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‘More than a piece of land’: Former Brooklyn residents call for ‘restorative justice’

Inside the sanctuary of Little Rock AME Zion they spoke of lost community, trauma of displacement and hope for the future of Charlotte’s former Brooklyn neighborhood.

More than 100 gathered Thursday evening to hear former Brooklyn residents and community leaders explain why they are challenging Mecklenburg County to reconsider its master redevelopment plan for the site of the historically black neighborhood razed by city leaders in the 1960s under the federal government’s urban renewal program.

“I came along in a community where we were the most important thing. Everybody was invested in our success,” said former resident Cynthia Reel. “Brooklyn was more than the so-called ‘slums.’ It was more than a piece of land. It was the spirit.”

A dozen churches, more than 1,000 households, and businesses in the city’s black commercial center were eliminated. With them went what former residents describe as a close-knit community and sense of home. City leaders at the time never provided promised housing for displaced residents.

A county contract signed last year with developer BK Partners calls for a $683 million plan for shops, restaurants, offices, hotels and residential units in the area.

Civil rights and religious leaders convened by the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice told the audience they want more affordable housing, a guarantee that former residents and their families have a place in the future development.

When opening the meeting, Rev. Willie Keaton Jr., a justice organizer for the Greenspon Center and the pastor of Mount Olive Presbyterian Church, asked attendees to consider the effects of generational wealth and sense of community when neighborhoods like Brooklyn are demolished.

“How do you address the historical injustices that took place at that time?” he asked the audience.

Speakers also emphasized the ongoing trauma the disruption provoked.

“The theft of displacement, the trauma of black communities is all part of the spirit of hate that comes out of the idea that a certain group — in this case well-to-do-whites — are privileged and have a right that a black person does not have,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP President Corine Mack said of urban renewal.

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Cynthia Boyd Reel told several stories about her early childhood growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood. More than 100 people attended a forum about an approved Brooklyn village living and retail complex on the site of the historically African American Brooklyn neighborhood. The discussion ranged from stories about living in Brooklyn to possible reparations to former residents and their descendants on Thursday, August 22, 2019. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

A 2002 master plan for Second Ward had a significantly larger share of affordable housing than the current contract, which calls for only 10% of units to be affordable.

Those pushing to change the contract want at least 20% of the units to be affordable.

New York developer Don Peebles previously told the Observer he was open to activists’ concerns, saying most of their proposal “doesn’t sound unreasonable” and was “very consistent with what we would like to do.”

Peebles, who is African American, is a developer and shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame, several speakers said, rather calling for a conversation with him.

Mel Watt, the former North Carolina congressman and head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, said he was committed to being a “constructive force” in those discussions.

Reel lamented that her children and grandchildren can’t experience a similar childhood in Brooklyn, recalling sneaking into the Savoy theater or watching the Queen City Classic football game between Second Ward and West Charlotte high schools.

“It is that experience that colors everything I do and everything I am,” she said of growing up on East 3rd Street. She was 9 when her family was told to leave.

Several community organizations and congregations, including Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice, Carolina Jews for Justice, YWCA Central Carolinas, OneMECK and Myers Park Baptist Church, offered resolutions or statements in support of the restorative justice efforts in Brooklyn.

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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Lauren Lindstrom is a reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering affordable housing. She previously covered health for The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, where she wrote about the state’s opioid crisis and childhood lead poisoning. Lauren is a Wisconsin native, a Northwestern University graduate and a 2019 Report for America corps member.
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