Retro Charlotte

First Ward: history, housing, and urban renewal

“East Eighth Street looking west. Rehabilitated houses are on right, Earle Village on left.” 1979
“East Eighth Street looking west. Rehabilitated houses are on right, Earle Village on left.” 1979 The Charlotte News

Fed up with urban renewal that left people with nowhere to go, a group of First Ward residents in the ‘70s sued the city and won. In part, the city agreed to relocate several old houses to Eighth Street and make them available to low-income Charlotteans. But time marched on and by 2005 the houses were about to be replaced by new construction as discussed in this editorial. See slideshow for photos of the houses being readied to go on the market in 1979, as well as a recent photo of the homes there now.

An Observer editorial, January 18, 2005

Relics of Past Wrongs: First Ward houses have history city might prefer to forget

A casual visitor to uptown's First Ward neighborhood might overlook the nine small houses along Eighth Street. If they were noticed, the visitor might wonder how they came to be there. They're older than the new development around them, and they're oddly suburban, with large grassy lawns in an area of small, city-sized lots.

Developer Bobby Drakeford wants to demolish four of the century-old houses to make room for a 16-unit condominium project. Some, but not all, of the neighbors object. The city's planning staff favors the development. The city-county historic landmarks commission, which last year studied uptown properties, didn't think the houses were worth designating as historic properties.

But those humble houses tell a story, one the city and its leaders should not be allowed to forget. They are there because of the City of Charlotte's years of bulldozing black neighborhoods and its callous indifference to the housing needs of its poorest residents. They are there because some First Ward residents finally got fed up with the city's brutal urban renewal of the 1960s and 1970s. They took the city to court. They won. The city lost. The houses are proof.

In the 1950s and '60s, the city had plunged eagerly into so-called "urban renewal, " using federal money to bulldoze the black Brooklyn neighborhood in uptown's Second Ward. In his "Sorting Out the New South City, " Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett wrote that the demolitions displaced 1,007 Brooklyn families. "Not a single new housing unit went up to replace the 1,480 structures that fell to the bulldozer, " he wrote.

By the '60s, federal officials threatened to cut off the funding spigot unless the city built housing to replace what it was destroying in Brooklyn and predominantly black First Ward. Thus was born in First Ward, in 1967, Earle Village, a large public housing complex redeveloped in the 1990s.

The First Ward residents' 1972 lawsuit pointed out that cities using federal urban renewal money were required to relocate displaced residents into affordable units that met the housing code. Charlotte hadn't done that. U.S. District Judge James McMillan ordered the city to comply. The city dragged its heels. More and more of First Ward was being demolished. Waiting lists for public housing grew.

The suit lingered for a decade. Eventually, the judge stopped all First Ward demolitions until the city met his orders.

By 1979, the city had agreed, among other things, to build apartments and to move some houses onto Eighth Street, mostly from elsewhere in First Ward. It is some of those houses that Mr. Drakeford's proposal would demolish.

Mr. Drakeford's project should move ahead. First Ward's destiny is, eventually, to be an urban environment. Even today, one street of small houses on large lots looks odd, in the context.

But it would be good if at least one or two of those little houses survived. They serve as reminders of the city's once-shameful legacy of urban renewal - and as monuments to the courage of those who challenged that legacy and won.