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One of Mecklenburg’s Oldest Black Communities Makes Itself Seen

More than a mural

LaToya Rivers, chair of the Pottstown Heritage Group. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Standing beside a veiled mural in front of the historic Torrence-Lytle School in Huntersville on Oct. 11, Tonya Rivers, chair of the Pottstown Heritage Group, addressed her neighbors about the importance of the occasion.

“It’s important that we as residents and family here of this community, continue to keep this community historic, keep it alive, keep it well known, because so many people forget about Pottstown,” said Rivers, a Pottstown native who is currently running for Huntersville Board of Commissioners. “But we are history. We are Pottstown and we have a wealth of history to give.”

Pottstown, Huntersville’s first neighborhood built by and for African Americans, was officially named in 1909. The community began as a sparsely settled area of small farms and workers’ dwellings built by formerly enslaved people, with churches marking the general boundaries.

More than a century later, Pottstown continues to fight for respect as a majority Black neighborhood in its north Mecklenburg suburb. Rivers’ shirt on that Wednesday morning, matching with those of a handful of young people in attendance, read “Pottstown New Generation Against Gentrification.”

The new Pottstown mural.
The new Pottstown mural. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Rivers and other community members spent much of 2022 fighting against a development called Valea Village, a planned 150-home community on 30 acres of vacant land that borders Pottstown. Community members protested the planned development, voicing concerns that it would result in displacement of elderly residents whose families had lived in the Pottstown neighborhood for generations.

In August 2022, thanks in large part to grassroots organizing within the Pottstown community, Mecklenburg County announced it would buy the land that had been slated for Valea Village and build a park there instead.

Pottstown stands up

The Oct. 11 event at the corner of Holbrooks Road and Central Avenue was another celebration of progress in the fight against gentrification in Pottstown, as the mural unveiling marked the end of a home-repair campaign that was carried out in the neighborhood over the summer.

“This mural will provide both cultural and historical value to identify the community for our neighbors coming in that live over the way in Vermillion,” said Rachel Zwipf, vice chair of Pottstown Heritage Group, referencing an affluent neighborhood farther down Holbrooks Road, “that they know that we are here and we’re here to stay and that we have a voice and that it needs to be heard and to come and get to know us and talk to us. Just don’t drive past and speed through the stop sign. Stop and be mindful of the community in which you reside.”

Community members wait to see the mural unveiling in Pottstown.
Community members wait to see the mural unveiling. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The home-repair campaign saw Pottstown Heritage Group partner with Charlotte-based job-training organization She Built This City (SBTC) to make improvements to 10 homes in the small neighborhood, installing wheelchair ramps and pull-up bars for safety while making electrical and plumbing repairs and other critical home improvements that will help ensure elderly residents have the opportunity to age in place at their longtime homes.

As a nod to the community’s identity and unity, SBTC and the Pottstown Heritage Group commissioned Pottstown’s first-ever community mural, designed by Charlotte artists Lo’Vonia Parks and Elizabeth Palmisano to reflect the rich history of the community, incorporating feedback from Pottstown residents.

Lo’Vonia Parks (right) with Elizabeth Palmisano. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“Having a community mural that identifies the Pottstown community will preserve and celebrate the heritage of the Pottstown Community, restoring unity amongst neighbors and gaining trust that a brighter future is ahead,” said Zwipf. “Most importantly, it is empowering the community to come and be known that their voices matter and that Pottstown is worth celebrating.”

In addition to the sign, the two organizations placed a brightly painted bench in front of the mural for the children who wait for the school bus there.

Learn more: Elizabeth Palmisano Tapped for Major Light Rail Arts Installation

Speaking at the unveiling, artist Lo’Vonia Parks discussed how art plays a role in efforts like that of grassroots organizers in Pottstown in recent years by quoting Palmisano, her partner in the mural project.

“My good friend Elizabeth [Palmisano] once said that art is the salve on the wound of gentrification,” Parks said. “Art has the power to heal and within healing, it is transformational — not transactional. Healing is priceless. If we refuse to tell all of our American history, we will leave our future confused and lost. Today is a step among many before us in the right direction.”

True community building

The Pottstown campaign was a pilot program of sorts for She Built This City, which hopes to carry out similar campaigns in other neighborhoods where there is a need.

According to SBTC executive director LaToya Faustin, the organization will next work with residents in Smithville, another historically Black community in northern Mecklenburg County (Cornelius) that was founded by formerly enslaved people.

“When you are a senior living on your own with lower resources and this is a familiar home, you’ve had this home for generations and you are overwhelmed by its upkeep, you have people calling you asking you to sell your house,” Faustin told Queen City Nerve. “It becomes one of those things where it may not be for its value and it may not be in your best interest in the long term, but because of that immediate need that you see you’re selling. And I think it’s a little predatory.”

Jasmine Vincent with She Built This City speaks at the mural unveiling in Pottstown. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Faustin emphasized that her organization does not specialize in critical home repair but in job training, which means they have a different approach to the initiative than an organization like Habitat for Humanity that works solely on home construction and repair.

For that reason, she believes SBTC’s new aging-in-place home-repair initiative can bridge generational gaps, involving folks of all ages and helping to not only keep people in their homes but train young people with valuable job skills.

“My dream is that She Built This City is offering free job training into a community, and in that community, Aunt Linda is in the job-training class, Grandma Shirley is getting the critical home repair done, and little Johnny is in one of our summer build camps,” she said.

“And so it’s like a whole economic ecosystem of empowerment and upward mobility. And so this work that we’re doing in Pottstown I believe has opened up my eyes to what you might call community-focused economic mobility … So I think we’ve stumbled across something that is going to be transformational for both the women that we train and the communities that we’re getting to serve through this initiative.”

Stay tuned to qcnerve.com for the full interview with LaToya Faustin, executive director of She Built This City. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote from Rachel Zwipf to LaToya Rivers. In it, Zwipf said she has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years. Rivers is a Pottstown native.

LaToya Rivers speaks at the mural unveiling. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
Community members await the mural unveiling in Pottstown.
Community members await the mural unveiling in Pottstown. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
The Pottstown mural unveiling. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
Huntersville Mayor Melinda Bales speaks at the unveiling. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
Longtime Pottstown resident Bee Jay Caldwell speaks at the unveiling. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
Longtime Pottstown resident Helen Lexie Brown Rivers speaks at the unveiling. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
Residents sign the mural in Pottstown.
Residents sign the mural in Pottstown. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
Residents sign the mural in Pottstown.
Residents sign the mural in Pottstown. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
Residents sign the mural in Pottstown. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
Members of She Built This City were granted flowers by residents in Pottstown. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
A man sits on a bench in Pottstown laughing
SBTC also installed a bench in front of the mural for kids who wait on the bus there. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)
Pottstown residents and She Built This City organizers pose for a photo
Pottstown residents and She Built This City organizers pose for a photo. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

 


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