Doug Smith's Charlotte

Harding Alumni Speech 4/17/14

  During more than 43 years as a journalist, I figure I wrote close to 8,000 stories and columns. It’s hard to be precise. My goal as a reporter was always to produce at least one story day, but on heavy news days I’d often write two, three, or four. I thrived on the adrenalin rush that came with the deadline pressure.

  Of all the fires, shootings, disasters, elections, public meetings and business projects I’ve covered, my favorite subject has always been Charlotte.

  I felt I could do something for readers that no one else in the newsroom could: write from a perspective that connects the Old Charlotte and the New Charlotte.

  Wilmore, my old neighborhood, and the west side provided a lot of material for my columns over the years. I’m not making any assumptions about age, but I know most of you have been around long enough to remember Old Charlotte.  

  For starters, the area we’re meeting in today didn’t exist. South End is barely two decades old. Before then, city planners called this part of town the South Boulevard Corridor and dismissed it as a blighted industrial area pockmarked with vacant mills and warehouses.

  I wrote the first story about the area’s resurgence as South End in 1994 when developer Tony Pressley called me over to his office to announce the new name, inspired by Historic West End in Dallas, Texas.    

  Today, as you can see, South End is quite a success story -- populated by design-oriented businesses, antique stores, restaurants, apartments, condos and light-rail transit stops.

But here’s my question: is our New Charlotte with its growing population and sprawling suburbs really creating a better lifestyle than the one our generation enjoyed?

   I asked Observer readers a few years ago for their thoughts about Charlotte today and Charlotte of the 1960s. Here’s what they said:

    --In our day, said one person, there were at least five movie theaters in the center city. That’s where teenagers spent their Saturdays. Peanuts and juice at Tanner’s Snack Bar on Tryon Street, hotdogs at Kresses’s department store, and lunch at the S&W Cafeteria.

     --Downtown was the city’s retail hub with Belk’s, Ivey’s and Montaldo’s. Ivey’s pulled the shades on Sunday so people couldn’t window shop on the Lord’s Day.

    --The biggest difference, said another, is everyone had manners, attended church on Sunday morning and carried liquor to their favorite restaurant in a brown paper bag.

     --Another reader reminded us: There were no laptop computers, x-boxes, cell phones, iPads or iPods. Kids played outside and chased lightning bugs until the streetlights came on.

     --The Carrousel Parade was the region’s biggest attraction. After Santa made his appearance, the Christmas lights came on and everyone drove downtown to see them.

    --Professional sports consisted of watching the Charlotte Hornets play baseball at Griffith Park off South Boulevard.

I grew up in Wilmore on the west side of the railroad tracks that parallel South Boulevard. Dilworth is on the east side. My family moved there in 1953 when my dad bought a house on West Boulevard beside what was then Wilmore School. He wanted to escape the blight and crime spreading to our old neighborhood on the edge of Elizabeth and to get closer to his employer on South Boulevard.

   I had mixed feelings. Living next door to a school killed any chance of my ever skipping class. And anytime I was out sick, I could count on the teacher to drop off my homework assignment at the front door.

  Yeah, Dad, I appreciated that s-o-o-o much. On the bright side, I could sleep late and still make it to school before the final bell stopped ringing.

  The Nebel Knitting Mill and the Package Products plant off Camden Road were still operating back then. On summer evenings my Grandpa and I would walk to Clark Griffith Park to watch the Hornets play. When slugger Harmon Killebrew stepped up to the plate, Grandpa would say, “Watch this guy run the bases. He’s too slow. He’s never going to make it to the majors.”

Grandpa obviously was not a baseball visionary.

  Rummaging through some of my family's old records recently, I found the original classified ad for the two-story, 10-room house we lived in for more than 30 years. The asking price: $5,500. Now, with South End's growth spreading to Wilmore, bungalows where my friends lived are selling for $350,000 or more.

But home prices aren't the only thing that changed in west Charlotte. West Boulevard was the main artery to Douglas Municipal Airport – no international flights back then. It was a two-lane street, lined with flowering crape myrtle trees.

 The biggest issue we had then: School teachers complained that our crape myrtles were so big they couldn't see to pull their cars out of the school driveway.

 I could count on spending part of each spring and summer weekend out front with the hedge clippers.

  In old Wilmore families knew each other and could call all the neighborhood kids by their first names.

  We congregated after school hours and on weekends on the Wilmore School playground or in a grove of trees we called “the woods” near Calvary United Methodist Church on West Boulevard.

  Parents kept a close eye on us, but occasionally we'd push the envelope – like the day Bobby Burn’s mother spied on three of us from her kitchen window as we puffed on cigarettes in the woods.

  A telephone alert went out to all our moms. When I got home, my mother was waiting, hickory switch in hand.

  Wilmore had a reputation of being so friendly, affordable and family-oriented that many of our neighbors passed over Dilworth to live there.

  I remember house hunting with my dad along Park Avenue. Many of the large homes had been sliced up into boarding houses. That hinted of the blight occurring in the neighborhood we were leaving, and my dad pronounced then and there: “My family will never live in Dilworth.”

No, Dad wasn’t exactly a real estate a visionary….

  A big outing for us back in the 1950s was walking east from Wilmore to the Dilworth shopping district along South Boulevard between East Boulevard and Park Avenue. It's now part of South End, but back then it was simply “Dilworth.”

 There was the Dilworth Theatre, two grocery stores – a Big Star and an A&P – two dime stores, a drugstore, a hot dog stand, a barbershop, a shoe shop, a furniture store and a jewelry store.

  Some of the facades were saved and incorporated into the Park Avenue Building.

  There never was much need to venture any farther than Dilworth for shopping and services.

  As we grew older and left Wilmore Elementary for junior high school, we stayed on foot, walking to the old Alexander Graham Junior High, located on East Morehead Street where the Dowd YMCA is now.

  We passed the old Lance snack food plant (now the Factory South condos) and took in the enticing aroma of cookies baking.

  The walk was always adventurous. We'd meander through the neighborhood, following the railroad tracks and picking up vagrants' empty wine bottles to shatter on the rails along the way.

  On the way home from A.G., we'd guzzle a couple of cherry Cokes at Niven Drugs on Park Avenue at South Boulevard.

   After 20 minutes of socializing with our junior high friends, we'd take shortcut through the Camden Avenue back lot of Dilworth Poultry Co., now known as Price's Chicken Coop.  Chicken feathers floated on the breeze.

  And live hens waited in shipping crates to receive a last meal from us before making the ultimate sacrifice for our Sunday dinner.

  We'd usually save a few Lance crackers or peanuts from the soda fountain to make sure they didn't die on an empty stomach. Why that mattered to us, I don't know.

  As my friends and I hit our teens, our parents allowed us to roam out a little farther from our homes in Wilmore.

  We'd walk west to Abbott Park – that's where the Interstate 77/West Boulevard freeway ramp is now – play a pick-up game of football or baseball in the spring or fall and take swimming lessons at the adjoining Revolution Park pool in the summer.

  And on weekends, there was the big trip downtown. My pals and I would beg 25 cents off our parents for bus fare and a movie.

  Then we'd pocket the 10 cents for bus fare and walk to The Square.

  Downtown was the gathering place that the suburban shopping malls and urban villages have become today. We'd rendezvous with our sweethearts at Kresses and take in a movie at the Carolina or Imperial theaters.

   Those were our favorites movie houses because they had balconies where couples smooched and held hands. So if you suggested to your date, “Let's sit in the balcony” and she agreed, you knew you were going to enjoy the movie.

  Looking back on it, life on the west side in the 1950s was almost storybook.

  Unlocked doors. Almost no serious crime. Very little traffic.

  Wilmore and the Dilworth business hub had jobs, shopping, services, entertainment and a sense of unity. And everything was within walking distance. As far as I can tell, the neighborhood, with its compactness and walkability, was a perfect example of urban planners’ vision of “the city of tomorrow.”

   But like so many of Charlotte’s urban neighborhoods, blight set in as long-time residents fled to the suburbs

   Today, urban pioneers are spearheading a neighborhood revival much like what occurred earlier in Dilworth, as other parts of west Charlotte welcome city dwellers seeking a less stressful, less traffic congested life in the urban core.

  I’m still haunted by Wilmore’s rapid decline in the ‘70s. I’m convinced public policy was the biggest contributing factor, and I hope today’s leaders can learn from that.

  The first big blow was the widening of West Boulevard.

  As Douglas Municipal Airport grew in the 1950s, it was expanded to four lanes to handle traffic. No longer could we turn left out of our driveway during peak hours. And the roar of the tractor-trailers made it almost impossible to leave the front windows open anymore.

  When traffic worsened during the '60s and '70s, our neighbors moved to escape the congestion and, in some cases, follow their jobs to outlying office and industrial parks.

  Then, another big hit: Interstate 77 sliced through the neighborhood, separating Wilmore from Westerly Hills at Spruce Street, eroding neighborhood solidarity and obliterating Abbott Park, the practice field of my Wilmore Redskins Pop Warner football team.

  As the need for public housing increased, elected officials began to locate an overwhelming number of units to the west side, where the political repercussions were far less than in southeast Charlotte.

  That continued until the early 1980s, when a new district council adopted a policy to disperse public housing.

  By that time, the west side was in a tailspin.

 People forced out low-income housing by demolition in other parts of the city filled up the west side's public housing. Household income averages plummeted. Public assistance rolls increased. Crime rates rose.

  To this worsening situation, add the profiteers – the so-called “blockbusters” – real estate sales people who preyed on people's racial integration fears.

   I recall them knocking on our door, telling my dad it would be his last chance to sell and recoup any of his investment because the neighborhood was changing so rapidly. My dad treated them all the same: he'd yank them up by the seat of their pants and escort them to the sidewalk.

    Many of the neighborhood's oldest and most respected families did flee, leaving the housing market open to slum lords who converted well-kept homes to rental properties.

  The shift of jobs, houses and shopping to the suburbs contributed, but I believe many of the problems the west side is fighting today date back to those government policy decisions.

   That brings us to the future. The light-rail transit line is making both sides of South Boulevard appealing to apartment dwellers and homeowners.

   And here is safety in numbers. The more dense development becomes in South End, the more positive the outlook for surrounding neighborhoods.

  Developers say the greater west side still has plenty of sites for infill projects as well as some of the city's most affordable land prices.

 Sounds a lot like they are trying to reinvent we had.