Tommie Robinson has been painting Charlotte’s history and the West Corridor for over thirty years. Robinson is known for his murals and as one of the best water colorists in the Southeast. He is the only African-American artist commissioned to create work for Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena. Robinson has a collection of work that has been privately and publicly commissioned in the Carolina region and across the world.
I recently visited Robinson at the site of his latest commission to talk about his work, the job of an artist, the Beatties-Ford corridor community, and the recent debate over the Streetcar Expansion Project. Robinson says, “I think as artist we don’t skim, that’s apart of being an artist, that is apart of our job to recognize this or speak about this.”
The Beatties Ford Road area in Charlotte, North Carolina houses one of the oldest black communities in Charlotte. UNC Charlotte historian Dan Morrill says, “In richness of its history, it’s unparalleled,” from Af Am Album Vol.2 — Heritage. I moved into the Beatties-Ford Road community about a year and half ago, not because I was claiming my stake in a fast-paced transformation of one of Charlotte’s communities but because after losing my job, I needed to minimize my household expenses and the rent rates of the suburbs weren’t kind to a single mom’s unemployment budget.
I knew of the community and it reminded me of most predominantly black urban areas. It felt like home, but within a year I began observing subtle changes to its landscape. I started exploring the back streets and surrounding communities like Wesley Heights and noted the obvious differences. $250,000 thousand dollar homes only blocks away from a modest, urban, working-class neighborhood. Gentrification in American cities is nothing new but within the last ten years there seems to be a massive push for high-end developments in black working class communities, especially those communities close to the center of the city with skyline views.
In Charles Hubert’s article The Homogenization of San Francisco, he talks about long-time residents being priced out of communities by high demand rental markets. Hubert says, “Aside from the loss of social and economic diversity, we’re also experiencing a startling loss of the cultural diversity that has long defined San Francisco.” There is a growing trend where not even middle class workers can afford to live in 21st century homogenized neighborhoods. This form of gentrification is creating a new class system with a very distinguishable dividing line; the haves and the have nots.
At a recent community meeting held at Johnson C. Smith University I listened as city council members and business owners pitched their latest plans for struggling communities in the West and East Corridors of Charlotte. This investment would be a multi-million dollar streetcar expansion project paid for by a federal transportation grant and an increase in property taxes.
Variations of the word change were used interchangeably throughout the various speeches. City council member James Mitchell Jr. closed the meeting by saying, “Let’s just make sure we can get 7 to 8 votes to realize this is very important for the East and West side to help transform our areas.”
Westside residents are divided on the issue. Some see it as being the answer to plummeting home value rates, while others see it as pushing small minority business owners out of the communities they have been in for generations. The meeting left me wondering exactly what or who would be changing.