Driving down South McDowell Street near Marshall Park on Aug. 4 during a trip to the bank, Michael Zytkow happened to look to his left at the sidewalk in front of the Sheraton hotel and see someone holding their phone up, aimed at Marshall Park as if to take a picture.
To anyone else, this was just a tourist taking in the sights, but Zytkow didn’t need to see the green footprints painted on the sidewalk below the person or the QR code on the newly installed street sign next to them to recognize what was happening.
They were experiencing KnowCLT, a new app Zytkow developed in partnership with the Levine Museum of the New South that implements augmented reality to allow users to view the once-thriving Black neighborhood of Brooklyn in context to where the buildings once stood and the people once lived.
Having once been home to nearly 9,000 residents and a number of renowned Black-owned businesses, Brooklyn was razed in the 1960s in the name of so-called “urban renewal” and the construction of what is now I-277.
The person on the sidewalk was looking through their phone at the United House of Prayer, which used to stand on South McDowell Street in a corner of what is now Marshall Park. With the street signs having just been unwrapped that day for the first time, Zytkow was witnessing months of his work finally come to fruition in real time.
“My immediate reaction was to roll down the window and yell, ‘How are you liking it?!’” he recalls. “Then I was like, oh no, this person is going to wonder, ‘What the hell? That guy’s crazy,’ so I continued driving by, but that was kind of when it first hit me.”
KnowCLT had finally arrived on the streets of Charlotte.
The KnowCLT app builds on a foundation
I’m standing with Zytkow on the steps of the Historic Grace AME Zion Church, one of only four buildings left standing in what was once Brooklyn, compared to more than 1,000 that made up the neighborhood in 1960. We’re joined by two people he worked closely with on the project: Willie Griffin, staff historian at the Levine Museum; and Eric Scott, Levine’s director of exhibits and programs.
KnowCLT is the latest progression in an effort that Griffin and Scott have been working on since 2018, when they developed #HomeCLT, an augmented-reality app built by Dr. Ming-Chun Lee at UNC Charlotte. The app corresponded with a Levine Museum exhibit of the same name, which told the history of Charlotte neighborhoods like Hidden Valley, Eastland, Dilworth and Sedgefield in an interactive way.
In 2019, Griffin and Scott unveiled Brooklyn: A City Within a City, a #HomeCLT spin-off exhibit that dug deep into the history of Charlotte’s most renowned Black neighborhood. A City Within a City furthered the museum’s use of AR and other interactive technology, including large interactive floor maps that put Charlotte’s crescent-and-wedge layout in perspective and AR programming that allowed users to point an iPad at pictures of former neighborhood residents and hear them tell their own stories of life in Brooklyn.
“The technology allows us to tell the stories, make the stories more interesting, make them come to life, whereas if I’m just a historian writing a book, I’m quoting people and putting them in pages, but you can come to this exhibit and actually hear the people and hear their stories come out of their own mouths,” Griffin told Queen City Nerve when the exhibit opened in 2019. “So I think that always enlivens any kind of effort to understand an event or the history of this particular neighborhood.”
But Scott and Griffin always wanted more; they wanted to take the #HomeCLT series out of its home and onto the streets of Charlotte. They began taking steps toward that goal with experimental pop-up exhibits around Charlotte, but with the KnowCLT app, they have begun to fully realize their vision.
Experiencing KnowCLT does not require admission to Levine Museum or anything besides a smartphone. The user can download the app through a QR code on a street sign next to one of seven AR sites or simply download it through their respective app store.
Once in the app, Brooklyn comes alive, not only through the images that match up with their former real-life locations, but with narration and poetry by Hannah Hasan and plenty of historical reading put together by Griffin.
“What differs from a museum and how this can be even more approachable is you can start the tour at any of one of these sites,” Zytkow says. “You can start the tour at home or in a different country. You can play it remotely. If you want to see the AR experience, of course, it’s best to see it here in person, but we have all sorts of things in the app that allows people to experience it on their own terms.
“So if you want to primarily listen to audio, if you want to just look at pictures, if you want to slow down, sit on a bench and read through things, if you want to do the AR experience, it just allows you to experience Brooklyn on your own terms in the actual location where history happened.”
Bridging the generational gap
While the progression of AR technology at Levine has been a years-long effort by Scott and Griffin, the timeliness of an exhibit that does not require a patron’s actual attendance at the museum is not lost on them. News broke in June that the museum would be selling its two-story, 40,000-square-foot location on East 7th Street, where it’s been housed since 1996.
In a June 16 email to members, CEO Kathryn Hill wrote, “The Museum’s mission has never been more important, and if we are to reach broadly across the community, we must imagine new ways to create and deliver content in the digital age.”
According to Griffin, KnowCLT is simply the latest step toward modernizing the Levine Museum experience.
“Charlotte has always been this city that has been described as a place that tears down its history, but I’ve always tried to stress that the history is here even though the buildings have been torn down,” Griffin says.
“We have to find a way to tell that story for residents, because I’ve always been a big believer in the fact that if you learn more about the city, you can become a better citizen of the city and learn how to contribute. So I think this app, this exhibit, this walking tour, gives people an idea of the direction that we want to go in. We want this kind of history to be everywhere around the city, tangibly.”
It’s not only about branching out in the community to reach people where they are, but also to act as a form of outreach to younger folks who may not otherwise have interest in spending their free time at a history museum.
Griffin has believed in place-based education since his days as a teacher at West Charlotte High School, when he would take his students across Senior Drive to show them the former homes of local civil rights leaders Kelly and Fred Alexander that were bombed in 1965. He recognized how his students would absorb history differently when it was placed directly in front of them.
It’s a belief he’s tried to put into practice at Levine Museum.
“Over the past decade or so, with the rise of social media, museums and institutions like ours have been painfully aware that we’re not reaching certain groups of people,” Griffin says. “Museums have always been considered a sort of high-class thing to do, and how to keep people coming into the museum is something we struggle with.
“People are more likely to pick up their phones if they realize that they can go out and have an experience and learn and make it fun,” he continues. “It means a lot; this is what historians have always wanted to do. We didn’t want to just remain in the ivory towers talking to people who were fortunate enough to get into college. It’s about, how do we get our scholarship out?”
That’s where Zytkow comes in.
Putting it in pixels
Michael Zytkow launched Potions & Pixels in 2016 as a gaming event series in which he and his co-founders would bring dozens of game consoles into a venue like Petra’s and host a night of gaming and socializing for fans of independent and retro video games.
From the beginning, Zytkow’s passion for social progress remained at the forefront of his mind. The longtime activist and advocate has a history that includes roles in Occupy Charlotte and gigs with environmental groups like Greenpeace and Sustain Charlotte. He has run for Charlotte City Council and remains active and passionate about issues involving social justice.
Naturally, Zytkow has always wanted to use the more technical aspects of gaming and app development that he’s worked on with Potions & Pixels to intersect with his zeal for the greater good.
He truly began to realize that goal in 2019, when he developed a board game to help solicit feedback from younger residents to be used in the creation of the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan. Later that year, he headed a workforce-development program in partnership with the City of Charlotte, Abari Game Bar and others, training participants in the electrical trade through the repair of broken arcade games.
In early 2020, Potions & Pixels officially transitioned to a nonprofit organization, with all of its work and events aimed at utilizing games to create social impact. The organization recently partnered with the city to develop a game for the Solid Waste Services department titled Trash Dash CLT.
“A huge part of this is for people to have a larger sense of empathy for those who are in these other positions,” Zytkow says. “For Solid Waste Services, for example, people are like, ‘Oh they missed my trash,’ or, ‘Why aren’t they picking this up?’ and you play the game and you realize, oh wait a second, it’s really hard managing this entire fleet of trucks, keeping up with a growing city, that sort of thing.”
He’s reluctant to use the word “game” for a project as meaningful as KnowCLT, considering that former Brooklyn residents are still alive today and active in efforts to preserve the community’s memory, but he did include a gamification aspect to the app, allowing users to earn rewards in the form of coupons for nearby Black-owned businesses.
As he puts it, “Young people love achievements.”
Zytkow pulled out all the stops for KnowCLT, which he says is the largest project Potions & Pixels has worked on thus far.
“We’re using everything — GPS, all your sensors, when you’re calibrating the image that’s your accelerometers, your gyroscopes, when you’re retrieving all the audio, video and photos that’s a server that we built, there’s the gamification piece,” he says, officially surpassing my limited tech knowledge. “The scale of it is big, not to mention the topic is so massive, so I think in that way it’s also the most impactful.”
You don’t have to know anything about gyroscopes or accelerometers to understand the visceral effect of the KnowCLT app. It’s already impacted the way Zytkow views the city around him.
“I can’t walk in this area anymore without thinking about Brooklyn, like at all, at all,” he says. “Anytime I’m walking on these streets, my mind is constantly like, Alexander Funeral Home, this, that, thinking about the audio. So I’m hoping that, through this, more Charlotteans will have that experience so every time they pass the NASCAR Hall of Fame they’ll be like, ‘Oh OK, that’s where the first Black public library was,’ and that will resonate and stick with them.”
And just like that, as Griffin and Scott have worked for all these years, the city becomes the museum.