Tony disappears behind the abandoned house at the curve, and he doesn’t reappear for a while. Another fellow follows him a couple minutes later, and also stays gone. In fact, he never reappears. Must be trouble, one assumes, given all the negative assumptions about this neck of the woods. Some illicit activity is going on — drug deals, probably, or perhaps prostitution. Maybe some guys just hanging out, playing dominoes and wasting their days away.
A few weeks later, Tony and I are walking together. As we round that same curve, he says, “Come on, let’s take the cut.” He is teaching me a bit of secret knowledge today. Behind the abandoned house we go, towards a small thicket. As we near it, I begin to see a well-worn path cutting through the privette, underneath the old oak trees. The leaves have been swept away by footsteps, so that the path is made clear by the emergence of a thin line of Carolina red clay.
A few steps later we are in the backyard of the matriarch of the neighborhood. We traverse her property line with great care, trying to match the care she has shown to multiple generations of children and parents here. She lives on the next street over, and now we have moved quickly and efficiently onto her street to visit with the family next door to her. “The cut” is simply a shortcut. It saves us a quarter mile of traversing our neighborhood’s uneven street network.
Not too long after that walk, a couple of youth introduce me to another cut. We’re out on a warm spring day, but the weather has not yet been warm long enough for the kudzu to spread. We head to the dead end of a particular street, where they show me yet another thin line of Carolina clay. To the right, a long hill descends to a stream. The opportunistic vine occupies every available space between us and the water. The power company keeps it this way to provide clearance for high-tension lines above. To the left, an older neighbor waves to us from his porch, his watchful eye noting who comes and goes. He is quickly out of sight, separated from us by a thicket that will become forest if left alone for much longer. As we round the bend between kudzu on one side and the tangle of bushes and vines and the other, our destination comes into view: Cook-Out, the local burgers and shakes chain, stands flanked by our mechanic and a small grocer.
The youth show me the way, but offer an important tip — no one uses this cut during the summer. It gets too overgrown with kudzu. The fear of ticks and snakes and creeping, crawling things makes the long way more attractive. But with the first frost, the kudzu gives way again to the rusty orange path. The critters go underground. The dead end street begins to make connections once more.
In Charlotte, like many other Southern cities, neighborhoods do not always have urban form. They are not densely built or easy to walk. The patterns of automobile dominance that characterized the time of rapid growth here led to neighborhoods that do not connect, either to other neighborhoods, or even within themselves. Covering what is a short distance “as the crow flies,” as we say in the South, to a neighbor’s house or to the corner store, can require a lengthy walk.
With time, as neighbors develop intimacy with the places that become home turf, they can imagine how to make these connections for themselves where planners and builders have failed them. And so they do, mingling private and public space, reclaiming dead places and making them human again.
Cities and towns like Charlotte built neighborhoods that made human connection difficult, particularly without the assistance of an automobile. Long blocks, lack of a simple street grid, separation of uses, ever-larger lots, lack of sidewalks, and emphasis on single family housing rather than a mix of housing and commercial types: all of these factors created spaces that put us at greater distance from one another. In the 1960s and ’70s, as middle-class people moved from these neighborhoods, out into even less-connected neighborhoods, the poor were left to occupy these spaces where infrastructure stifled connection.
Connection is the currency that keeps the economy of urban life flowing. So, the so-called “inner-cities” of Charlotte got double bad news with “white flight” — all of the negative policy and disinvestment decisions that made inner-city life tough around the country, and none of the diverse, walkable, human-powered infrastructure that facilitates the creative vibrancy and opportunity of urban spaces.
Facing these significant barriers, poor people did what they always do in the face of oppressive circumstances. They acted with imagination, creativity, and resiliency to create what they needed for human life. The cut is do-it-yourself urbanism. It is the resilient human spirit finding ways to build connection where planners and councils and developers failed to deliver. The cut is what happens when people who have always had to improvise look at what is given and use their imaginations to improve it.
Enderly Park, the Charlotte neighborhood where those cuts have helped to nurture my sense of neighborliness, is now being gentrified. Which is to say, speculators are now circling, and those imaginative, improvisational folks that have lived here for decades are being banished. They are deemed hazardous to profit margins, and must be displaced to other parts of town. Among the collateral damage of this kind of neighborhood change is the cut. Our cuts are being blocked by a new feature: fences.
Gentrifiers love their privacy fences, and they build them really well, and thoroughly. Soon we will all be cut off from one another. The lessons of improvised urbanism are being ignored, replaced by the assertion of private property rights and the false assumption that a few pickets around our yards can protect us from each other.
The poor people and children who build cuts are prophetic voices, challenging the middle-class affinity towards individualism, toward the belief that one’s house is one’s castle. Poor folks build the infrastructure for solidarity instead. They know that yards are terrific, but meaningless without neighbors with whom to share them. That hard-won knowledge is being erased now. The work of their hands and feet is being ignored because of what some piece of paper at the register of deeds says.
It is winter again. The rust colored path reveals itself once more, and shortens my walk to the grocery. A neighbor greets me as we pass one another, surrounded by dormant kudzu vines. I take comfort in this chance meeting. Fences are growing rampant now, covering the paths that lead toward more human connections. But on this quiet winter day, I can imagine that we are more creative than fences. That we still need to bump into each other. That we will still find new ways of getting to our neighbor’s door.