Civic innovators step forward to improve Charlotte, N.C.

Communities / Article

Photo: Charlotte market by Kirsten Wile.

When 7th Street Public Market first opened in Charlotte, N.C., in 2012, people questioned the likelihood of its success. Today, it’s a popular destination for quality coffee, fresh cheeses and local goods, and the tables clustered in the middle of the market’s stalls and restaurants are frequently packed. So it was a fitting location for some of the city’s most inspired residents to come together and discuss how to make Charlotte better.

Some of the attendees came to gathering of like-minded advocates for the city on Wednesday evening with questions they were hoping to gain new perspectives on. Others looked to expand their networks over pizza and beer. But each person had a common mission.

“I feel like anybody who’s lived somewhere long enough will have ideas about, ‘Oh, man, they really need to do this, that, right there,’ ” said Varian Shrum, a planning and neighborhood consultant with Charlotte Center City Partners. “At a certain point, you realize, ‘Who is ‘they’?”

So Shrum became “they.” She wrote a 100-word proposal and became one of 25 K880 Emerging City Champions, a group of civic innovators recently selected from eight Knight communities. With the title, she won Knight Foundation support through the champions program administered by 8 80 Cities, a nonprofit that believes if a city can be a welcoming home for everyone from ages 8 to 80 it will work for any resident.

Shrum wants to create a neighborhood living room in South End, where, she says, 60 percent of residents live in single-person households. In that shared space, people could meet their neighbors while watching football games, enjoying free Wi-Fi or eating dinner. She is also working with surrounding neighborhoods to help residents foster relationships beyond South End. At Wednesday night’s event, she met city of Charlotte Community Engagement Manager Tom Warshauer, a 2015 Knight Cities Challenge winner for his project to place porch swings at bus stops around the city. They discussed the possibility of merging their ideas to bring porch swings to the neighborhood living room. Though the ideas may seem small, they have a wider impact than you might expect.

“The thing is, when you make public spaces where people come together, mix and mingle, get to know each other, then they’re much more likely to work together on those tougher questions and problems,” said Susan Patterson, Charlotte program director for Knight Foundation, which sponsored the gathering

Around Patterson, people were sharing thoughts on various projects. Knight Cities Challenge winner Alyssa Dodd, whose Take Ten initiative looks to get 150 members of the city government to participate in conversations with the citizens they serve, left the gathering with ideas on how to host events, what kinds of questions to ask, and how to get people to attend. Kevin Giriunas, who plans to open a co-working space in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood of Charlotte, stopped in to meet others with a creative spirit and hear what they’re working on. The event simply encouraged communication—something Charlotte needs more of. It’s a catalyst that introduces residents to other people outside of their work and neighborhood bubbles, a need brought to light by recent studies showing Charlotte’s income inequality is among the highest in the nation.

Charlotte “is still segregated [between rich and poor], but it’s a friendly segregation,” said Jarrod Jones, president of the Dudley Four Association, a local nonprofit that works to lessen youth achievement gaps. “People can still be friends and you can still show up but you’ll see that people still feel comfortable with people you identify with. With more public spaces, like the Knight Foundation is trying to do, so that people can really get to know each other outside of their neighborhood, then I think Charlotte would be a melting pot.”

Kristen Wile is a Charlotte, N.C.-based writer and editor. She can be reached at [email protected].