Keep Charlotte's history in its future

Recently, I read with sadness and a laugh of irony that Beazer Homes USA has applied to demolish the historic uptown site of the Coffee Cup. Beazer, Observer readers will remember, is the same development company that brought us neighborhoods of cheaply-built new homes and helped usher in the foreclosure crisis to Charlotte.

The Coffee Cup, many will also remember, was one of the first uptown establishments that allowed blacks and whites to dine together in the midst of Jim Crow South. If approved, the demolition destroys a symbol of justice and replaces it with empty land, likely to be filled with more condos. In some ways, this is quintessentially Charlotte.

New but soulless

Something new is not always better. I have considered Charlotte home for over 10 years and I love this city. But Charlotte, in many ways, has lost its soul.

We are a city of newcomers – filled with individuals who bring their own histories and ties to other places. Charlotte's history can be a powerful tool to build community within our diverse population by rooting us in a common story.

Too often, we are willing to trade in that history for “the next big thing.” It is often said, but worth repeating, that to know where we are going, we must know where we have been.

On a recent staff retreat for my workplace, staff members were asked to sort themselves based on where they were born. Three staff – two white and one black – stood together, all from Charlotte. A white staff member in the group reported that all of three of them were born at Charlotte Memorial Hospital.

As it came time for my African-American colleague to share, however, she realized out loud that she probably was not born at Charlotte Memorial Hospital. Likely, she was born at the now-defunct Good Samaritan Hospital, where black mothers gave birth 50 years ago.

That instant of sharing gave way to pensive appreciation of just how recently Jim Crow ruled in Charlotte.

Don't lose heart

I work in the old Seabord Train Depot, originally built in 1850s. A history buff once came to visit and remarked how sad it was that this beautiful building was home to a homeless assistance center. I could not disagree more. The building that was once at the heart of Charlotte's economy is now part of helping those without economic means find their way again.

Each day I am reminded that Charlotte overcame the fading away of the railroad industry and I remember that communities can redefine themselves economically.

The depot's downstairs layout – two separate rooms – echoes of the past, daily reminding me of the struggle for racial equality. Each day, I feel unbelievably lucky to root myself in one of the few remaining historic buildings in uptown Charlotte.

Life – be it the life of an individual or a city – is dynamic. For growth and progress to occur, change is inevitable. We cannot control that fact. But much of our government bureaucracy exists so we can control how we allow that change to occur. We need our city leaders to use their power to insist that Charlotte's history is included in its future.

I hope we start by saving the Coffee Cup, a little piece of Charlotte's soul.