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‘Our homes have been stolen from us.’ Uptown redevelopment stirs debate on reparations

As part of a protest believed to be the first of its kind in Charlotte, prominent civil rights and religious leaders are demanding that former residents of a black neighborhood destroyed by the city in the 1960s and ’70s receive compensation for the homes and businesses they lost.

A coalition of groups led by the local NAACP, Rabbi Judy Schindler and Presbyterian clergy want displaced residents from the old Brooklyn neighborhood or their descendants to receive affordable housing, retail business space and other repayment from a developer who is buying land from Mecklenburg County.

The developer says he is open to ideas that would help people with ties to the neighborhood.

Organizers of the effort have posted demands on social media and invited former Brooklyn residents, politicians and others to a community forum Aug. 22 at Little Rock A.M.E., an uptown church that is among the most well-known African American congregations in Charlotte.

Local historians said it is the first time they could recall that leading figures in the city have effectively sought reparations to address past racial injustices and inequity.

The effort comes amid a national debate about reparations for slavery and other wrongs suffered by African Americans, with multiple candidates for president saying they support the idea.

In Charlotte, activists say former residents from Brooklyn and their descendants were robbed of property now worth tens of millions of dollars when the city tore down hundreds of homes, businesses and churches as part of “urban renewal,” a government program now widely seen as racist.

City leaders pledged to replace the housing they destroyed, but never did.

Three years ago, Mecklenburg commissioners voted to sell 17 acres in the southern part of uptown — the heart of where Brooklyn stood — to developers for $33.7 million.

Developers have promised to transform an area now occupied with bland government buildings into a vibrant commercial and residential district, with hotels, shopping, offices and more than 1,000 apartments.

Activists says former Brooklyn residents should be allowed to move into the new homes and retail space if they want to start businesses to provide “restorative justice.”

Some harshly criticized county commissioners for agreeing to sell land without taking steps to ensure former residents or their descendants were compensated after being stripped of the chance to build generational wealth.

“Our homes have been stolen from us,” said Corine Mack, president of the NAACP’s Charlotte chapter. “Our land has been stolen from us. We trusted in the decision makers and elected officials to do the right thing. That’s not what’s going on.”

Commissioner Vilma Leake said she is sympathetic to the protest cause, but said she’s bothered activists would come forward three years after the deal finished.

County officials listened to the public’s concerns, Leake said. No one raised the possibility of former Brooklyn residents being compensated for their loss, she said.

“There were many meetings across the community and some people showed up and some did not,” Leake said. “I am not sure we can go back in time.”

Commissioner Susan Harden, who has opposed the current Brooklyn redevelopment plan, said county officials cannot make changes to the land agreement. Harden said protesters will have to convince the developer to meet their wishes.

In 2016, county leaders picked BK Partners, led by famed New York developer Don Peebles, over two other finalists.

Commissioners voted last year to approve a master redevelopment agreement that lays out requirements of the deal.

Peebles, who has been widely lauded for philanthropy and championing racial equality, told the Observer on Tuesday he is open to activists’ concerns and would like to learn more. He said he has always planned for the “Brooklyn Village” redevelopment to provide business opportunities for African Americans, particularly people with ties to the old Brooklyn neighborhood.

“Most of it doesn’t sound unreasonable,” Peebles said. “That’s very consistent with what we would like to do.”

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A rendering of the proposed redevelopment at Brooklyn Village. Courtesy BK Partners.

A historical wrong

With approval from the federal government, Charlotte and other cities conducted a large-scale tear down of low-cost housing where African Americans lived in 1960s and 1970s.

They initially promoted the moves as a way to replace substandard housing, but most now acknowledge that it devolved into a strategy to move black people off valuable land near downtown business districts.

In Charlotte, that meant more than 1,400 homes, businesses, churches and other buildings were demolished in what was then the city’s largest African American neighborhood, which was called Brooklyn.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, Marshall Park and the vacant former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools headquarters building now occupy the land in the southern portion of uptown.

Mary Frances Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said agreements with developers to set aside affordable housing in areas where existing residents can no longer afford to stay is a common practice to in major cities like New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

What is “novel,” Berry said, is the Brooklyn advocacy group’s recommendation to ensure former residents of the neighborhood or their descendants have a place in whatever is built.

Housing policies that harmed African Americans like redlining, segregation and urban renewal, have lasting effects and contribute to the gap between black and white household wealth, said Berry, author of several books on civil rights topics including reparations.

Reparations, she said, are “about identifying the particular human beings who were harmed by something, in order to not have the perpetuation of discrimination and the harm go down the generations over time.”

Willie Griffin, a staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, said the Brooklyn neighborhood suffered poverty and crime, but also had hundreds of businesses and “a full spectrum of black life.”

Impacts from the demolition of Brooklyn can still be seen today, given Charlotte’s segregated neighborhoods and economic disparities, Griffin said.

A Harvard and UC-Berkeley study found poor children in Charlotte are less likely to escape poverty than their peers in America’s 50 largest cities, putting Charlotte dead last in economic mobility.

“We realize that the civil rights era was much more than blacks dealing with just integration and voting rights,” Griffin said. “It was about economic justice.”

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A plan to redevelop the former Brooklyn section of uptown Charlotte would shrink the size of little used Marshall Park. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

What does justice look like?

Some Mecklenburg commissioners said BK Partners was selected to redevelop the new Brooklyn Village, at least in part, because the organization is led by Peebles, one of the richest and most prominent African American business people in the country.

Peebles promised the county that 35% of the construction, engineering, other professional services or other work would to go to minority- and women-owned firms, far ahead of the numbers offered by other developers who competed for the project, officials said.

He has said that he views the $700 million project as a chance to level the playing field and help African Americans profit from Charlotte’s building boom.

But activists are critical of the redevelopment plan.

Estimates show Charlotte needs tens of thousand of affordable housing units to meet demand, mostly among people making $25,000 a year or less.

Under the current plan, BK Partners would include 114 affordable units out of roughly 1,200, or about 10%.

In the early 2000s, Charlotte and Mecklenburg County officials drafted a vision plan for redeveloping the area. The plan called for 55% of new housing to be affordable units.

Civil rights and religious leaders are now asking developers to make 20% of the new homes affordable and to give people with ties to the old Brooklyn neighborhood priority to rent them.

They are also calling for 20% of the retail space to be designated for African American owned businesses.

“We want an acknowledgment of wrongdoing,” Rabbi Schindler said. “What did we do wrong as a city? Calling a $700 million development Brooklyn Village with only 10% affordable housing in it? That’s not restorative justice for the injustice that happened.”

Pebbles said he is already planning to help African Americans launch businesses at the site, including efforts to help aspiring business owners obtain financing.

He said he would consider opening a charter school designed help close the wealth gap. His company help build and finance an elementary school in Miami, Peebles said.

A hard sell?

Four newly elected commissioners, who were not on the board when the Brooklyn redevelopment agreement was struck, have questioned the deal and said they would renegotiate it if they could.

They said they are upset the plan reduces park land uptown and will likely feature upscale housing instead of more affordable units.

Other commissioners have defended the redevelopment plans, saying that former Brooklyn residents will have their legacy honored.

They have said that Peebles offered the most residential units, including affordable housing, office space and retail. Unlike the other plans, the developer’s plan did not require public money to complete.

Commissioner Trevor Fuller said Peebles has been responsive in the past to community concerns.

Fuller said he’s open to hearing concern from activists, but is confused why the issue has surfaced now.

“We have got a responsive developer, but we do understand that he is running a business,” Fuller said. “It is not a charity. I’m not sure the agreement should change.”

Rev. Willie Keaton Jr., justice organizer for the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice and the pastor of Mount Olive Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, said he didn’t live in Charlotte when commissioners approved the redevelopment agreement in 2016.

Keaton said two months ago he met with a public official who suggested he look into what happened to the Brooklyn neighborhood.

He said he was also moved when he learned one of his congregants attended high school in the Brooklyn.

Keaton started doing research and talking to others who were concerned. All agreed something needed to be done, he said.

“The more you look at it, the more troubling it is,” said Keaton, who moved to Charlotte a year ago. “When you look at the whole picture, the premise (for demolishing Brooklyn) was very immoral and unethical.”

Commissioner Harden acknowledged that restorative justice is a tough sell politically. However, Harden said public dialogue about past discrimination is necessary for the county to overcome racial and economic inequality that persists.

“If we really are serious about addressing economic mobility, we have to acknowledge that our community did things that really disadvantaged the economic mobility of certain groups of people,” Harden said. “There are a lot of places where we could try restorative justice strategies.”

This work was made possible in part by grant funding from Report for America/GroundTruth Project and the Foundation For The Carolinas.

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