City Life Critic’s Picks 2019


It’s a circus out there, we’re just here to document it. Over the last year in Charlotte, we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly occur in our fair city. This section gives us a chance to look back on 365 days of news and those who reported it — be it on your TV, radio or social media channels. In a separate post, you’ll find Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.’s tribute to a bastion of civil rights in Charlotte, our Lifetime Achievement Award winner Dorothy Counts-Scoggins, who began walking to face down inequality in 1957 and hasn’t stopped walking to this day. In the City Life section, we highlight the folks who have followed Dorothy’s lead in making our community a better place, while putting that same spotlight on a few other stories that need to be brought out from the dark.


Local Hero: Riley Howell

So often the word hero is overused, whether it be ironically in memes (“Not all heroes wear capes”) or to describe the last-second “heroics” of an athlete making a clutch play. This year, however, UNC Charlotte was home to a true-life hero. On April 30, when a disgruntled former classmate opened fire on students in Howell’s class, he did what few could imagine themselves doing and fewer actually would: He charged the shooter.

Riley Howell (Photo courtesy of Riley Howell Foundation)

Howell was shot three times — twice in the body and a third in the head — but by the third shot he was already on the shooter, hitting him so hard the shooter would later complain of internal injuries. It was only then that the shooting stopped, and while Howell and classmate Ellis Parlier lay dead, and four others wounded, a countless number of students were spared thanks to Howell’s quick actions. “But for his work, the assailant may not have been disarmed,” CMPD Chief Kerr Putney said of Howell at a press conference the next day. “Unfortunately, he gave his life in the process, but his sacrifice saved lives.” ROTC cadet Howell would be laid to rest with full military honors, and his family has since launched the Riley Howell Foundation, which funds traumatic grief counseling for students and faculty affected by gun violence. His sacrifice will not soon be forgotten among those on campus in April.

Local Zero: Davon Bailey, EatWorkPlayCLT

We have seen many big festival and event failures over the past couple of years in Charlotte, ranging from unequivocal attendance at the Untapp’d Beer Festival at Bank of America Stadium to unethical standards, revealed when EatWorkPlayCLT postponed their Willy Wonka themed gala in 2019. Charlotte Magazine reported that Davon Bailey, founder of EatWorkPlayCLT, held six events over the years where a charity was supposed to be a benefactor of ticket sales and profit shares but that only one out of the six had received a donation. Four of the non-profit organizations that responded prior to the publishing of the CM story had received no donations, though the amounts owed totaled more than $11,500.

After donating only $250 to Smart Start of Mecklenburg County despite reported donation amounts near $10,000 and being sued by The Broken Spoke for outstanding venue fees totaling over $11,000, Davon has richly earned the Local Zero crown.

Best Twitter: Stewart Pittman, @Lenslinger

A beautiful shot of a Charlotte sunrise over an apartment complex posted at 6:42 a.m. It could be from an Instagram influencer with an inspiring quote as a caption, except this is Twitter, and Stewart Pittman isn’t here to inspire you. The crime tape, blue lights and multiple uniformed police officers set a different tone, one that’s more on-brand (though he’d hate that term) for the man who in 2019 marked 30 years behind the news cameras and has seen it all.

Pittman’s Gonzo-style tweets document the everyday life of a grizzled and jaded news photog, from the joys of a properly coiled lavaliere cord to the desperation of finding a place to piss in a hurricane. One of our favorites from March: “As for cameras in court, it’s the bailiffs that worry me. Like THAT one. He’s got most of a Big Gulp in him, a taser on his hip and a Mother that still folds his socks. Drop so much as a windscreen and he’ll electrocute the lot of us. Even that weirdo from the Free Weekly.” We’re too entertained to be offended.

Best Instagram (Personal): Sam Guzzie, @samguzzie

With only about 40 Instagram posts over the last year, local muralist Sam Guzzie isn’t going to flood your feed by any measure, but that only adds to the allure of her account. We’re all about quality over quantity, and Guzzie brings you into her world of artistry just enough to make you feel included while still leaving enough to the imagination to stir it.

From dazzling finished pieces like the Mercury Carter portrait that he used as the cover art for his album to black-and-white photography from local artists like Owl — there’s even a pic of her adorable son in front of a canvas (oh, the potential).

Also, check out her stories if you can stand the FOMO for all updates from cool events hosted by her organization Brand the Moth, her cohorts at Southern Tiger Collective, and all the other cool creatives you wish you knew.

Best Instagram (Business/Brand): Boardwalk Billy’s, @boardwalkbillysuncc

Food porn and comedic attribution are the order of the Instagram world that we live in. Everyone wants to see mouth-watering pictures and have a laugh or two before they re-enter the real world. This is where Boardwalk Billy’s comes in to play.

With one line, dry-humor food captions like, “Our meat doesn’t shrink when it’s cold outside” and even the occasional f-bomb (we love profanity) Boardwalk Billy’s delivers on both fronts. They take it further by posting pictures and videos of their employees performing eating challenges, acrobatics, reviews and more across their posts and stories. Being across the street from UNC Charlotte allows them prime picking for local food service talent and so far it hasn’t disappointed us. Give them a follow and enjoy.

Best Politician: N.C. Rep. Jeff Jackson

From transphobic and unconstitutional bills like HB2 to sleazy tactics like delaying votes on vital issues until they’re sure not enough Democrats are present in the General Assembly, the North Carolina Republican Party’s legacy has been a litany of corruption, racism and bigotry, supported by blatant gerrymandering that gives them an edge in the GA while nullifying the voting rights of millions of North Carolinians.

Jeff Jackson (Photo courtesy of Jeff Jackson)

They’re the main reason that academic research project the Electoral Integrity Project downgraded North Carolina to a failed democracy, an authoritarian shitshow in line with Cuba and Sierra Leone. Thankfully, N.C. Rep. Jeff Jackson of Mecklenburg County fearlessly shines a light on the GOP’s arrogance and sleaze with his savvy use of social media plus the ability to explain policy battles in an engaging and understandable manner. A former assistant district attorney and captain in the JAG Corps with the Army National Guard, Jackson has repeatedly introduced legislation to end gerrymandering by implementing independent redistricting.

He also helped spearhead the effort that finally closed the consent loophole, an archaic provision in the state code that prevented women from calling off sexual intercourse once the act had begun. Prior to the 2018 election, he advocated tirelessly to break the GOP’s supermajority. The movement was a success, and the Tar Heel State is inching back to a functioning democracy. But gerrymandering is the big issue here, and the GOP has targeted Jackson by redrawing his district with apparent intent to oust him. If they think they have Jackson running scared, they’re dead wrong.

Best Rabble-Rouser: Sheriff Garry McFadden

Last December, newly elected Sheriff Garry McFadden took office and immediately got to work. He made changes at the local detention center, including ending solitary confinement and resuming in-person visitation for adults while allowing juveniles to go outside for the first time in 19 years. Those issues are straight-forward enough, but how he’s really pushed the buttons is with his immigration policies.

Sheriff Garry McFadden (center) with two guards in the department’s new behavioral health ward. (Photo by Yen Duong)

After running on a platform that included ending the department’s non-mandatory cooperation with ICE, he *gasp* ended it once he took office, setting off a public war of words with federal officials and sending Republican state legislators into a tizzy. Then, just in case he hadn’t pushed enough buttons with those who take comfort in the status quo, he had his deputies set up a speed trap on Jetton Road in Cornelius, one of the county’s most affluent areas. When called in front of Cornelius commissioners to answer for his actions in March, he told them, “It’s about privilege.” We’re just waiting to see who he’s going to rile up next.

Best Newsletter: CLT Ledger

Newsletters are the new media wave, but good ones have been hard to come by, or at least they were before Tony Mecia decided to take on the constant evolving business news of Charlotte and drop it in people’s inboxes. The former Charlotte Observer reporter wasn’t done observing just yet and in February launched the Charlotte Ledger newsletter, in which he reports on breaking local business news while touching on other interests like local media, personalities and even cheap flights if you’ve had enough of this place.

There is nothing to click through to; all of the information is presented for consumption in the newsletter itself with no external links, which makes it that much easier to consume. But the main pleasure of waking up to CLT Ledger comes from Tony’s expertise as a reporter, delivering solid facts on news that Charlotteans find interesting.

Best Community Organizer: Leondra Garrett

Leondra Garrett

Leondra was born and raised in Charlotte, just like her parents before her. Her dad was a childhood resident of Brooklyn and experienced directly the impact of displacement in his community. She lived in public housing as a teen mother, then watched as developers began to buy up the west side in preparation for gentrification. Garrett bought a home in the Lakeview community so that she and her five children, two of whom have autism, could live in a safe home after she experienced a violent intimate partner relationship. She saw that her neighbors were experiencing the same things: the violence of poverty, relationships and law enforcement. She decided to get involved deeply in the community and today is a fierce advocate for land retention, economic mobility, police accountability, the end of pretrial detention and mass incarceration.

Garrett volunteers with several grassroots organizations that help currently and formerly incarcerated people as well as ones that mentor youth and feed and connect with our house-less neighbors. She works as a community engagement coordinator with her neighborhood and recently was awarded a fellowship to tell stories about her lived experiences.

Best Youth Organizers: Mary Ellis Stevens, Krissy Oliver-Mays, Ollie Ritchey

Mary Ellis Stevens, who along with Krissy Oliver-Mays and Ollie Ritchey has been striking outside of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center and leading local efforts to support Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future campaign, said she was sitting in biology class on Wednesday, Nov. 6, when she received a direct message from Thunberg on Twitter letting Stevens know that Thunberg would be coming to Charlotte for that Friday’s march. Stevens said she could barely concentrate on her cell division lesson after hearing from Thunberg. The three local organizers, who had spent many Fridays alone outside of the government center, were vindicated by the presence of nearly 1,000 supporters who showed up on Nov. 8 to hear them and Thunberg give speeches throughout the afternoon.
“I began striking and kind of kept at it because I saw all these pictures of Greta alone and she kept at it, so all these times striking out alone, she was what kept me going,” Stevens said at the protest. “So to have her come join me was really, really amazing, so we’re all excited.”

Charlotte Climate Strike leaders (from left) Ollie Ritchey, Mary Ellis Stevens and Krissy Oliver-Mays. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

The trio told reporters before the event that they would like to see the city reinstate the Environment Committee, which in March was merged with the Community Safety Committee and the Housing & Neighborhood Development Committee. The Environment Committee, chaired by city council member Dimple Ajmera, was responsible for developing the city’s Strategic Energy Action Plan, which was approved by city council in December 2018. “While the committee was active, it was extremely successful,” Stevens said, “and so if we can bring that committee and put power back in the hands of Dimple Ajmera and other city leaders, that would be wonderful.”

Best Activist/Advocate Organization: WakeUP

A group of students from Garinger High School, Berry Academy of Technology and Myers Park High School hosted the WakeUP Student Summit on April 6, leading discussions on topics like affordable housing, the myth of “the American Dream” and mental health in schools. WakeUP is a student-led organization that works to cultivate student leadership through development and advocacy. During the summit, a group of Garinger students presented an open letter they wrote to then-Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Dr. Clayton Wilcox in regards to the proposed 2019-20 school budget. In the letter, the students explained how Wilcox’s goals of “building trust” would be undermined by plans to increase policing in local schools rather than spend money on increasing the presence of social workers.

Members of WakeUp at a student summit this year. (Photo by Brenna Swanston)

“Your budget proposes one counselor for every 354 students, one social worker for every 1,622 students, and one school psychologist for every 1,604 students,” the letter pointed out. “These numbers are ridiculously higher than what National Mental Health Organizations recommend. How can one social worker or psychologist for every 1,600 students identify warning signs for depression, anxiety, or worse, the intent to commit violence?”

During the summit, WakeUP organizer and Garinger teacher Tara Storm said she hoped that the event would help boost the voices of the oft-overlooked students. “Since we have so many people in attendance from all over Charlotte including school board members, teachers [and] leaders, hopefully they will be able to internalize this and do something about it, since they have the power,” Storm said. Later that month, the school board voted to redirect funding from the county to student support services, which would fund child psychologists and school counselors, rather than put more money toward hiring more school resource officers. This year, WakeUP students will work toward bringing more college resources, including advisors and counselors, into low-income schools. 

Best Comeback: Moses the Street Preacher

Over the years, Paul Irving has become a beloved fixture in east Charlotte, preaching to passersby at the corner of Milton and Sharon Amity roads. Between the preaching and the big wooden staff he was known to carry, Irving eventually got the nickname Moses the Street Preacher. After struggling for years with homelessness, Moses finally landed an apartment earlier this year, only for it to almost become the scene of his muder. During a home invasion on Aug. 10, a knife-wielding suspect stabbed Moses multiple times and left him for dead. He was found bleeding heavily in the stairwell of his new apartment complex, but eventually recovered.

A memorial to Paul Irving, aka Moses the Street Preacher, stands at the corner where he once spread his sermons. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Many community members heard otherwise, and they built a shrine to him on a shopping cart at the corner where he was known to spread his words of inspiration. When he spoke to Queen City Nerve just weeks after the attack, he said he was touched by the outpouring of support from the community, and as soon as his wind box fully recovers, will be getting to work on his podcast, Messages from Moses, so as to let his sermons spread further.

Best Reporter: David Sentendrey

Fox46 reporter David Sentendrey began reporting on lax code enforcement leading to unlivable conditions and health concerns at Lake Arbor apartment complex in west Charlotte in July 2018. He didn’t just pack up his camera and go, he kept digging, confronting the local slumlord that owned the apartments and forcing city leaders to address what was happening there. He recently won a local Emmy for his continued coverage of the situation and also won Reporter of the Year from the Radio Television Digital News Association of the Carolinas.

The App State grad has been telling local stories since he was a print reporter at the Enquirer-Journal in Monroe. He was also a kickass bass player in the Colby Dobbs Band, which doesn’t hurt his cause in a publication like this one. But alas, all good things must come to an end, as David recently hightailed it to Dallas to take a reporter job there. I guess we can’t be greedy, so we’ll always be thankful for his hard work while living in our city.

Best Nonprofit: Q.C. Family Tree

Greg and Helms Jarrell moved into the Enderly Park neighborhood in west Charlotte in 2005, and though judging by skin color they may look like the harbingers of gentrification that has now more than ever begun to become evident in the neighborhood, they have spent the last 14 years actively working to become better neighbors through prioritizing asset-based community development, pushing back against newcomers and their ideas of how neighborhoods should operate, and helping those facing displacement as more affluent people move in and build fences — literal and figurative.

Helms (left) and Greg Jarrell outside of their home in Enderly Park. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

During the 2018-19 school year, the organization launched Here 4 Good, an afterschool program at West Charlotte High School in which students come together to discuss community issues and solutions. Lessons ranged from drum circles and freestyle cyphers to a Know Your Rights workshop that followed the fatal shooting of Danquirs Franklin by a CMPD officer near the school in March.

“Here 4 Good is about being positive, sharing your talents and using that to uplift everything that’s around you,” Here 4 Good facilitator Kayla Pinson said when Queen City Nerve dropped by for a session in May. “I tell these young people all the time that they are the most powerful people in the world and they’re just sitting on it and they’re building it up, and as long as they are committed to improving and proving that positivity and that power, then the world will change; the world has no choice but to change.”

Best Cause: Emerald School of Excellence

With a ribbon cutting at the Emerald School of Excellence in east Charlotte on August 17, Mary Ferreri opened North Carolina’s first recovery school, which serves students struggling with substance use disorder. A former health and fitness teacher and coach in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Ferreri became burnt out by what she saw every day among students. While at Butler High School, she couldn’t turn away from the rampant drug use that students boasted about. “I just really started to see how big the problem was, how things were getting covered up, and nobody was talking about it,” Ferreri said.

Ferreri sits in a classroom at Emerald School. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

There were 759 reported drug overdoses among people younger than 25 years old between May 1, 2017, and April 30, 2018, in Mecklenburg County alone, and it was in that climate that Ferreri decided to take action. Recovery schools prioritize recovery over everything, and have been shown to drastically reduce relapse rates for students who return to school after going through a treatment program. In the first few months, students have visited Shining Hope Farms, Community Culinary School of Charlotte and Inner Peaks, where they climb twice a week.

“What’s been the most rewarding thing is actually hearing back from the parents [about] the positive changes and the thriving in recovery that they’re seeing [in their children] after school,” Ferreri said during a recent follow-up. “That’s amazing and it keeps us fueled every day.”

Best Way to Game the System: ‘Growing Better Places’

In an attempt to include a wider range of people in the feedback process for the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan, city officials and consultants developed a board game called Growing Better Places: A More Equitable and Inclusive Charlotte, in which teams work together to plan future infrastructure projects including housing, parks, activity centers, walkable mixed-use development and business corridors. Players must keep certain themes in mind while planning development — including sustainability, connectability, inclusivity, diversity and health — all the while remaining fiscally responsible and within budget.

Participants play the “Growing Better Places: A More Equitable and Inclusive Charlotte” board game at Potions & Pixels Gaming For Charlotte event at The Park Church on Beatties Ford Road. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Seem boring? Don’t be so sure. When Queen City Nerve dropped by a session in west Charlotte on Aug. 1, nearly 100 people were there with bells on, and players at each table were getting enveloped in the nuanced strategies needed to successfully plan for the continued growth of Charlotte. Results from every sessions were documented to help give feedback into the actual planning process for the city. As Scott Correll with the Charlotte Planning Department told us at the event, Growing Better Places made for a more interactive process than your average town hall. “I’ve been doing this for 12 years and this is a completely different vibe in the room when you have a game and you have a different way for people to interact,” he said.

Best Example of the Power of Protest: ActionNC Puts Pressure on Bank of America

As pressure built from local activists and the public became more aware of the crisis at the border — and by that crisis we are referring to the government separating families and placing children in detention camps — Charlotte-based Bank of America announced in July that it will cut all financial ties to private prison companies that profit off the detention of immigrants. The bank had long been a financier for Caliburn, which runs a detention center called Homestead under a government contract. They had also financed private prison companies like CoreCivic and The GEO Group. The private prison industry is in charge of detaining about 70% of immigrants in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Hector Vaca (above) and Action NC have been pressuring big banks to disinvest in the private prison industry. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Local organizations like Action NC had been pressuring banks to disinvest in the private prison industry for years. Wells Fargo announced that it would end its financial relationships with CoreCivic and The GEO Group in March.
“I am glad that Bank of America decided to join other banks in pulling their support from this horrendous industry that treats people like cattle, instead of humans,” said Silvia Sanchez, an Action NC board member. “This decision strikes a big blow to Trump’s war on migrants and ICE’s campaign of terror in our community.”

Best Investment In Our Future: Greenlight Fund, ParentChild+ Charlotte

According to Sarah Walzer, CEO of ParentChild+, a national organization that works together with low-income children and parents in their own homes to ensure children are ready to succeed in schools, 40% of children entering kindergarten in Charlotte aren’t ready to learn in a classroom setting, putting them on the wrong path before they even get started.

Carrie Cook of GreenLight Fund speaks at a press conference announcing a new local partnership with ParentChild+ in May. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

In May, Walzer announced the launch of ParentChild+ Charlotte, with the help of a $1-million investment from Greenlight Fund Charlotte. Through a partnership with the Charlotte Housing Authority, Charlotte Bilingual Preschool and the UCity Family Zone, ParentChild+ will help ensure kindergarten readiness for more than 400 Charlotte children. Students who have gone through the ParentChild+ program are 50% more likely to be prepared for kindergarten and see 30% higher graduation rates than their socioeconomic peers. On average, ParentChild+ children enter school performing 10 months above their chronological age.

“A day like today is a day that we dream about often and then it actually happens,” said Dr. Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter, then-executive director of the local Leading on Opportunity organization. “This investment connects directly to our early care and education strategies. It aligns and fills a gap where early care recommendations were not being addressed and says, ‘This is something that we can do differently as a community.’”

Biggest Tease: Purchase of Excelsior Club

Ever since the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners voted not to use county funds to save the historic Excelsior Club on Beatties Ford in October 2018, a year and a half after N.C. Rep. Carla Cunningham foreclosed on the property and put it up for sale, the future of the iconic club has been in limbo like never before. In May, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Excelsior Club one of the most endangered historic buildings in the country, in hopes that the designation would raise awareness and help find a buyer.

The Excelsior Club when it was a hub of Charlotte’s African-American community. (Photo courtesy of Collette Forrest)

June 12 marked the passing of a one-year deadline, meaning that the Excelsior Club’s designation as a historic landmark could no longer save it from the wrecking ball. Eight days later, WFAE reported that Steve Robinson, owner of New River Brokerage — a firm that had been working with Cunningham to sell the property — confirmed that he was under contract with a mysterious “California investor” with intentions to preserve the building, which had served as an epicenter of culture and entertainment for the community after opening in 1944.

Then just like that, the deal fell through. In November, WBTV reported that Robinson was once again claiming to have found a new owner, though this time he wasn’t making any promises about preservation, only stating that people will be “really excited” to hear the new buyer’s plans, which he said would be announced in “a few weeks.” Well, it’s been a few weeks, Steve. Quit playing games and tell us something!

Biggest Fail: Proposed Sales Tax Hike

By the time November’s election arrived, most of the races had already been decided in the primaries, so “the arts tax,” as it became known, was the main event. The idea was to raise the sales tax a quarter-cent, generating $50 million a year in revenue for arts, parks, greenways and education. Supporters hoped it would help the Arts & Science Council overcome its fundraising shortfall, but it was the measure that fell short, rejected by 57% of voters.
Partnership for a Better Mecklenburg, an organization formed specifically to campaign for the referendum’s approval, spent nearly $1 million on TV and radio ads. Anti-taxers got the conservative Americans for Prosperity to man phone banks. So was this a simple case of “no new tax” conservatives defeating liberal support for the arts, as many tax proponents claimed? Not quite. In a Queen City Nerve editorial, South Tryon Community United Methodist Church pastor Ray McKinnon maintained that a vote against the tax was not a vote against the arts. He pointed out that the tax was regressive, disproportionately impacting lower income Charlotteans, and questioned if the proposed plan would address the community’s greatest needs.

Best Connector: Christine Edwards, founder of Amplify Charlotte

Inspired by the disconnect she saw while working as a community relations director with Mecklenburg County, Christine Edwards founded Amplify Charlotte, an organization that aims to connect underserved community members with civic leaders and get them engaged in local government by creating “Civic Kits,” which are bundles of resources that make it easy for residents to connect with city, county and nonprofit leaders without needing any introduction. The idea kicked around in her head since 2016, then she launched it in 2018, but she didn’t actually get any events off the ground until this past March.

Christine Edwards of Amplify Charlotte.

In the lead-up to that first Amplify pop-up on March 30, she explained why she felt the new project was necessary: “There are 65 people moving to Charlotte every day, and if you don’t take control or if you don’t play a part in the way that your community is being shaped, then it’s going to be shaped for you. That’s why I think it’s everybody’s responsibility to do that and I think it’s important for the next generation to have something in place for them. That’s why it’s important to me. You have to own that.”

In 2020, Edwards plans to shift Amplify’s role from a one-year community project to a full-service boutique consulting firm focused on providing expert community outreach techniques for municipalities, nonprofits and corporations.

Best Podcast: ‘Charlotte Readers Podcast’

It’s never too late for a turnaround. Landis Wade was in his mid-’50s when he started writing fiction. He took to it quickly, as the first story he ever wrote — a Christmas story meant only for the eyes of his family — turned into his first published book, The Christmas Heist. After that, he got involved in the local literature scene, joining the Charlotte Writers Club, Charlotte Lit and the North Carolina Writers Network. Wade was recognized multiple times with awards for his writing, and upon turning 60, he left his job as a lawyer and decided to launch a podcast. It was the least flashy midlife crisis a person could have, and we’re glad he did it.

Landis Wade (right) interviews local author Kimmery Martin for an episode of ‘Charlotte Readers Podcast.’ (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Wade released the first episode of the Charlotte Readers Podcast in August 2018, and by year’s end will have released 67 episodes over four seasons. In fact, he’s outgrown the Charlotte literary scene, expanding to regional authors during the last year. He’s talked to a few authors we’ve covered in these pages (Jeff Jackson, Greg Jarrell, J.A. Walsh) while introducing us to a bevy of other great talents on the Charlotte scene. It makes us wonder why he messed around in the courtroom for so long, after all.

Best New League: CLT Esports

When Team EnVyUs left Charlotte for Dallas, Texas, in 2017, Josh Richardson saw a void and decided to fill it. In November of this year, he launched CLT Esports, a league that he said is here to stay. Richardson hopes to cultivate a scene for the burgeoning gaming industry here in Charlotte by hosting regular tournaments and other events. And these are not just events with a few gamers in the back room of a bar or other space, CLT Esports hosts high-stakes tournaments for thousands of dollars, and they hope to only get bigger. By mid-year, the organization was in talks with Charlotte officials and organizers of the Raleigh-based Playthrough gaming convention to bring a similar event to the Queen City, and in October they signed the roster of former competitive gaming team Splyce to form a new Rocket League team called the Charlotte Phoenix, adding to other League of Legends and Call of Duty teams under the CLT Esports umbrella.

Josh Richardson (third from right) and the CLT Esports and Command Post teams.

Best New Event: R U OK, CLT?

Mental health is a topic talked about far and wide today, but stigma still surrounds it, making it just as difficult as ever for people to seek help. R U OK, CLT? has made an impactful effort to end the stigma surrounding mental health in our community by offering people a place to expound on the topic. On the third Tuesday of every month at The Evening Muse in NoDa, R U OK, CLT? employs a panel-like presentation by allowing a poet, comedian and musician to each tell their stories through their respective medium before coming together on stage to discuss where they have been and what has or has not helped them through their struggle. Each month employs a different theme, such as sexual assault, suicide prevention, veteran’s health, mental health in the black community and more. 

Performers at the March R U OK, CLT? event (from left): Jah Smalls, LeAnna Eden, Carlos Valencia and Tonya Jameson. (Photo by Justin LaFrancois)

Best Development: Extended Bike Lanes

People can find a way to argue on one side or the other of just about any issue, but this one would be hard to dispute: Charlotte is not a bike-friendly city. Is it taking steps in that direction, however? We believe so. The city took one of those steps in April when it opened the first substantial, protected, two-way bicycle lane in Charlotte, connecting the Little Sugar Creek Greenway near Central Piedmont Community College to the Rail Trail via Sixth and Seventh streets. At first, it only ran about a mile, but it was only the beginning of something bigger: a two-and-a-half mile bike lane that will connect to the Irwin Creek Greenway on the west side of Uptown, scheduled for completion in 2021. It’s all part of $4 million in spending that the city dedicated to improving bicycle infrastructure, creating 10 new bike lanes per year. Most recently, the city opened protected bike lanes on The Plaza coming in and out of Plaza Midwood. That will probably piss off some people, but we’re all for it in a city where only 1% of the population pedals to work, and the other 99% hate their commute.

Best Hire: UNCC Urban Institute, Ely Portillo

On April 2, longtime Charlotte Observer development reporter Ely Portillo joined the growing ranks of renowned reporters leaving that paper and announced he’d be joining the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. It wasn’t the craziest news ever, as the Urban Institute was long led by an equally talented former Observer reporter in Mary Newsom, but it was a great get nonetheless. Portillo got right to work, publishing in-depth work on the effects of our city’s rapid growth that often left us jealous. In fact, we got much of the info from the above bike-lane blurb from yet another thorough Portillo piece, and couldn’t be happier that he remained in Charlotte rather than bring his talents elsewhere.

Biggest Governmental Failure: Lake Arbor

Following years of lax code enforcement and slumlord behavior that led to health problems and unlivable conditions, on July 1, the owner of the Lake Arbor apartment complex informed everyone living in the 177 units left occupied at the time that they would have to leave, in the most egregious instance of displacement to occur recently in a city that’s struggling just to build enough affordable housing for those already in need.

Kids walk through Lake Arbor on a summer afternoon. (Photo by Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.)

While city leaders threw up a collective shrug, a community came together to help those who had nowhere to go. A group of local organizers formed a grassroots organization called the Tenants Organizing Resource Center to help inform residents of their rights, while Southern Comfort Inn manager Traci Canterbury opened rooms up for displaced families to live in. The county tried to step in where the city had failed, spearheading an effort to relocate those most in need through an organization called Community Link, though organizers such as Blanche Penn and Apryl Lewis who had been working on the ground said the organization was out of touch with the most direct needs of residents.

“The whole process is screwed up. It’s too academic and top-heavy,” Blanche said of the government response. “If you’re an MBA who’s never been in the neighborhood talking to people and all your experience is sitting across from them in a chair when somebody’s in a crisis, that’s not the response that we need.”

Best Shut-’em-Up Performance: West Charlotte vs. Ardrey Kell men’s basketball

Thousands of people showed up to Vance High School on March 5 and many of them were shut out after a state quarterfinal game between the West Charlotte and Ardrey Kell high school men’s teams became representative of bigger issues within the city and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The day after each team advanced past the round of 16, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association announced that the quarterfinal matchup would be held at Vance in north Charlotte, despite West Charlotte being the higher-seeded team and earning home-court advantage. Though the NCHSAA said the decision was made because of gym size, many said it was a discriminatory decision. While just 10% of Ardrey Kell students were on free or reduced lunch last school year, 98% of West Charlotte’s student body was.

A West Charlotte coach speaks to team members during a playoff game. (Photo by Glen Byrd Jr.)

Then on the night before the game, news broke that Ardrey Kell’s starting point guard had used the n-word in reference to West Charlotte’s players in a Snapchat conversation. A screenshot of the conversation showed the Ardrey Kell player stating, “Bout to go fuck some more n***ers in the hood on Tuesday,” to which his friend replied, “Yessir.” CMS announced that night that the player responsible for the post would not be playing in the game and had been indefinitely suspended. Despite the distractions, the West Charlotte Lions won the game handily, 69-53, then went on to win the regional title with a 44-point win over R.J. Reynolds, but lost in the state final to South Central.

Local Issue That Needs More Attention: Life After Incarceration

According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is at 27%, and grassroots organizers have joined in fighting for the rights of justice-involved people and pushing back against “the new Jim Crow.” Charlotte’s civic and business communities have become more engaged in reentry employment following the 2019 release of many incarcerated people under the First Step Act and the potential for The Second Chance Act, which passed the NC Senate this spring (SB562) and is now pending in the House (HB874), to pass on a state level.

But we must remember that the “Ban the Box” movement — aimed at removing the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record from hiring applications — is all well and good but is not synonymous with retention when it comes to second chances. A recent lawsuit filed by Durham-based group Forward Justice could win back voting rights for more than 70,000 convicted felons in North Carolina, and look for organizers like Patrice Funderburg with Educate 2 Engage to continue that work with directly impacted community members on the ground locally.