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A skyline that sprouts new buildings at a dizzying pace. Neighborhoods dotted with new breweries and renovated mills. Thousands of new apartments springing up beside light rail lines. The signs of Charlotte’s booming prosperity are everywhere. But that prosperity isn’t spread evenly. And from Charlotte’s “corridors of opportunity,” it can seem a long way off, more like a distant promise than the city’s reality.

Crime plagues Sugar Creek at I-85. The solution? ‘Don’t remove people, lift them up.’ 

Lisa Worf
Hidden Valley residents led a march for changes to W. Sugar Creek Road.

This week, we continue to bring you profiles of six areas of Charlotte as part of our year-long series “In Focus: Corridors of Opportunity.” These are six historically overlooked corridors the city hopes to revitalize with new public investments. 

The three-mile stretch of West Sugar Creek Road takes you from what feels like a village in the west through a busy intersection with Interstate 85 to North Tryon Street. It’s anchored by two neighborhoods — Derita and Hidden Valley — with strong leaders who agree their priority is driving out the trouble I-85 and the motels around the exit attract.

Hidden Valley residents say crime outside the neighborhood taints its image. While the crime surrounding Sugar Creek at I-85 is not the measure of the neighborhoods around it, it is their problem.

Marjorie Parker moved to Hidden Valley 45 years ago. The neighborhood still has winding tree-lined streets with neat ranches and split-levels.

Lisa Worf
Marjorie Parker, head of the Hidden Valley Community Association, stands in front of the house in Hidden Valley she bought 45 years ago.

“We went to church on the south side, and we were teased that we were moving on up,” laughed Parker, who leads the Hidden Valley Community Association.

The neighborhood stretches along Sugar Creek, from Tryon Street nearly to I-85. It had Black and white residents back then, but, gradually, the white families moved out. She says the city began overlooking the area. By 2000, the share of Black residents in Hidden Valley was 80%.

Residents’ biggest concern now is crime happening immediately outside of the neighborhood. Parker says it unfairly taints Hidden Valley’s reputation.

“It’s been so few times I've had to call the police. It probably [hasn’t] been more than two,” Parker said. “That shows you how safe the neighborhood is.”

She frequently has to ask news outlets to stop labeling shootings as happening in or near Hidden Valley, when they occur somewhere outside the neighborhood along Sugar Creek. That happened with a killing just last week.

The neighborhood did have a lot of shootings in the 1990s, fueled by gangs. But residents say it’s long since healed, and it’s demoralizing that they must continue to contend with that image. Parker worries, without constant vigilance, Hidden Valley could see more of Sugar Creek’s problems.

“Crime not controlled, [in] my opinion, will spread like a wildfire,” Parker said. “If the officers didn't continue to work on the Sugar Creek, it would spread in Hidden Valley.”

Marching for change along Sugar Creek

Lisa Worf
Pastor A.R. Muwwakkil of Life Baptist Church leads the group in prayer as they stand at the corner of W. Sugar Creek Rd. and Reagan Dr.

Community leaders like Parker have long pushed to transform a dozen motels that cluster around I-85, many of which are home to people without other options. They also want to bring more business, a grocery store, affordable housing, and safer street crossings to Sugar Creek.

To that end, Parker says, she recently led a prayer march on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A large group showed up.

“We want to look back at Sugar Creek Road a year later and say, ‘Wow, God, you did it.’ So we invited God into the mix,” said Parker over a loudspeaker as things got underway.

They marched along Sugar Creek, past an apartment complex, a homeless camp, gas stations, fast food restaurants, and motels. Police officers escorted them in SUVs.

“We got our police officers, all of them from our area,” Parker told the crowd, as they cheered. The crowd included current and former Hidden Valley residents and pastors from area churches.

“We don't want to drive anybody out. We don't want to run anybody off. We don't want to remove people,” prayed A.R. Muwwakkil of Life Baptist Church. “We want to lift people up. We want to lift them up spiritually. We want to lift them up economically.”

They gathered at the intersection of Sugar Creek and Reagan Drive just east of I-85. It’s the area with the highest violent crime numbers — more than nine times the rate of the rest of the county — in the city’s busiest police division. Police say the motels are an easy stop-off for people using I-85 as a conduit for crimes like drug smuggling and prostitution.

A woman walked by and paused, looking around at the motels.

“This shit kind of kills your soul,” she said. “It's nice to know somebody cares about us, I guess, about their community.”

Living along Sugar Creek near Reagan Drive

So many challenges converge on this one intersection. You can see problems with addiction, mental health, health care, education, and the effects of a lack of affordable housing and concentrated poverty. But there’s a lot of resilience too among people who make a life every day in tough circumstances.

On a recent afternoon, a school bus pulled into the parking lot of the Brookwood Inn on the corner of Reagan Drive. Ki’erah Knight watched as two kids stepped out, headed to the motel rooms where they’re living.

Lisa Worf
Ki'erah Knight lives with her mom and two brothers at the Brookwood Inn.

“It’s a lot of kids over here, honestly,” Knight said.

Knight is 21 years old and is in the process of getting her GED. She just got back from a job interview uptown. She lives in a room here with her mom, a receptionist at a body shop, and her two teenage brothers.

“I don't have space unless I have to be in the bathroom the whole time. So it's different, but, you know, you make it work.”

The nearest full-scale grocery story is the Food Lion about a mile away across the highway. But they only have a small fridge so, she says, most of the food they eat is processed.

This has been home for nearly five years. They pay about $1,200 each month. Knight says she feels safe, as long as she stays on the property.

Lisa Worf
Brookwood Inn's owner, Chirag Gandhi, shows off his sign that indicates the motel's partnership with CMPD.

“They can call the police and they can make sure they’ve got their security guards on property. But when you walk off, that's when it’s like a free-for-all,” she said.

Unlike some hotels in the area, Brookwood Inn runs criminal background checks on potential guests. Unlike many landlords, it doesn’t run credit checks. That’s why the hotel’s owner, Chirag Gandhi, says the Brookwood Inn is so popular with long-term guests. He shows off a sign at the hotel’s entrance with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s logo on it.

“By putting [up] this sign we saw, literally, a drastic drop in the bad people coming in and asking for a room because they understand we are partners with CMPD and they don’t want no trouble,” Gandhi said.

The city is installing two cameras on his property soon. They’ll link to CMPD’s crime center, where officers can monitor them in real time. CMPD thinks that’ll be a deterrent and allow officers to respond faster. Eight other businesses in the area have signed on.

Meanwhile, the 7-Eleven and gas station across Reagan Drive have another crime deterrent. They blast opera to keep loiterers away.

Lisa Worf
The 7-Eleven at W. Sugar Creek Rd. and Reagan Dr. blares opera to keep loiterers away.

Although the music was blaring on a recent afternoon, there were still some loiterers around back.

Lola Myrick stopped to fill up her car. She’s a regular customer.

“It’s straight. I mean, I don't really mind [the music],” Myrick said.

Myrick is 18 years old. She lives at Evoke Living, a new mixed-income apartment complex around the corner. Her family moved from the east side of Charlotte.

Both struggle and blessings, she says, brought them there.

Myrick works as a security guard uptown. She doesn’t let people mess with her. She says in this part of town it’s best to “get what you need to get and get on.”

“If you're really not a social person and you're not used to seeing things that you know could scare people, you might want to keep on going,” said Myrick.

'We all want to live the best we can'

Lisa Worf
The Derita community is generally quiet, but you can hear the hum of I-77 and I-85 in the distance.

A few years ago, Samantha Schmidlin got what she needed from Sugar Creek at Reagan Drive — a cheap apartment — and moved on. She’s a manager at Maria’s Grill, a neighborhood favorite, in Derita on Sugar Creek, two miles west of where she used to live.

“You can literally go down the street and not want to get out of your car and have just the most [dirty] looks or you can go down the opposite direction and everybody is super-friendly and greeting you,” Schmidlin said.

Lisa Worf
Samantha Schmidlin has worked at Maria's Grill, a Derita favorite, on and off since 2008. Deno Koutsoupias helps run the restaurant.

The neighborhood was once a village surrounded by farms and still has a sleepy feel. Across the street from Maria’s is the old farm equipment store that now operates as Puckett’s, a self-described 21st-century honky tonk.

Derita includes a wide swath of neighborhoods. Twenty years ago, it was mostly white residents, but many Black families too. Now, white residents are outnumbered by Black and Latino families in many parts.

Neighborhoods closer to Sugar Creek feel more of its problems, says Sylvia Cannon who leads the Derita-Statesville Road Community Organization.

Reducing crime has become a priority for the group too.

“We all want to live the best we can and get along with your neighbors, stop the crime as much as we can and just have a good life,” said Cannon.

City leaders have a game plan for how to tackle Sugar Creek’s challenges and channel its strengths to achieve neighborhood leaders’ hopes. That involves what’s termed “reimaging” some of the shopping centers and motels too. At the same time, the goal is to limit displacement as development picks up, especially along the Blue Line light rail extension to UNC Charlotte.

This year, they’ll start putting those plans in motion.

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Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.