In my city – Charlotte, North Carolina – they’re finally moving towards redeveloping the neighborhood in which I grew up. Back in late spring or early summer, the city accepted a bid from a contractor, and I just saw someone on the news talking about the plans and how to best honor the place.
They’re calling it “Brooklyn Village” but when I lived there it was simply “Brooklyn”. It was part of the redevelopment program in the nineteen-sixties and until now, though there have been various and sundry proposals made over the years, it was never actually redeveloped unless you count that portion of the freeway that cuts through parts of it, and little pieces of it pinched off for something else – which included a section from the end of Brooklyn where I lived.
Let me tell you about the slice of Brooklyn which was home to me.
The vast majority of the houses were rentals, and by the time I was born in the late forties, the whole area was, in fact, considered to be a slum. Most of the houses were what were called shotgun shacks because they had only three rooms in a straight line, and you could fire a shotgun at the front door and it would go clean through the house and out the back door without hitting the walls (I have no idea who first came up with that description because in all the years I lived there I never actually witnessed anybody firing a shotgun through one of the houses in that fashion).
I lived on Watt Street in one of the poorest section of the neighborhood, and the street had never been paved. It was, instead, covered in gravel rather than the usual tar, and the city sent a truck every year in late spring or early summer to renew the gravel (I hated that gravel because in the summer, we went barefoot and have you ever tried walking without shoes on newly laid-down sharp rocks? Sucks).
When you turned onto our street from Brown Street – which was paved – you could see all the way down to where the street was broken by a creek. I think it was a tributary of Sugar Creek but don’t quote me on that. We just called it “the creek”.
Anyway, there was no bridge across the creek though I think that, once upon a time, there had been one but by the time I came along it was gone, so the only way to get across to the other end of the street – which went up a really steep hill – was to walk across the sewer pipes that came out from under the street and continued in the open across to the other side, or you could use the large, flat rocks in the creek or wade through the water. Since the pipes stayed slick from the creek spray, I think most folks used the rocks. Or, you could “skin” across the pipes – a method of straddling them and scooting across on your butt.
We, as kids, had a lot of fun “skinning” the pipes across to the other side – when we didn’t try to walk across them without slipping off and onto the rocks below, or into the water.
I vaguely recall seeing fish in that creek when I was very small but by the time I was around four or five years old, the fish were gone and the only things in the creek were broken bottles and other trash, accompanied by an oily sheen that left a greasy residue in the water.
Our parents were always on us to stay out of the creek. Not only were there all those broken bottles plus rocks and other things to cut our feet on, not to mention the germs, the usually shallow creek would rise after a rain and become more than deep enough in which to drown (of course, being kids we sneaked into it anyway. Hey, high water was the best time for skinning the pipes!). High water after a rain was the reason why the houses near the creek were built on stilts or pilings since if the rain was big enough, the creek would overflow its banks.
Closer to the business district of the neighborhood and therefore closer to the uptown of the city, there was an elementary and a junior/senior high school – Myers Street and Second Ward schools, respectively – that served the blacks (or “coloreds” as we were called in those days) in the community, both of which were several blocks from my street and to which we walked – rain, shine, sleet, or snow.
There was a neighborhood playground on the street that ran parallel to the street I lived on, a block behind the house I lived in ( which, by the way, was one of the two or three houses on my street that were not shotgun shacks because it had four rooms, though it was unpainted and had a tin roof that leaked, and up until I was around five or six years old, the only water to the house was a facet out on the back porch).
We enjoyed that playground immensely, especially during the summer when we’d go “swimming” in the wading pool. In the winter, we’d go washing-machine-lid or cardboard-box sledding down the steep hills of the playground when there was snow (sometimes we’d go “sledding” on the slick grass when there wasn’t any snow – or we’d just roll down the hills). It had a cement skating rink where everybody eventually got scraped up from falls on our adjustable skates that sometimes loosened up on us.
There were businesses that served the neighborhood: beauty and barber shops, little grocery stores, a drug store, clubs, a couple of movie houses, and various other shops (we won’t get into the illegal liquor houses but they were there, too, though mostly down side streets or back alleys. Hey, there was one on my street. A very nice lady ran it). There was even a library for us, up on Second Street next door to the Savoy theater. I hung out at the library a lot but along with all the other kids, I also frequented the “movie house”. This was because when school let out for the summer, we were all given “show badges” that allowed us to get in and see a movie for a nickel instead of the usual ten cents.
So, we’d go to the library first (you also got gold stars for the books you read over the summer) then we’d hook next door to see the double feature and the cartoon that was always shown in between. The movies were changed twice a week, so we’d hustle up five more cents and go back for the new films. I read a whole lot of books and saw plenty of movies (my favorite books were fairy tales, and once I discovered them, science fiction and fantasy, and my favorite movies were science fiction, horror, and monsters. I probably saw every one ever made).
I reckon it wasn’t what could be called the finest of neighborhoods, but I suppose with it being segregated the way such neighborhoods were back then, that it was a little town – or a village – within the city. I imagine that’s why they’re calling it Brooklyn Village, now – except that one hopes the new place won’t be so segregated.
When urban renewal came rolling through, the people were moved out, and a lot of them went to live in the newly built public housing of Earl Village. My family opted not to move into those – my mother said she didn’t want to live in an apartment because there wasn’t enough yard, and she did love her flower and vegetable gardens – so we moved from our street into a house that was still in the general vicinity but nearer the high school which was a later part of the redevelopment program.
So, there the area has sat for all these years, not really being developed or used for much of anything.
There have been a lot of proposals made for what to do with the place since then but nothing really happened. Now, at last, they’re revving up for renewal, and I truly hope it comes about, this time. I just saw on the news where the developer wants to honor the old neighborhood, and I suppose that’s good. However, will there be room for folk who used to live there? I saw where they’ll be putting in retail, hotels, and residential housing, and even keeping a portion of a park (Marshall Park) that was built much later in what I would call the actual uptown, plus, I think I’ve heard someone say the old Second Ward High School gym – which is still there though the school is long gone – will be retained (nice touch!) but I wonder – what of the people who used to live there? Will anyone (still alive) who used to live there be able to afford to move back? I hope so but I would say that for the most part: probably not.
This is not the entirety of my experience of having lived in Brooklyn as I could probably fill a book if I were to write it all but as unsavory as it may seem to some now, it was home and I loved it.
It’ll be interesting to see what they’re planning to do to “honor” the old neighborhood. Since the work isn’t scheduled to begin anytime soon – in five years for the first stage, I think – and I’m sixty-nine years old, I just hope I’m around long enough to at least see it get a good start.