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City Life Critics’ Pick Winners: Best in the Nest 2023

The best of Charlotte's city life as chosen by Nerve critics

Every day there are folks working hard to ensure a better future for our city. This is for them.

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A rare Charlotte native, Deronda Metz has spent nearly her entire adult life working to make Charlotte a better place, mostly through on-the-ground work as an educator and leader in the fight to end homelessness. At the Nov. 13 Charlotte City Council meeting, Mayor Vi Lyles announced that Metz would be retiring at the end of this year following three decades with the Salvation Army Center of Hope Shelter.

“I’m so grateful for her leadership, her diligence, her efforts, the way that she actually makes people feel greater than,” said Lyles. “For 30 years you’ve been instrumental in making this place a better place. We can talk about all the plans and all the opportunities that we’ve had, but the one thing you’ve been is a steady participant in the strategic plans that we have to address both homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in Mecklenburg County.”

Deronda Metz (middle) accepts an award from the Salvation Army. (Photo courtesy of Salvation Army)

As director of social services at the shelter on Spratt Street, Metz has turned what was a nightly emergency shelter into a nationally recognized, best practice, housing-focused program. Just before her retirement announcement, an anonymous foundation in Charlotte donated $500,000 to the Better the Future Campaign, launched by Metz and the local Salvation Army in 2022 to address homelessness, battle substance abuse and support the Boys & Girls Club.

The donation will go toward a $5-million renovation at the Spratt Street shelter, with other funding from the campaign planned for investment in Booth Commons at Mulberry, a 52,000-square-foot Salvation Army facility with space to accommodate 100 families, increasing the organization’s capacity by 50% since the pandemic’s start.

We expect to see Metz’s work continue, as she still serves on a number of boards doing community work in the Charlotte area, but hope she can now find more time to pursue her other passions: fitness, singing, dancing and spending time with loved ones.

LOCAL HERO: William “Coach Mac” McNeely Jr.

William “Coach Mac” McNeely Jr., CEO and founder of local nonprofit Do Greater Charlotte, grew up on Charlotte’s west side, attending Shiloh Institutional Baptist Church when it was still located on Bruns Avenue.

The inspiration behind Do Greater was a personal one. Growing up, he saw how access to resources and opportunities affected his own trajectory and that of his siblings. His nonprofit provides a high-tech creative hub for teens, allowing underserved communities access to technology and innovation.

Students participate in a course
William McNeely (far right) at the CRTV Lab, where Do Greater provides area youth with educational opportunities centered around creativity, technology and entrepreneurship. (Courtesy of Do Greater)

In 2019, Do Greater launched its Mobile CRTV Lab, a delivery truck turned mobile classroom that included broadband, iPads, laptops and other tech tools for underserved youth. But the pandemic made it clear that a larger, fully equipped space that could accommodate more kids was also needed.

The new CRTV Lab at Shiloh, located in an underutilized space under Shiloh Institutional Baptist Church, opened in November 2022, providing a permanent home for the organization and creative space for area youth. From its programming and tech tools to the unique “creative collisions” it aims to foster between area youth and professionals, Do Greater is disrupting the status quo.


Asha Ellison spreads her content out across platforms, releasing scrumptious food videos on Instagram and TikTok (@ashaeatsworld); reporting on food, travel, arts and culture through the Snapshot Charlotte newsletter, a Local Palate project; and taking part in broader cultural discussions about the Queen City on Twitter (yes, we still call it Twitter) at @girlgoneCLT.

While Asha’s TikTok account is a great tool to find new Charlotte spots, from rooftop bars to lesser-known food trucks to a hidden team room, we as a print publication love that she’s still dedicated to writing as well, carrying out in-depth interviews with local chefs and not only exploring lesser-known gems in Charlotte’s food scene but giving fresh takes on staples and favorites.

BEST TWITTER ACCOUNT: Damon Hemmerdinger (@djh11375)

On one hand, choosing Damon Hemmerdinger’s personal Twitter account feels like cheating, since his account is in many ways a de facto account for Camp North End, one of the undisputed best places in Charlotte at the moment. Damon is CNE’s self-described “placemaker-in-chief,” in addition to everything else he’s doing as co-president of ATCO Properties.

However, once you get past the pictures of Charlotte’s monument to the power of adaptive reuse, you get a lot more placemaking expertise from around the world, insight into the commercial real estate industry, and deep dives into planning issues ranging from walkability to transportation. Damon is one of the many reasons Twitter remains undefeated, despite its anti-Semetic, alt-right megalomaniac choad of an owner.

BEST INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT: Karen Falls (@finer_with_thyme)

To the outside world, Karen Falls, the face behind local Instagram food channel @finer_with_thyme, presents as a typical retiree: bespectacled and gray-haired, so bubbly she gives champagne a run for its money, oodles of free time but always late for lunch, and a lifetime of experiences that all those other Insta Ashleighs can’t find in any reel. But she doesn’t view the Ashleighs as enemies like we do. If anything, Karen, being the proverbial old dog, looks to them to learn new tricks.

Some people might even call that strategic; growing up in the Midwest without social media, the internet or even computers, and retiring after decades of service in public schools, Karen’s chosen second lease on life is something influencer-adjacent, and who better to learn from? Half the fun in browsing through her posts is experiencing a Mayberry gee whiz wholesomeness at every new thing she encounters. But what really makes her so good at Instagram is her decentness, her genuine love for our local F&B talent and her firm refusal to engage in pay-for-play posts. Enjoyment is the means to the end of her influencing, not pre-canned captions at hundreds of dollars a pop.

BEST INSTAGRAM SERIES: @artintheqc Weekly Art Event Guides

Starting in January of 2023, Alexandra Smith has created short-form content to update art lovers and enthusiasts on events happening in Queen City. Updated weekly, she provides various events happening on weekends to build the art community and uplift local artists’ work.

ArtintheQC’s Alexandra Smith (Photo courtesy of Squash Blossom Social)

Smith is known as a marketer and project manager for creatives. She has her own company called Squash Blossom Social, through which she’s helped artists promote themselves on social media since 2020. Filling a need for marketing resources in the arts community, Smith has spent time collaborating with artists and organizations like the McColl Center and Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

Her weekly Instagram reels provide insight into what’s going on from a local perspective and create engaging content to help push back on the myth that “there’s never anything going on in Charlotte.”

BEST TIKTOK ACCOUNT: Christian Johnson (@christianjohnsoncomedy_)

Christian Johnson has collected more than 21.4 million likes from his 900,000+ followers on TikTok. Using the stitch tool, Johnson creates hilarious reaction videos to other TikToks, often standing next to his window in character, peeking through the shades and bringing commentary to the absurd videos with undeniable truth and humor. Most known for his grandpa-like character Nathaniel, Johnson garners tens of thousands of views on every video he posts, with some promotion for his local comedy shows mixed in.

Johnson is known as a clean comedian. He’s toured throughout his young career, working with comedians like Ali Siddiq, Eddie Griffin, Sinbad and three whole Wayans (Damon, Damon Jr., and Marlon). In 2021, he made his TV debut on AfroTV’s Funny Not Famous. In May of 2022, he earned his spot as a finalist in Kenan Thompson’s Ultimate Comedy Experience showcase. We expect we’ll see much more of him beyond TikTok in the coming years.

BEST SUPERFAN: Antonio Sanchez, aka “La Muerte”

Antonio Sanchez, better known as “La Muerte” or “Chico,” is in many ways the face of Charlotte FC (sorry, Sir Minty). His calavera facemask is omnipresent in promotional pictures and video, even more so than some players.

Brandt Bronico of Charlotte FC poses with his wife and a fan wearing a skeleton mask and a sombrero.
Brandt Bronico (far left), seen here with his wife Rebecca and superfan La Muerte, aka Chico. (Photo by Sam Spencer)

Chico attends every Charlotte FC match, home and away. In addition to his appearances at Bank of America Stadium and in the community, Nerve has photographed the superfan in Columbus, New York, St. Louis and Miami.

Fans have embraced the masked Muerte as a mascot as well; a Go Fund Me to send him to a match in Seattle last season raised over $2,000. Players and coaches come and go, but La Muerte is forever.


Launched by Queen City Nerve Charlotte FC reporter Sam Spencer alongside co-founder Jesse Boykin Kimmel, Y’all Weekly is a Substack newsletter that covers cultural stories from across the state, but mostly here in Queen City. While we usually try to avoid such conflicts of interest (people voted for Queen City Nerve a LOT in Readers Picks, we swear!), we kept Sam out of this decision and followed our own subjective opinions.

In fact, we could also argue that a new outlet offering up theatre reviews in a coverage area starved for such content might get our bristles up, but we think there’s room for more cultural coverage in Charlotte. No matter the topic, Y’all Weekly keeps y’all (us all?) entertained with its articles that feature a great mix of personality and journalistic flare rarely seen in local legacy media.

BEST NEW APP: City of Charlotte, Development Near Me

The city launched Development Near Me, an online application that can only be accessed through a web browser, in June. The tool aims to simplify the way residents interact with development projects, allowing users to explore projects in and around their neighborhood while staying informed about new submissions.

The centerpiece of the app is an interactive web map viewer that allows residents to easily review development information from a single location. By simply inputting an address, users can access information including ongoing development in Charlotte as well as pending, approved and completed projects. In October, the city’s planning department updated the app, adding weekly notifications and printable reports.

“We understand the importance of transparent and accessible information, and our aim is to empower residents by providing them with an intuitive tool to stay informed about the development activities in their neighborhoods,” said Planning Director Alyson Craig.

BEST PODCAST: ‘Magic in the United States: 400 Years of Magical Beliefs, Practices, and Cultural Conflicts’

Heather Freeman, a professor of digital media at UNC Charlotte, launched her new podcast Magic in the United States on Oct. 24. With plenty of spooky folklore making it the perfect drop for Halloween, the podcast is about far more than witches and spells. Freeman is using the medium to explore certain ideas that may not have always been considered magical but were rather rooted in tradition.

Heather Freeman's new podcast explores magic in America.
Heather Freeman’s new podcast explores magic in America. (Photo by Toby Shearer)

Freeman’s research began back in 2016 when she interviewed dozens of academic experts and magic practitioners from around the world. She even spent a month in residency at the Museum for Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall, in 2018. Though she was originally working on turning it all into a documentary, the pandemic squandered that plan, and we ended up with a wonderfully fulfilling podcast instead.

“It’s basically looking at the history of magical and spiritual magical practices in the United States,” Freeman told Queen City Nerve. “I have to put big quotes around ‘magic’ because a big part of the series is even asking the question, ‘What is magic?’”


CharlotteEAST (the acronym stands for Eastland Area Strategies Team, the organization’s former name) is a nonprofit organization with one goal: advocate for east Charlotte. And in 2023 that’s what they did.

Following a decade-long effort to push the city into redeveloping the space where Eastland Mall had stood until 2013, CharlotteEAST locked in on making sure neighbors had a say in what went into the final 29-acre parcel left empty by David Tepper in 2022. The team spent weeks canvassing, compiling hundreds of signatures from residents representing more than 30 neighborhoods ranging from Amity Gardens to Wilora Lake in support of placing an indoor sports complex on the property, despite widespread support among Charlotte City Council for the competing developer’s bid.

In the end, council ordered the two development groups to collaborate on a new project called The Complex (a working title) that will include indoor & outdoor sports, arts and entertainment uses, restaurants and retail. Developers scrapped plans for an outdoor amphitheater that CharlotteEAST had opposed, proving there’s always power in community.


With hundreds of anti-LGBTQ+ bills filed countrywide, many of which aiming to limit or prevent transgender people from accessing gender-affirming care, the Carolinas CARE Partnership (CCP) opened its new LGBTQ+ Life Center in early 2023, with the help of new CCP program member Transcend Charlotte, a local trans advocacy organization.

The Life Center includes the Xpression Space, an affirming place for trans and questioning folks to explore their gender expression. Formerly known as Transcloset, the space is stocked with clothing, shoes, wigs, makeup and gender-affirming specialty items like binders and packers. The Life Center also has a small food pantry, a computer lab, and through Transcend offers name-change workshops, referrals for legal advocates and free haircuts.

The center serves as a reminder that “we don’t have to earn rest. We don’t have to earn enjoyment … and kindness and community,” Transcend Charlotte director Bethany Corrigan told Queen City Nerve. “Those things are inherent rights.”

BEST EXPANSION: HopeWay at Oakhurst Commons

Initially founded as a mental health care center for adults, HopeWay’s outpatient private practice will extend its reach to adolescents and young adults struggling with mental health and eating disorders with its new facility in east Charlotte, which comes in response to the increased need for youth mental health services, reserving time and space for students and offering tutoring as part of the program.

HopeWay at Oakhurst Commons will feature physician-led, evidence-based Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP) built on HopeWay’s model of care, which includes psychotherapy, medication management, integrative therapies, on-site educational support and more.

Slated to open in early 2024, the Adolescent Mental Health Program will treat teens ages 12-17 and the Eating Disorder Program will treat the same age range plus young adults ages 18-25.

“The need for care and programming for adolescents and young adults is severe and immediate,” said Dr. Alyson R. Kuroski-Mazzei, a triple-boarded psychiatrist and HopeWay’s chief executive officer and chief medical officer. “We know our model of care works, and we are excited and confident to expand and bring additional mental health resources to this younger age group.”

BEST ACTIVIST/ADVOCATE ORGANIZATION: Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy

With the May expiration of Title 42, a provision that temporarily suspended immigration into the US during the public health emergency, The Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy (CCLA) buckled down to assist Charlotte-area migrants who may be affected by its ending, “adapting to the changing legal environment in order to address the increasing needs of the migrants coming to the area.”

An exterior shot of The Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy Center in east Charlotte, where staff is preparing to adapt as Title 42 is being repealed after three years.
The Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy Center in east Charlotte.  (Photo courtesy of CCLA)

With the expiration of the order expected to lead to backups at the Mexican border as well as an influx in migrants in the Charlotte area, home to the only federal immigration court in the Carolinas, CCLA began offering free legal consultations at its Pro Bono Room in east Charlotte. The consultations aimed to empower someone caught up in the deportation process to make an informed choice about whether to spend money on legal fees, which can be extraordinarily expensive, or learn how to represent themselves “pro se” if that’s what they choose to do.

“We are committed to the protection and support of our community and to defending all immigrants — both the newly arrived and those who have been here longer — in removal proceedings,” said Sharon Dove, director of the CCLA’s Immigrant Justice Program.


Public School Strong (PSS) is a statewide coalition of progressive organizations and advocates who aim to push back against those trying to undermine trust in public schools through divisive “culture war” issues like LGBTQ rights, Critical Race Theory and book banning. PSS comprises a coalition of advocates representing a number of struggles and fights — LGBTQ rights, book bans, voucher funding, gun control and safety — coming together as one.

Regan Shaw speaks into a microphone at a podium
Regan Shaw with Public School Strong speaks at a Union County Public Schools meeting on June 13, 2023. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

According to rural and working-class advocacy organization Down Home NC, which organized the PSS movement, there were Public School Strong chapters in 30 counties, with 13 more going through the training process and 22 more counties showing interest in launching a chapter.


Born and raised in Charlotte, Tiawana Brown launched Beauty After the Bars after serving four years in federal prison on fraud charges. Through her organization, she partners with Sheriff Garry McFadden’s Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office to run a reentry and mentoring program in helping lower recidivism rates locally.

Tiawana Brown (center) cuts the ribbon at the SAFE Home alongside U.S. Rep. Alma Adams and Susan Burton, founder of A New way of Life. (Photo by Samantha Council)

In April, Brown celebrated the grand opening of her organization’s first Sisterhood Alliance for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) Home in Mint Hill. Located on Lawyers Road, the new facility houses up to 10 women returning to the Charlotte community following their incarceration. She will soon open a second SAFE Home on the Beatties Ford Road corridor, on Clanton Road and another in University City.

“We can’t expect our system of justice to succeed when our approach begins and ends with time behind bars,” Brown said in April.

Oh, and during all this work, she successfully ran for city council. She’ll be sworn in as the new District 3 rep on Dec. 4.

BEST YOUTH MOVEMENT: Students for Sensible Drug Policy

In an effort to combat this rise in overdose deaths among young people and communities of color, the youth-led grassroots network Students for Sensible Drug Policy in May announced the launch of the Youth Overdose Prevention Fellowship, selecting six students and young adults across NC to participate in and provide harm reduction education and advocate for accessible, evidence-based drug policies.

The six-month program was funded by the Vital Strategies Overdose Prevention Program (OPP), with organizers prioritizing Black, Indigenous and Latinx young adults interested in drug policy reform, especially those directly impacted by the war on drugs.

“I can’t bring a solution without being informed,” said Courtney Benson, a nursing student and the only fellow based in Charlotte. “But if we keep spreading the word and informing people, everybody gets a little piece of knowledge of what is happening and what could be done.”


About six years ago, Jonathan Dessi-Olive, assistant professor of architecture at UNC Charlotte, began working with mushroom-based construction materials, called “myco-materials,” which are made out of a mushroom’s root. The live mushroom root acts as a glue that binds hemp wood chips together, forming the material he uses for his building projects.

Jonathan Dessi-Olive shows off his mushroom-based materials
Jonathan Dessi-Olive shows off his mushroom-based materials. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Myco-material is completely compostable and allows Dessi-Olive to build prototypes for projects and do hands-on teaching without the guilt of contributing to the 800 million tons of construction waste created every year.

The first myco-material project he and his students worked on was a 9-by-9-foot singing pavilion. Since then, they have completed a number of innovative projects including a hanging structure to absorb acoustics. Dessi-Olive hopes to see myco-made houses and for the material to become the new normal in places like restaurants and office buildings.

BEST CULTURAL CELEBRATION: African American Heritage Festival, Charlotte Museum of History

The African American Heritage Festival at the Charlotte Museum of History was a cultural phenomenon that focused on the importance of self care and education while also celebrating Black history.

NC Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green, North Carolina’s first Black poet laureate and third woman to hold the position, was the keynote speaker. The event featured an array of immersive experiences for attendees to enjoy, including one created by Green herself.

Green sought to teach people to be their own curators with her Personal Museum Workshop.

“I believe that what we keep keeps us,” she told Queen City Nerve. “You should pay attention to how a culture and a country decides on what’s important enough to put in museums. It’s the same thing in our lives.”

BEST NONPROFIT: Knothole Foundation

Former MLB players Jeff Shaefer and Morris Madden began their collaborative venture in 2017 to increase underprivileged and Black children’s access to baseball at a youth level, eventually merging the missions of their respective nonprofits to form Knothole Foundation. In the spring, they opened the Stick Williams Dream Fields and Education Center, taking a big step toward their goal of bringing underserved children from west Charlotte back into the game of baseball through athletic and educational programming.

A young girl standing on the first of a baseball field's infield crouches down and puts her glove in the dirt as she prepares to field a ground ball with intense determination.
A child participates in a workshop hosted by the Knothole Foundation, an organization that aims to confront inequities in youth baseball (Photo courtesy of Knothole Foundation)

A $400,000 donation from MLB, help from the Charlotte Knights, and a deal to become the home playing field for the Queens University Royals has allowed the Knothole Foundation to build its vision and expand on its goals, becoming far more than a baseball field.

“It’s been one of the greatest things that’s happened to me in my life,” Madden told Queen City Nerve. “It’s going to be a legacy for me. I want the kids to remember who I am and what I was trying to do for them.”


If La Muerte is the face of Charlotte FC, Brandt Bronico is its beating heart. A 2016 UNC Charlotte alum, Bronico has earned a strong hometown following for his grind-set mentality on the pitch, and for his community service work with nonprofits like Beds for Kids.

Before joining Charlotte FC in its inaugural year, he worked his way into the squad for MLS’s Chicago Fire. When COVID-19 delayed Charlotte FC’s first season, he played in 31 matches with the minor league Charlotte Independence to stay sharp.

When he’s not in the gym, raising money for charitable causes, or renovating homes with his wife Rebecca, you can still see BB13 at the occasional Independence match, supporting his old team and taking selfies with fans. Few Charlotte athletes give as much effort on the field as Bronico, and even fewer give as much off the field.


It’s been about five years since Jason Tapp launched Spooky CLT, a website and social media platform that focuses on a mix of lighthearted tales of local hauntings and bonafide Charlotte history. In that time, he’s worked to share his stories, hosting events at breweries and bars around town to discuss topics like The Dunhill Hotel hauntings and how demons are thought of throughout human history. He’s also been involved in the preservation of spooky Charlotte history, including his efforts to restore an abandoned family cemetery along a bustling section of Remount Road in 2020.

This year has seen Tapp try his hand at the logical next step in his endeavors: tour guide. After playing Charlie Houck, the old circus animal trainer who was killed by a lion in Charlotte and buried in Elmwood Cemetery in 1930, during an interactive cemetery tour hosted by the Mecklenburg Historical Association, Tapp took the lead on an October haunted tour and ghost hunt with the Charlotte Area Paranormal Society at Latta Arcade.

While always entertaining, we appreciate that he keeps his focus on the importance of relaying the truth from generation to generation — even if it’s a spooky truth.

BEST CAUSE: Preserving Ransom Hunter’s Legacy

Ransom Hunter was born into slavery, only to become one of the area’s most successful businessmen following the Civil War, lifting up other folks like him who had survived slavery in the Carolinas. He founded the Freedom community for formerly enslaved people, then played an important but largely forgotten role in forming the community that would become Mount Holly.

An old photo of Ransom Hunter's house
A rare photo of Ransom Hunter, turning away from the camera beside his house in 1870. (Courtesy of Eric Wilson)

Eric Wilson, Hunter’s great-grandson, hopes to turn Ransom Hunter’s former homesite into a public park, a dream 10 years in the making since the Mount Holly City Council proposed it.

“I’m very optimistic. I give everybody the benefit of the doubt, but 10 years?” Wilson asked. “It’s been a long time … We’re just sitting, watching, in hopes that our time will come.”


In one of the largest union elections of airport workers in the Carolinas since 1997, service workers for American Airlines ground services provider, Jetstream Ground Services Inc., at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) voted on May 8 to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), bringing nearly 500 ramp agents, cabin cleaners, lavatory and water agents, high-lift truck drivers, and pro-shop workers into the union.

Airport workers march in west Charlotte. (Photo courtesy of 32BJ SEIU)

“This is a victory not only for Charlotte’s airport service workers but also for our families, communities and workers here in the South,” said Lashonda Barber, a high-lift truck driver for Jetstream.

Relief is a long road, however, as in September police arrested five airport workers and union leaders for blocking an entrance to CLT during a march to protest continued low wages, lack of benefits and bad working conditions including inadequate water and extreme heat.


More than a year after being forced out of the Eastland DIY skatepark that they built up over years, a group of Charlotte skateboarders finally has a government-sanctioned plan for a new location, with construction of a new park well on its way. On April 7, the Charlotte Skate Foundation, a nonprofit formed by the founders of Eastland DIY after that skatepark was closed, launched a crowdsourcing campaign to build a new DIY skatepark and raised over $7,500 in its first weekend.

The Kilborne DIY skatepark is coming together. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

City and county staff worked with the skaters to find a replacement location for some time. The city proposed a property near the Tyvola light rail station for a skatepark in May 2022, but it fell through. As CSF works on building up the Kilborne project, Eastland DIY founder and Charlotte Skate Foundation leader Stephen Barrett emphasized that he would be working with fellow skaters regarding its design. “We are going to do this the most democratic way possible,” he told Queen City Nerve. “We’ll get there.”


While the Brooklyn Village project stalls in Uptown, Ballantyne Reimagined replaces sand bunkers with buildings, and the Eastland Mall site proves time is a flat circle, the River District faced little opposition for such a transformational project, and has been chugging along ever since.

In terms of size, Charlotte hasn’t had a bigger development project than the 1,377-acre River District since its rezoning was first approved by the City Council in 2016. While the city failed in its attempt to lure the Western and Southern Open tennis tournament away from Cincinnati with a proposed $400 million facility in the River District, the development will keep its biggest amenity: the Catawba River.

Though some have raised concerns about the impact of the development on the river, even then-Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins spoke in favor of the project when it was approved, a credit to the very intentional process and multi-decade plan that is slowly but surely making the District a reality.

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