Some of the 133 modest, single-story houses in Charlotte’s Windy Ridge neighborhood are being swallowed by tangles of vegetation, vacant and abandoned. But others occupy tidy, manicured landscapes.
Residents, UNC Charlotte faculty and students, police, Habitat for Humanity and others have worked for almost a decade to stabilize this neighborhood, which once gained national notoriety as a new kind of suburban slum. As its lawns indicate, Windy Ridge remains in flux.
Several times over the years the neighborhood's momentum has risen, then fallen, then risen again, most recently with the installation of an enthusiastic and optimistic new homeowner association president. Sustained stability, however, has so far proven elusive.
But some involved in the neighborhood think a critical element might be re-emerging after a lengthy lull. Researchers call it “place attachment,” and it's personified by residents such as Sonny Townsend, who became the association’s president about three months ago.
Life in Windy Ridge hasn’t gone as smoothly as Townsend hoped when he arrived almost two years ago. Soon after, neighbors warned of thieves kicking in doors to steal electronics. Unsupervised youth tossed trash in his yard. Drivers careened through the streets so fast Townsend was afraid to walk outside.
Still, he has become steadfastly loyal to the home he bought, with help from the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity.
“I plan on living in this house until I die,” he said, surveying the neighborhood from his living room one recent morning.
That sort of sentiment has been relatively rare in Windy Ridge’s history.
Some say the single-family-home subdivision, built in the early 2000s in an industrial area about 6 miles northwest of uptown Charlotte, was virtually set up to fail. For instance:
• It is surrounded by industry and far from necessities such as grocery stores.
• The primary way in and out requires drivers to navigate a steep grade and turn sharply across busy railroad tracks. Parked trains sometimes block access for long periods.
• It was supposed to be governed by a homeowner association, but the organization has struggled to maintain order while large blocks of homes were sold to outside investors and turned into rentals with high turnover.
A 2008 article in The Atlantic magazine by Christopher B. Leinberger of the Brookings Institution was headlined “The Next Slum?” and described Windy Ridge as wracked by foreclosure, violence and crime, an example of a forthcoming national suburban decline. (Click here to read it.) A January 2009 article in the Charlotte Observer reported that half the homes in Windy Ridge had been through foreclosure. An August 2010 Observer article, headlined “A neighborhood is reborn,” was more hopeful, though it said 30 Windy Ridge houses were vacant. This past May, a newsletter from researchers affiliated with the University of California Berkeley wrote about problems stabilizing Windy Ridge.
At times in the past, it seemed as if everyone who lived in Windy Ridge was trying to move out, said Liz Shockey, a UNC Charlotte doctoral student who has worked in the neighborhood as a research assistant. She is now student coordinator at the Charlotte Action Research Project, which seeks to match the university’s students with challenged local neighborhoods such as Windy Ridge to form mutually beneficial relationships.
In the past year or so, Shockey has detected a slight resurgence in what academics call “place attachment” – feelings that emotionally bind people to a place – in Windy Ridge. She isn’t sure how widespread the resurgence is, but she said Townsend and at least a few other residents seem increasingly committed to staying and improving the neighborhood.
That attitude had been largely missing from Windy Ridge since Wigena Tirado moved out in September 2010, Shockey said. Tirado, who spearheaded a neighborhood crime watch, walked the streets daily with a spreadsheet to keep track of activity at each property, providing leadership that helped Windy Ridge win a city award for community engagement.
“When (Tirado) moved out, it was just kind of this vacuum,” Shockey said.
Now, Townsend appears to be filling the void. He and a handful of other association leaders and longtime residents have formed what Shockey calls “a little social network” that is strengthening the sense of community in the neighborhood.
Townsend is encouraging several neighbors to join him in watching over each other’s property, and he’s confident they’re sending a message to troublemakers, many of whom have moved out, he said.
“The word’s getting out that we’re taking back the neighborhood,” Townsend said.
He plans to hold a goal-setting retreat for the association, and he talks of reviving the crime watch program. He wants to work toward a long-discussed community garden and playground.
But Windy Ridge still has a long way to go, he said. He estimated about 16 percent of its homes are vacant. Of the occupied homes, roughly 85 percent are rentals, although the proportion of owner-occupied homes has risen somewhat, he said.
Rashes of crime – sometimes violent crime – recur. Some residents still keep weapons handy in case of intruders. Attendance at the association’s meetings, open to renters as well as owners, remains paltry. But Townsend insists the neighborhood has significantly improved in recent months. “I think we’re on a steady ascent,” he said.
Officer Brent Hartley, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department community coordinator who works with Windy Ridge, corroborated Townsend’s assessment.
He couldn’t immediately provide statistics for Windy Ridge but said recent increases in stability there have helped deter violent crime.
He said in an email that partnerships with residents, police, other city agencies and groups such as UNC Charlotte and Habitat have increased the number of homeowners and encouraged tenants to stay, and authorities’ ongoing focus on violent and drug-related crimes and offenders is making a difference.
“We have seen a shift away from violent crimes to now having more often property crimes,” he said in his email. “What we want is no crime, but moving from violent crimes against people to property crimes is the right direction – we just have to keep things going.”
Whether Windy Ridge continues its upward movement could depend in part on how successful the neighborhood is at attracting and retaining more people like Regina and Sammy House, who live down the street from Townsend. Although the Houses don’t own their home, they regularly attend the association’s meetings.
They have lived in the neighborhood off and on for about eight years and said they are considering buying a home there. They like Windy Ridge’s proximity to family members and interstates 85 and 77, and said they haven’t encountered the crime they've heard so much about.
Regina House said she’s growing tired of renting and has gotten used to living near the train tracks. She could see the neighborhood becoming a place where more people put down roots and raise families, although she doubts that will happen in large numbers anytime soon.
Sammy House, however, thinks it will occur over time.
In five or 10 years, he said, “it will be a full neighborhood down in here.”
Editor's note: The author worked with Windy Ridge as a student in a fall 2011 community planning class.
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