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OPINION: When Black Siding Replaces Black Lives

When the house flippers show up in west Charlotte, they move out the Black people, but they bring in black siding.  It’s a fair trade, they argue. You have to find a way to honor the legacy without getting in the way of progress. By progress they mean “money,” which is, I guess, why a lot of the doors are painted bright green now.

Jimmy has lived here in Enderly Park for two decades. I’ve been here almost that long, and we’ve been a couple doors down from one another all of that time. Like most of the long-time neighbors, he’s Black. I’m white, as are most of the newcomers moving into the dozens of new and renovated houses. 

Jimmy sees things differently than your garden-variety house flipper. “Man, I never seen a neighborhood empty out this fast,” he told me. He got run out of a different neighborhood 35 years ago, and another one 25 years ago, before he settled here. So I guess he would know.

From my porch, he looks to be right. Sitting on my porch reading a book, with or without a cold drink, is my favorite activity. I do that a lot now. I didn’t used to — although it was my favorite activity in the past as well — because I couldn’t. Every time I tried, I’d get two pages in before winding up in a conversation with some passerby. I still sat on the porch a lot, but bringing a book out became pointless. That’s what happens in a neighborly place, I guess.

But then the city changed the bus route and moved the bus shelter out of the front yard. And the flippers came through and ran half the neighbors out, and now they’re working on the others — except Jimmy, who ain’t going nowhere. From my rocking chair, I used to see folks pass by using every form of transport that humans use to get to one another – walking, biking, scooters, skateboards, rollerblades, go-karts, lawn mowers, old cars, new cars, trucks, dirt bikes, motorcycles, horses, four-wheelers — some ridden on the left two wheels, some ridden on the right two wheels. But they especially moved by walking, the repeated motion of planting a foot into the soil in front of you, over and over and over.

Muddy Turtle Talks
(Photo by Justin LaFrancois)

Now the sidewalks feel empty, and the line of cars at the stoplight has grown longer. I guess the house flippers write into the contracts that you sleep inside the black siding but you go elsewhere to breathe fresh air. Seems you’re supposed to head across town — which you can reach easily thanks to the nearby expressways — rather than to your front porch or the sidewalk. You might go to your backyard, but only behind the newly built privacy fence, or across the tracks to the brewery or the “seltzery,” which is a place where they make alcoholic seltzer water, and which, it must be conceded, is peak white people. 

Wherever it is people are going, they are apparently clamoring to move here, but not to be here, which is hard to understand.

The new guy down the street with the crisp paint job, white brick and high-gloss black shutters and trim decided to do his part to cut down on any further walking by raking a pile of sticks and leaves right into the middle of the sidewalk. I tried to tell him that wasn’t exactly the most neighborly thing to do, but he had little white earbuds jammed in his head because those little novelties are perfect for avoiding conversation. 

I was going to tell him the names of the family who lived there before they gutted it, the house and the family, and the names of the family before that, and how they kept the leaves on the ground because the huge oaks made growing grass pretty much impossible and come spring he was just going to have a big mud pit, but the earbuds were turned up loud and the green door was speaking for him and I am so tired of yelling.

There’s some good news in the neighborhood as well. We have a new pub opening, and unlike most of the new businesses, it is Black-owned. The owners have a Baltimore Ravens sign on the outside. Despite their poor taste in football teams I’m looking forward to becoming a regular. 

The last establishment in that building was called Our Place. It was one of the few spots that never joined the white flight that happened here 45 years ago. Our Place was a private club, and the ‘us’ in ‘our’ were all white. But that was probably just a coincidence, given progress and all. 

When longtime neighbors Tony and Alicia walked down the street a decade ago to see about joining the club and getting a drink, there were no memberships available. Also a coincidence. 

But now The Hideaway is opening, and Tony and Alicia would be welcomed if they hadn’t moved. It would have taken us about four minutes to walk back from there to our corner, maybe five if the talking slowed us down. I’ll have to find someone else to walk back with, which used to be easier, before there was a pub to walk back from.

All over town there is a conversation going on about what a neighborhood means. When actual neighborhoods become inhospitable to their own residents, you get public conversations and panel discussions, even though people mostly just need better neighborhoods. When the material goods that constitute people’s lives – houses, gardens, pecan trees, parks, mutual aid networks, encounters on the sidewalk – get stripped away, suddenly the well-intentioned start searching for “meaning.” 

Meanwhile, the house flippers paint the doors green.

Terri used to have a home on my block. I don’t really know what “home” means to Terri and her 12-year-old son, except everything. She knew that before someone bought her house to flip and forced her to move. So, she took her household and reduced it down to fit into a car. Now she has to make do in a hotel room. 

Charlotte’s got a lot of that. 

Among the cruel ironies is that Terri’s house needed major renovations for years. Now that it’s finally getting them, she’ll never see the inside again.

The flip is almost complete. The privacy fence went up this week. Last week, a crew painted the exterior, and most of it is, well, you know.

You can read more about the changes occurring in Enderly Park in Greg Jarrell’s book, Riff of Love.

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