White people in Biddleville: The story of a changing neighborhood

Wayne McLurkin remembers the moment, maybe seven years ago, that he realized white people were moving into Biddleville. He was installing a storm door, looked over his shoulder and saw a white woman running down the street.

For an instant, he wondered: Who's chasing that woman?

Turns out she was jogging.

McLurkin is African-American, age 62, old enough that he once got in trouble at Ivey’s department store because he decided to see what water in the white drinking fountain tasted like. A lawyer, he splits his time between Washington D.C. and Charlotte, but plans to settle in a few years in the red brick house where he grew up, in Biddleville, just northwest of uptown.

That a white jogger surprised McLurkin is understandable. In 2000, 96 percent of Biddleville’s population was black.

Today, whites make up about a quarter of residents, and to walk the streets is to see a neighborhood transforming. There are freshly poured concrete footings, Dumpsters filled with renovation debris, new Craftsman-style homes rising against the sky.

One day, perhaps, local historians will look on these years as a turning point – a new re-arranging of Charlotte. Just beyond the center city – in Cherry, Belmont, Wesley Heights, Seversville, Smallwood, Biddleville – whites are buying in communities that have been predominantly black for decades, or, in the case of Biddleville, since its first houses were built in the late 1800s. Never before have so many white people clamored to move into black neighborhoods.

The benefits of this trend: new investment, revived communities, diversity that could integrate schools.

But in these particular neighborhoods, the sight of white people building half-million dollar houses evokes a controversial legacy – the urban renewal that followed Jim Crow segregation in Charlotte and displaced several thousand African-Americans, some of whom settled in the communities white newcomers are now discovering

No African-American neighborhood in Charlotte is more significant than Biddleville. It is the city’s oldest black neighborhood and home to Johnson C. Smith University, founded after the Civil War to educate African-Americans newly freed from slavery, about 40 percent of Charlotte’s population. Built on a hill off Beatties Ford Road, the campus offered a powerful symbol of the new world rising from the Civil War’s destruction.

The neighborhood’s name derives from the school’s previous name, Biddle Memorial Institute, which honors U.S. Army Maj. Henry Biddle – a Yankee – who died fighting the Confederacy.

The university’s historic importance extends to its role as epicenter of Charlotte’s civil rights movement. Biddleville remains home to people who lived through segregation and who made history when they fought to end it.

Click on the neighborhood to see its racial mix.

Biddleville’s residents have mostly welcomed new neighbors and new investment. McLurkin is happy that crack houses are gone. But he and others also worry that the neighborhood could lose its history as a black community, that rising taxes could force people out.

Historically, Charlotte has proved adept at reinvention, equally adept at burying its past. Even if you’ve lived in Charlotte for years, you may never have heard of Brooklyn, which occupied the southern part of uptown Charlotte. With a thriving business district, it was the heart of the African-American community. In the 1960s, the city bulldozed Brooklyn in the name of urban renewal.

[Read how urban renewal destroyed Brooklyn.]

More recently, the Cherry neighborhood was a close-knit working-class African-American community that included churches and a park. Located next to Myers Park, it has gentrified quickly, changing to a majority-white community where $600,000-plus houses have replaced modest homes.

In Biddleville, neighbors want a different narrative – history remembered, diversity preserved and an assurance that longtime homeowners aren’t squeezed out by soaring property taxes.

It may prove impossible, but that’s the hope of both elders and newcomers who have reinvigorated the Biddleville/Smallwood Neighborhood Association. Recent arrivals chose the area for its close-in location and relative affordability, but many specifically sought a neighborhood that included people different from them, both economically and racially.

That was true for Elliott Hipp and his wife, Nell Scudder, who arrived in 2014. She’s a teacher, he’s a Presbyterian minister. And for him, living in Biddleville has been like coming full circle.

In 1973, Hipp took part in the most radical experiment to fix racial inequality that Charlotte has ever attempted. He enrolled at West Charlotte High, where he was in the first class of students from the Myers Park neighborhood who were bused, by federal court order, to integrate the historically black school.

Those years, he says, were a rare gift for a white teenager from a wealthy white neighborhood. As he attended football games and learned school cheers, he became part of a culture not his own. The experience has helped shape his thinking about Biddleville. “It was our jobs as the whites coming in, for once in our lives, to adopt the culture instead of the other way around,” he says. “That, to me, is the key to making this neighborhood work.”

A history shaped by segregation

Even today, Charlotte’s predominantly black northwest corridor remains foreign territory for many white people, an unfamiliar wedge on the city map.

Ashley Curtis, who is white and moved in 2008 into a renovated bungalow in Smallwood, still gets blank looks when she tells people where she lives. Smallwood is next to Biddleville, so she usually asks if they know where Johnson C. Smith University is. “It’s a 50-50 shot,” she says.

Biddleville grew up along Beatties Ford Road as the community for college staff and faculty. It became a mix of incomes, home to African-American working class and professionals. Martin Street is named for a Latin professor, Mattoon Street for the school’s first president, who was white. On West Trade Street, which marks the boundary between the Biddleville and Smallwood neighborhoods, there’s a subtle reminder of segregation: The Smallwood houses, built for whites after World War II, face away from the street, their backs to Biddleville.

Originally, several nearby neighborhoods, including Seversville and Wesley Heights, were white. Then African-Americans began moving in after losing homes to urban renewal in the 1960s. White flight ensued. In 1965, the Observer wrote about real estate agents flooding the area, warning white residents that “colored people are taking over.”

In 1961, the city had begun tearing down 1,480 structures in Brooklyn, also known as Second Ward. Brooklyn occupied the southern part of downtown, an area that now includes the Mecklenburg Aquatics Center and Marshall Park. This wasn’t Charlotte’s only urban renewal project, but it was the largest, displacing 1,007 Brooklyn families, destroying connections between neighbors, scattering the businesses and institutions that had anchored their lives.

The city built no new housing for these Brooklyn refugees, which is why the Beatties Ford Road corridor became what former Mayor Harvey Gantt has described as “the catchment area for people displaced by urban renewal.” It’s why Smallwood went from 90 percent white in 1960 to 90 percent black in 1980.

‘Such a loving place to be’

Longtime residents know this history because they lived it.

Attorney Charles Jones, for instance, has lived on West Trade most of his life. As a child, he didn’t venture onto the Smallwood side of the street. “We could not communicate with the kids across the street, who were all white, because no telling what would happen to us.”

When he was a Johnson C. Smith student, he led classmates during 1960 sit-ins that integrated Charlotte’s segregated lunch counters. He became a civil rights activist, spent time in jail with Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, the gray-haired lawyer, 78, makes sure to greet neighbors and introduce himself to newcomers. He calls Biddleville “the beloved community,” a phrase King popularized to describe a world where all live in harmony. Jones has a habit of breaking into song mid-sentence, and that’s what he does as he describes Biddleville – a neighborhood of “white folk, black folk, Jews, Gentiles, gay and straight, people who live in harmony and get together. We don’t judge, don’t you know.”

He returns to his speaking voice. “I’m a perpetual optimist,” he says.

Biddleville is also home to Dorothy Counts-Scoggins, better known as Dorothy Counts, the 15-year-old girl who integrated Harding High in 1957 and became the protagonist in Charlotte’s most famous civil rights story.

That day, she climbed the steps, head held high, as white students taunted and spat on her. Photos of the scene made international news. Dorothy Counts was treated so badly that her parents withdrew her after four school days.

[Read Tommy Tomlinson’s story on the photo of Dorothy Counts that went around the world.]

Today, Counts-Scoggins, 73, serves on a half-dozen community boards and is a self-described history buff. At a Biddleville/Smallwood Neighborhood Association meeting last year, she and other residents shared the neighborhood’s history with some 50 residents, white and black, young and old.

She didn’t mention her own story that evening. Instead, she recalled landmarks of her childhood – grocery and drug stores, a soda shop, cleaners, and the Grand Theater, one of the few movie houses where black people weren’t relegated to the balcony.

Old-timers in the audience nodded at her memories, recalled names of store owners. One woman piped up: “It was such a loving place to be.” Several people said they’re hoping for more retail again, especially a good grocery store.

Counts-Scoggins’ hope is that new people can help resurrect the neighborhood of her youth – mixed-income, cohesive, alive with retail. And this time, integrated. “I would like to think,” she says, “this could be an example to other communities.”

Down, then up and coming

In recent decades, Biddleville fell on hard times. Like inner-city neighborhoods across the country, the community was battered by crime that began rising in the 1970s as jobs migrated to the suburbs. It became worse in the 1980s and ’90s as cocaine and crack hit.

When McLurkin came home to visit family in those days, he’d run into old neighborhood friends with substance abuse problems – “women who used to be pretty, guys who are alcoholics,” people confined to wheelchairs because they’d been shot. He felt relief that he’d left.

But a core group of neighbors kept fighting for their home, working with police. Over the next 20 years, violent crime dropped dramatically, nationally and locally, enough so that in 2007, The Today Show’s real estate guru included Biddleville in a roundup of “up and coming” neighborhoods.

About that time, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Lt. Spencer Cochran, who served the area, began getting calls from out-of-state investors. All asked the same thing: What do you know about Biddleville?

By then, Michael Doney was already buying properties.

The two Michaels

Doney had moved to Charlotte out of college to take a job at IBM. In 2001, he bought a fixer-upper bungalow in Wesley Heights. It was a big change from the white Pennsylvania neighborhood where he’d grown up. While his friends were helping him move in, one had his car stolen. He regularly heard gunshots. But as he got to know neighbors, Doney became attached to the area.

He starting talking up Wesley Heights and helping friends find homes. Before long, he’d launched a new real estate career. Doney, now 38, says he could write a book about his experiences as an inner-city agent. If he did, it would include encounters with addicts, prostitutes and naked people. It would explain the wisdom of calling out “Realtor” before entering a property presumed to be vacant.

When Doney got to know Biddleville in the early 2000s, there was nothing attractive about it, he says, except for “a great group of older neighbors.” But it was just five minutes from uptown Charlotte. He saw opportunity.

The city was demolishing many blighted houses, opening up lots. Investors were buying and holding properties, hoping the value would grow. No one had begun building or renovating.

By 2007, Doney and Michael Hopkins, his business partner and life partner, had committed to the area. They built a 2,800-square-foot house with a spacious front porch on West Trade Street. Doney and a few other brokers opened 5 Points Realty on nearby Beatties Ford Road.

Doney became a fixture at neighborhood-related meetings and partnered with Hopkins’ construction company to build houses. The two Michaels, as neighbors call them, used the Arts & Crafts and farmhouse styles reminiscent of some original houses. They gained a reputation as developers who cared about the community.

A clash of cultures

For all our talk about America as melting pot, this nation has employed many means to separate some citizens from others. Southern Jim Crow laws excluded blacks from white institutions. For a chunk of the 20th century, the Federal Housing Administration promoted class- and race-based segregation by discouraging loans in mixed-race and mixed-income neighborhoods. Even after race discrimination was outlawed, zoning laws and neighborhood covenants perpetuated homogeneity. Low-income people in one neighborhood, high-income in another – that’s been the American way.

In Biddleville, thanks to new market forces and changing attitudes about race, lower and higher income now co-exist. Remnants from difficult years remain – vacant properties, boarded up and UNSAFE, according to a sign on one porch pillar. Men hanging out near the Westside C Deli on Beatties Ford Road still ask for spare change. But there are also mothers pushing nice strollers, dogs and their owners taking early-morning walks, plentiful signs of prosperity.

At first, this coexistence was rocky.

One source of resentment: investors who scooped up cheap properties, then flipped for hefty profits. Class differences also created “a clash of cultures,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Lt. Cochran says. “We got people doing really well, and just a few doors down, people trying to keep the lights on and the water on.”

People still remember when tensions erupted at a neighborhood meeting around 2009 following a spate of vandalism. Vandals had spray-painted the outside of a new home. They’d thrown a cinder block through the window of an unfinished house, then sprayed graffiti inside.

Discussion turned into an argument. Tempers rose, and an older black resident suggested, in so many words, that his white neighbor might prefer a less diverse, safer community.

Go back to Ballantyne, he said.

Today, residents say they’ve learned to work together, that early friction is mostly gone. Leaders publicize neighborhood events so everyone feels welcomed. Updated neighborhood association bylaws require diversity on the board. Meetings are well attended. Biddleville has coalesced into a caring community.

And yet unease persists. At the meeting where Counts-Scoggins recounted neighborhood history, an older neighbor lamented to her that Biddleville won’t be a black community anymore. When I met a longtime African-American resident on the street recently and asked what he thought of the neighborhood’s changes, his response was stony silence.

Nell Scudder, Elliott Hipp’s wife, was taking a walk last year when she saw a neighbor who was having his house painted. Looking nice, she called.

Got to keep it up, the man replied, or I’ll be kicked out.

He may have been joking, but the remark troubled her. “We don’t want to be the white people coming in, pushing black people out,” she says.

Want to sell your home?

During the recession, you could buy a distressed Biddleville property for less than $20,000. Today, there are new homes selling for more than $400,000 with amenities you’d find in pricier Myers Park and Ballantyne – outdoor fireplaces, detached garages, Craftsman-style facades. In 2004, one West 5th Street lot with a skyline view sold for $10,000. Last year, the same lot went for $185,000.

On Mattoon Street, meanwhile, property values of modest 1960s-era brick homes hover around $70,000 or $80,000. At Nolie Steele’s house, letters arrive in the mail and prospective buyers knock at the door. Interested in selling? they ask.

Steele is 61 and lives with her 87-year-old mother. Her father died in 2009, the same year she was laid off from a banking job. Her mother gets a property tax reduction as a low-income senior, but Steele still worries about rising taxes.

Mecklenburg County’s residential property values went up an average of 11 percent after the most recent revaluation in 2011. In Biddleville, they rose 34 percent. And the value of the Steeles’ house? It jumped 46 percent, from $55,600 to $81,000.

Steele figures property values on her street will jump again after the county’s 2018 property revaluation. She suspects some neighbors will lose out. “They’re saying they don’t want to hurt the people who’ve been here a long time,” she says. “But they know that’s what’s going to happen.”

Nearby, on Crestway Circle, a duplex apartment rents for $700 a month, a bargain when the city average is $1,000. Cleveland Billups lives there with his wife and three kids. He has noticed people driving by, taking pictures.

Home ownership typically increases in revitalizing areas, which is great for a neighborhood, not so good if you need a cheap rental. From 2013 to 2015, the area lost 18 percent of its rental houses – 91 of 499 units, according to local data. Some were probably vacant when they were sold, demolished or renovated. But some likely had renters who were forced to move.

J’Tanya Adams is president of Historic West End Partners, a nonprofit that promotes the West Trade Street/Beatties Ford Road corridor. She lives in Seversville, where she watches new development with both hope and trepidation. “When a person comes to you and says I'm interested in helping you out by buying some of the drug houses, you're elated,” she says. But then momentum builds, and “people start to exploit the vulnerable,” she says. She worries investors may be using high-pressure tactics to convince seniors to sell.

She also worries that the city’s new urban-living love affair is forcing the working poor to pay more or move farther out, where it’s harder to get services like mass transit. “I tell you,” she says, “capitalism can be a beast.”

Some city leaders worry, too. Charlotte City Council member Patsy Kinsey, whose district includes the booming Cherry area, says Charlotte’s not doing enough to save older neighborhoods. Cherry, in particular, “is just not changing in the best way.”

But managing gentrification is best done before a neighborhood gets popular, experts say, often with a city or nonprofit buying properties to preserve affordable housing before investors drive up prices. In many close-in Charlotte neighborhoods, investors have been buying for more than a decade.

Charlotte is trying to mitigate gentrification, says Pamela Wideman, deputy director of the city’s Neighborhood & Business Services Department. It has sold property to a developer for affordable housing in Cherry. It’s exploring ways to do more housing rehabs for low- to moderate-income homeowners and to possibly sell city-owned land for affordable homes in newly popular neighborhoods. But in some areas, leaders admit, it may be too late.

In Biddleville, momentum is building. The city has issued 27 building permits for new houses in the area in the last three years and dozens of renovation permits – enough since 2011 to renovate nearly 15 percent of the neighborhood’s roughly 930 residences.

At the request of northwest corridor community leaders, Charlotte Center City Partners recently launched a Historic West End initiative that aims to coordinate revitalization by supporting and recruiting businesses, attracting private investment, supporting community events and creating public awareness campaigns.

In the fall, construction starts on the West Trade/Beatties Ford Road segment of the Gold Line streetcar. And if anyone needs more proof that Charlotte’s long-ignored northwest corridor is getting hot, there’s the Savona Mill in Seversville, a soon-to-be mixed-use development. Its first tenant, Blue Blaze Brewery, will be the West End’s first brewery.

Toward a beloved community

On a chilly January evening, neighbors slide into pews at Smallwood Presbyterian Church, where Elliott Hipp leads his first meeting as president of the Biddleville/Smallwood Neighborhood Association. About 40 people fill the room.

Dorothy Counts-Scoggins is among them. So are Michael Doney and Nolie Steele. So is James Turner, a retired assistant principal who led the neighborhood association until cancer forced him to step down in 2014. During his treatment, neighbors brought meals. “These young people have been very nice to me,” he said recently.

The board’s vice president is Justin Harlow, a dentist, one of several African-American professionals who are recent arrivals. He and his wife, a lawyer, are expecting their first child and already thinking about school, specifically their high-poverty neighborhood school, Bruns Academy, and what could be done to improve it.

Since Hipp and Nell Scudder moved to Biddleville, they’ve been active, attending the neighborhood’s fall chili cook-off and spring picnic, helping organize donations to Bruns Academy students. Scudder has begun going to Smallwood Presbyterian Church. Last fall, Hipp joined neighbors on the lawn of Doney’s office to watch the JCSU homecoming parade march down Beatties Ford Road. Doney provided drinks and food. Charles Jones danced to the marching bands.

January’s neighborhood meeting includes a visit from a housing code enforcement representative who explains the city’s role in cleaning up blight. It also includes a Johnson C. Smith administrator who presents plans to turn a derelict church into a school of social work.

Historic West End Director Alysia Osborne is there, too, to describe the Charlotte City Center Partners’ role in the area – helping revitalize without displacing people.

Two residents, both white, raise questions about how to do that, how to help neighbors who could be hurt by rising property taxes. There’s talk about connecting cash-strapped homeowners with existing programs, about using available housing rehab dollars wisely.

It would be hard to find anyone in Biddleville who wants a neighborhood that’s mostly white, wealthy and full of McMansions. But capitalism can be a beast. What gets sold, what gets demolished, who buys, who builds – most of these decisions remain beyond the neighborhood’s control.

Already, investors have discovered other close-in neighborhoods – Washington Heights, Enderly Park, Lockwood, Grier Heights, to name a few. If certain fears are realized, the poor could be pushed to the suburbs. The congregations of the area’s black churches could dwindle. People lacking power and resources could be displaced once again.

On this evening, however, as the neighborhood meeting adjourns, the people of Biddleville, black and white, linger in the sanctuary’s warm light, pulling on coats, chatting before they head home. Property values are rising. Change is inevitable. But tonight, that beloved community that Charles Jones talks about – it seems almost possible.

Gavin Off contributed to this story.

Pam Kelley: 704 358-5271

Related stories from Charlotte Observer