My Experience of This So Called “Progress” by Liz Eagle

Greg recently published a piece with Baptist News Global about the coming gentrification in our neighborhood. The piece was also published by Creative Loafing, our Charlotte alternative news weekly. Our friend Liz Eagle has lived for several years in a neighborhood across town that has been dealing with the changes of gentrification for almost a decade now. She wrote this response to Greg’s piece, which we would like to share with you.

My family landed in Villa Heights primarily because of a series of uncontrollable incidents.  After having lived in Southpark for six months (which was truly six months too many, if you ask me), our townhome flooded, had a ridiculous palmetto bug infestation and somehow managed to catch fire.  Those were three solid reasons to move on and find a new neighborhood.  As the mother of a three-year-old and expecting another in a few short months, we began to pack our bags and look for the next place to call home.

After having lived ever so briefly in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Charlotte, being surrounded by so many people outwardly resembling our family, my hope was to find a space to raise children that was rich in cultural diversity and reasonable in price.  After a few days driving around, we found it: a beautiful little yellow house, nestled in an underdeveloped neighborhood close to the arts district and right outside the city.  Growing up in a small town, I felt Villa Heights was a beautiful mosaic of small-town-esque streets, varying lifestyles and the city’s amenities.  Within a week, we were moved in, unpacked and anxious to begin this new chapter of life with a new group of people.  That was five years ago.

What primarily drew me to this neighborhood was the conviction that my son and daughter needed to experience what I believe to be “real life”.  I’d spent a large portion of my life being around people who spoke like me, lived like me, looked like me.  While I wanted my children to have those sorts of experiences, I also hoped for them to grow up in a neighborhood where we weren’t all the same.  I wanted to be intentional in the decision for my children to be raised into adolescence in a neighborhood that was socio-economically and racially diverse.

The experiences of our first three years here were lived beautifully, with an abundance of neighborhood children and parents of varying races and life circumstances.  I’d never hoped to come here and “improve” the neighborhood but to be improved by it, to see and do life with people whose backgrounds were nothing like mine.

As these few years have gone by, I have experienced many changes here, both within my nuclear family and the neighborhood as a whole.  I moved in a married woman and currently live as a single mother in what was once “the hood”.  I felt empowered by the strong women around me and nurtured by the love of the kids who always stopped by after school, doing art and eating all my popcorn and apples.  Slowly but surely, these kids and families stopped coming around.  Eventually, they were pushed out to God knows where as their houses were renovated and more people “like me” moved in.  Where I used to sit outside and see people of varying races walking down the street, I now see primarily white thirty-somethings walking their dogs and pushing strollers.  Because the change has been so gradual, I’ve only seen the changes with my eyes and have not felt much emotion concerning our ever-changing neighborhood.

There was an old lady who lived in a large white house on the corner of Grace and Pegram.  I would often see her when driving or running outside-not unlike Betty Rubble- sweeping her sidewalk and throwing the dirt back over her shoulder into the leaves.  Seeing scenes such as this always made me feel at home, that the buildings I passed every day weren’t just the brainchild of an architect but a pulsing, vibrant encapsulation of human life.  The humility and the quiet of our streets somehow implied that we were all in this together.

This Sunday, the emotions behind the changes hit me as I passed along my routine route down Pegram and across Grace.  What was once her home now houses an empty lot, filled with the red dirt the lady worked so hard to sweep away, awaiting yet another rebuilding toward “progress”, towards helping our neighborhood get “turned around”.  I was caught immensely off guard and found myself crying those cold, heavy tears of injustice.  While admittedly I do not know what became of this woman- did she move in with family?  Did she find a new more modest home?- I see this as a clear representation of what happens when “progress” is valued over people.

People have argued with me over the years that “our” presence here is not causing the displacement of almost an entire demographic of people.  I respectfully disagree.  As the young, more affluent people move in, inevitably the poor are pushed out.  I’m not far from this possibility.  I rent a modest house on a side street where all around me, houses- homes- are demolished and rebuilt, dwarfing the dwellings indigenous to our former milltown neighborhood. We could be next.

Big changes are coming to Charlotte.  There are many people in our neighborhood who have moved to Villa Heights specifically because it is “up and coming”.  But what about what has already been?  What about the community that existed before we began to move here?  What about the lives that were here before living here was a good investment?  Why are we more hung up on investing in property as opposed to people?

To my own point, as I sit writing by my window, I’ve seen three young white thirty-somethings walking their dogs along these tree lined streets and no people of color.  The diversity that once drew people here is now becoming eradicated as yet another “hip” neighborhood begins to arise.  You can’t fight progress, especially in this city.  But as I see the changes in the lives of those around me who have lost homes and been pushed further out, I see the property values rise and the value of the humanity that has been here long before us diminish.

Progress is inevitable, but dammit, it’s often unfair.