It’s 2015. In ten short years, Charlotte’s quality of life has changed---for the worse. We have become a polarized community. The chasm between the economic “haves” and “have-nots” continues to widen, and tension between racial and ethnic groups is intensifying. Crime and gang violence are out of control, and people throughout the city live in fear. Everyone is blaming everyone else, and faith in our leaders to bridge this growing divide dwindles every day. In truth, this situation did not occur over night.
It is the cumulative effect of short-sighted planning and decision making, lackluster leadership and general apathy and disillusionment by citizens as our population has grown and become more racially, ethnically and economically diverse over time.
We weren’t paying attention.
The social and economic implications of our inattentiveness are evident throughout the community. Local business growth has slowed to a trickle, and several major corporations have relocated, with others considering a move. The unemployment rate has shot up to 10%, and foreclosures and personal bankruptcies are rising. At the same time, local taxes have increased to help pay for the growing demand for services for the expanding population. And each year we have witnessed an increasing number of middle and upper class families moving to more appealing outlying communities such as Mooresville and Fort Mill. Or, they are leaving all together.
In our once flourishing Center City, development has completely stalled. “Second tier” businesses are now being lured to lease empty office and retail spaces, and many of the high rent condominiums that were built in the early and mid-2000s are being rented at sub-market rates.
Inner city neighborhoods such as Myers Park and Dilworth continue to thrive, but other inner city neighborhoods have suffered tremendously, along with our older “middle ring”, suburban neighborhoods and corridors, where many working class people have found affordable housing in recent years. These declining areas are being bypassed by the predominantly white, business-oriented power structure. Long standing businesses have closed down or moved out. Consequently, the people and families who live in these areas have no convenient access to services, shopping and jobs.
In the outlying areas of the county and region, sprawl continues. Residents’ fear of “undesirables” moving into their part of town has spawned increased resistance to higher density, mixed-use and mixed-income development that would otherwise support transit and provide greater access to jobs, shopping and services for everyone. The limited housing and lifestyle choices in the suburbs have further segregated the community by economic and social class.
The disparity that exists within our public education system has driven the greatest wedge between people and groups in Charlotte. The community has failed to support and demand that all children, no matter what race, ethnicity or economic background, have access to an equal, high quality education. As a result, we have a segregated and unequal urban school system and a widening achievement gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Students from low- income households populate underperforming schools, most of which are in the inner and middle ring areas of Charlotte. Experienced teachers have left these underperforming schools, and many middle and upper class white and minority parents now send their children to private schools.
Competition for public and private resources has also caused significant divisiveness. It has become downright ugly as elected officials have cut funding for cultural education as well as community-based programs aimed at building bridges and increasing awareness of ethnic, cultural and social differences. The annual City and County budget hearings have become so tense that police officers now line the entrance to the meeting chamber. Disillusioned with politics and how resource allocation decisions are made, few people, particularly people of color, are willing to get involved.
In the final analysis, our leaders and our citizens have failed to recognize and address the social dynamics, tension and polarization that have occurred--- right under our noses. The lack of trust between and among groups has been caused, to a large extent, by the limited opportunities for inclusion in public decision-making and access to affordable housing, quality education and other critical resources.
In Fortress Charlotte, our community is in a genuine bind. Our once shining crown has been badly tarnished, and we may never fully recover. We simply weren’t paying attention.
What kind of community do you see?