Gentrification. For quite a long time, I have had mixed emotions about this urban phenomenon of dressing the hood up, the governmental equivalent of playing fairy god-mother. Sure, once the hard-hat heroes with their bulldozers and cranes are long gone and the dust has settled, certainly the neighborhood will look much better, but rarely, if ever, are the original residents allowed to move back in.
What happens, oftentimes, in these cases is that lives are destroyed. When you are forcibly uprooted and displaced, it makes no difference if you were in Bosnia or in Charlotte, the psychic costs are tremendous. They can be life-altering as well.
This morning, I drove through a neighborhood where I had once lived. It was the old Cherry community, the oldest continuous black neighborhood in the city of Charlotte. Rumor and legend has it that the neighborhood was built by the rich, white folks in Myers Park as a housing alternative for the blacks that ran their households.
In any event, the three major hospitals in Charlotte sprung up from the shadows of Cherry with many other medical-related offices and businesses located on the fringes of the community. The fight to steal Cherry went on for decades and the residents of Cherry fought hard to maintain their beloved neighborhood, but how even a fight is it when you are poor and black, and your opponents have the resources of the city at their disposal.
In the late 90s when I lived there, everyone knew that the writing was on the wall and that “the white folks were going to take Cherry.” Everyone knew, and no one liked it. Even the hustlers on the block thought it was foul what was happening to Cherry.
What I loved about Cherry was that no one ever left—–until now. If you were born in Cherry, then chances are good that you would die in Cherry. That’s just how close-knit the community was. So, yes, I was visibly disturbed by what I saw as I drove through the empty streets. I mean, there is no doubting the intrinsic beauty and appeal of the “new” Cherry, but it has no soul. Without a doubt, Cherry is gone. I virtually traversed every single street in the neighborhood, recounting numerous heart-warming memories, and I will be the first to admit that despite the gentrification of Cherry, what I saw this morning was a travesty, a mockery of all that had once been there. I mean, I had to park, and take some deep breaths, to simply digest the enormity of what was actually happening. I was mortified.
Upon my arrival home, I immediately called friends who had lived in Cherry, and their sentiments echoed mine. They felt cheated. And I understood much too clearly.
I had been twelve. I had come home from being outside playing with my beloved cat, Puff, and I spied a group of neighborhood folk in the kitchen. They were talking quietly in hushed voices I had never heard used before, but I knew what it was. It was the muffled aura of fear. I was shooed back out in the hot, summer sun to ponder what the implications of that gathering would be, and my initial impression was that it would not be good. It wasn’t.
We had to move. The white people had decided to raze First Ward to the ground and build a sparkling, new housing projects in its place. No one wanted to leave, and many tears were shed. This was a watershed moment for me because First Ward was not just a place—First Ward was my life. My cousins and aunts stayed directly across the streets. I had siblings around the corner. I had siblings down the street. I had family and friends everywhere.
All of a sudden, I was asked to abandon the one spot on earth where I felt I belonged. In this blessed place, my earliest memories had been forged. My first kiss was here, my first fight, my first bicycle ride, my first sex. This was the best place on earth, a desolate outpost where the sounds of James Brown blared from almost every open window, and where the smell of fried chicken and collard greens hung over the neighborhood like an aromatic cloud of southern-fried warmth. Where was I to go?!
Needless to say, we were dispersed throughout the city like rolling cactus across a wind-blown desert. Our family went one way, and my other siblings went in another direction, while my other siblings went even further away. I felt fragmented, somehow bent, but by no means broken. What I had to suffer most was that I would be the first one in my family not to attend Second Ward High School. To attend Second Ward was a badge of honor, and it would be unthinkable for anyone who lived ,and who breathed the air of First Ward to dare dream of going anywhere else other than Second Ward.
Back in the days, high school was as good as it got educationally for people in First Ward, so Second Ward represented the zenith of one’s academic career. Second Ward was the ghetto version of Harvard or Yale, and I could hardly await my time to go there. When we moved on the corner of Sixth and Davidson Street, I would stand in my backyard, and stare transfixed as the high-schoolers as they marched past en-route to school. They were like a black army of pig-tailed, booby-soxed girls, and boys with waves in their hair so thick, you’s get seasick from looking. I was fascinated, and day after day, I watched this majestic parade, knowing that one day I would join this caravan of blackness. I would walk right beside my dearly beloved cousin, Marian, who taught me to write.
Okay, I got over it, a’ight, but my grades plummeted. I lost complete interest in school and I roamed the hallways of Piedmont Junior High like some dark menace. I jumped on my Science teacher, pulled a knife on my Arts teacher, and when I had taken all that i could take, I stormed into the Principal’s office, and demanded my book fees back since the books weren’t teaching me shit. I came to school only when I felt like it, and for the peace this gave the teachers, I was awarded a social promotion to the 8th grade.
Apparently, the 8th grade teachers didn’t wish to be bothered with me either, so I farmed out to a all-boys’ school in Winston-Salem, called The Advancement School, for the remainder of the school year. It was here, in 1966, that I got the first inkling that people didn’t get me, and by people I quite naturally mean……people in authority. I was still somewhat of a trouble-maker at The Advancement School, but I dug the college-like vibe. We all lived on campus in comfortable lodgings. The food was great, and there was so much to do after classes that it was almost overwhelming. But anyway, on the day in question I must have violated some rule or another, and this teacher, for the purposes of correcting my behavior, made me sit idle and alone in his class for an hour.
After a time, I decided to search down his desk. Finding nothing of interest, and I ransacked his file cabinets. I found his assessment files on his students. I hungrily searched for mine, and greedily read the words. I was dumbstruck. The Teacher wrote that I was immature. I knew what immature meant, and it felt like I had been kicked in the gut. Immature! That was the first bitter remark hurled against my name and hell yes, it hurt.
If the teacher would have merely written that I was quiet, or that I was shy, that would have delighted me because I was both. Upon reflection, I genuinely think it was at that moment that I understood that people were not going to understand me.
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