With Price’s closing, South End loses the last vestige from before “South End”

Development
Friday, June 18, 2021
David Walters
The line for Price's Chicken Coop in South End after the closure was announced June 17. Courtesy Mary Newsom

Editor's note: This story originally appeared on Mary Newsom's blog The Naked City. The first three paragraphs are from Newsom. I stood in line two hours today to order chicken from Price’s Chicken Coop, the iconic fried chicken takeout joint on Camden Road in South End that had just announced it will close in two days, on Saturday.

While I waited, all nostalgic with a bunch of mostly strangers, for that familiar grease-stained cardboard box and the amazingly tender Price’s fried chicken gizzards, my friend David Walters sent some emails reminiscing about the neighborhood where he had a studio for 26 years. He agreed to let me publish it.

And yes, I got gizzards and fried chicken livers, and a 1/2-chicken dinner (dark meat) to split with friends. It was, of course, delicious. - Mary Newsom


A grease-spotted takeout box, familiar to generations. Photo: Mary Newsom

Price’s Chicken and Memories of “South End”

The loss of Price’s Chicken Coop on Camden Road in Charlotte’s South End has brought forth an outpouring of regret for the passing of the “old South End.” This echoes a similar flood of emotion when the old Common Market location closed in 2016, just a few yards away from Price’s.

It was particularly striking, then and now, that the predominant feeling was one of angst that “South End wouldn’t be South End” any more. As someone who worked in an art studio for a number of years before that invented name and brand surfaced, I feel those emotions rather miss the point that Price’s was there long before South End was a twinkle in a developer’s eye.

When my wife, painter Linda Luise Brown, and I moved into our studio on Camden Road in 1990 (where the large bulk of Dimension Fund Advisors now sits) the area was an urban wasteland, vacant sites, weeds, barbed wire, and corner drug deals. Just few small brick buildings bravely faced this bleak landscape, most notably the offices of The Charlotte Post, the city
’s African-American newspaper, the design and fabrication workshops of Gaines Brown Design, some artists’ studios (rented out by Gaines Brown at rates artists like us could afford), and two places to eat a few yards from our studio door: Price’s Chicken Coop and a little blue plate special place, the New Big Village (lamb on Thursdays!) run by an elderly Greek couple.

For several years my wife and I made art in our Camden Road studio, surrounded by the detritus of urban neglect, venturing out only to eat either at Price’s Chicken or the New Big  Village. Above our studio, a videographer lived illegally in a self-made bedsit in the old 1900s building. Back then, Charlotte zoning made it illegal to live in a “commercial” district. So everyone was very circumspect about this fledgling, guerrilla, mixed-use urbanism. But we needn’t have worried. No one came down south from uptown in those days, fearing crime and violence. So we were left on our own.

But a series of individual initiatives the 1990s saw the emergence of what we call South End today.

The Greek family eventually sold to Jennifer and Steve Justice, who started Phat Burrito (where Flower Child is now). Then Gaines Brown, who had cleverly assembled a lot of property that no one else considered valuable, sponsored a series of artist
’ street fairs on Camden Road, and helped lead the effort to renovate an old, pre-war Charlotte streetcar #85. Volunteers crewed the streetcar and rolled it up and down the rusting tracks for a few hundred yards, pushing or pulling a small wheeled generator.

This historic forerunner of our light rail line became a tourist attraction, and combined with the art fairs, began to change the public perception of this former slum-like district.

Meanwhile, at the south end of Camden Road, local developer Tony Pressley renovated the old knitting mill buildings around the water tower and he, Terry Shook, and others got inspiration from a visit to Dallas’ “West End,” where old industrial buildings had been repurposed into an entertainment district, and the McKinney Street trolley was a tourist attraction. Charlotte’s trolley ran weekends for six years, carrying thousands, and building enthusiasm for the future light rail. Trolley service ended in 2002 to allow construction of the new light rail track.

Thus were the seeds of “South End” cast upon the cracked asphalt, and the new, invented district arose from the weeds.

Price’s is truly the last functioning survivor of the old business district that served the Wilmore and Dilworth neighborhoods along Park Avenue in the block between Camden and South Boulevard. What is now “South End” was once a thriving industrial district between the residential neighborhoods of Dilworth and Wilmore before it fell into decay, with Park Avenue the retail spine connecting the two neighborhoods. Doug Smith, a retired Observer business writer who previously worked at the long-defunct Charlotte News, once told me how as a boy growing up in Wilmore in the early 1950s he and his family would shop daily and weekly along that one-block stretch of Park Avenue. It had everything they needed, a grocery store, a pharmacy and several local small businesses.

That local lifestyle was not to last. Doug Smith explained how he and others were lured away by the glitzy delights of the new, ultra-modern Park Road Shopping Center (opened in 1956), just a few minutes away by car. White families moved away from Wilmore, the industries  closed, and the once thriving connections between Wilmore, the Park Avenue commercial district and Dilworth decayed and slumbered for a generation.

Linda and I fell victims to the inevitable displacement of urban gentrification, losing our studio in 2016 after 26 years. But we still have a studio in South End (now at C3 Lab on Distribution Street). After 31 years we are still in the 
’hood. The area is so different of course – unrecognizable is probably the best word – but we find it’s still a good place to work and create art.

The main difference, other than the physical environment, is that now we appear to be the oldest folks around! But in many ways, those of us like Linda and I who’ve spent decades in and around academia find these new battalions of artistic Millennials and Gen-Z-ers oddly comforting. We are simply used to being surrounded by young, creative minds.

It is getting harder to keep up (and dodge the scooters!) but there’s still a lot of fun in trying.

David Walters is a British architect who has four decades of experience as an architect, urban designer and community planner. He is professor emeritus of architecture and urban design at UNC Charlotte, where until he retired he was the program director of the Master of Urban Design program at the College of Arts + Architecture.