Beatties Ford area residents honor neighborhood's past while accepting change, fighting disparities
This week, we continue profiling six Charlotte areas in our ongoing series “In Focus: Corridors of Opportunity.” These are historically overlooked neighborhoods that the city has included in the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative to revitalize with millions of dollars in new public investments.
Today, we bring you the Beatties Ford Road Corridor in northwest Charlotte. It’s a neighborhood that served as a refuge to many Black Charlotteans who were displaced from the center city during urban renewal. Now, history may be repeating itself.
The corner of Catherine Simmons Avenue and Beatties Ford Road, northwest of uptown, is known as a hotspot for crime. Drugs, prostitution and gun violence are issues. The city’s Alternatives to Violence program has focused its efforts here for over two years.
"[Kids] think living on Catherine Simmons is the greatest thing since sliced bread," one of the program’s Violence Interrupters, Donnell Gardner, said. He’s a trained community member who walks the Beatties Ford corridor to make connections and address issues without involving the police.
Gardner points to a plaque at the intersection of Catherine Simmons Avenue and Beatties Ford Road that commemorates the four people who were killed during a mass shooting in June of 2020. A shooting that rocked the community then, and remains unsolved.
Walk down Catherine Simmons, and the scenery changes from heavy traffic and concrete to playgrounds and greenspace. Houses and duplexes line either side of the street, with trees scattered throughout. On one side of the street is the heart of the Lincoln Heights neighborhood — the community garden.
"Usually people come by and they see us working in the garden and say, 'Oh, we love this! You know, can I get a bed?'" Thelma Byers-Bailey said. Byers–Bailey is a long-time Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board member, a Lincoln Heights native and vice president of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Association. She also helps run the community garden.
When it’s warm, items grown inside the fence include tomatoes, collards, and watermelon — to name a few. Outside of the fence, Byers-Bailey said they intentionally grow berries to share with the neighborhood.
"We put blueberries and blackberries and figs outside the fence so that the kids could just come and pick it and eat it, and hopefully get involved," Byers-Bailey said. "And so we're trying to get them to eat healthy."
That’s especially important as the corridor has been labeled as a food desert.
Byers-Bailey grew up in Lincoln Heights. After traveling for work opportunities, including starting her own law practice in California, she came home in the 1990s to take care of her aging parents.
"The neighborhood was my domain. I'm the child that Lincoln Heights raised," she said with a smile. "They talk about a village, Lincoln Heights was my village. I lived on the corner of St. Mark and Beatties Ford until I was in junior high. And then I moved to my current home, which is in the same block."
Lincoln Heights was originally marketed as a “white suburb” in the 1920s, but as African Americans were displaced by the demolition of the Brooklyn neighborhood in Second Ward in the 1960s and '70s, Lincoln Heights drew Black residents. Now, 77% of the area’s residents are Black. That’s down from 91% in 2000. Nine percent are Latino and almost 8% are white.
Byers-Bailey describes her neighbors growing up as working professionals — lawyers, nurses and teachers. It felt like there was space for everyone. She welcomes change but says newcomers should respect the people who shaped the neighborhood.
"If people want to come live in Lincoln Heights, it's a great place to live as far as I'm concerned. It's well-situated in Charlotte. It's got great freeway access with both 77 and 85. So I think we're a plum place to live," she said. "I'm not opposed to gentrification. I'm opposed to people trying to think this is theirs and they're ignoring what we are and what we stood for and our history and what we're trying to accomplish."
Mattie B. Marshall, the president of the Washington Heights Neighborhood Association, another prominent Black neighborhood off of Beatties Ford Road, has the same concern.
Marshall works on the Johnson C. Smith University campus as a project coordinator. She shakes her head when asked about the new modern houses that tower over more modest older homes surrounding campus.
"What do you think you're doing? If you want something like that, [you think] that you can come in and disrespect all of this history and [say] ‘oh, yeah, let's just take it.’ There’s something wrong," Marshall said.
Marshall has been the neighborhood association president for about 34 years. She points to the many accomplishments the corridor has seen, including the expansion of the gold line streetcar to the Johnson C. Smith University campus.
"We had a vision to see transportation move. A vision of less cars because I would say we are the most polluted corridor in the city of Charlotte," Marshall said. "So this streetcar and there's been infrastructure improvement along the way. So much been invested in that."
Pollution is one health concern in the corridor. So is access to everyday health care. Marshall used to produce a publication called "Mahogany" that highlighted Black-owned businesses in the corridor, including doctors.
"At one point we could just go along the corridor, and there were different physicians and so forth, and a dentist or pharmacist," Marshall said.
Now she says those doctors are gone, and residents have to go farther out for dependable health care. And like many of the other corridors, there are health disparities.
In the Lincoln Heights area, for example, a little over 9% of the population has heart disease, and almost 12% has asthma. More than 1 in 4 babies are born underweight — 5 1/2 lbs or less. All of those rates are much worse than the city overall.
Community members at the last Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Association meeting expressed their concerns about pollution and safety.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers attended the meeting to go over a recurring issue of car break-ins. Another issue is loitering. One community member asked if there is anything more the police can do to have a presence in the corridor.
The other item on the meeting agenda is helping to pick out potential designs for a new Lincoln Heights sign to welcome people into the area: A sign that lets people know the neighborhood they’ve entered is a neighborhood filled with people proud to live there.
Such as Peggy Lumas who is a transplant from New Orleans. She’s been in Lincoln Heights about 10 years. There are issues with panhandling and cars speeding, she says. But, there’s also a feeling of family in the neighborhood. People watch out for each other.
"The warm feelings that you have in the neighborhood, even though we got issues," Lumas said. "But we're praying out the issues and we have a lot of good things that we want to do in the neighborhood. We work together really tight."
That sense of family and community is what drew India Solomon. She’s been in Lincoln Heights for a little more than a year. As a young mom, she wanted neighbors who would keep an eye out. The community garden, the heart of the neighborhood, is where she found her people. Accessible, healthy food, safety and housing are her big concerns.
"Because of some of the safety issues, I don't come out as much. So I don't know everybody in the community. But I think people want to be in a cohesive community where we can feel safe or we can know that our neighbors, of every housing level, have some place safe to be," Solomon said.
The city’s plan for the Beatties Ford corridor includes more bike lanes, sidewalks, a new shopping center and free public wi-fi. Solomon says she hopes the neighborhood will also keep fighting for food, shelter, water and safe, clean air. That’s what we all want in the end, she said.
In-Focus: Corridors of Opportunity is part of WFAE's Race and Equity coverage. Support for that coverage is provided by Wells Fargo and Novant Health.