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Virtual Reconstruction Project Rebuilds Black Communities Lost to Displacement

A real urban renewal

virtual reconstruction
A gathering at a home in Second Ward. (Photo courtesy of James G. Peeler Collection/Johnson c. Smith University)

Once a lively neighborhood whose streets were filled with bustling businesses and rich culture, Charlotte’s Historic West End neighborhood is merely a skeleton of its former glory. The civil rights movement, the bombings of Black activists’ homes on the Beatties Ford Road corridor, and the construction of highways I-277 and I-77 all played a part in the inevitable displacement of that thriving Black community.

The change didn’t come all at once, but through a series of gradual and strategic legislative changes — many of which under the guise of the harmful so-called “urban renewal” process — until almost everyone who had once called it home could no longer afford it. The displacement of the people living in the Historic West End community followed the end of segregation and came just before the passing of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

Now thanks to three grants worth more than $300,000 from Knight Foundation, the National Parks Service, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the team at Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte’s only historically Black college, will soon begin working on a three-part urban renewal project to create virtual reconstructions of Charlotte’s most prominent Black neighborhoods, including the Brooklyn, Greenville, Third Ward, First Ward and Historic West End neighborhoods.

A team of historians and archivists from the university plan to recreate 3-D models of these Black communities, including Historic West End, an area that surrounds the present-day JCSU campus, creating a virtual reconstruction of how the neighborhood would have looked in the 1960s. 

The virtual reconstruction project includes an interface comparable to Google Maps, according to JCSU historic archivist and digital manager Brandon Lunsford, who will serve as co-pilot for this project alongside university historian, electronic records librarian and fellow archivist Dr. Tekla Ali Johnson, who will serve as the pilot. The team is also receiving help from historians at UNC Charlotte.

Lunsford is spearheading the digitization of several large maps from the Charlotte Planning Commission that were used to document and justify the policies at the time.

“It really felt like we’re peeking into history and to the mindset of that time,” Johnson shares about the urban renewal project.

The team will also work with Duke University’s Digital Humanities Lab to digitize parts of African-American communities that were destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s in an augmented reality environment, while tracing the path of displaced families and institutions across the city, highlighting parallels with current threats of gentrification in the Historic West End neighborhoods around the university.

An homage to Charlotte’s history

When historic buildings get torn down, all that’s left are the memories that happened within those walls. That is, unless there’s a paper trail.

“I had seen urban renewal in other communities across the country and to see that not only do we have information about it generally, but we actually had the meeting minutes and the decisions that were made by the city in real-time,” Johnson says, explaining how the normalization of urban renewal and displacement by city leaders remains well-documented today.

“They would say things like, ‘There are 3-4,000 Black families … it would be moving only three white families and we’re going to take care of them.’”

virtual reconstruction
Johnson C. Smith University will soon begin working on a three-part project to create virtual reconstructions of Charlotte’s most prominent Black neighborhoods, including the Brooklyn, Greenville, Third Ward, First Ward and Historic West End neighborhoods. (Photo courtesy of James G. Peeler Collection/Johnson c. Smith University)

These historically Black communities were condemned as “blighted” and disease-ridden by the city. In actuality, developers tore down these neighborhoods because they had become prime real estate for the growing white population, and the truth lives in these historical documents.

As an archivist of 10 years, Lunsford is no stranger to pouring over government documents, deeds and personal letters that tell the story of people and structures that are no longer here.

Brandon Lunsford (Photo by Austin Dali Caine)

Having just finished up a master’s degree in Library Science, Lunsford’s interests drew him toward digital mapping, a way of locating historic buildings, marking where they would be now and sharing their history.

He took a course on digital mapping during his master’s program, thus began his first foray into virtual storytelling, a digital recreation of the Historic West End neighborhood in the form of a Google Map.

In a way, the effort was meant to demystify the puzzle pieces surrounding Charlotte’s history.

Formerly an African American Studies professor at JCSU, Dr. Johnson returned to work in the library where she crossed paths with Lunsford. They shared an interest in digital mapping and how it could be used to track the negative effects that urban renewal has had on local communities.

In 2019, after Lunsford finished a previous project, they joined forces to apply for grants to fund their digital mapping ideas.

The pair received word in late 2020 that their grant applications were successful and got to work immediately, knowing there was a long road ahead, especially while working from home in the middle of a pandemic.

Each grant represents one part of the three-phase project. The first one, $75,000 from the Knight Foundation, covers the digitization of maps the duo has collected with help from Rita Johnston, digital production librarian at UNC Charlotte and Dawn Schmitz, associate dean for Special Collections & University Archives at the J. Murrey Atkins Library at UNC Charlotte. The second, $38,000 from the National Parks Service, allows the team to create their virtual reconstructions, while the final, largest allotment — $194,000 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission — granted them the opportunity to work with Duke University to build an augmented reality site where they plan to share their findings.

“I think this project will be crucial to understanding how the machinery of institutional racism worked in Charlotte, as far as housing discrimination, forced dislocation, and highway construction,” Lunsford shares. “This happened all over the country but this will show how it played out in Charlotte. It will also show how Black communities are still under threat under a different guise, in this case, gentrification as another form of resettlement.”

Once complete, the collaborative renewal project put together by Johnson, Lunsford and the support staff at JCSU will act as a time capsule of the Queen City’s past and help residents and city leaders recognize patterns so these issues don’t continue to repeat over time.

Pushing the needle

When I spoke with Dr. Johnson over the phone, we shared a bittersweet yet cathartic laugh over the current state of housing inequality in Charlotte, discussing the cyclical nature of history in the respect that even decades later, Black people in Charlotte are still dealing with displacement and the city is doing little to stop it.

Every year, it seems like Charlotte becomes home to another corporate headquarters and any number of luxury apartment complexes to accommodate the influx of people moving to a city that doesn’t seem prepared to take on the growth it is experiencing.

In 2020, Charlotte saw the opening of the new Honeywell headquarters, while it was also announced that the city will gain its first medical school. In March, Robinhood announced a Charlotte corporate office, promising nearly 400 jobs in the process. In our sprawling city that is growing to be too big for its britches, there’s only so much space to build and when that happens, the cost of housing goes up and people get displaced because they can’t keep up.

Charlotteans praise companies for bringing jobs and attention to the area but some fail to consider if these jobs are accessible, or if they inspire the flight of even more people that don’t have the resources to afford luxury accommodations.

When more luxury housing pops up around the city, will there be an equal amount of affordable housing? That hasn’t been how development around the city has played out to this point.

For the properties that do exist, will the price remain the same or will the cost of living increase due to the scarcity of housing and the need to stay competitive? The more Charlotte grows, the less space it has, leaving much room for growth in terms of equal and fair housing.

Eight months ago, the virtual reconstruction project was just an idea shared between archivists, and has since turned into so much more. When all is said and done, the three-phase urban renewal project is expected to take the team two years to complete.

“To make the impact of urban renewal clear, it can be said that it is similar to the processes by which Native Americans were ‘removed’ by those who coveted their lands,” said Dr. Johnson. “African Americans have been removed from the locations where they settled as freepersons after the American Civil War. This pattern of removal is also analogous to the Bantustans or reserves which Africans in South Africa were restricted to under apartheid.

“This pattern of gentrification has occurred all across the United States, jeopardizing the financial stability of African-American communities and impacting our economic well-being and even health in many cases. This project does not recover the land, but it does seek to reconstruct a virtual sense of place, history, narrative, to illustrate the warmth and strengths of these African-American communities and to reinforce African-American culture.”

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