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Arts & Culture
These articles were excerpted from Tapestry, a weekly newsletter that examines the arts and entertainment world in Charlotte and North Carolina.

The Ritz is reborn — in a way — in west Charlotte

The Ritz at Washington Heights
Jodie Valade
/
WFAE
Neighborhood leader Mattie Marshall and Charlotte City Council member Malcolm Graham saw through a “grand opening” two-by-four at The Ritz at Washington Heights.

The rhythmic thumping of African drums echoed at the corner of Beatties Ford Road and Tate Street on Saturday. And the melody of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice,” rose in the air to signal the christening of a new community space called The Ritz at Washington Heights.

“The ancestors have been called to this place, so for those of you who know it, I want you to sing it, for those of you who don’t, I want you to try,” Toni Tupponce declared before launching into song with the several dozen people gathered.

The nod to the history and heritage of the small patch of open space was an attempt to honor the past while creating something new along what Charlotte has deemed its Corridor of Opportunity. At the site 60 years ago, the last Black theater was built in Charlotte. The Ritz Theater operated until 1971 and stood until the '90s, when the empty building was torn down.

Dorothy Counts-Scoggins (second from right, front row) stands as the crowd sings “Lift Every Voice.”
Jodie Valade
Dorothy Counts-Scoggins (second from right, front row) stands as the crowd sings “Lift Every Voice.”

Dorothy Counts-Scoggins is the trailblazing face of desegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools who grew up in the area. She remembers how education was not the only part of life in the 1960s where she was forced to be separated from white people. If she wanted to see movies, her options were limited.

“We only had three choices in Charlotte, and the Ritz was one,” she said. “And the Grand Theater, which is near where I live now across from Johnson C. Smith. And the other one was in Brooklyn, which was torn down.”

The Ritz was a haven for the Black community in Washington Heights, which was once home to Black professionals and professors from the nearby historically Black university. People still talk about how they could watch movies for 25 cents, and how the hot dogs at the concession stand were some of the best they’d ever tasted. And most of all, how it was a safe place where they could gather.

“As a matter of fact, I saw ‘Imitation of Life’ at this theater, because other theaters in Charlotte would not show it,” Counts-Scoggins said. “It was here at the Ritz. Of course, I was in college at the time, but we didn’t have a lot of choices.”

Now, Mattie Marshall is hopeful that The Ritz at Washington Heights can be a new sanctuary for people who live nearby. Marshall is the president of the Washington Heights Community Association, and she’s lived in the neighborhood for 35 years.

She watched the empty field where The Ritz once stood become a neglected site of scattered empty bottles and cans. Thanks to a $200,000 grant from Lowe’s 100 Hometowns initiative and another $50,000 from the city of Charlotte, the space was transformed in three months to a gathering place with benches, cafe tables, artwork and public Wi-Fi.

“We are grateful that the city and Lowe’s saw this as a place where it will uplift the people with dignity and respect in honoring their strong sense of history,” Marshall said. “Preservation of history, the arts and culture, is essential to a neighborhood of Washington Heights that dates back to 1910, named in honor of Booker T. Washington.”

Ritz2.jpg
Jodie Valade
African drummers pound instruments to add to the festive atmosphere at the grand opening ceremony.

Charlotte City Council member Malcolm Graham, who represents the district, praised other recent financial pledges to revitalize the Beatties Ford Road area, including a recent $20 million investment by Fifth Third Bank.

“Things are happening on Beatties Ford Road, for sure,” he said.

The main objective for this space, though, was to recapture the moment in time where people in the community gathered. Erin Chantry, an urban designer and planner for Charlotte, helped write the grant proposal and made sure there was a significant nod to how the community wanted to honor its history.

The Ritz at Washington Heights
Jodie Valade
The new sign outside The Ritz at Washington Heights.

“The community really wanted to do something with this lot and to bring back the meaning that that place once stood. First and foremost, they wanted to bring the movies back to the Ritz,” Chantry said. “Part of our grant included movie equipment so that they could have movie nights any time they wanted out in the Ritz.”

After a piece of wood was ceremonially sawed in half to officially open the space, part of the festivities included the first movie shown: The Disney film “Soul” was broadcast in the park.

Counts-Scoggins, for one, is glad that not only the old magic is back, but that the past is being remembered.

“That’s been my biggest concern when I moved back over here,” she said. “We have such rich history on this corridor.”

But it’s also something new. Marshall says she now enjoys coming to the park in the morning to sit on a bench, meditate and talk with anyone who happens to walk by.

“It's a healing environment, the way I see it,” she said.

Which might be the best way to honor what it once was.

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