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Greg Jarrell’s ‘Our Trespasses’ Holds Churches to Account in Brooklyn’s Razing

Providence and the bulldozer

Mayor Stan Brookshire and Redevelopment Commission Chairman Elmer Rozier start the demolition of Brooklyn at 310 South Davidson Street. (Charlotte Redevelopment Commission Records, J. Murrey Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte)

You don’t have to be a person of faith to believe in sin and redemption. 

The story of how Charlotte’s white forefathers successfully razed Charlotte’s former Brooklyn neighborhood and strove to reshape an image of Uptown Charlotte without Black residents during the 1960s represents a parable steeped in the former and crying for the latter, which is why local Charlottean Greg Jarrell’s latest book, Our Trespasses: White Churches and the Taking of American Neighborhoods, released in February, provides a welcome addition to the long canon of writing about how urban renewal reshaped American cities from the 1950s to the 1970s. 

For those of you who don’t know, the bulldozing of Charlotte’s former Brooklyn neighborhood cleared just over 1,000 households — all of them Black — from what had become prime real estate in the Second Ward over the span of roughly a decade, finishing in the 1970s. Half a century later, on any given night there are now more Black people interned in the Mecklenburg County Detention Center, built on “renewed” Brooklyn land, than there are Black residents living in what was once one of the preeminent Black enclaves of the Southeast. 

The real estate that Black Brooklynites were cleared from has increased nearly tenfold in value, adjusted for inflation. A majority of Black Charlotteans now live in neighborhoods with lower home appreciation rates than white peers and with less access to jobs and opportunity than what is now available in the Second Ward. 

There’s also a church where Brooklyn once stood — a white church, First Baptist Church, for whom the story of Brooklyn’s renewal took on a different sort of biblical proportions compared to the destruction it wreaked upon the former enclave. In 1965, First Baptist won the third of three auctions (the first two were won by car dealerships) to secure one of the first parcels of cleared Brooklyn land in order to re-center its congregation. 

For this church, urban renewal represented a shot at spiritual renewal; Brooklyn’s clearance appeared a divinely ordained chance to solidify its membership by picking a central location with easy access to highways to which parishioners could return after being siphoned away by sprawl. 

The cover of Our Trespasses: White Churches and the Taking of American Neighborhoods
Greg Jarrell’s ‘Our Trespasses’ was released in February.

Parables again — shepherds calling to their flock, a flame resolutely burning in the darkness. Imagine telling a population still living under Jim Crow that their uprooting and replacement was divine will. 

And yet, this was exactly what Charlotte’s white churches and religious figures did, as Jarrell documents in unfalteringly great detail throughout Our Trespasses. A God-fearing man himself, Jarrell’s is a story that resurfaces scuttled sin to encourage its ultimate redemption. 

Says Jarrell at the opening of his book, “Though the Christian story is finally one of fall and redemption, of shortcomings met with grace, white churches, in particular, continue to live in fear of confronting their own pasts. We’ve chosen the silence.” 

His is a call that begs a response. 

A haunting in Charlotte

Urban renewal often assumes dimensions of the divine in its retellings. “Planned destruction.” “Removal.” “Displacement.” “Revitalization.” Whether by supporters or detractors, these actions without an actor replicate the concept of divine intervention, eradicating all the real human messiness that led up to most renewal projects not directed by maniacal power brokers like Robert Moses in New York. 

Charlotte’s renewal program was one such embattled endeavor. Through the 1950s, city leaders struggled to amass political strength necessary to coerce the North Carolina General Assembly to lower its threshold for defining neighborhood “blight,” without which the city could not hope to unlock federal renewal funds created by the Housing Act of 1949. 

Even once it succeeded in lobbying the legislature to lower that threshold. Charlotte’s initial renewal plans did not meet federal standards for new housing for displaced persons or citizen participation. This threw the city’s grand scheme to replace Brooklyn into limbo. It was here when then-Mayor Stan Brookshire, previously president of the same Charlotte Chamber of Commerce that helped mastermind Charlotte’s renewal program, let Jesus take the wheel on the road to renewal. 

Rental homes at the lower end of the Brooklyn neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

This Jesus was a white Jesus, and he came primarily in the form of three actors: Zeb Strawn, a banker and member of the liberal-leaning Dilworth Methodist Church whom Brookshire appointed to chair the city’s Citizen Committee on Urban Renewal (CCUR); Medd F. McNeill, an active member of the Myers Park Baptist Church whom Strawn assigned to the Community Improvement Subcommittee of the CCUR; and Rev. Richard Hildebrandt, minister of the Wilmore Presbyterian Church and late joiner to the CCUR.

Strawn functioned as the group’s mastermind, the central player who held the CCUR to fulfilling the obligations that threatened to detour Charlotte’s renewal program. 

According to Jarrell’s account, it appears it was Strawn’s idea for McNeill to spearhead a multi-year community cleanup campaign funneled through local churches to help pass the requirement for citizen engagement. This was key to allaying concerns that the displaced Brooklyn community would fall into a vacuum following its clearance. 

Hildebrandt, meanwhile, served as a public speaker for renewal who could spin all this activism into a morally inspired, divine story of redemption. In both live sermons and soundbites published by the Charlotte Observer, Hildebrandt balanced critiques of exploitative landlords who contributed to slum conditions with the old standard of patronizing the poor, answering questions about their tribulations with a finger wave or a shoulder shrug. Those who can and could would have done better

People listened and leaned into his religiously inflected lectures about individual initiative as they celebrated McNeill’s clean-up campaigns, which eased the experience of impoverishment and inequality in neighborhoods like Brooklyn but, of course, stopped well short of alleviating both. 

Learn more: How Redlining, Blockbusting and ‘Urban Renewal’ Victimized a Community

Still, CCUR’s spiritually empowered strategy to turn public opinion — and along with it, the opinion of federal officials — in favor of Charlotte’s urban renewal succeeded. The government allowed Charlotte to demolish all of Brooklyn at a cost — two thirds of which was borne by the feds, and one third of which was borne by the city — of more than 10 million dollars, which would equate to over $80 million today. 

Despite making some concessions to build public housing, the city never followed through on promises to provide homes for those displaced from Brooklyn and other renewal sites scattered across the city, destroying more units (11,000) through the 1970s than it built affordable replacements (7,000). To this day, Charlotte remains mired in an affordable housing shortage that overlaps with still-existing crises of segregation and displacement. 

Jarell says his book is about haunting, and indeed Brooklyn is gone but still with us.  

Brooklyn to Ballantyne to Beatties Ford 

So what does redemption look like? That’s the million-dollar question — $80 million if you’re only counting the cost of Brooklyn’s demolition — and involves so much more than just Charlotte city government or the First Baptist Church. 

There’s the incremental difference between home equity gains that Black Brooklynites would have realized had they been allowed to retain their homes and the lower-appreciating neighborhoods where many were relocated. Marshall Park, built on renewed Brooklyn land, was recently appraised at over $30 million; First Baptist’s land was appraised at about the same, and these only represent about 5% of the land associated with the former neighborhood. 

There are also the lost sales opportunities for 200-plus dislocated Black businesses. There’s all the grief and disorientation associated with the imposed destruction of one’s community through what renewal critic Mindy Thompson Fullilove calls “root shock.” 

Brooklyn business district on South Brevard Street, with Mecklenburg Investment Company Building in foreground, Grace AME Zion church in background. (Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

Then there’s the private profit reaped from vulnerable Black households dislocated by renewal. The rich revenues earned by opportunistic real estate investors like Mayor Stan Brookshire’s brother, who blockbusted neighborhoods to find homes to extort the displaced — the federally guaranteed low-interest and low-down-payment loans and discounted city land through which slum clearance proponent C.D. Spangler built segregated rental housing for Black households (Brookhill Village and the former Double Oaks) on real estate that continues to benefit his billionaire family and its $467 million foundation

The prime interest earned on renewal bonds bought by local banks. The commissions made by members of the Charlotte Board of Realtors who sold Brooklyn’s land (and who shared its office with the CCUR). The list goes on and on and onward…

“To redeem is to buy back, to release from a debt, to dissolve a lien, to clear from distress, to end a captivity,” Jarrell writes. This holds true not just for the community of Brooklyn, but for all the city of Charlotte haunted by Brooklyn’s renewal through its form as a city still cloven apart — haves and have-nots, Ballantyne and Beatties Ford, homeowners and the housing unstable.  

Jarrell’s book shows how white churches lit the way to renewal and all that preceded it by turning the clearance of Charlotte’s premier Black community into a spiritual crusade embraced by enough Charlotteans to turn ideas to action. 

Redemption for them, then, might begin with calling their flock to a new crusade to make atones for the old one — one to bring the remnants of the Black community they scattered about back home and return what was once taken using the bastardized word of God for justification.

Myers Park Baptist Church will host a reading and discussion with Greg Jarrell on ‘Our Trespasses’ on March 17.

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