Just east of uptown, wealth and want are next door neighbors.
The historically working-class Belmont neighborhood is home to families with incomes close to the federal poverty line for a family of four. On the east side of Hawthorne Lane, the typical family in gentrified Plaza Midwood brings in nearly six figures.
The two neighborhoods look similar: rows of bungalows pained in bright blue, yellow and burgundy.
Both Belmont and Plaza Midwood were first built around the turn of the 20th century but were intended for different income brackets right from the beginning.
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Together, the area represents one of the clearest illustrations of economic inequality in Charlotte – an issue city and Mecklenburg County leaders are moving with urgency to address.
Research released by the Urban Institute this month ranked Plaza Midwood in the top 10 percent nationally in socioeconomic status. Belmont was in the bottom 10 percent.
A number of other Charlotte neighborhoods appeared in the rankings, but this area was a rare example of where the top and bottom lie right next to each other.
The Blue Line light rail extension project and a renewed desire to live close to the center city are changing the dynamic. Economic inequality is visible even within Belmont itself. As the neighborhood shifts, longtime residents have mixed feelings about what’s happening to their community.
“It’s about 50-50,” said Ken Alexander, 37, as he stood outside the home he grew up in on Allen Street in Belmont. “We’ve got new neighbors, and a lot of them don’t talk. They’re not friendly.”
History of segregation
Both Belmont and Plaza Midwood were first built around the turn of the 20th century but were intended for different income brackets from the beginning.
Plaza Midwood, situated at the top of a hill, was envisioned as an upper-income suburb – competing with Myers Park, said Tom Hanchett, a Charlotte historian and author of “Sorting Out the New South City.”
Belmont began as a blue-collar textile mill village. It originally was a white working class area, Hanchett said. The area eventually shifted to a predominantly black neighborhood as the real estate industry steered lower income African-American families there from the center city, he said.
When the lights go out, it’s ‘I don’t know you, and you don’t know me.’
Ken Alexander, 37, who grew up in Belmont
Other factors shaped the two: In the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration encouraged investors to make home loans in Plaza Midwood but not in Belmont – a process known as redlining, Hanchett said. This disparity in homeownership rates remains today.
“Not only were the two neighborhoods built with different populations in mind, the way that money was made available to folks who wanted to buy their own homes was radically different,” Hanchett said.
Both neighborhoods went through a period of decline in the middle of the century as growth was centered on the outskirts of the city. And now they’ve both been buoyed by renewed interest in close-in neighborhoods.
Affluent families attracted to shorter commutes and walkable living have built new, larger homes in Plaza Midwood. Slowly, people like them are now taking a look at Belmont.
That has created a sometimes strained relationship between longtime residents of Belmont and the newcomers.
Alexander, who has lived in the neighborhood off and on his entire life, said he’s happy there’s less crime in the neighborhood.
For years, Belmont was “among the most downtrodden and violent in Charlotte,” according to a report from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. In the early 2000s, crime rates fell by nearly half. Both property and violent crime rates remain higher than the countywide average, according to the Charlotte Quality of Life survey.
People view us as coming in and potentially taking away their neighborhood.
Belmont Community Association President Vicki Jones
But Alexander points next door, where a family knocked down the small house on the lot and built a significantly larger home. Alexander said they mostly keep to themselves.
“When the lights go out, it’s ‘I don’t know you, and you don’t know me,’” he said, adding that he believes there is a racial divide.
As the newcomers moved in, an older neighborhood group disbanded. Meetings of the new Belmont Community Association are mostly white in a neighborhood still largely populated by black families. President Vicki Jones acknowledged the uneasiness and said she’s been working to combat it.
“I think it’s a trust issue,” said Jones, who is white and moved to Belmont in 2007. “People view us as coming in and potentially taking away their neighborhood.”
Starting in 2010, the association applied for grants to host community events that would bring people together. The response was uneven.
“We needed to be a bit more organic about it,” Jones said. She acknowledged that there are challenges on several fronts to that: race, economic status and age.
“We have not found that thing yet that works for us,” Jones said.
Being viewed as an “up-and-coming neighborhood,” she said, can be a bad thing for people at risk of being priced out of the area after living there for years.
Breaking down barriers
But Plaza Midwood and Belmont also present an opportunity. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, which is seeking to address economic inequality, is looking at how to build bridges between higher and lower income areas, said Brian Collier of the Foundation for the Carolinas.
In poorer neighborhoods, children often don’t have role models in professional careers that can give advice on things like getting an internship at a bank, Collier said. In the more affluent areas, there could be a lawyer or accountant on every street.
Belmont could be a natural place to try to bring the two together.
“One of the big things we’re looking at,” he said, “is how do we break down some of the barriers that exist between neighborhoods or ZIP codes that are literally next to each other?”