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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.

In fast-changing North End, Hebrew Cemetery looks to expand and provide housing — for the living

Hebrew Cemetery sign
Lisa Worf
Charlotte's Hebrew Cemetery was founded in 1867. The cemetery's former gate and chapel now stand in its historic section.

One of Charlotte’s oldest cemeteries sits in North End, among industrial buildings and neighborhoods that have grown up around it over the past century. Now, the Hebrew Cemetery wants to expand into a city-owned plot next door, which Charlotte has set aside to redevelop as part of its Corridors of Opportunity initiative. The cemetery’s plan is to provide more space to the living and the dead — but some community members are wary.

Nearly 20 years ago, Shawn Williams moved to a house in a new development right next to the Hebrew Cemetery. It immediately piqued his curiosity.

"My question was, 'Wow, it's on this side of town. Why isn't that in another part of the city?” he said.

The cemetery is a verdant patch of land off Statesville Avenue, surrounded by quickly-changing neighborhoods long made up mostly of Black residents. Across the street is the former factory complex being redeveloped as Camp North End. Williams still wonders about the cemetery’s location.

"I think it’s probably a very curious history behind that," he said.

The Hebrew cemetery was founded in 1867 on what was then the edge of Charlotte. There weren't many Jewish families here at the time, so Moses Luski says it’s telling they made such an investment.

"The fact that they were able to purchase a nine-acre tract so early on, just shows how much they wanted to put roots down in this community," Luski said.

Jewish Civil War soldiers are buried here, along with journalist and satirist Harry Golden, and politician Al Rousso. Tombstones include names found on buildings throughout town — such as Levine and Blumenthal.

"This is our parents’ plot. And you can see the glass stars. This is where I'll be. I'll be laid to rest here too," he said. "Oh, I love it."

Man standing in graveyard
Lisa Worf
Moses Luski standing by his family's plot.

Luski lays a stone on his family’s tombstone in keeping with Jewish tradition. Flowers die, but stones are permanent markers.

"You sense the holiness between the tombstones and the trees. There's something special that coalesces here," he said.

The Hebrew Cemetery can accommodate several sects of Judaism and interfaith families too.
Lisa Worf
The Hebrew Cemetery can accommodate several

The cemetery is a non-profit that serves the area’s Reform, Conservative and Orthodox members — as well as interfaith families. Its leaders expect it will run out of space within the next 17 years. That’s why they have their eye on the land next door — 11 acres there were home to Double Oaks Elementary School. A sweeping redevelopment project in the late 2000s replaced most of the low-income housing around it with a mixed-income neighborhood.

"The cemetery actually connects to a majority corner of the Double Oaks school," said Kevin Levine, who, like Luski, is among the cemetery’s leaders. The cemetery tried to buy the land from the city a few years ago but was told any plan for the site needed affordable housing. So they came up with one that includes 22 townhomes for sale, open space and room for the cemetery that would also be largely open to the public.

"We've scaled back to five acres. And so the rest of the property is community space, with gardens and a walk path, and even a gazebo for community gatherings, as well as the housing aspect" he said.

If the cemetery can't expand next door, Levine says, they'd have to start another cemetery outside of Mecklenburg County.

Cemetery site plan
Courtesy Charlotte Hebrew Cemetery
The cemetery's proposed site plan includes affordable housing, cemetery space and community space.

Cemetery leaders wanted to see how the plan would go over with neighbors, so Levine met with the head of the North End Community Coalition, Melissa Gaston. The group has been a big part of the city’s playbook to help make the low-income area vibrant — and the Double Oaks school site is seen as a catalyst.

"It sounds good in theory, but is it going to be a reality? That's my concern. In the past, individuals have not been able to walk through the cemetery freely," she said. She says neighbors find the wrought iron fence surrounding the cemetery off-putting. Cemetery leaders call it stately.

"We don't have a neon open sign at the front gate. But you know, the gate is open," Levine said.

Levine says the expansion would welcome the community in and that the plan is flexible to accommodate the community’s needs. Gaston wonders how much more land would be available for other amenities if the cemetery didn’t take up half of it. These are the kind of clashes that arise in fast-changing areas where interests and legacies often compete.

"Oh, well, that's where it gets complicated, right?" said city council member Malcolm Graham.

As head of the city's economic development committee, he knows the challenges well. They’ll make a recommendation to council about what will go on the Double Oaks site. He says he doesn’t know enough to weigh in yet, but he's hopeful they can find common ground.

"I'm pretty sure there's a way for us to have meaningful conversations that will hopefully lead to both entities walking away feeling that they accomplish what they achieve when they need it," he said.

The city is accepting proposals for the site through the end of August. The request calls for a developer who can create “a mixed-income project that meets the needs of the community.” At least one other proposal is in the works that includes the local design firm Shook Kelley. Levine says the two groups have been talking.

Four kids riding bikes
Lisa Worf
Children riding bikes through the Double Oaks site.

People use the Double Oaks site for a lot of activities — walking dogs, riding bikes, even doing wheelies. The property connects neighborhoods like Genesis Park, where Lula Jones lives, to Statesville Avenue.

The Genesis Park neighborhood borders the Double Oaks elementary school site.
Lisa Worf
The Genesis Park neighborhood borders the Double Oaks elementary school site.

She grew up attending Double Oaks Elementary School and sent her children there too. The school closed in the '80s and most recently served as a preschool. It’s been demolished to make way for the new development. Jones is frustrated it’s taken so long, but is eager for what may come.

"We was looking for some affordable apartments, for a different range in ages, and to bring back the daycare and bring back the life to the other end of the street," she said.

While the origins of the Hebrew Cemetery stump a lot of people living around it, neighbors appreciate it’s well-maintained. After nearly two decades living nearby, Williams wonders if there might be a way to satisfy the needs of both the neighborhoods and the cemetery on the Double Oaks site. And even though he has a lot of questions, Williams admires the sculpture that stands at the entrance.

"That nice little iron tree they just put up there looks real cool," he said.

It’s called the Tree of Life — a symbol, cemetery leaders say, that it’s a place for the living as much as for the souls resting there.

A metal tree sculpture
Lisa Worf
The Tree of Life sculpture at the Charlotte Hebrew Cemetery.

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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.