Finding Home: Cherry Residents Struggle With The Effects Of Gentrification

Jan 21, 2019

Growth, development and gentrification have all contributed to the affordable housing shortage in Charlotte. As upscale apartment complexes and expensive homes are increasingly being built, low- and middle-income residents are being priced out of many neighborhoods. One example is the community of Cherry, where it’s now common for newer homes to sale for $700,000-$800,000, sometimes more.

Large homes surround Cherry's park.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE

Clyde Johnson said many of his friends in Cherry were displaced when their rentals were sold and razed to make room for the new homes.

“Main Street, Baldwin, Torrence they just ran them out… They had to go to shelters and motels,” Johnson said. “Those brick duplexes (where they lived) was nice, renting for $250 or $300 a month. Seems like they just running off the low-income people, not much affordable housing left.”

Vice president of the Cherry Community Organization (CCO) Barbara Rainey cringed as she remembered her birth home being demolished. Rainey has lived in Cherry for 68 years.

“They tore down my home one day last week, 414 Cherry Street,” Rainey said. “I lost the place I was raised in. It was a hurting thing, but I’m learning that you have to let go.”

Barbara Rainey,left, vice president of the Cherry Community Organization and CCO President Virginia Bynum.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE

Longtime Cherry residents say they have had to let go of a lot, including for some, the ability to afford to stay in the community that they love — a 100-acre community that was developed in 1891 to promote homeownership for working-class African-Americans. 

Cherry is located a mile southeast of uptown. Many of the homes have panoramic views of Charlotte’s skyline. It is those views and Cherry’s closeness to uptown that attracted developers and high-income families. The displacement of those who couldn’t afford to stay has resulted in Cherry going from 66 percent African-American 25 years ago to about 57 percent white today.

“Some neighbors have embraced us and some came in wanting change, didn’t want the neighborhood store that just reopened and has been here forever to sell alcohol beverages,” Rainey said.

New 81-unit, low-income apartment complex being built in Cherry to replace older, smaller income-restricted apartments.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE

She said a few new residents wanted to immediately be on the Cherry Community Organization’s board after they moved in.

“Some feel they should be able to do that, just take over,” Rainey said.

So tensions have been high in Cherry. Some longtime residents accuse white residents of calling the police on them when walking on streets near the newer homes or while playing basketball in Cherry’s park.

“I’m sure some are warranted but as the community [police] officer says, you don’t just call the police because you see a black guy walking down the street,” Rainey said. “In fact, my brother said he was walking down Baxter street and somebody said something to him and he said ‘Look, I’ve been living here all my life so I belong here, too.’”

Two of the few older homes still left in the Cherry community.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn

And there are complaints from some new residents that the black residents are at times too loud, often talking to each other from different sides of streets.

“I do that with my neighbors," said Rosalyn Jacobs, one of the few new African-American residents in Cherry living in one of the larger homes. "I say, ‘Hi Mrs. Dennis. How you feeling? How is Mr. Dennis?' It’s just what we do, we shout out each other.”

But Jacobs, a former member of WFAE's board of directors, has known people there for years. She said she always wanted to live in Cherry because of the neighborhood’s history and the closeness of its residents. She said a few complaints about behavior in the park may be warranted when outside residents come to play basketball but thinks most are exaggerated.

“To give you an example, it’s been a tradition here forever on the Fourth [of July] for neighbors to go to the park and light fireworks and I saw on Facebook a lot of complaints from some newer residents saying ‘How long will this go on? It’s so loud,’" Jacobs said. "Well guess what, that comes with the neighborhood. Get over it."

Jacobs said she’s friends with new and old residents and said there are newcomers who appreciate Cherry’s history and its diversity, such as Stephanie Gardner. Her family moved to Cherry last summer.

“Coming in and knowing that tension existed made it a little easier in terms of my responsibility to reach out to the African-American members of the community and more of the people who know what’s going on in the community,” Gardner said. “I also come to all of the neighborhood meetings.”

So does Diane Powell, who moved with her family to Cherry from Myers Park three years ago because of Cherry’s economic and racial diversity.

“You have to be intentional in building relationships,” Powell said. “I’m not here to run anything, not here to tell anybody how to do anything. I’m here to listen and learn and through that, I’ve gotten a sense of what’s happening here to people. It has allowed me to develop relations with longtime residents.”

Older residents say they are resigned to the changes in Cherry but what hurts is how they got here.

Stephanie Gardner (left) and CCO Vice President Barbara Rainey attend a community meeting at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Cherry
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE

Cherry began to decline in the 1970s and a lot of the properties ended up in the hands of absentee landlords who didn’t always keep them up. CCO officials bought more than 100 homes through a loan from the city during that time. They kept rents low but the organization was pressed financially.

About 15 years ago, about 90 of the CCO homes were sold to the StoneHunt development company below market value in exchange for promises that affordable housing would be built on the land for Cherry seniors, disabled and low-income residents. Only 42 senior citizen units were built at the Cherry Gardens apartment complex. Much of the rest was sold to other developers, who built luxury homes on the sites. CCO officials sued and last year, the court ruled in their favor but StoneHunt filed for bankruptcy, leaving the multi-million dollar judgment they planned to use for affordable housing up in the air.

Charlotte’s Housing Director Pam Wideman said the city is sensitive to Cherry’s affordable housing needs and is responding.

“What you are starting to see now alongside the newer homes is some of the affordable development being built there," Wideman said. "The architectural style was intentionally designed so it reflects the older character of the homes. The older neighborhood residents were adamant about that."

Charlotte Housing Director Pamela Wideman says the city is sensitive to the affordable housing needs in Cherry
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn

Wideman points to the $1.2 million the city approved for the Charlotte Housing Authority to tear down a smaller, older low-income complex in Cherry and build 81 affordable units at the site. The city has also partnered with Laurel Street Residential to build 30 income-restricted units on city land in Cherry.  

“That’s really important because when you think about who needs affordable housing, you look around Cherry and you have lots of the service industry there, retail, the hospital," Wideman said. "It’s important for people who work in those facilities who are lower income earners to have the opportunity to live close to where they work."

There has been talk about turning Cherry’s Morgan School building, a historical landmark, into affordable housing. The charter school there closed last year and it’s currently not being used. City Councilman Larken Egleston, who represents Cherry, said the city could step in to preserve that piece of Cherry’s history.

City Councilman Larken Egleston represents the Cherry community. He says new affordable housing being built in Cherry will make it possible for those displaced to come back.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn

“I hope we can find a long term preservation strategy for the Morgan School in a way to reactive it and make it something that benefits all in the community,” Egleston said. “It’s very much the heart of Cherry and if we were to lose that building, that would be the final straw that they let Cherry go."

Rainey, of CCO, said she "doesn't know what the future holds" but knows that there will be "bigger and better things for Cherry."

"I think Cherry will come together and we will get what we need and live in a peaceful setting that everybody loves,” Rainey said. 

And change slowly happening with longtime and new residents organizing a book club and panel discussions on the history of Cherry. They also successfully worked together this month to get the Charlotte Area Transit System to reinstate the bus stop in Cherry — a victory that stemmed from a united front.

This story is part of WFAE’s Finding Home series, our weekly look in 2019 at the housing challenges and changes throughout the Charlotte area.