The teenager stares down at the electronic bracelet around his right ankle. Through the apartment’s sliding screen door, he can hear the light-rail train making its 7:22 p.m. stop at Tom Hunter station. It’s a new sound in this part of north Charlotte, a signal that people are going somewhere.
“What you got to say, Alhaji?” Greg Jackson, the boy’s court-appointed guardian, says from across the living room. A judge ordered 16-year-old Haji, as he’s known to friends, to live here with Greg after the boy allegedly robbed a man of $400 in February.
Haji’s mom is on the couch next to him. She and her seven other children live in a three-bedroom apartment a few buildings over. A refugee from Liberia, she just finished her daily shift as a housekeeper at Carolinas Medical Center.
“Sometimes I have the money, Alhaji,” Hawa Kamara says. “If you need something come to me. If I don’t have it, I will tell you. But don’t go rob somebody.”
It’s a warm April evening at Orchard Trace Condominiums, a complex of 1970s-era brick buildings where the average rent is about $800 a month. To many people in this prospering city, the fastest-growing in the southeast, Orchard Trace is invisible. It’s eight miles north of Uptown and wedged in between two corridors of whooshing cars, not far from the Blue Line extension that opened last year. Perhaps you’ve seen the hip new apartment complex on North Tryon Street called the Blu at Northline, with $1,500 rents and a “bark park” and kickboxing bags and invitation to “make each day count.”
Orchard Trace is just behind that.
“Look at your mother, Haji,” Greg says.
Haji is among a critical demographic in Charlotte this year. He’s a teenage boy of color, growing up in poverty, already with a felony arrest. He’s part of America’s last group of 16- and 17-year-olds who’ll automatically be charged as adults for all crimes. North Carolina’s “Raise the Age” legislation goes into effect on December 1, making it the last state in the country to send those teens to juvenile court.
Haji’s potential path is well worn: One arrest at a young age leads to another, leads to another, and another. Justice Department statistics show that 90.1 percent of people who are released from jail before their 25th birthday wind up there again—half of those within the next year.
Meanwhile Charlotte, which ranks last in upward mobility among major U.S. cities, has entered an anxious season. Construction is booming and high-paying jobs are pouring in as nearly 100 people a day move to the region, but the city is also on pace to have its most violent year in recent memory.
In all of 2018, 57 people were murdered here; less than five full months into 2019, the total is already 50.
More than half of this year’s victims were younger than 30. Murder or manslaughter charges have been filed against 29 men age 30 and under—of those, 21 are black men and 20 have previous arrests in Mecklenburg County.
“I want you to change, Alhaji,” Hawa says. “I need you to change.”
Haji is a quiet and otherwise polite 10th grader at Vance High School who likes to run.
In another world, he’d be at track practice instead of on this couch. In another world, he wouldn’t have devised that plan in February: He’s accused of selling an iPhone X on Facebook Marketplace and arranging to meet the buyer at Popeyes. Haji held out the phone and the man held out the cash. Haji snatched the money and ran. Police caught him a few blocks away.
He’s charged as an adult with felony conspiracy and common law robbery.
“Haji, look at her,” Greg says. “Don’t be ashamed. I keep telling you. Look at your mother.”
Greg’s Pomeranian, Bentley, yips on the porch. Haji just gave the dog a bath. Scattered around the apartment are awards for Greg’s community work with his nonprofit, Heal Charlotte. There’s one from Wake Forest, another from SHARE Charlotte, and, in a chair in the corner, a framed golden stethoscope award from Novant Health that recognizes “those who stay close to the heartbeat of the communities they serve.”
Greg, 35, has devoted his money, time, cell phone minutes, weekends, Uber account—his life—to kids in this area off of North Tryon Street. He started Heal Charlotte after protesting the police shooting of Keith Scott in 2016. His mission was to give the few dozen kids in Orchard Trace something to do after school—homework one day, basketball with CMPD officers the next, arts and crafts the next.
It grew into something more. He’s now “Coach Greg,” and he’s one of the most consistent figures in many of the kids’ lives. The youngest ones run off the school bus in the evening to hug him around the waist.
Last year, Heal Charlotte began offering rental assistance to needy parents of kids in the program. Hawa was the first to receive the assistance. She was only a few days away from eviction when Greg showed up with a $1,600 check to cover two months’ rent.
“I beg you, papa, I really want you to change,” Hawa says to Haji, hands crossed and on her knee. “I’m poor, child. I don’t even know how to write my own name. Please, if anything I’ve done to you, forgive me.”
Haji keeps staring at the floor. He rarely has anything to say. In my several meetings over two months with him this spring, he uttered only a handful of sentences.
But he makes his admiration for Greg clear.
“Coach Greg, like, I don’t know how to explain it,” Haji says. He met Greg when he was 13. “He’s just somebody that really cares.”
Greg accompanied Haji to his court date on February 6 and vouched for him. The judge gave that endorsement a big test: Haji could go free until his trial, on the condition that he live with Greg.
Some people talk about helping their neighbors and other people make up the guest bed.
Greg made up the guest bed.
On the eve of her 10th birthday in Liberia, Hawa came home from a market and saw two men standing over her father with a machine gun. They executed her parents in front of her.
When Hawa ran, they fired at her, too. The bullet that grazed her forehead left a bump that’s still there today.
She still doesn’t know what the men wanted, but she didn’t return to that place. She lived alone in the woods for days, she says, until she came across a boy about her age who took her home to his parents. She stayed with them for four years, until she got pregnant with the boy’s child and his parents told her to leave.
“I had the baby on the road,” she says. “Then, in the morning, the baby crying, (and) I didn’t know what to do. I was a girl. So I gave it to somebody.”
A few years later, she met a man who asked her to marry him, and she agreed. She had eight children with him, including Haji, before her husband was killed during the Second Liberian Civil War.
Life as a single mother there was desperate. Once, a snake bit Haji and she took him to the hospital. “His stomach go up like this,” she says, holding her arms out to show a round belly. Doctors saved him, but the troubles kept coming.
One day, she was naked and barefoot, walking aimlessly down the road in tears, when a car pulled up. The driver asked where she was going.
“I’m just trying to find something for my kids to eat,” she said.
The people took her and the children to a refugee camp, where she was placed in a program to be moved to the United States. She wound up in Charlotte just before the financial collapse of 2008.
She can’t read or write English. She’d like to, but she hasn’t the time or money to learn. Still, she’s been able to find work. She also met someone and had two more children with him before he left a few years ago, she says.
Hawa says she makes $600 every two weeks at the hospital. She cooks on weekends at Zoewee’s, an African restaurant that specializes in Liberian food.
Her rent jumped recently to $900.
“Everything just … messed up,” she says. She still has bright, hopeful eyes and hugs people upon first meeting. “But anyway, I tell God thank you, you know. I hope to see the day. I don’t have better life right now, but I can still tell God thank you.”
Her lasting hope, she says, is that one of her children will grow up and help her.
Orchard Trace is on the edge of Hidden Valley, a neighborhood that’s still dealing with an image crisis, long after the Hidden Valley Kings gang ruled in the 1990s. Hidden Valley is hardly a menacing place today. At its core it’s a quiet community of simple brick ranches and hydrangeas, filled with families who’ve lived here for a generation or two.
Most crime that’s associated with Hidden Valley today actually isn’t in Hidden Valley. It originates in an area just outside of the neighborhood—the poorly planned mess of on-ramps, off-ramps, convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, and motels at the Sugar Creek Road-Interstate 85 interchange.
An access road called Reagan Drive feeds the trouble. It’s a narrow, two-mile strip that runs alongside 85 and connects those fast-food spots and motels to Hidden Valley. Dealers and prostitutes flow along Reagan Drive starting around noon each day, and the road gives them access to children who live in nearby apartment complexes, including Orchard Trace.
The area is part of an “Opportunity Zone.” That means investors can receive federal tax credits to build here. In theory, the concept has merit: With incentive, rich people can help revitalize forgotten neighborhoods. But Charlotte’s history with such projects is subpar at best—urban renewal of “blighted” neighborhoods in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s ripped apart black communities in and near Uptown and displaced thousands of families.
With the new light-rail line and possible investments in the area, will people again be dispersed?
That’s unclear, but Greg’s fighting against it, regardless. Last winter he formed a partnership between neighbors and CMPD and educators called the Reagan Drive Initiative. He hopes to raise enough money to purchase an apartment complex along the access and restore it for low-income families. He also wants to buy a motel that serves as a headquarters for human trafficking, and revamp it into a health center.
Wearing a shirt, tie and backward ballcap to most meetings, he’s formed relationships with philanthropists and politicians throughout the city and state, all the way up to the governor’s office. His gift is an ability to slide from a conversation with the mayor into one with a tough teenager, without changing. It’s disarming, especially here, to be approached by a person who neutralizes social hierarchies by acting as if they’re nonexistent.
“I had this vision that all old, gray-haired men were slave owners until I moved here,” he says, laughing. “But you forget, man, some of these dudes were hippies.”
Last fall, Harvard researchers released a convincing batch of statistics to show why people from all parts of the city should be invested in what happens to its most vulnerable population. Their report, called the Opportunity Atlas, maps upward mobility data at the neighborhood level.
Zoom in to Charlotte, and the map paints an expected portrait—the top median household incomes are in Myers Park and Eastover and other neighborhoods in the southeastern wedge of the city.
A closer look, though, reveals that about 50 percent of the kids in those wealthy areas, where median income approaches $200,000, grow up and move away from Charlotte.
In poorer neighborhoods like those around Orchard Trace, where the median income is about $29,000, more than 80 percent of children will remain in Charlotte permanently.
For the past six years, since the Harvard researchers released their report that ranked Charlotte last among major American cities in upward mobility, the rallying cry among philanthropists here has been, If you’re born poor in Charlotte, you’re more likely to stay poor than in any other city in America. It was the foundation of a study called the Opportunity Task Force report, which led to the Leading on Opportunity Council.
Now, there’s an edit to the saying: If you’re born poor in Charlotte, you’ll likely stay poor … in Charlotte.
Issues surrounding poverty today will remain Charlotte’s issues from here until the late 2040s, at least. In the meantime, the gifts bestowed upon our wealthiest children are as likely to wind up benefiting another U.S. city as they are ours.
“I’m gonna kill this boy,” Greg says as he wheels his car through Orchard Trace. He has a Bible in the dashboard. The defrost blows on high and the wipers swoosh back and forth as his eyes dart around the tree-covered property. “Where is he?”
He’s looking for Haji’s 14-year-old brother, A.K. (Like the courts and police, we’re using initials because he’s not considered an adult.)
A.K. was home for the day, suspended from school. He should’ve been inside his mother’s apartment when a family friend came by to give him his classwork at 9 a.m. But he wasn’t there, so the family friend called Greg.
Greg was in a meeting drumming up support for his Reagan Drive Initiative.
Earlier in the day, he’d paid another middle-schooler’s rideshare fare after that boy missed the bus.
“People tell me all the time that they want to start an after-school program,” Greg says. “I’m like, you can’t WANT to do an after-school program. This has to be a calling.”
The oldest of four, Greg spent his first 14 years in Baltimore, with no contact with his father. His grandmother on his mother’s side was a prominent civil rights activist in New York. Greg remembers her neighborhood as the kind of community where every mother and grandmother had license to discipline any child if she saw him doing wrong.
“She’d say, ‘I ain’t raising no menaces to society!’” Greg’s mom, Tammy Bailey, tells me of her mother. Or when she saw a disheveled person on the street: “That’s somebody’s child.”
Greg’s father, who also lived in New York, called Tammy when Greg was 14 and said he wanted a relationship with his son. After only one conversation, Greg asked to move up. “I was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna go to New York, I’m gonna be a rapper, and chill with my dad.’”
Tammy agreed to let Greg go, not knowing that her ex ran a big business selling drugs. Day and night, people knocked. By the time Greg was 15, he was watching his father cut and bag crack.
Greg started selling out of his bedroom, without his father’s permission. He aligned himself with Bloods. He dropped out of school and earned a GED.
Then, when he was 20, Greg came home one day to find federal agents arresting his father for trafficking.
Greg calmly walked into his room and grabbed his personal stash, put it in a duffel bag, and left. “I walked out of the house with crack, past the Feds,” he says now, shaking his head.
He wasn’t so lucky a year later, in 2005, when he sold to an undercover officer. He was sentenced to a year in jail. He sat on the bus to Rikers Island, 21 years old and terrified. The guards gave him a badge labeled SRG, indicating he was in a gang.
It led to an unpleasant year, to say the least.
His mother calls it a “dark, dark time.”
Greg remembers it as the time he realized his relationships in the gang were hollow.
“I got not one visit from my friends or people I hustled with,” he says. “By the time I got out I was like, man, fuck, I’m not gonna hang with y’all anymore. Y’all don’t care when somebody gets arrested.
“I tell the kids all these stories. I went through it. You don’t have to.”
Greg’s mother and brother relocated to Charlotte after his release, mostly for the lower cost of living. In 2010, after going to culinary school, Greg moved here, too.
Few property managers will lease to a convicted felon, but eventually he found a condo in Orchard Trace with an individual owner. Now he has a two-bedroom home for the same price as his studio with a community bathroom in New York.
On the afternoon of his search for A.K., Greg has to hustle back to that apartment. He’s forgotten about a meeting he’d set up with Wendy Mateo-Pascual. She was the founding executive director of Camino, a community center for immigrants. Now she has her own consulting business, and she’s here to help Greg set up a program to communicate with immigrant parents. Orchard Trace is 60 percent black and 40 percent Latino, Greg says.
“I got 12-year-olds trying to be immigration lawyers,” Greg tells Wendy. “It’s like, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ (And the kids say,) ‘An immigration lawyer, to help my parents get their citizenship.’”
Wendy closes her eyes gently and nods. She’s heard the concerns of Latino children grow more intense since ICE announced its increased presence in February. “If you have somebody in their family with cancer, or somebody in their family is to be deported,” she tells Greg, “they would prefer cancer.”
During their meeting, A.K. walks in behind his brother Haji. Also with them is their 15-year-old brother, D.K.
Greg brags to Wendy about D.K. His grades are excellent. He’s protective of his family and is the first to chide his siblings when they do wrong. He wants to play in the NBA.
Their sister Lu, 16 and Haji’s twin, is also sharp and determined. She’s on Vance’s track team that nearly set a state outdoor record in the 4×100 relay in April. That relay team finished second at the state meet on May 18, and Lu, just a sophomore, placed eighth overall in the individual 200-meter dash.
“And this one’s my knucklehead,” Greg says of A.K. “You know why I’m here to talk to you, bro?”
A.K. says he’s been at a friend’s house doing homework all day.
“So you can show me the work that you did then?” Greg asks.
A.K. looks right and left, then shakes his head yes.
Greg points to the computer. He has seven log-in usernames on the screen. Four of them are student.cms.k12 log-ins for kids in his program.
D.K. sits on the ground twirling a basketball on his finger. Haji stands against a wall scrolling through his phone. And A.K. takes a seat at the computer.
“I don’t know my password,” he says.
“Oh, you know it,” Greg says. “Show me the work you did, Big Dog.”
“Coach Greg,” A.K. responds, fighting back the lie with a smile, “my password’s not working.”
“How did you do your work today then?” Greg says.
The boy’s out of excuses.
“I like your necklace!” Greg says to a little girl on stage. He points to the jewelry around his neck. “I got these beads from my dad.”
On the eve of Easter, Greg is emceeing Heal Charlotte’s Easter Eggstravaganza at The Press Box restaurant near UNC Charlotte. More than 200 children are here. There’s food and an egg hunt.
There’s also a dance contest in which the winners from each age bracket earn a $50 prize. The younger kids are loose and hilarious. Just before the final round, Greg asks the finalists what they’d do with their $50 if they won. One girl says she’d buy her mother a house, then she starts flossing.
In the older division, Haji and his brother A.K. are in the first group of contestants. They look out into the crowd. When the music starts, they stand still. The boy who’s bold enough to rob a man of $400 is too shy to dance in front of a bunch of kids half his age, and he walks awkwardly off the stage.
Greg laughs and calls up another group.
As he holds the attention of 300 or so people on a Saturday, Greg’s life is a heel-turn different than it was three years ago, back when he was working as a sous chef at Vinyl Pi, a Huntersville restaurant that specializes in pizza.
The summer of 2016 was the pivot point. That’s when police killed Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, and when five Dallas officers were gunned down after an otherwise peaceful march. As each horrific event unfolded, Greg wondered about the future for the kids in his neighborhood.
And he wondered about his three daughters—his oldest, a 14-year-old, still lives in New York with her mom. The younger two live with their mother in Durham; he sees them every other weekend.
That September, he vented his anger the only productive way he knew, by writing a song. He’d been a rapper who received airtime on popular New York stations years ago. In “Bang Bang,” he takes on gun violence of all kinds, drawing comparisons between the gangs he grew up with and the police.
“It don’t matter if you got a red or a blue flag or a police badge,” he sings, “it’s the same thing.”
He goes on:
Just yesterday I got approached by a little kid;
He looked at me and said ‘bang-bang.’
Live by the gun and you die by the gun;
Man, you bound to get hit with the bang-bang.
He posted the music video on September 6, 2016.
Two weeks to the day later, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer shot a black man named Keith Lamont Scott. Greg and thousands of others protested. In a memorable moment of a tragic week, Greg went face to face with Mike Campagna, a white CMPD captain.
The tense conversation turned calm. Greg and “Captain Mike,” as he became known, talked into the evening, then had several conversations after that. Greg realized he could listen to officers who listened to him. It gave him an idea: He might be able to leverage the listeners in CMPD to make a difference in the lives of kids in Orchard Trace.
On his breaks at Vinyl Pi, he drew up programs. His boss at the restaurant, a good friend, told him he should pursue Heal Charlotte fulltime. He paid Greg $1,000 extra that month to push him out the door.
Around the same time, Greg’s father was released from federal prison in Butner, N.C. He moved to Charlotte. Greg’s relationship with him got stronger as Heal Charlotte grew.
This past February 8, though, two days after Haji moved in, Greg was leading a basketball camp when his cousin called. “Yo, your dad.”
Greg’s father was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a disease attacking his lungs, when he was in prison. The night before the basketball camp, he called Greg to say he’d gone to the hospital, but that he was headed home and everything was fine.
“Hospitals don’t release you at 9 o’clock at night,” Greg remembers saying.
“Well, they did,” his dad said. “I’m good.”
Truth was, doctors had recommended hospice, and Greg’s dad turned it down. He died alone at 3 a.m. the next day.
In the week that followed, Greg cleaned out his dad’s apartment. He found several hats he wanted to keep, and the set of black beads he wears around his neck every day.
By May, Haji’s grades have improved and he’s running track.
One of Greg’s CMPD contacts—the lieutenant in charge of electronic monitoring program—helped Haji join a club team called Charlotte Flight.
At practice on May 6, Greg sits in the bleachers with a small pizza while Haji works out. They’ve had long talks in the apartment over the past few weeks. Greg’s told Haji about his father, and how he didn’t know him until he was 14. Haji’s told Greg how little he knows of the father who was killed in Liberia. They’ve talked about forgiveness and responsibility.
Haji’s first crime actually didn’t lead to an arrest. A year or so ago, he stole a bike from Wal-Mart but immediately regretted it. He wheeled it to Greg’s place and confessed. Greg called the community police officers for the area. They helped escort Haji and the bike back to the store, no charges filed.
That’s the kid who lives with him, Greg keeps telling himself. The one who, despite not having much, returned the bike.
Down on the track in a bright orange shirt, Haji looks small. He’s 5 feet 5 and 115 pounds. He has exceptional body control.
During drills that involve jumping on one foot over a row of small obstacles, he never trips. Good thing, too. If you hit an obstacle you have to do 10 pushups. His teammates, some of whom will be running for Division I colleges next year, do lots of pushups.
Elsewhere in the United States this spring, super-wealthy people are on trial for illegally spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to rig college admissions for their children. In several of those cases, the colleges used athletic teams as a way to subvert academic requirements. It remains to be seen whether anyone will face prison time.
Here tonight, Haji is running with an ankle monitor on his right leg, and his only audience is his court-appointed guardian. His overwhelmed mother is home with seven children at Orchard Trace. Haji’s two older siblings have moved out. His father has been gone for more than a decade.
But one person won’t leave him.
In the final event of practice, the 100-yard sprint, Greg rises to his feet to cheer on a kid who isn’t his own.
Haji lines up in lane 5 against seven other kids in his age group. He takes off down the track, bright orange shirt easy to see out front. As he nears the finish line, another runner sneaks up on his hip in lane four.
“Pick it up, Haji!” Greg shouts. “He’s on you!”
Haji finds one more push and crosses the finish line first, ankle monitor and all, and Greg pumps his fist.
The next day, May 7, Greg’s phone rings.
Haji’s been arrested.
Before they take the boy to the jail Uptown, officers give Greg five minutes with him in the interrogation room at the North Tryon division station. Haji’s handcuffed to the table by his ankle and wrist.
He’s ready with an explanation. A 14-year-old named M.E., Haji says, had a beef with a kid in a nearby complex. M.E. asked Haji help him settle it at the other boy’s house. On the walk over, M.E. handed Haji pepper spray, Haji says. The boys’ father came out and started yelling. Haji says the man had a knife, so he sprayed him.
A police report disputes Haji’s story. The victim, a 55-year-old construction worker, says that he answered a knock on the door and encountered five juveniles. The man’s son had been in a fight with a few of them about a week earlier. The father says Haji and the boys punched him in the ear and ran. Then father and son chased the boys. That’s when Haji turned around and used the pepper spray. Haji, not the father, showed the knife, the report says. It was folded closed. Finally, when the man tried to call police, Haji slapped his cell phone to the pavement.
Whatever happened, Haji now faces charges of assault and battery, assault with a deadly weapon, and interfering with an emergency communication. They’re all misdemeanors, but he’s charged as an adult in each case.
In the interrogation room, Greg tells Haji that he doesn’t know what’ll happen or how long he’ll be in jail. It’s his second arrest in three months, after all.
Tears slide down Haji’s cheeks. He asks Greg to pick him up when he gets out. Greg says he’s not sure about that.
Officers ask Haji to stand. They shuffle him down a corridor in cuffs. Greg turns around and cries.
“I see the 13-year-old kid I met for the first time,” Greg says. “I see the kid who comes from where he comes from. I see the kid who doesn’t have a dad.”
When does a teenager who was born into poverty and violence have to overcome them? Where does empathy become enabling? What’s the distance between circumstances and accountability?
Over the next 30 hours, Haji calls Greg several times from the main jail. Greg doesn’t answer. But when Haji’s released at 10 p.m. the next night, Greg is outside. He tells the boy he’s grounded. He says he’ll handpick Haji’s friends from here forward.
They go to an uptown restaurant where men in collared shirts are at the bar choosing among a selection of more than 100 craft beers. Greg eats a burger in front of Haji and lays down his most important rules yet: He’s not going to the courthouse to vouch for him again. He’s not going to jail to pick him up again.
This is it.
“I’m all you have left. If you want to lose me, too,” Greg says, “go ahead and get locked up again.”
Two days later, Greg leaves his apartment to spend Mother’s Day with Tammy. He tells Haji he should do the same with Hawa.
When Greg gets home that evening, Haji isn’t there.
Greg walks out of that Orchard Trace apartment to look for the boy once more. The air smells like grilled meat. The light rail sounds a few blocks over.
And for once, Haji is in the first place Greg checks.
He’s in his mother’s apartment, helping her clean.