This Charlotte business incubator continues the historic Brooklyn neighborhood's legacy
A building that once was the heart of Charlotte’s Black business community has been reborn as the Brooklyn Collective, where small businesses, nonprofits and local artists come together to serve the community.
Jason Wolf did not know about the rich history of the three buildings he purchased six years ago when he was looking to invest in a commercial building.
He loved the feel of old churches and heard about the last remaining buildings from the former Brooklyn neighborhood.
Brooklyn was located in uptown’s second ward and was a Black community due to segregation. Brooklyn had its own schools, library, churches and a thriving business district. In the 1960s, the neighborhood was destroyed as part of Charlotte’s first wave of urban renewal. About 1,000 families were displaced from their homes, and nearly 1,500 buildings were ultimately razed.
Only a few of those original buildings remain.
Wolf ended up buying the Grace A.M.E. Zion Church at South Brevard and Third streets. He also bought the two buildings beside the church, including the Mecklenburg Investment Company, or MiCo for short.
It was the first office building open to Black professionals in Charlotte and was financed by that community. One floor of the building was used as a meeting place for Black civic groups. MiCo helped support entrepreneurs and small businesses also by providing training.
After buying the property, Wolf did extensive research on the building's founders, architect William W. Smith, who designed the MiCo building; and business and civic leaders J.T. Williams, Thaddeus Tate and Caeser Blake. Wolf wanted to continue their legacy the best he could, but he didn’t know where to start.
Monique Douglas and her husband, Kevin Douglas, who were looking to lease space from Wolf, had an idea for a business incubator. The three came up with a plan to help grow smaller businesses, nonprofits and artists to support upward mobility and equity in the Charlotte area.
Nearly 100 years after first opening its doors, MiCo — along with Grace A.M.E. Zion Church and Studio 229 on Brevard — was reborn as the Brooklyn Collective.
The Douglases are co-owners of Studio 229 On Brevard, the collective's event center. Together, they run the Brooklyn Collective. Monique focuses on community engagement and outreach. Kevin also provides photography lessons for underserved youth.
The Douglases opened their business in January 2020, six weeks before COVID-19 business and crowd restrictions began in North Carolina.
"It was during another pandemic, the flu pandemic in 1918, that the founders of the Brooklyn Collective) began working on this building,” Monique Douglas said. “And during a pandemic, they were here trying to get the funding and support that they needed in the community to get this project built.”
Douglas described the experience of starting a business during the beginning of the pandemic as a rollercoaster, but said despite all odds, they’re still thriving and doing the work that’s needed to be done for the community.
Currently, nine tenants are part of the Brooklyn Collective.
"We've invited tenants that share the same vision and mission that we do,” Douglas said. “And that ties into our goals here at the Brooklyn Collective."
"Our mission here is to be a gathering place for real conversations, to not only make a real difference for our community but also be a place of education and empowerment," said Douglas.
The business incubator has various types of small businesses and nonprofits. This includes Advocations, which focuses on placing people with disabilities into opportunities for employment, Roddie Jr.'s Watchdog Foundation, a nonprofit that works to reduce the number of dog-related injuries and The FACTS Initiative, which provides counseling services for families and couples.
Fashion designer and embroiderer Gordon Holliday is also a part of the collective. The first African samurai, Yasuke, who lived during the 16th century, inspires his latest fashion collection. He creates kimonos with detailed patchwork and uses recycled material in his clothing.
"When I started thinking about what he would wear in a modern sense since, in my brain, I saw a really cool cross-cultural reference of an African warrior in a Japanese environment,” Holliday said. “It really resonated with me. I thought to myself, 'How many times have I been the only Black kid in the room?”
Holliday was also inspired by the sashiko and boro stitching techniques used in Japan to patch and mend garments.
"It wasn't that easy to make another garment again,” Holliday said. “So what they would typically do is patch their garments back together, having the same garment for years and years. They'll have this really strong piece built with character."
Douglas said business incubators allow artists, entrepreneurs like Holliday and small businesses to flourish because each tenant supports each other and gains exposure.
"The people in the early 1900s really knew what they were doing,” Douglas said. “I have talked to a number of people that grew up in Brooklyn, and they would say, 'Oh, I know this building! My mom used to bring me here for my dental work.' Or, 'My parents' attorney was here.'”
Feb. 18 was a huge day for the collective because the MiCo building turned 100 years old. In celebration, The Brooklyn Collective opened a new art exhibit called "Still Standing," where established Black artists showcase their art. The last day of the exhibit is May 20.
Additionally, five new artists are showcasing their art with their exhibit "Brush Strokes & High Notes."
You can also look forward to The Brooklyn Collective's Black Fine Art Fair from March 25-27.
- Friday, March 25, 6:30-7:15 p.m. (African American Art Portfolio Development)
- Saturday, March 26, 12:30-1:45 p.m. (Women in the World of Art)
- Sunday, March 27, 2-2:45 p.m. (Fine Art Appraisals)
To learn more about the businesses in the Brooklyn Collective and learn about up-and-coming events, visit brooklyncollectiveclt.org.