Charlotte historian on income inequality: “It’s easy to be a prisoner of your zip code”

Tom Hanchett, a Charlotte historian, talks about income inequality and how it hurts us all.
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Tom Hanchett, a Charlotte historian, talks about income inequality and how it hurts us all.
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This is the wealthiest ZIP code in the Charlotte area

June 15, 2018 10:30 AM

In Charlotte's 28207 ZIP code — which includes Eastover and Myers Park — the median household income is $130,868.

It's the wealthiest in the city, according to 2016 Census data, and is up nearly $10,000 from five years earlier.

About 6 miles away is the 28206 ZIP code.

The lowest income residents live there, an area that includes Druid Hills, Tryon Hills and Brightwalk. The median household income is $28,034 a year, according to 2016 Census data. That's up $6,600 from five years earlier.

The difference between the highest and lowest median incomes in 2016 was about $103,000. That's up more than $3,000 from five years prior, using inflation-adjusted figures.

The widening gap between the lowest and highest income areas shows an increase in Charlotte's residential segregation, said Laura Simmons, director of community indicators at UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute.

“You’ve got more lower income people separated from the higher income people to a greater extent,” she said. “We’re seeing that all across the country.”

Median household incomes measure the incomes of all people in a household over 15 years old and is the midpoint, with half of incomes above the median and half below.

Mecklenburg County's median household income rose 5.8 percent to just over $59,000, according to Census estimates. The largest increase in median household income occurred in the 28203 ZIP code, which includes South End where thousands of apartments have been built. The median income increased to $82,600, up 39 percent.

The 28206 ZIP code is the lowest and includes parts of North Tryon and North Graham streets. The area is made up of nearly 74 percent African-American residents.

By contrast, the 28207 ZIP code includes parts of Providence, Randolph and Queens roads and has 94 percent white residents.

"There is this sorting out that happens in all American cities where people with money and choice tend to gravitate to neighborhoods where folks are exactly like themselves," said Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett. "Other folks have to take what they can and so you end up with concentrations of wealth, concentrations of poverty."

The 28206 ZIP code includes areas that were historically in the railroad corridors, Hanchett said. Residents worked hard labor jobs and in warehouses.

“That area has been traditionally very much a working-class area,” Hanchett said.

Starting in the 1950s, African-Americans moved to neighborhoods like Druid Hills when the older, black neighborhoods in the city center such as Brooklyn were demolished, he said. Plans in the area now call for more than 1,000 apartments and 170 condominiums (with about 115 reserved for people making less than 80 percent of the area median income, or $56,550 for a family of four).

Decades ago, the city tore down African-American neighborhoods with federal assistance as part of the program known as urban renewal, designed to clear what was called slum housing. The neighborhoods were destroyed and families displaced.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, courthouse, an abandoned Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools building and the county's jail now occupy that part of uptown.

“I fear that that’s going to happen again here in the Druid Hills community,” said lifelong Druid Hills resident Darryl Gaston.

To prevent longtime residents from leaving, Gaston said he tries to educate them on ways they can afford to stay. For example, he teaches homeowners who are seeing property tax bills increasing about abatement programs.

“I know that we have many residents, especially in Druid Hills, who have very limited income,” said Gaston, who founded the North End Community Coalition, which aims to maintain the integrity of the fabric of the corridor.

Low incomes are in part because of lack of access and opportunity for African-American residents, he said.

In 2014, a study from Harvard University and UC-Berkeley showed that poor children in Charlotte are less likely to escape poverty compared with their peers in America’s 50 largest cities.

“Race is a problem here in the city of Charlotte,” Gaston said. “Our inner city neighborhoods have experienced oppression and abuse for so long that people often feel rejected and dejected.”

Gaston served as director of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership when the nonprofit began the Brightwalk neighborhood in 28206. That neighborhood was built on the site of the former Double Oaks apartments, built after World War II. Some had gotten so old, they were uninhabitable, said Hanchett, the historian.

Brightwalk now is a combination of single-family homes, townhomes and apartments.

"People of all income levels are choosing to live together" at Brightwalk, Hanchett said.

Tom Hanchett, a Charlotte historian, said the old Double Oaks neighborhood has been developed into a mix of single family homes, townhomes and the McNeel Apartments.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest Mecklenburg ZIP code includes Myers Park, and the neighborhood's history helped shape it to be among the most affluent in Charlotte.

Boston planner John Nolen designed Myers Park in 1911 as a model for upscale neighborhoods all over the South, Hanchett said.

After the Great Depression, federal policies to help the banking industry allowed home loans in Myers Park, reinforcing the area as an exclusive, wealthier neighborhood, Hanchett said.

Today, two-earner households are common in neighborhoods like Myers Park, where people marry others from similar education levels and backgrounds, said Simmons of the Urban Institute. “Those factors are converging to increase the total household income,” she said.

The Queens Road area has long been seen as the affluent side of Charlotte. Residents in the 28207 ZIP code, which includes Myers Park, have a median household income of $130,868.

Across Charlotte and other American cities, gentrification is occurring in neighborhoods close to city centers, Hanchett said.

Neighborhoods that had been very low income are suddenly seeing older rental houses torn down and new apartments being built, he said.

One of those neighborhoods includes NoDa in 28205, where the 2016 median income was $40,996, up more than $3,000.

The NoDa area has gentrified, Hanchett said, but leaders are working to continue to welcome people in the neighborhood at multiple income levels.

“If we become only a neighborhood of wealthy people, we lose out on the cool stuff that’s NoDa,” Hanchett said.

Cassie Cope: 704-358-5926, @cassielcope.