The bags were wrinkled at the necks from tight grips.
"We have a lot of people who are not homeowners," said Barbara Quinn, 70, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1968. "We're trying to reach out to them, let them know that we are a neighborhood that likes to keep our property going, (that) we have moral standards that we like to see in our neighborhood, and that we watch out for each other."
Quinn, like others in the community, hopes to meet more of her neighbors through its partnership with CHARP, and to restore the close-knit feeling she felt decades ago: "Once upon a time we knew everyone on our streets."
It's a transformation she knows is within reach. For her, she'll consider no other option.
"This is where we live," she said. "It belongs to us."