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First #LongLiveArts Festival is reason to celebrate

17 May
Levine Center for the Arts (Day)

Levine Center of the Arts. Photo by Mitchell Kearney.

By Bernie Petit
Communications Manager

A first of its kind event hosted by the four member organizations of Levine Center for the Arts – the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Blumenthal Performing Arts’ Knight Theater, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture and Mint Museum Uptown – takes place this weekend.

And while you likely know it will include an incredible array of cultural experiences for the entire family, you might not know what else makes the inaugural #LongLiveArts Festival so meaningful.

The community-wide event, which takes place Saturday, May 21, will offer salsa dancing, puppets, a portrait paint-off, drums, aerial dancing, jazz, food trucks, an Arts Guy and free access to all Levine Center for the Arts museums all day.

It will also feature a free “plazacast” of Charlotte Symphony’s “Romeo & Juliet,” showing from a big screen in front of the iconic Firebird public artwork at 7:30 p.m. Saturday as well as Friday, May 20.

But beyond that, the community festival demonstrates how the four organizations are working more closely together than ever to increase visibility and access to the unified center. Such partnerships between cultural organizations make arts, science, history and heritage experiences more accessible and help build community – one of the pillars of the community’s Cultural Vision Plan.

It’s also reminiscent of the forethought that led to the creation of Levine Center for the Arts.

A view of what is now the site of Levine Center for the Arts before the facilities for four cultural organizations were constructed.

A view of what is now the site of Levine Center for the Arts before the facilities for four cultural organizations were constructed.

Back in 2005, surface parking came close to filling the one-block radius of South Tryon Street across from The Green in uptown Charlotte. There weren’t plans across the street to demolish the now-former Charlotte Observer building for a “major mixed use development” or to turn the old Goodyear Building into a really cool temporary space for artists before knocking it down for another mixed-use building.

But there was a plan for The Campaign for Cultural Facilities, the private endowment campaign launched that year.

In 2010, Leon and Sandra Levine, through The Leon Levine Foundation, contributed a $15 million gift to conclude the $83 million fundraising effort. In tribute to the Levines’ generosity, also recognized by a $5 million gift in their honor by Duke Energy, Wells Fargo renamed the cultural campus Levine Center for the Arts.

Photo by Patrick Schneider.

First Night Charlotte. Photo by Patrick Schneider.

With the subsequent openings of Knight Theater (Oct. 12, 2009), the Gantt Center (Oct. 24, 2009), the Bechtler (Jan. 2, 2010) and Mint Museum Uptown (Oct. 1, 2010), the cultural campus established itself as a vibrant and high-energy arts district where Charlotte-Mecklenburg residents and visitors can find blockbuster exhibitions, illuminating performances and community celebrations – all of which you’ll find for free this weekend at #LongLiveArts.

So while the festival is new, the commitment to program excellence and relevance by all four Levine Center for the Arts institutions has long been steadfast.

And that’s something to celebrate.

Want to Go?

The #LongLiveArts Community Festival takes place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, May 21, at Levine Center for the Arts, 500 block of South Tryon Street, including Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Blumenthal Performing Arts’ Knight Theater, Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture and Mint Museum Uptown.

A free “plazacast” of Charlotte Symphony’s “Romeo & Juliet” will be shown from a big screen in front of the Firebird at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 20, and Saturday, May 21. The Bechtler and the Mint will offer special hours of free access on Friday, May 20, in conjunction with the plazacast.

For more information, including a complete schedule of events, visit

Our 2016 spring festival roundup

1 Apr

Why This Matters: Cultural festivals provide access to arts, science, history and heritage experiences in neighborhoods and towns across our community.

The Kings Drive Art Walk returns in April.

The Kings Drive Art Walk returns in April. Photo credit: Festival in the Park.

By Bernie Petit
Communications Manager

Greenspaces and greenways will be transformed into hubs of cultural activity in the coming weeks by the arrival of springtime festivals.

An abundance of arts, science, history and heritage experiences highlight many of these annual events, which provide families across our community with incentive to get outside and enjoy the warmer weather and longer days.

It’s why ASC supports festivals throughout the year, primarily through Town Initiative and Cultural Festival grants that increase access to and strengthen the quality of cultural programming in neighborhoods and towns across Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Here’s a look at five upcoming festivals to look forward to in April and May supported by your investment in ASC, as well as several other community festivals.

10 a.m.-5 p.m. April 16 and noon-4 p.m. April 17, 2016.
Where: Main Street and town green in downtown Davidson.
What’s Happening: The North Mecklenburg festival brings thousands of people to Davidson to enjoy art, live music and food. The juried art festival features booths filled with art works from artists throughout the region. The weekend also includes musical performances by a variety of local talents and a host of food choices from on-site vendors and area restaurants.
Admission: Free.

8 a.m. April 16 – 4 p.m. April 17, 2016.
Where: Historic Rural Hill, 4431 Neck Road, Huntersville.
What’s Happening: The two days of cultural fun includes Highland dancing, bagpipe bands, Highland athletics, a kid’s zone, Scottish merchants, haggis, historic reenactments, Scottish country dancing, a Sunday church service, hearth cooking, local beer and wine, whiskey tastings, kilted running events, Scottish clan societies, long bow and blowgun demonstrations, battle axe throwing and more.
Admission: $8 children 5-12, $20 ages 13 and older on April 16 and $10 ages 13 and older April 17; early bird specials and two-day passes available.

11 a.m. – 6 p.m. April 30 and 11 am – 5 pm May 1, 2016.
Where: Little Sugar Creek Greenway on Kings Drive, 600 South Kings Dr., Charlotte.
What’s Happening: Presented by Festival in the Park, the annual event focuses on fine and emerging artists. Dozens of artists, ranging from clay and metal to mixed media and painting, will have their work on display and available for purchase. There will also be crafts, music and family entertainment.
Admission: Free.

Asian Festival & Dragon Boat Races. Photo credit: Andy Chen.

Asian Festival & Dragon Boat Races. Photo credit: Andy Chen.

11 a.m. – 6 p.m. May 14, 2016.
Where: Ramsey Creek Park, 18841 Nantz Road, Cornelius.
What’s Happening: The family-oriented event, which takes place during National Asian Heritage Month, celebrates Asian cultures, diversity, ethnicity, roots and history. The event is highlighted by the annual Dragon Boat races featuring more than 40 community teams. There will also be a variety of cultural exhibits, stage performances, food and vendors.
Admission: Free.

10 a.m. – 2 p.m. May 14, 2016.
Where: Discovery Place KIDS, 105 Gilead Road, Huntersville.
What’s Happening: Huntersville’s annual downtown event focuses on art, music and STEM. It will feature local artists and musicians, art demonstrations and hands-on activities in STEM.
Admission: Free.

Other Community Festivals

sensoria logo

April 8-16, 2016.
Where: Multiple venues on the campus of Central Piedmont Community College, 1201 Elizabeth Ave., Charlotte.
What’s Happening: Originally conceived as a spring literary festival in 1993, Sensoria has grown into an event that draws about 15,000 people annually and features more than 50 events celebrating literature, music, visual arts, history, culture and food.
Admission: With the exception of some ticketed performances, most events are free.

April 18-23, 2016.
Where: Knight Theater at Levine Center for the Arts, 430 S. Tryon St., Charlotte
What’s Happening: A multi-day event, the festival features two main stage performances by the critically-acclaimed Jazz at Lincoln Center under the leadership of musical director Wynton Marsalis, as well as free shows and club performances.
Admission: A mix of free and ticketed events; ticketed event prices range from $19.50 to $89.50 depending on the event.

10 a.m. – 2 p.m. April 23, 2016.
Where: Stumptown Park, 120 S. Trade St., Matthews.
What’s Happening: The educational and family-friendly event will include activities for children, interactive exhibits, animals, recycling, educational presentations and more.
Admission: Free.

When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. May 21.
Where: Mint Museum Uptown, 500 S. Tryon St., Charlotte.
What’s Happening: All three Levine Center for the Arts museums – Mint Museum Uptown, Bechtler Museum of Modern Art; and Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture – will open their galleries for free access during regular museum hours. Docents from all three museums will offer community tours. Food trucks will be on hand along Tryon Street and interactive activities will be available at all three locations. Beginning at 6 p.m., settle down for a picnic to enjoy a free plazacast of the Charlotte Symphony’s collaboration with Charlotte Ballet for Romeo & Juliet (performance begins at 7:30 p.m.).
Admission: Free.

4-11 p.m. May 27, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. May 28 and noon-6 p.m. May 29, 2016.
Where: Mint Hill Veterans Memorial Park, 8850 Fairview Road.
What’s Happening: The festival, which celebrates the town’s founding, has something for everyone in the family: food, music ranging from country to rock, a carnival, an arts/crafts fair, a parade, and a fireworks display at 9 p.m. May 28.
Admission: Free.

Fringe arts scene is BOOM-ing in Charlotte

1 Apr

Why This Matters: We should experience innovative work being created in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.


By Bernie Petit
Communications Manager

Original, innovative artwork that pushes boundaries and challenges audiences is being created along the edges of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s vibrant cultural scene.

It just might not be something many people know about.

That will change with a BOOM, the three-day fringe arts event taking place April 8 – 10. It intends to make experimental art accessible to mainstream audiences with $10 admission to short, 45-minute indoor shows (day and weekend passes are available) and free outdoor arts experiences all within walking distance in Charlotte’s Plaza-Midwood neighborhood.

Manoj Kesavan. Photo credit: The Charlotte Observer.

Manoj Kesavan. Photo credit: The Charlotte Observer.

“Part of the intention is to connect the dots,” said festival founder Manoj Kesavan said. “There are a lot of people doing really cool stuff, but they’re all in their own worlds. We want to connect them all and bring them all together.”

The figurative explosion of experimental art will feature 10 groups presenting more than 30 productions in six venues in the neighborhood’s business district along Central and Commonwealth avenues.

At the epicenter of the curated festival will be the local groups and artists known for creating cutting-edge work at Charlotte’s fringes: Sarah Emery and dancers, On Q Productions, Carlos Robson and Bluz (slam poetry), Sinergismo (performance art), Taproot (theater) and XOXO (theater).

Taproot is one of the local performance arts groups that will be featured at BOOM. Photo credit: Taproot.

Taproot is one of the local performance arts groups that will be featured at BOOM. Photo credit: Taproot.

Providing a broader perspective of modern art trends will be regional and national artists Dasan Ahanu (spoken word), the Alban Elved Dance Company and artistic director Karola Lüttringhaus, Cynthia Ling Lee (dance) and Questionable Acts Theatre Company.

Questionable Acts Theatre Company will perform at BOOM. Photo credit: Questionable Acts Theatre Company.

Questionable Acts Theatre Company will perform at BOOM. Photo credit: Questionable Acts Theatre Company.

“Fringe festivals are where the grassroots arts community meets and shares ideas and they’re where people get a sense of what’s happening in the art world,” Kesavan said. “It’s this exchange thing, especially for performing artists.”

An outdoor stage will feature contemporary performances, art installations and music, including a four hour Tosco Music Party on April 9.

All of the open-air public performances will be free and they should be relatively inoffensive, at least by fringe standards. What happens inside the venues is another story.

“We want artists to do their thing,” he said. “We are not asking for pre-approval or anything – there’s no censorship – so we don’t know what you’re going to see. Some of them might not be kid-friendly.”

What they will all be is new and original.

“We encourage the groups to take risks,” Kesavan said. “We want them to bring their A-games and surprise us because we are trying to show something Charlotteans wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

It’s also a way to show what Charlotte-Mecklenburg does have, which is a thriving avant garde scene. BOOM, supported in part by a grant from ASC, is a step in bringing more awareness to the performing artists making great work here, Kesavan said.

“We felt it was time that Charlotte had that kind of a festival that was showcasing what’s at the fringes – the non-institutional, the experimental, people who are pushing the boundaries,” he said. “It’s the future of the arts, really.”

Want to Go?

BOOM, a first-time fringe arts showcase of experimental and contemporary performance and visual art, will take place April 8 – 10, 2016, in Charlotte’s Plaza-Midwood neighborhood. It will include more than 30 performances, art installations and after parties in surrounding venues and public spaces. Performances at the outdoor stage are free; performances inside venues are $10 per event. Day and weekend passes are also available. For a full schedule of performances and locations, visit


Jumping in with both feet

7 Mar

Why This Matters: The arts, sciences and history can provide bridges to cultural experiences that enrich our lives.

By Robert Bush
ASC President

Robert Bush, ASC President.

Robert Bush, ASC President.

I was one of the lucky ones. My parents made certain that my sisters and I were exposed to a wide variety of cultural experiences – music, theatre, museums – but they also made sure that we were not afraid of the world and all that it offers. So, they regularly sent us away from home on our own – first with trips to visit aunts, uncles and cousins in towns which seemed so far away at the time (like High Point and Thomasville in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina), and then to week-long church camps. They even let us walk to school, shop along the main street area and go to the movies by ourselves in my hometown of Hickory. But, in June 1969, when I was 16 years old, the biggest adventure of my youth began. My parents put me on an Eastern Airlines flight at the old Charlotte Douglas Airport off Morris Field Drive to spend the next eight weeks living with a family in the historic city of Saltillo, the oldest post-Spanish conquest settlement in northern Mexico.

That total emersion into a different world with a different language, different music, different food, different everything, taught me many lessons and also set me on a path that defines my life to this day. I watched Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon on a big screen set up in the city square of Saltillo with thousands of Mexicans cheering that accomplishment for all of us. A few years later, I ended up majoring in Spanish in college and even taught high school Spanish before making the move to arts administration. The lessons I learned about my Mexican family, their lives and their culture became the foundation for how I approach life.

This blog provides too little space to cover the hundreds of examples from my life of how jumping in with both feet and without fear to experience another culture has taught and continues to teach me daily. I could recount the joy of learning to dance with Chuck Davis and the African American Dance Ensemble in Durham; hearing the Japanese drummers lead a festival audience through an exciting performance in Fort Wayne, Ind.; seeing flamenco dancers in Seville; potters from the Catawba Valley tradition opening a ground-hog kiln and pulling out their face jugs and swirl pots; experiencing actors in Belfast telling the harrowing story of life in Chile under Pinochet; and so many more.

Instead, I will focus on two experiences.

In 1988, I was the director of development at The Mint Museum and served as project manager for the Ramessess the Great exhibition – the largest cultural event in the history of this community. Over a four-month timespan in 1988 and 1989, more than 634,000 individuals visited the museum on Randolph Road for the largest exhibition of Egyptian antiquities ever to tour the United States. Many of you share memories of this extraordinary experience with me. But I also had the opportunity to lead a group of Mint members and others on a trip to Egypt, where we visited museums, archeological sites, mosques, churches, ancient temples and tombs, shopped in ancient marketplaces and cruised the Nile. We saw and learned about the lives of Egyptians past and present. It was a joyous sharing of how their culture and beliefs have shaped our culture and beliefs to this day.

More recently, in April 2011, I found myself in deep sadness. My older sister Carol had just passed away without warning. She shared with me this love of the world and of art and learning instilled in us by our parents. And, I was scheduled to lead a trip of ASC donors and others to Cuba. (I admit it had been a “bucket list” trip for me since that summer of ’69.) And so, I set out again, sad and confused this time, on another journey that would change my life.

Cuba 1

A scene from a trip of ASC donors and others to Cuba in April, 2011.

Travel to Cuba was difficult at that time. That is changing now that the U.S. and Cuba have re-established diplomatic relations. But, I cannot tell you how lucky I feel to have experienced Cuba before what I know will be a rapid and dramatic time of change. Yes, we were shocked to see new or restored buildings next to crumbling historic structures.

Cuba 2

A scene from a trip of ASC donors and others to Cuba in April, 2011.

Yes, we delighted in the vintage 1950 automobiles, a night at the Tropicana, and the artist studios, galleries and museums.

But the highlight was seeing Havana through the eyes of some Cuban-American immigrants who left their home in 1960 and made their first return with us. We saw their joy in reconnecting with the beauty of their homeland and their dynamic culture. We also experienced the warmth of the Cuban people.

Cuba 4

A scene from a trip of ASC donors and others to Cuba in April, 2011.

What does all of this have to do with ASC and our role in the cultural life of this community? It’s simple actually. Just like my life has been enriched by the bridges provided by the arts, sciences and history of this and many other cultures and countries, ASC works to ensure that our local cultural world reflects the richness and diversity of all who have chosen to make this place their home. ASC is helping build those bridges for all of us to learn more about each other through our cultural lives.

Cultural field trips create lifelong memories

29 Jan

Why this matters: Providing access to cultural education experiences helps students become creative and critical thinkers.

 Students attend Charlotte Symphony Orchestra performances at the Belk Theatre at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. The engaging concert integrates music into the core curriculum using both classical and popular works.

Students attend Charlotte Symphony Orchestra performances at the Belk Theatre at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. The engaging concert integrates music into the core curriculum using both classical and popular works.

By Amy Mitchell
Communications Manager

You never know what type of cultural experience will most profoundly affect a young person’s life. And while the cultural experience is important, what is just as important (and possibly more so) is ensuring the chance for them to have the experience.

Veronica Terrana, a literacy facilitator at Matthews Elementary, knows that cultural field trips “expose kids who would never otherwise see these places to the wonders of the world around them.”

“They are foundational experiences that make them part of our collective culture,” said Terrana. “My own children get to do so many things and have had so many experiences. I am fortunate that I have the privilege to take them to these places and expose them to this kind of learning. It has helped their reading and content learning. All students deserve that, but not all parents can provide it. Cultural field trips level the playing field.”

This is where ASC steps in. We know that by investing in grade-level cultural experiences for Charlotte-Mecklenburg students, we’re helping to level the playing field for all. This school year, more than 30,000 local students will participate in cultural field trips, thanks to Howard Levine renewing his $100,000 commitment to ASC to support field trips and thanks to The Leon Levine Foundation donating $100,000 to provide field trip opportunities to middle school students.

Seventh grade students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) will visit the Levine Center for the Arts to explore two of the cultural destinations in the center: Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture and Mint Museum Uptown.

Fifth graders will attend a performance of “Endless Possibilities,” a performance tailored for 10- and 11-year-olds and featuring Opera Carolina, Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Symphony in Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

And, with funding from ASC, third grade students will visit one of the following historic sites: Historic Latta Plantation, Historic Rosedale, Rural Hill, Charlotte Museum of History, Mint Hill Historical Society and James K. Polk State Historic Site.

We don’t know which of these experiences will resonate most with students years from now. But by exposing them to different types of cultural offerings at multiple points during their formative years, we do know these field trips will help them grasp the connection between creativity and education.

It’s what we’ve heard from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg residents and teachers who shared their memories of how class field trips impacted their lives.

“Cultural field trips are important because they provide wonderful engaging experiences that children never forget,” said CMS employee Wendy Ventresca, whose first trip to the zoo was on an elementary school trip in upstate New York. “I don’t remember what I learned in math, science, or art in elementary school. I remember the zoo!”

Some field trips are memorable because they connect curriculum concepts to the real world, said Charlotte resident Katie Foote, who recalls taking class trips to Fort Fisher as a child in Wilmington.

“The touch pool and big fish tank were awesome,” Foote said. “We also walked some of the trails and talked about the coastal ecology. It was a great way to be aware of plants and animals.”

Other trips stand out because they make you care about something you never thought you would, said Malone Lockaby, a graduate of Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte.

“I love the arts, and was never one for science, but Discovery Place is special,” she said. “It’s an experience that makes children and adults get excited about science and learning.”

Cultural field trips can also open students’ eyes to careers they may not have considered, said Zac Vinson, director of education at Historic Rural Hill. Vinson credits a field trip to the Schiele Museum in Gastonia as the event that shaped who he is today.

He still remembers a man dressed in buckskin clothing, with long hair and a black beard, made a spear point from a piece of flint.

“The American Indians and early pioneer settlers were always my favorite things to read about,” he said. “And to see this man was a revelation to me. Here was a real embodiment of all my long-dead heroes, talking to my class. I am often struck with the notion that had I not been on that field trip and seen that man, then I would be doing something entirely different.”

But you don’t have to be an adult to realize the impact of cultural field trips, said La’Kisha Jordan, an educator at Community Charter School in Charlotte.

Students from Community Charter recently took a cultural field trip to Levine Center for the Arts to experience the Dance Theatre of Harlem exhibit at the Gantt Center, learn about dance from Ballet Master Keith Saunders, take in a short performance at Knight Theater and participate in a hands-on movement workshop.

Community Charter students participating in a movement workshop conducted by Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photo credit: La’Kisha Jordan.

Community Charter students participating in a movement workshop conducted by Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photo credit: La’Kisha Jordan.

How did the kids respond?

“Even our students who held a singular view of what defines athleticism expressed a new outlook on the physical rigor involved with dance,” she said.

That’s because, according to Sarah Lindberg, a visual arts teacher at Smithfield Elementary in Pineville, actual experiences “become part of you, they expand your thinking and bring so much joy!”

It’s why students need to have such experiences and why ASC works so hard to provide them.

Remembering Brooklyn

29 Jan

Why this matters: The razing of the Brooklyn neighborhood, which impacted a generation of African-Americans in Charlotte, is an important part of the city’s history.

An old Charlotte Observer photo of Brooklyn.

An old Charlotte Observer photo by Hank Daniel of Brooklyn. See more photos here.

By Bernie Petit
Communications Manager

Not much is left of the predominately African-American Brooklyn neighborhood, which once stretched from East Trade to East Morehead streets in Charlotte’s Second Ward.

The Mecklenburg Investment Company office building. Photo credit: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.

The Mecklenburg Investment Company office building. Photo credit: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.

Only a handful of structures remain – the high school gymnasium, the city’s first black YMCA, Grace AME Zion Church and the old Mecklenburg Investment Company office building, financed in 1921 by a group of black professionals to provide the first office building open to blacks.

A few blackberry bushes, once abundant in the neighborhood, still ripen in June on a dead-end street off Stonewall Street just behind Actor’s Theatre.

But like any trace of Brooklyn, they can be hard to spot.

“As a historian, it breaks my heart that the visual cues that help us realize there is a history, that people did important things before we got here, those visual cues aren’t here,” said Dr. Tom Hanchett, former historian at Levine Museum of the New South.

“Losing the key cues that say people have tried over time and accomplished good things, that hurts.”

City leaders razed the neighborhood in the 1960s in the name of “urban renewal,” displacing more than 1,000 families, 200 businesses and a dozen churches. Despite promises, no new school or residential units were built to replace those demolished.

Lost were Carnegie Library, the first public library for black people in North Carolina, and Second Ward High, the first urban black high school in Charlotte. So too were businesses like the Queen City Pharmacy in the heart of Brooklyn, the A.M.E. Zion Publishing House that made Charlotte a prominent center for the religion and the famous El Chico restaurant, known for its burgers and bologna sandwiches.

But perhaps the biggest loss was the sense of community that permeated through the neighborhood.

“I’m a white guy,” Hanchett said, “and I give talks where there are black people that remember Brooklyn. And they start saying, ‘I couldn’t misbehave because everybody knew my mom, and if I misbehaved over here, I’d get a whack on the bottom and by the time I got home, the word would have gotten to my mom and I’d get more than a whack on the bottom at home.’”

A City Within a City

There is a misconception that Brooklyn was nothing more than slums, said John Howard, administrator for the City of Charlotte’s Historic Districts Commission.

The city’s 1960 Brooklyn Area Plan referenced substandard housing, high crime rates and low health standards as reasons for redevelopment.

Grace A.M.E. Zion Church. Photo credit: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.

Grace A.M.E. Zion Church. Photo credit: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.

“There’s nothing about the churches, nothing about the nice bungalows, the business buildings, the merchants, nothing about that at all,” Howard said.

To be clear, the neighborhood did include some of the city’s worst housing, particularly the section known as “Blue Heaven.” Scores of shotgun homes filled Blue Heaven, which sat behind where the Sheraton Charlotte Hotel and Le Meridian Charlotte now stand. Many of the residences were built as slums and barely maintained by landlords.

“That low-lying area was not a very good place to build, so that’s where the homes of the poorest people were,” Hanchett said. “It was called ‘Blue Heaven’ because everybody had wood smoke pouring out of their chimneys and the air was blue with smoke.”

It’s believed that Brooklyn took its name from the New York borough, considered a “city within a city.” And Charlotte’s Brooklyn, similar to most cities, contained a poor section and a well-to-do section – which in this case was along Brevard Street.

It was a mixed-use, mixed-income community long before such communities were trendy. Picture the built environment of Charlotte’s Plaza-Midwood neighborhood – some big houses, some bungalows, brick store buildings – and you come close to what the heart of Brooklyn looked like.

Replace the houses and bungalows with condos and a hotel, and it’s possibly a glimpse into the future of Second Ward.

Brooklyn New and Old

While “it won’t look anything like the old Brooklyn because we’re a big city now and back then we were a small town,” Hanchett said, proposed redevelopment for the area is expected to bring mixed-use, affordable housing and a tangible tribute to the community’s history.

The name, Brooklyn Village, will also harken to the Brooklyn of yesteryear. The hope is that it brings new life to an area that feels cold, sterile and institutional today.

“Think back to how un-cold it used to be, with House of Prayer being at Marshall Park and then a church on every block almost and then the vibrancy of people walking around every day, all day, not just Monday through Friday from 9 to 5,” Howard said. “You had activity going on constantly. It’s hard to imagine this being that place.”

There are still folks who remember. Many are older. Others were there for only a few years, not quite long enough to experience the full impact of the community.

Stories were passed down, too.

“[W]hen my mother told stories of Charlotte’s Brooklyn, I thought of the iconic borough in New York,” wrote Dr. Jeffrey B. Leak of UNC Charlotte in an essay for Charlotte Magazine. “For some reason, as a boy, I imagined that we had created that Brooklyn—subways and bridges—down here, not a Southern version of black achievement.”

By the time Leak came around, Brooklyn was gone. Residents relocated to the Beatties Ford Road corridor, to the Belmont, Villa Heights or Wilmore neighborhoods or elsewhere. So did the churches and businesses that survived.

Lessons From Brooklyn

Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture at Levine Center for the Arts. Photo credit: Gantt Center.

Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture at Levine Center for the Arts. Photo credit: Gantt Center.

The next time you visit the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture at Levine Center for the Arts, pay attention to the building’s design. It was inspired by the wood-frame Myers Street School, which was Charlotte’s first black public school when it opened in Brooklyn in 1882.

The school was referred to as the “Jacob’s Ladder” school because of its exterior stairs and because of the biblical story, “a metaphor for striving upward and bettering oneself, and that’s what education offered,” Hanchett said.

The concept of advancement is expressed in the Gantt Center design’s modern interpretation of Jacob’s Ladder through the use of prominent stairs and escalators that frame the building’s glass atrium.

Myers School, of course, is no more.

“When people say we tear down our history, that’s true in uptown especially and that’s part of our story,” Howard said.

But the Gantt Center design and the redevelopment plans for Second Ward show another part of the story – that Charlotte remembers and learns from its history.

Back then, “government planners were regarded as experts who knew what to do,” Hanchett said. Now, “we largely see the role of planners as listeners who shape policy in response to lots of community input.” Housing policy has also improved, Howard added.

And we realize we need more Brooklyns.

“We now understand that cities are an ecology,” Hanchett said. “You can’t sort out the butterflies from the flowers. It doesn’t work. They both die. You’ve got to have everything together.”

John Howard (left), administrator for the City of Charlotte’s Historic Districts Commission, and Dr. Tom Hanchett (right), former historian at Levine Museum of the New South.

John Howard (left), administrator for the City of Charlotte’s Historic Districts Commission, and Dr. Tom Hanchett (right), former historian at Levine Museum of the New South.

Mint exhibition a journey “From New York to Nebo”

29 Jan

Why This Matters: The Mint Museum Uptown at Levine Center for the Arts celebrates an accomplished Carolinas artist in an exhibition that connects to the history of Charlotte and North Carolina.

A self-portrait by Eugene Thomason.

A self-portrait by Eugene Thomason.

By Bernie Petit
Communications Manager

“From New York to Nebo: The Artistic Journey of Eugene Thomason,” on view at Mint Museum Uptown at Levine Center for the Arts location through March 27, 2016, is more than an exhibition of incredible portraits, landscapes and scenes by a native of the Carolinas.

The first retrospective of Thomason’s work in more than a generation is a look back at the Charlotte and North Carolina of yesteryear.

Dr. Jonathan Stuhlman, senior curator of American, modern and contemporary art at The Mint Museum.

Dr. Jonathan Stuhlman, senior curator of American, modern and contemporary art at The Mint Museum.

“It celebrates an artist who is probably one of the best painters ever to come out of North Carolina who happened to have really strong ties not only to Charlotte and living here but to Charlotte at the moment that The Mint Museum opening” in 1936, said Dr. Jonathan Stuhlman, senior curator of American, modern and contemporary art at the Mint. “Thomason was really a catalyst in Charlotte’s art scene in the 1930s.”

Born in South Carolina, Thomason moved around a lot in his early life between South and North Carolina. He attended Davidson College for a year, but “college really wasn’t for him,” Stuhlman said.

But he always had an interest in art and his father had gotten to know James Duke, the Durham-born tobacco baron and electric power industrialist. After seeing an example of Thomason’s work, Duke asked him to paint his portrait.

Duke was moved by the painting, Stuhlman said, calling it better than the portrait he had by John Singer Sargent, considered the “leading portrait painter of his generation.” The industrialist became Thomason’s first and most important patron, sponsoring him to go to New York to study at the Art Students League with urban realists like Robert Henri, John Sloan and George Luks, with whom Thomason particularly bonded.

Thomason returned to North Carolina in the early 1930s; by 1934 he had become one of Charlotte’s leading artists, teaching students and organizing exhibitions of local artists while producing some of the best art ever seen in the city. One of The Mint Museum’s first exhibitions, in 1937, was one dedicated to Thomason’s work.

Two works on display in the Mint’s current exhibition illustrate the range of art Thomason created during his years in Charlotte. The first, “Boy with Chrysanthemums,” is reminiscent of Rodin’s famous 1880 sculpture The Thinker.

“Boy with Chrysanthemums.”

“Boy with Chrysanthemums.”

“Thomason was working in his studio and he came across this boy who was selling flowers and this boy kind of told him this sob story that he wanted to go to a baseball game but his mother told him he had to sell all of his flowers before he could go,” Stuhlman said. “Thomason said I will buy all of your flowers if you’ll sit for me for a few minutes for a portrait.”

The other prominent artistic link to Thomason’s time in Charlotte documents Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 “Green Pastures” stump speech at the city’s then-new Memorial Stadium.

“Thomason was known to have attended this speech and was so moved by it that he quickly went back to his studio and painted this picture memorializing the event,” Stuhlman said.

At the end of the 1930s, Thomason married Elizabeth Montgomery Williams and the couple moved out to Nebo, off Lake James in the foothills of the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains. There, he continued to paint vigorously and directly, responding to what was in front of him.

He also documented the history of leisure-time activities in North Carolina, from hunting, fishing and bootlegging to college football and professional wrestling.

This work by Eugene Thomason captures the football rivalry between the University of North Carolin and Duke University.

This work by Eugene Thomason captures the football rivalry between the University of North Carolina and Duke University.

“He’s really interested in capturing all of the things that were special about North Carolina to him,” Stuhlman said, “not only the people and the landscape but all of the activities that make it a special place.”

Want to See It?

“From New York to Nebo: The Artistic Journey of Eugene Thomason” is on display through March 27, 2016, at Mint Museum Uptown at Levine Center for the Arts, 500 S. Tryon Street, Charlotte. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. General admission is $12 adults, $9 college students and seniors, $6 children 5 to 17 years old and free children 4 and younger and museum members. Free admission Wednesday nights from 5 to 9 p.m. For more information, visit


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