Once crime-ridden, old mill villages blossom

Charlotte's Belmont neighborhood once was infested with open-air drug markets. It was home to Piedmont Courts, the city's most rundown public housing project. The sound of gunfire forced many residents to stay inside after dark.

Click here for a photo gallery of Belmont and Villa Heights.

Today, though, the former mill villages of Belmont and neighboring Villa Heights are undergoing a transformation fueled largely by young, white professionals who moved to the neighborhoods in search of affordable housing close to uptown. Piedmont Courts, which opened in the 1940s, has been replaced by an attractive mixed-income housing development of apartments and townhouses. Violent crime and drug arrests have decreased, and residents tell police that they rarely hear the popping of guns.

Recently, the neighborhoods were designated part of an ecodistrict to promote environmental friendly living.  New condos sit along tree-lined streets with a mix of Victorian and bungalow-style houses with wide porches, some worn and unadorned while others have been freshly painted and renovated.

Harrill Street building was once a dance hall. Owner (lived in house, left) played piccolo for guests. Photo: Nancy Pierce"It's been a dramatic change," said Doris Mitchell, 63, who has lived in Belmont more than 40 years and saw it turn into a troubled part of the city, overtaken by drugs. "It's comfortable enough now that I can sit out on my front porch. We feel safer. This place has blossomed from what it used to be."

When Mitchell moved in, most of her neighbors were white. Belmont and Villa Heights were built in the early 20th century as an enclave for white working-class families, many of whom had jobs in the nearby mills. But whites moved out as blacks rented and purchased homes after being forced from black neighborhoods bulldozed during urban renewal projects in the 1960s.

But as the two neighborhoods next to the popular NoDa area flourish, some black residents worry that they may be pushed out by rising housing costs and property taxes. Some complain they feel harassed by police, who have increased patrols in the area to help reduce crime.

"There are trust issues," said Diane Adams, 49, a three-year resident and Belmont Community Association board member. "People who have lived here a long time question our motives. We are trying to bring the community together."

From 2002 to 2010 the white population in Belmont, where residents can stand in their yards and see Charlotte's dynamic uptown skyline, jumped from 4.1 percent to 9.9 percent, according to census figures. In Villa Heights, the number of white families increased from 6.4 percent to 16 percent. During the same period, the black population declined, as did the percentage of substandard housing units in both neighborhoods.

Charlotte's annual Neighborhood Quality of Life Study reveals that median household incomes and housing values rose sharply in Belmont and Villa Heights from 2002 to 2010. In 2002 the average house value in Belmont was $68,871. By 2010, it was $129,485. The average median household income in Belmont jumped from $16,562 to $28,865.

Meanwhile, crime has decreased. "Folks are taking pride in their homes, in their community," said Officer Ted Castano, who has worked in both neighborhoods since 1996. "The communities have become more organized with neighborhood watch. The residents are taking back their neighborhoods and have become our eyes and ears."

He said residents are feeling safer. "At the last Belmont crime watch meeting, residents said they are walking on the greenway," he said. "There's been a tremendous change for the better."

Problems persist, particularly with break-ins. According to police statistics, burglaries and larcenies dropped 6.3 percent and 22.5 percent in Belmont from 2002-2011. The number of burglaries remained unchanged in Villa Heights while larcenies declined 11.3 percent during that period. Drug arrests dropped 75 percent in Villa Heights and 6 percent in Belmont. Auto theft decreased 51.9 percent in Belmont and 67.9 percent in Villa Heights.

To put those numbers in context, crime dropped across Charlotte from 2002 to 2011, although police statistics show it fell by greater percentages for some crimes when compared with Belmont and Villa Heights. Burglaries declined 26.1 percent citywide; larcenies, 18.2 percent; auto theft, 54.9 percent; and drug arrests, 20.4 percent.

The county government recently finished restoring the Little Sugar Creek greenway in the neighborhoods as part of a major rehabilitation of the creek, which stretches through the middle of the city. The city has also spent at least $551,000 for improvements in sidewalks, landscaping and signage, primarily in Belmont. That community also has attracted nearly 100 new single-family homes and condos in addition to 204 apartments known as Seigle Point, built largely with a federal grant to replace Piedmont Courts nearly five years ago.

Several churches in Belmont have planned housing projects, and a planned light rail line to UNC Charlotte along the edge of Villa Heights and NoDa could spark more development, according to planners.

Commercial development has moved more slowly, typical of many redeveloping neighborhoods, said John Howard, project coordinator for the city's Neighborhood & Business Services Department.

Many of the new businesses in Villa Heights adjoin NoDa, another one-time mill village that in the past 20 years has gentrified into an artsy area with galleries and restaurants – and rising housing costs. Some areas of Villa Heights are even mistaken for NoDa, but residents say they want to maintain a separate identity.

As Belmont and Villa Heights change, residents are focusing on building a stronger sense of community between the white newcomers and blacks who have lived in the area many years.

"I want to see us stay diverse," said Liz Eagle, 26, president of the Villa Heights Community Association. "I don't want us to try to be a south Charlotte community. We want to embrace what we are. People are proud to live here."

Eagle moved into Villa Heights nearly two years ago and is working with other residents to start a community garden and a running club. Fundraising has started for an art project in the neighborhood's Cordelia Park. "We want to do something that will involve the community, that will bring in the history of Villa Heights," Eagle said.

In Belmont, residents gathered on a recent Saturday afternoon for a get-to-know-your-neighbor event during which they talked about what they want their community to be in the future. There is a community garden, and efforts continue to strengthen the ecodistrict, which promotes environmental initiatives. Supporters of the ecodistrict won a city grant to help weatherize homes, provide digital thermostats and clean air conditioning units.

"I see a big difference," said Raja Berryhill, 24, who grew up in Belmont. "But people can't move in and say it's my way or the highway. Whites have to accept the black culture.  If we want to be a better community, everybody has to reach out."

Mae Israel