A few weeks ago, I saw the renderings of a new development headed to the edge of a gentrifying neighborhood in Charlotte, N.C. The space looked nice, like the kind of spot many Charlotteans would be excited to walk or bike to. It was the sort of space that might build connections, that will create small businesses and local economy. It was exactly, in that respect, what Charlotte needs more of.
But one thing about those renderings was not quite right. That particular neighborhood is not far down the trajectory of gentrification, though it clearly is headed that way. Much of the displacement that is likely to come has yet to happen. It remains more than 90 percent African American today. But the developer’s renderings, filled with mock people, included zero persons of color. Not a single one — Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, or otherwise.
Someone took the time to put those people in that drawing. They made choices. There was likely no harm meant, but they were still choices. Those pretend people did not draw themselves. As drawings envisioning a future in a space that does not yet exist, they were choices of imagination.
The imagination that occupied this developer’s office could not foresee a future where the people who live near this new building would actually visit it. This is nonsensical when your goal is to build neighborhood-scale businesses. Meeting actual neighborhood needs is in the interest of neighborhood businesses — it is their lifeblood. The thinking that animates this new development is coherent only if the goal is to remove the neighbors you have and to replace them with the neighbors you want. In this way, the ripping of social fabric, the unsettling of children, the splitting of families, and the destruction of communal public spaces that constitute the process of gentrification are taken to be desirable or, if not desirable, then definitely inevitable, not worth fighting, and, conveniently, highly profitable.
This is, in miniature, the crisis that we have reached in Charlotte, which has finally been made glaringly obvious on our streets following the killing of Keith Scott, though it was there to see long ago: that those who now have the most power to shape our future cannot imagine a future worth having.
James Baldwin, concerned about the dehumanization of his neighbors in Harlem in the 1950s and ’60s, asked, “What will happen to all that beauty?” The same question stands before our city now. One place to begin understanding the uprising in our streets is with the recognition that too many of us have missed innumerable opportunities to see places and faces of beauty. We have lost countless chances to learn to attach the description “beautiful” to people, culture and neighborhoods that our policy and investment decisions indicated were expendable. The problem might be stated that those who hold power and privilege in our city have been making the choice not to see either the beauty or the trauma that lives in our most vulnerable communities. But the problem runs more deeply than simply not seeing. It is built into the architecture and design, the physical and economic geography of Charlotte. We have built too many places where people do not know that not seeing is a choice. These are real places, where bricks walls and iron gates begin to silently form the terrain of souls. This hurts us all. Not all in the same way, but it hurts us all.
There is poverty that destroys bodies, that starves minds, that brutalizes flesh. This is poverty in the literal sense. We rightly work against this, through all sorts of initiatives, though with few satisfying results. But this is not the only poverty. There is also poverty of the soul. It manifests itself in the inability to see one’s neighbor as fully human. It hides from suffering, including its own. Poverty of the soul starves the imagination and neuters the spirit. But its immediate effects are mostly felt by other people. A poverty of imagination takes its feebleness for creativity and foists its will upon those without the power to resist.
The opportunity stands before our city, now as never before, to name the wounds inflicted by the coupling of power with poverty of imagination. These wounds now become the subjects of our work, as do the unnamed spirits that have allowed us to go on doing harm without thought for repair. Segregation in our housing. Re-segregation of our schools. The destruction of neighborhoods for the building of highways. Outcomes in the justice system determined by race. Gentrification. Food deserts. Over-policing of minority communities. Creating task forces rather than taking real and corrective action.
Naming those wounds and telling the whole truth of our history, if we can be courageous enough to do it, gives way to another, a hopeful, opportunity: re-imagining Charlotte. The spaces where we live and work and play today are not a given. They do not have to be. They were dreamed into being, with unquestionable success, but also with much harm along the way. Those spaces are maintained in inequitable fashion by systems that fail to prioritize the flourishing of all our denizens as neighbors to one another. Our city will not flourish unless the re-imagination of our common good is done by different, more fecund imaginations — the young, the excluded, the displaced, the poor, the unheard, the disenfranchised. To those folks, neither the conference table nor the boardroom has ever been open. They do not draw up the plans, or get the financing, or create the renderings for new projects. Our city — all of us — suffers because of it.
A few months back, I got to listen in on a conversation among neighbors in that soon-to-be-gentrified neighborhood. They were imagining how they would create a more flourishing place in their little corner of the world. Rich palettes of color enlivened their descriptions. The worlds they dreamed were far more colorful than just white — which, truth be told, is just thought to be the quickest way to green, the real goal — but were richly hued in every imaginable color. They described a world marked not only by its striking diversity, but by the strength of each color that dressed buildings, gardens and sidewalks. They could imagine that the strength of each benefitted everyone. And given the chance to dream dreams, they created a space where they, in their own neighborhood, could belong.