One of the most wonderful things about urban design is that every one of us understands the city, because we live, work and play there. On some level everyone can articulate their feelings about why they love their neighborhood and community, and how it should be transformed or changed for the better. I want this blog to be a platform not just for urban designers and planners, but for everyone to learn about the issues that face our cities today. I have asked my father, Joseph McGirt, who is a teacher, lawyer, businessman, blogger and long-time Charlottean to reflect on his experience with his home town. Perhaps his story will make you think of your own city stories – feel free to share them in the comment section.
Additionally, as my father is a blogger-extraordinaire and has his own blog based on higher education, called the Academic Exchange. I have written a guest post on his blog as well. Although it is more education related I do discuss how the current education system has and will affect the field of urban design… check it out, here!
West Side Story … with apologies to Leonard Bernstein (and I guess Shakespeare). I have a story of unrequited love, abandonment and neglect, all followed by the passion of reconnection and unity. The heroic catalyst of this narrative is a commitment by my hometown, Charlotte, NC to finally unify the urban communities surrounding its center into the fabric of the city. Specifically I am referring to the notorious West Side of Charlotte, the long neglected and misunderstood neighborhoods at the cusp of the developed town center and the renewal and change created by the Gateway Plaza development in the center city in the early 2000s.
I guess my point of view of this story is shaped by a variety of experiences. It is centered on the experience of my family and myself in connecting to our neighborhood and community, but not to the city I still call home. Over time my perception was shaped by my years in the military, a financial and management career that included real estate development and financing, a legal career interacting with developers, city planning and zoning boards and of course, politicians. My most recent career stop has been all about higher education and the role it plays in improving and enhancing our community. Lately my ideas have included the philosophy of my daughter, Erin Chantry, an Urban design specialist in Tampa, Fl.
I was born in a family residing in West Charlotte almost 70 years ago. Although my memories are generally positive of that experience, I can now remember many issues that confronted our neighborhood. Of course this predated the urban explosion that occurred a bit later, and there were no shopping centers, malls, belt-loops or super highways. If we needed something we could walk to the local grocery or take a bus to the center city, called “downtown” in those days. Everything was in the city and we could reach it all on foot. The serial movies and western heroes were the high spot of my weekly visit, followed by a stop at the dime store and an OJ at Tanners. The city was designed to accommodate bus transit and foot traffic and it was terrific. I loved my trips downtown and all the activities it included.
I loved my neighborhood. We all went to the neighborhood elementary school and played in the neighborhood park. We played in the neighborhood during summer evenings until 9 pm with no concern of trouble or crime. Of course we were all poor, but at least we were generally comparable in background and family. But to be honest, our low economic level directly translated to NO POLITICAL POWER. There were no advocates for our community and no one who saw we got our fair share. The infrastructure was not maintained. I remember digging our long drainage ditches because the city would not respond to our request for relief from flooding from the streams. Our Community Center, our Elementary School, our local roads were not maintained to the level as neighborhoods on the more affluent side of town. Visiting one of those schools for an away sports game was an education in how the city and its leadership was shifting resources away from the West Side and into the affluent neighborhoods. This was the basis of my relationship with my neighborhood and city. Over time the disconnect between the City and the West Side grew.
The West Side continued to decline as the income levels and wealth of inhabitants persistently decreased. The small, well maintained cottages deteriorated and the problems with crime began to grow. My family eventually left as the neighborhood became worse. The City’s efforts to help were largely ineffective. As the number of car owners surged and road traffic increased, a major interstate was built through the neighborhood. A major connector was built to enhance the driver’s experience, but did little for the neighborhoods. My old neighborhood became a major crime area. The baseball diamond where I played baseball became a leading site for drug deals. No inhabitants, especially children, ventured out after dark.
Over the years, as the West Side continued its decline, the City of Charlotte was booming as an economic center of the Southeast. The government built roads and more roads, feeding residential and commercial development in all directions, except the West Side. All these sections of the center of town developed high end residential space for the ever growing downtown business community, except the West Side. I remember standing in my wife’s old neighborhood, then mostly run down, slum like buildings, that overlooked a glorious urban skyline. Those views were priceless in other sides of town, but worthless in the West Side.
But as the City moved into a new century, a truly transformational decision was made that has completely changed the attitude toward the West Side. It began with strong business and financial leadership. The Bank of America, the biggest lessee of office space in the center city, was expanding its space needs again. The decision was made to move the data processing operation out of the center city towers into a new campus like development on the western edge of the center city. The real estate in the area was underutilized and unattractive for new development. But the bank saw beyond that. The City Urban Planning apparatus joined the effort to became an early partner in the process to build an “outpost” on the West Side and plans came together. The West Side Community Leadership was fully involved as new plans were created and vetted among the players. The Chamber of Commerce moved quickly to step up its recruiting for businesses to become tenants and financial institutions to supply capital. There was an early success, developing a partnership to bring the main campus of Johnson and Wales, a leading Culinary College, to this development, now called the Gateway Plaza. But that couldn’t occur without government assistance in the form of tax relief. This meant that local, county and state officials had to work together to structure a regulatory and taxation benefit program that would close the deal. It happened.
The result? The West Side is now being more fully integrated into the city. Development has continued along the western corridor, with a hotel, restaurants and shopping expanding. The recent recession was a negative blow to the process as it was everywhere, but the tide is now turning. Residential development has seen the rehabilitation of hundreds of classic older homes, modernized for a new generation. My wife’s old neighborhood has been transformed from a slum to a “National Historic Neighborhood”. New housing is being developed and transit service improved.
More importantly, I believe, is the further unification of the city. Residents of the West side can finally see their rightful role in the structure and fabric of the City. As more and more activities move to the Center City, like Pro Sports, Fine Arts and museum attractions, the West Side residents are able to reunite more fully with their city. It is a win for the West Side, but a greater win for the Center City.
What is ahead? It’s not hard to see large segments of property stretching out to the West, ripe for development. The international airport is further to the west and is spurring growth back toward the city. It is clear to me that the only way to change our attitudes and vision for urban living is by working together. After 7 decades of hit and miss, it took a concerted partnership among Urban Planners, Developers, Corporations, the Financial Community, Government and political interests, including community representation, to make a real difference and reach success. My fear? We are in a terrible historic period of ideology and philosophical rigidity, which greatly impedes the use of the one catalyst that can bring success – COMPROMISE.
I believe we will rise to the occasion, and avoid the fate we saw visited on the Jets and the Sharks – the only way to avoid the rumble is to put aside our difference and focus on the vision of Urban unification.