Fourth Ward was a crime-ridden eyesore in 1973 when Hugh McColl Jr. and Dennis Rash struck up a conversation at a cocktail party.
McColl, an ambitious banker and Rash, a “recovering lawyer” who was then dean of students at UNC Charlotte, talked over what Rash recalls as “bad Scotch” about what makes a truly great city. They agreed the world’s great cities allow people to live near where they work.
That didn’t exist in Charlotte in the 1970s.
McColl wasn’t yet CEO of what would become NationsBank and later Bank of America. But he was beginning to recruit a workforce from New York and London. Some new North Carolina National Bank (NCNB) employees had only lived in thriving urban areas. McColl wanted them to find Charlotte a real city and not a Southern backwater town.
And there was Fourth Ward, a formerly grand neighborhood that had seen better days. Prostitutes and drug dealers replaced the bankers and merchants who had originally lived there in the early 1900s. It needed money. And a few brave pioneers.
To encourage people to buy in the mid-1970s, the big banks (NCNB and First Union, at the time) offered below-market rate loans for people willing to move to the fledgling neighborhood.
And this year, the Friends of the Fourth Ward celebrates its 40th anniversary as an eclectic uptown enclave noted for its meticulously restored Victorian homes and diverse urban vibe.
Rash recalls there wasn’t, at first, consensus on what to do with Fourth Ward. Opponents – and there were a few – said redevelopment was frivolous. Harvey Gantt, then-future mayor, and Betty Chafin (who later married Rash) were the neighborhood’s biggest proponents on the Council. Both moved – and still live – there.
It took the City Council, city planners, preservation advocates, the Junior League of Charlotte and other partners to return the neighborhood to its former glory. So when boosters call Charlotte a “can-do” city, this is one of the best examples.
Fourth Ward naturally integrated itself at a time when parts of the city were fighting what was called “forced busing.” Gantt and Mel Watt, the then-future U.S. Congressman, built side-by-side homes. The Gantt and Watt kids grew up alongside the Rash kids.
Racial tensions might have been festering elsewhere in Charlotte, but in Fourth Ward, black and white families were building a sense of community.
Rash’s daughter, Mebane Rash, now 48 and founder of EducationNC, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public schools, said her Fourth Ward childhood exposed her to all kinds of diversity. “There were gay and straight families, Democrats and Republicans. Growing up in Fourth Ward helped define the rest of my life.”
Home of ‘Al Mike’s’
While some Fourth Wardians have been there since the ‘70s, many more have arrived since then. Lynn Weis is one of them.
“I was unimpressed with what I saw (uptown) until I came to this Victorian neighborhood,” said the former chair of the Friends of Fourth Ward association. His first Fourth Ward home (of three) was a 1928 duplex he bought in 1994.
It didn’t take him long to discover Alexander Michael’s (“Al Mike’s,” as locals know it) – the social headquarters of the neighborhood. He introduced himself to the bartender at the restaurant housed in the old E. W. Berryhill Store (c. 1890), who introduced him to another guy at the bar, who soon became his stockbroker.
“This is a small town in the midst of a big city,” Weis said of the neighborhood he has called home for 22 years. And that can be good or bad, depending on your viewpoint. “You can’t go in Al Mike’s and talk about your neighbors,” Weis said. “They’re in there already. Everyone knows everyone else’s business.”
Weis said it’s the careful preservation of the original character that makes it special: “You’ve got this juxtaposition of modern and old, and they complement each other. There’s an emotional draw for people.”
And he’s talking about people who don’t mind living right next to their neighbors. “You’ve got just 10 feet between houses,” he said. “That’s it. It doesn’t work for everyone, but those who don’t want that figure it out pretty quickly.”
Integrating new neighbors into the fold has always been a priority. Weis says it’s a challenge to include new folks moving into high-rise towers, but old-timers are determined to maintain a cohesive neighborhood.
Just as they always have. Mebane Rash recalled it wasn’t just prominent Democrats who called Fourth Ward home. Former Mayor and U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick – a Republican – lived a couple of doors down from the Gantts. Her son, Dan Forest, is the state’s lieutenant governor.
It’s still inclusive today. There’s no distinction between renters and owners. If you live here, you belong. “We’ve even had a president of our neighborhood association who was a renter,” Weis said. “That doesn’t necessarily happen in other parts of town.”
Front porch neighborhood
Weis, the neighborhood’s unofficial historian, said Fourth Ward was probably within a year of vanishing before NCNB saved it. “It was damn near vacant,” Rash said. “People thought the land was of more value than the houses, so historic homes had been torn down.”
Rash and his team brought in historic homes from other parts of town – Mooresville, Brevard Street, a couple of homes near the Dowd YMCA – to create an authentic Victorian neighborhood.
If the neighborhood reminds you of Charleston, S.C., that’s by design. The development team studied the residential architecture in the Holy City. You won’t find brick sidewalks elsewhere in Charlotte, but they’re here.
Rash doubts the alchemy that built the neighborhood could be replicated again – which only makes it that much more special. Says Rash: “Fourth Ward is more important to this city than the relatively small size of its population would suggest.”
In a city often criticized for tearing down history, Fourth Ward demonstrates that Charlotte is capable of respecting its past.