On Brookhill, affordability and a narrative you may not know
A common, 1970s-era sofa is parked in front of a large, old-fashioned tube television at the Gantt Center’s “Welcome to Brookhill” exhibition. On the TV, a Brookhill mother talks about sending her daughters to college, the footage intercut with slides of statistics showing that education is key to economic mobility.
The tableau is both uncomfortable and reassuring: Who doesn’t remember those sofas, those huge TV sets? “The living room recreates a fireside kind of setting for an in-home conversation with Brookhill residents, while giving names and voices to the data points people use when talking about affordable housing and economic mobility,” says David Butler, the exhibition’s curator. “It provided extra context to those numbers.”
It’s just one of the ways “Welcome to Brookhill” – an exhibition of photographs by Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. – seeks to take viewers beyond the traditional narrative surrounding Brookhill Village, and assert its residents’ agency and right to opportunity.
Brookhill is a long-standing, low-income African-American community, at South Tryon Street and Remount Road, amid the sea of prosperity that is now South End. Caught in a legal dispute between its land and building owners, the fate of Brookhill at times can seem out of its people’s hands. But, says Butler, shift focus and there’s another angle to see:
“There’s been a narrative of Brookhill that does not focus on the people who stay there, but the social issues that surround them,” Butler says. “Once you focus on people it becomes less about the amount of money they make and more about the community they’ve built.”
So that’s what the Gantt commissioned Jacobs – a self-identified “image activist” known for photographing civil unrest from Ferguson, Missouri, to Charlotte’s own 2016 eruption – to do.
Focus on the people.
The result is a cornerstone of the Gantt’s new Initiative for Equity + Innovation, an effort announced this fall. Its origins came a year ago, as Charlotte’s conversations about economic mobility increased. Leaders at the Gantt sought ways to push those conversations forward. The initiative, they hope, can shed light on lack of affordable housing and other factors of inequity. “Most of the topics we talked about are access issues that affect black folks disproportionately,” says David Taylor, Gantt president and CEO. “The Gantt Center is a safe place to have these conversations.”
In connection with the “Welcome to Brookhill” exhibition, the Gantt is hosting a series of conversations about the themes raised in the work. Next up: Nov. 13’s “Charlotte’s Affordable Housing Conversation: Where Do We Go From Here?” – part of the Gantt’s “Talk About It Tuesdays.”
The Brookhill exhibition was conceived as a way of working in the community, diving into narratives close to the hearts of the people who live there. Through focus groups and forums, Taylor says, residents had said they were tired of building conditions being at the center of discussions.
They wanted to show the reasons they stay there, beyond low rent: Its sense of community.
“We knew (Jacobs’) work and needed someone who could embed in the community and be trusted,” Taylor says. “He shared our value of highlighting the voices of the individuals most affected. So we offered him the platform. We didn’t want to put a twist on the story, we wanted to present it. And Alvin could bring that kind of authenticity to the story.”
The exhibition, about 60 black-and-white photographs, depicts everyday life: boys sitting outside reading; an older neighbor surveying the street from her porch; a young woman taking one phone call with another cellphone cradled in her lap.
A huge landscape on the main exhibition wall features shots of a typical summer day: water hoses, games, a gathering of friends. Hanging opposite is a large mirror that allows visitors to see themselves quite literally sharing space with the community – an intentional move, says Butler.
“It’s a first step toward building the empathy to interact with the people of the neighborhood,” Butler says. “Not for charity but for the sake of knowing what’s going on in your city and understanding these people are contributing to the life of Charlotte just like you are. They work, take care of their kids, and though they are facing peculiar challenges because of their zip code, they are still part of the fabric.”
The fabric shows more wear in some places. Research displayed in the exhibition tells of the 1951 founding of Brookhill Village, in an area established by Black Charlotteans two decades before that. It sat at the edge of city limits, bordered by an incinerator and a slaughterhouse. A City of Charlotte map from 1937 shows the area’s lack of conveniences, access to adequate public transportation and jobs. To this day, residents said, Brookhill has no gas lines: Homes are heated by free-standing, fuel-burning iron furnaces, which impose on the living space of the small bungalows and give off a smell when in use. No litter mars the courtyards, but according to Jacobs any outward beautification of their homes, even planting flowers, is considered a violation of the leases.
“It was never designed to be anything other than what it is, since its inception,” Jacobs says, pointing at the map. “They’ve been divesting from this community since Day One.”
Despite redlining and other discriminatory policies, Brookhill Village in its early years was seen as a pathway to social mobility. “It was a place for a lot of young families to get their start,” says Mike Todd, 67, an attorney who was born and raised in Brookhill. The second-oldest of eight, Todd recalls a low-crime environment where everyone looked out for each other.
That flourishing sense of community is alive today, according to some long-time residents. Van Anthony, 53, and his 1-year-old daughter China, are prominently featured in several of the Brookhill photographs. Anthony was Jacobs’ entry into the community. The photographer introduced himself around the neighborhood and hung out for weeks before producing a camera, he says, in order to build a sense of trust necessary for the type of work he needed. The developing friendship between him and Anthony, he says, lent credibility to his cause.
“When you’re in a community, you have to find your lane,” Jacobs says. “You have to find your front door. I needed someone who not only had access but had respect. And because we shared a common background, he was someone I could talk to freely. We’d just walk the community. We had no issues out there, not because there aren’t people out there who aren’t about that life, but because when someone can see your heart and spirit and the work you’re providing their community, they’re going to protect you.”
Before opening night of the exhibition, Anthony had only been inside the Gantt once. He got a drink of water and left because, despite being a self-taught artist himself, “I didn’t believe an institution like that would welcome me.”
So on opening night, “I was kind of nervous,” Anthony says, indicating his tattoos with a chuckle. “I’m not the most presentable looking guy. Maybe here, but there? It was big for me, seeing myself that way. And my daughter enjoyed it, too; she recognized herself. We became a part of this history. My baby can come back 50 years from now and it’s going to be there. Brookhill. Alvin captured it. And it blew my mind.”
The opening of the Brookhill exhibition was a distinct event. More than 1,000 people RSVPed, Taylor says, and Brookhill neighbors organized church buses to facilitate participation.
For Anthony, the most important aspect of the exhibition is its connection to the future. “The fact is that wherever you go in Brookhill, there’s children. No matter what section you go to – the back section, half of these abandoned lots – you still have children. They’re innocent. And these children are playing freely with no cares in an all-Black neighborhood, the oldest Black neighborhood in Charlotte. And they’re safe to do so.”
Says Taylor: “We know the issues, so to get the resolution it’s going to take all of us working at it, and the conversation has to be inclusive. This is just the beginning.”
Ray McKinnon has been pastor of South Tryon Community United Methodist Church since 2016, which counts many Brookhill residents among its congregation.
“The exhibit did a good job of highlighting the people instead of the buildings of Brookhill, but it’s important that these sort of things be followed by advocacy,” says McKinnon, who is also a commissioner on the Charlotte Housing Authority. “Some powerful folks at Gantt need to use their capital to hear and help elevate what the residents are saying. Success for Brookhill is determined by the folks who live there. Time will tell if this is a real partnership [with the Gantt] or merely an exhibit. I’m hopeful it’s the former.”
McKinnon works closely with Debbie Williams, president of the Brookhill Community Association and executive director of the soon-to-open Brookhill Community Resource Center. Williams grew up in Brookhill from the early 1970s to 2000. She hopes the exhibition can attract attention and potential investors in the center, to sponsor events such as health screenings, free dental clinics, computer access and financial literacy.
“We can’t stop progress,” Williams says of the encroaching development surrounding her home, “but we’re trying to be a part of it. Include us.”
“The residents of Brookhill, they’re not asking ‘Come help us, come give us.’ No, they have voices that need to be heard,” says Jacobs, the photographer. “To be poor and disenfranchised and marginalized is the trifecta of all things bad in this country, due to no fault of their own. We want you to look in the mirror and see yourself as a part of the Brookhill community.”
‘Welcome to Brookhill’
On view at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, 551 S. Tryon St., through Sept. 1, 2019. Next up in the Gantt’s “Talk About It Tuesday” series is Nov. 13’s “Charlotte’s Affordable Housing Conversation: Where Do We Go From Here?” at 6:30 p.m. with panelists James Ford, an educational consultant and co-chair of the Opportunity Task Force; Greg Jarrell of QC Family Tree and co-chair of the Westside Community Land Trust; Taiwo Jaiyeoba, Charlotte director of planning, design and development; and Dionne Nelson, president/CEO of Laurel Street Residential. Free; currently on a waitlist.