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Charlotte before South End

South End is becoming one of those places you must visit when you're in Charlotte.

It has design-oriented businesses, antique stores, restaurants, apartments, condos and light-rail transit stops.

But newcomers don't realize that most of this has emerged in just over a decade.

When revitalization of the industrial area's old mills and warehouses began in the early 1990s, that stretch of the west side was known by the cumbersome and anything-but-enticing name of “the South Boulevard Corridor.”

The Dilworth South End Rotary Club, familiar with my west Charlotte heritage, asked me recently to tell them what this area and the neighborhoods around it were like B.S. – Before South End.

After the speech, it occurred to me that newcomers might be interested, too, in how revitalization of South End became a Next Big Thing while my old neighborhood, Wilmore, slipped into blight.

I'm reprinting parts of my speech and recent blogs sharing my recollections.

Part 1

When I was growing up in Wilmore back in the 1950s and 1960s, we viewed South Boulevard as sort of a no man's land of aging industrial and commercial buildings between Tremont Avenue and Remount Road.

The Nebel Knitting Mill and the Package Products plant off Camden Road were still operating.

On summer evenings my Grandpa and I would walk to Clark Griffith Park from our house on West Boulevard to watch the original Charlotte Hornets play baseball at the park off Magnolia Avenue, where MECA Properties' Olmsted Park is today.

We'd take a shortcut past the mill, where we were usually greeted by workers – my grandpa knew most of their names – as they leaned against the building on their smoke breaks.

What I remember most is the noise from the mill's machinery. It was so loud we couldn't hear each other talk until we got to Tremont Avenue.

The Historic South End name didn't arrive until 1994 when Tony Pressley of MECA Properties and Mary Hopper of the Dilworth Community Development Association announced from the Atherton Mill that they would urge city leaders and businesses in the area to adopt it.

A new name was needed, they said, to distinguish the re-emerging commercial district along South Boulevard from the residential character of Dilworth.

We all see what's happening in South End today as the light-rail line generates intense investment and new commercial and residential development.

In a few years South End will look as different to our descendants as it does today to those of us who remember the west side before South End.

Part 2

I became a westsider in 1953 when we bought our house on West Boulevard beside what was then Wilmore Elementary School.

My father moved us there for two reasons: To escape the blight and crime spreading to our neighborhood on the edge of Elizabeth and to get closer to my dad's employer on South Boulevard.

I had mixed emotions. Living next door to a school killed any chance of my ever cutting class. And anytime I was out sick, I could count on the teacher to drop off my homework assignment at the front door. Yeah, I appreciated that s-o-o-o much.

On the bright side, I could sleep late and still make it to school before the final bell stopped ringing.

My grandparents lived with us, and my grandfather worked at the furniture factory with my dad.

He enjoyed walking to work, and the new home put him within a few blocks of his job. Grandpa was the first one out of the house in the morning, even on cold winter days.

I'd hear the steps creak as he tiptoed downstairs and headed out in his fedora hat and World War I overcoat.

For years after he died, I would drive along West Boulevard and experience visions of him ambling up the street toward the furniture factory on South Boulevard.

Rummaging through some of my family's old records recently, I found the original classified ad for the two-story, 10-room house we lived in for more than 30 years. Asking price: $5,500.

Imagine that. Now, South End's growth is spreading into Wilmore, and the little bungalows that housed my neighborhood friends are selling for $400,000 or more.

But home prices aren't the only thing that changed in west Charlotte. West Boulevard was the main artery to Douglas Municipal Airport – no international flights back then. It was a two-lane street, lined with flowering crape myrtle trees.

The biggest issue we had: School teachers complained that our crape myrtles were so big they couldn't see to pull their cars out of the Wilmore School driveway. So, just about every spring and summer weekend, you'd see me in the planting strip with the hedge clippers.

I remember the day in the 1950s when President Eisenhower's motorcade whizzed past my house from the airport. I shouted “I like Ike!” at him from my front yard.

He smiled and waved from his convertible.

That experience earned me of a week's worth of bragging rights at school. “Ike drove past my house and waved at me,” I'd tell anyone who would listen.

Part 3

In old Wilmore families knew each other and could call all the neighborhood kids by their first names.

We congregated after school hours and on weekends on the Wilmore School playground or in a grove of trees we called “the woods” near Calvary United Methodist Church on West Boulevard.

Parents kept a close eye on us, but occasionally we'd push the envelope – like the day a friend's mother spied on us from her kitchen window as we sampled a pack of cigarettes in the woods.

A telephone alert went out to all our moms. When I got home, my mother was waiting, hickory switch in hand. I didn't even have time to fabricate a cover story.

Actually, we avoided trouble most of the time, playing football, baseball and army. Magnolia seed pods made great hand grenades. Just lob one into a foxhole and yell, “Take cover!”

Wilmore had a reputation of being so friendly, affordable and family-oriented that many of our neighbors passed over Dilworth to live there.

I remember house hunting with my dad along Park Avenue. Many of the large homes off South Boulevard had been sliced up into boarding houses.

That hinted of the blight occurring in the neighborhood we were leaving, and my dad pronounced then and there: “My family will never live in Dilworth.”

A big outing for us back in the 1950s was walking east from Wilmore to the Dilworth shopping district along South Boulevard between East Boulevard and Park Avenue.

It's now part of South End, but back then it was simply “Dilworth.”

There was the Dilworth Theatre, two grocery stores – a Big Star and an A&P – two dime stores, a drugstore, a hot dog stand, a barbershop, a shoe shop, a furniture store and a jewelry store.

Some of the facades are now preserved in the Park Avenue Building.

There wasn't much need to venture any farther than Dilworth for shopping and services.

As we grew older and left Wilmore Elementary for junior high school, we stayed on foot, walking to the old Alexander Graham Junior High, located on East Morehead Street where the Dowd YMCA is now.

We passed the old Lance snack food plant (now the Factory South condos) and sniffed the sweet aroma of cookies baking.

The walk was always adventurous. We'd meander through the neighborhood, following the railroad tracks that parallel South Boulevard, picking up vagrants' empty wine bottles to shatter on the rails along the way.

On the way home from A.G., we'd guzzle a couple of cherry Cokes at Niven Drugs on Park Avenue at South Boulevard.

After 20 minutes of socializing with our junior high friends, we'd take shortcut through the Camden Avenue back lot of Dilworth Poultry Co., now known as Price's Chicken Coop.

Chicken feathers floated on the breeze. And live hens waited in shipping crates to receive a last meal from us before making the ultimate sacrifice for our Sunday dinner.

We'd usually save a few Lance crackers or peanuts from the soda fountain to make sure they didn't die on an empty stomach. Why that mattered to us, I don't know.

Part 4

As my friends and I hit our teens, our parents allowed us to roam out a little farther from our homes in Wilmore.

We'd walk west to Abbott Park – that's where the Interstate 77/West Boulevard freeway ramp is now – play a pick-up game of football or baseball in the spring or fall and take swimming lessons at the adjoining Revolution Park pool in the summer.

And on weekends, there was the big trip downtown. My pals and I would beg 25 cents off our parents for bus fare and a movie at one of the four theaters there.

Then we'd pocket the 10 cents for bus fare and walk about 1 1/2 miles to town, checking out vacant lots and sporting goods stores along the way.

The Observer painted the names of reporters and editors on reserved parking spaces outside its South Tryon Street building.

We'd always stop and stand on longtime Observer columnist Kays Gary's spot. Why, I don't know.

Perhaps it was because before the days of TV anchordom, he was the best known personality we had in Charlotte.

In those days, downtown was the meeting place that the shopping malls and urban villages have become today.

We'd rendezvous with our sweethearts at The Square, treat them to steamed hot dogs at the S.H. Kress department store and take in a movie at the Carolina or Imperial theaters.

Those were our favorites – because they had balconies where couples smooched and held hands. So if you suggested to your date, “Let's sit in the balcony” and she agreed, you knew you were going to enjoy the movie.

Looking back on it, life on the west side in the 1950s was almost storybook. Unlocked doors. No serious crime to speak of. Very little traffic.

Wilmore and the Dilworth business hub had jobs, shopping, services, entertainment and a sense of unity. And everything was within walking distance.

As far as I can tell, the neighborhood was a perfect example of the model visionaries now tout as the “city of tomorrow.”

Part 5

In Wilmore, we had the neotraditional city concept of compactness and walkability firmly within our grasp more than 50 years ago.

But Wilmore past is a far cry from Wilmore present, where urban pioneers now are spearheading a neighborhood revival much like what occurred earlier in Dilworth.

One of the lingering questions: What caused the decline of Wilmore?

The first big blow, I think, was West Boulevard widening. As Douglas Municipal Airport grew in the 1950s, the road was expanded to four lanes to handle traffic.

No longer could we turn left out of our driveway during peak hours. The city also designated West Boulevard a truck route.

The roar of the tractor-trailers made it almost impossible to leave the front windows open anymore.

Most of the flowering shrubs vanished from the planting strip between the sidewalk and the street. And traffic got progressively worse during the '60s and '70s.

Our neighbors began moving to the suburbs, escaping the congestion and, in some cases, following their jobs to outlying office and industrial parks.

Then, another big hit: Interstate 77 sliced through the neighborhood, separating Wilmore from Westerly Hills at Spruce Street, eroding neighborhood solidarity and obliterating Abbott Park, the practice field of my Wilmore Redskins Pop Warner football team.

As the need for public housing increased, elected officials began to assign an extraordinary number of units to the west side, where the political repercussions were far less than building in southeast Charlotte.

It continued that way until the early 1980s, when a new district council adopted a scattered-site policy to disperse public housing.

By that time, the west side was in a tailspin. People displaced by razed low-income housing in other parts of the city filled up the west side's public housing.

Household income averages plummeted. Public assistance rolls increased. Lawbreakers took advantage of the situation. Crime rates rose.

To this worsening situation, add the profiteers – the so-called “blockbusters” – real estate sales people who preyed on people's racial integration fears.

I recall them knocking on our door, telling my dad it would be his last chance to sell and recoup any of his investment because the neighborhood was changing so rapidly.

My dad treated them all the same: he'd yank them up by the seat of their pants and escort them to the sidewalk.

Many of the neighborhood's oldest and most respected families did flee, leaving the housing market open to slum lords who converted well-kept homes to rental properties.

The shift of jobs, houses and shopping to the suburbs contributed, but I believe many of the problems the west side is fighting today date back to government policy decisions made in the '60s and '70s.

That brings us to the future. South End's success is spilling over into Wilmore and the light-rail transit line is making both sides of South Boulevard appealing to homeowners.

There is safety in numbers. The more dense development becomes in South End, the more positive the outlook for surrounding neighborhoods.

Rising energy costs and growing commutes are causing home owners to look inward again, putting a premium on living close to the urban core.

Developers say the west side still has plenty of sites for infill projects as well as some of the city's most affordable land prices.

A lot of people are pulling for west side neighborhoods to follow in South End's successful revitalization tracks. I'm among them.

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