Monday, May 7, 2012

NODA, A Study of the rise and fall of an Arts and Culture District

NODA is short for North Davidson, an area of Charlotte, NC that saw an amazing transformation in the late '80s, early '90's.

The transformation began with Paul Sires and Ruth Ava Lyons.

From Wikipedia:

In 1985 Paul Sires and Ruth Ava Lyons, 2 young artists, arrived in the dilapidated and neglected mill village main street of North Charlotte and became captivated by the areas character. They bought and renovated the Lowder Building and continued to renovate nearby buildings and mill houses as part of an ongoing revitalization effort, and actively participated in beautification efforts.

In 2011, Creative Loafing (Charlotte's arts and culture magazine) did a story on NODA, from the perspective of some the residents, including Paul Sires:

Sires: "In 1986, it was pretty well boarded up. There were a couple of bars. There was a machine shop — McCullough Auto and Electric — and there was a print shop. That was pretty much it. It was kind of abandoned and just a handful of artists. But it was a cool neighborhood. Mostly mill houses that were still intact. We could afford to buy our building for the studio space. Because it was a little business district, we could see something happening there as opposed to other parts of town with their long, long roads and lots of buildings. Our initial building, we renovated over five or six years. It was four storefronts and three upstairs. We'd rent space out to other artists."

An artist named Swanson gives his perspective:

Swanson: "When you came outside, you had to deal with the drug dealers making sales in front of your house and making it look bad for you. Then the cops show up, and they harassed any and everybody walking down the street. You couldn't even go to the store, and you couldn't wear nice clothes. If you did, they were jumping out on you, slamming you on the concrete, slamming you against the cars."

The area showed significant growth for 20 years, with many galleries opening. When I moved from Charlotte in 1994, NODA was the "go to" place for Friday night gallery crawls.

From Creative Loafing:

Galleries were thriving. Center of the Earth was joined by new places, such as Green Rice Gallery and The Rat's Nest. More people were gathering at restaurants like Boudreaux's and Smelly Cat. In 2005, NoDa School of the Arts opened. That year, Marcus Kiser moved into Mecklenburg Mill Apartments, where he and others formed the God City art collective...

A year later, the Mills were shut down, allegedly due to termite infestation, and the residents, mostly artists, had to relocate to hotels across the city.

A resident reports:

Wolly: "Half the people weren't even at home when that happened. But when you watched what was going on and saw how NoDa was changing — we're living here at reasonable rates and getting better or the same space as the new people who just moved in up the street at crazy rates — you knew something was going to happen. Gentrification happens all of the time. Some people didn't want to look at things for what they really were, but I'd seen the changes in NoDa on the art side. When that situation happened, it put a general distaste in my mouth for the people inhabiting NoDa. None of those people came to our aide, none of those people offered support."

Kiser: "You lost a lot of diversity when that building shut down. Back then, it was like a college atmosphere. I remember walking down to RealEyes Bookstore [now closed] and hanging out with Darren. I loved it. It was kind of amazing."

Darren Vincent, former RealEyes owner who currently owns Red @28th, recalled the effect the closing had on the neighborhood.
Vincent: "Once they were gone, our profits dropped dramatically. The clientele that was here before, it was really a community. It's just not that community anymore. You have a lot of people from the outside coming in. We used to know each other in NoDa. I don't know anyone in this neighborhood anymore."
The Creative Loafing article concludes:


The recession has shut the doors of many galleries, and higher-priced homes have made NoDa unaffordable for young artists wanting to follow the paths of trailblazers like Lyons and Sires. But for the most part, residents remain optimistic.


This is something for artists and those creating zoning for arts and culture districts to consider. It seems that often, those who do the hard work of transforming and area and making it vital and vibrant, are then cast aside when the fruits of their efforts are realized.

I've made the argument before that when it comes to the creative economy, artists are used as the "lure" to generate economic growth, but are often treated like "chum". This is what I'm talking about.

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