City Walks

Knight Foundation grant bolsters City Walks project

At the Nile Ethiopian Food and Spices grocery on North Sharon Amity Road in east Charlotte, co-owner Tsige Meshesha pours an Ethiopian coffee service for participants in a City Walk in May 2016 led by historian Tom Hanchett. Photo: Claire Apaliski

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and its PlanCharlotte.org web publication have been awarded a $15,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to continue their work as citywide organizers of a series of Charlotte neighborhood City Walks each May.

The walks are inspired by the work of urban observer and writer Jane Jacobs and encourage people to learn their city by exploring it on foot and observing it up close. They are part of an international Jane’s Walk movement that has helped neighborhood leaders and others organize walks throughout the world.

Jane Jacobs, who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities, believed residents understand their neighborhoods better than planners, highway builders or City Hall bureaucrats. The walks keep that spirit alive. They encourage people to learn about the places they inhabit and to meet their neighbors, and they encourage people to explore parts of the city they aren’t familiar with. In that way, they encourage engagement within and between neighborhoods.

But in Charlotte, where Jane Jacobs is not as familiar a figure as in the cities of Toronto and New York, where she lived, the name Jane’s Walks confused people. “Who is Jane and does she lead the walks?” some asked. PlanCharlotte has renamed them City Walks.

PlanCharlotte.org began the Charlotte walks in 2012 with one walk. By 2016 – aided by previous Knight Foundation grants – there were 21 City Walks, including two on bicycles, in neighborhoods such as NoDa, Dilworth, South End, Revolution Park, Enderly Park, Historic West End and uptown.

That first walk in 2012, which has been offered each year since, is led by historian Tom Hanchett, recently retired from the Levine Museum of the New South. It’s a “munching tour” and focuses on international, immigrant-owned restaurants and stores in east Charlotte. Hanchett talks about Jane Jacobs’ belief that new ideas thrive in inexpensive, old buildings, and he uses the stores and restaurants to illustrate the way cities offer entrepreneurial opportunities to newcomers. “The tours allowed me to connect with cultures that I might not have had an opportunity to get close to otherwise,” said walk participant Karen Sullivan, a Charlotte writer and editor. “The business owners share very personal stories of courage and perseverance as they offer meals and recipes passed down by their mothers and grandmothers.” 

Among the community partners who have worked with the institute to organize City Walks are the Levine Museum of the New South, historian Tom Hanchett, the Charlotte Museum of History, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Friends of Fourth Ward, the We Walk Together initiative of Mecklenburg Ministries, Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department and the KEEPING WATCH sustainability initiative.

The Knight Foundation had previously awarded the institute a total of $26,500 in two grants to support the City Walks initiative in Charlotte.

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, founded in 1969, is UNC Charlotte’s oldest institute. As an applied research institute, its mission is to seek solutions to the social, economic and environmental challenges facing communities in the greater Charlotte region and beyond. PlanCharlotte.org, founded in 2012, is an online publication that offers news, information and analysis about urban growth and environmental topics in the Charlotte region.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, based in Miami, is a national foundation that invests in journalism, in the arts and in the success of the cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Its mission is to foster informed and engaged communities, which are essential for a healthy democracy.