Jane Jacobs walkers explored Charlotte’s trendy, and not-so-trendy areas
From Philadelphia to San Francisco, from Hinesburg, Vt., to Morrilton, Ark., on Saturday, May 4, people around the country were getting together to explore parts of their cities, in honor of the late urban activist and author Jane Jacobs, born May 4, 1916.
See photos from the two walks, at article's end.
Charlotte held two Jane Jacobs Walks, through very different parts of the city. PlanCharlotte.org was the sponsor for both.
The first walk took place along a short stretch of North Sharon Amity Road, where two faded strip shopping centers next door to each other have become magnets for immigrant-owned businesses. Led by historian Tom Hanchett of Levine Museum of the New South, which was the walk’s co-sponsor, participants first visited an Ethiopian grocery and took part in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
The group of 20 then walked a few dozen feet up the strip shopping center for snacks at La Shish Kebob, open for three years and run by an immigrant from Jerusalem, Izzat Freitekh. The tour ended with desserts at the year-old Golden Bakery, about 200 feet away and owned by Syrian immigrant Tony Azazi.
Hanchett is not oblivious to that area’s lack of what most city planners would consider “urban”-style development. He just likes making the point that Jacobs did: “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them,” he read to the group as they savored bites of baklava. “By old buildings I mean … a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings. … Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings.”
A noted chowhound with a nose for new, ethnic food offerings, Hanchett likes to take people to parts of the city that are not trendy or glossy, to show them how regeneration happens slowly and quietly. “In Charlotte,” he said, “some of the cool stuff is stuff we don’t think is cool yet.”
Don’t overlook the humble businesses that locate in old, scrappy parts of town. “This is where culture happens,” he said.
Charlotte’s South End neighborhood is anything but overlooked. It’s a former industrial area along an abandoned freight rail line that became the city’s first light rail corridor. Along with rehabbed old textile mills and up-fitted old factories, the area is seeing a boom in high-end apartments and condominiums.
Urban design professor David Walters of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte led a group of a dozen along a sidewalk that runs beside the light rail tracks – a well-used bicycle and walking trail.
Don’t confuse urban planning with urban design, he said. Many of the developments in the area are good urban planning – they mix uses, they cluster near transit stations, they re-use existing infrastructure – but are bad urban design, he said.
Examples include parking lots facing the public space of the sidewalk trail, and the garbage containers stowed behind buildings but fronting the public walk. “If a student did this in my class,” he said, pointing to surface parking lots next to businesses at the light rail line, “they would fail the project.”
He discussed “density” with the group – a word that too often in cities like Charlotte is viewed with suspicion. “Without density you can’t have urban life,” Walters said. “Without density we can’t have sustainable urban places.”
He carried with him two copies of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book he uses regularly with his students. One copy, a yellowed paperback with pages falling out, is what he was carrying as an architecture student in England in the 1960s when a professor spotted it and forbade him to read it. Jacobs was not an architect, not a planner and, worst of off, the professor sniffed, she was a woman.
Scroll below for more photographs from the two Jane Jacobs walks in Charlotte.