A row of squat brick buildings at the corner of South Brevard and Third streets are all that remain of Brooklyn, Charlotte’s once thriving black business and residential district leveled during the urban renewal of the 1960s and 70s.
Now a group known as The Brooklyn Collective plans to reactivate the block as a civic-minded community hub for economic mobility. Although still fluid, working plans call for a small business incubator, job training and workforce development resources, event space, a pop-up vendor market and a cafe and bar — all of it operating under the 501c3 nonprofit Make It Work.
The project spans two historic properties — Grace A.M.E. Zion Church, dedicated in 1902 and standing today as Brooklyn’s only surviving religious building, and the Mecklenburg Investment Company Building (MICo), built in 1921-22 as Charlotte’s first office building created by and for black professionals.
The century-old buildings stand in stark contrast to their shiny new neighbors. Second Ward today is home to government buildings, NASCAR Hall of Fame, hotels, the Convention Center and a string of luxury apartment buildings along Stonewall Street.
Brooklyn Village, a 17-acre mixed-use development with plans for apartments, condos, retail and hotels, is in the works for the current Marshall Park site down the street. Community members and Brooklyn descendants met last week to discuss ways to urge developers to incorporate more history and affordable housing in Brooklyn Village.
The Grace and MICo buildings are special, architecturally and culturally. The significance of these buildings on this block in a city that struggles to preserve history, especially that of displaced black communities, cannot be overstated. Where the buildings go from here will matter.
Brooklyn was a center of firsts for Charlotte’s black community. It was home to Myers Street School, the city’s first black public school built in 1886, Brevard Street Library, the first free library for black patrons in North Carolina opened in 1905, and the city’s first YMCA branch for black members.
But by the 1950s, the city moved forward with a plan to “rehabilitate” the area and received $1,432,000 in federal funding to clear 33 acres of “slum area.”
Beginning in the 1960s and continuing for a decade, the city tore down 1,480 structures in Brooklyn, displacing more than 1,000 families and shuttering more than 200 black-owned businesses. No new residential or commercial structures were built to replace those destroyed.
Save for the Grace and MICo buildings, Brooklyn was gone.
“Surrounded by parking lots and skyscrapers, The Brooklyn Collective stands as a reminder of what’s at stake if we don’t find solutions beyond zero-sum,” reads a description on The Brooklyn Collective’s website for the project.
With the exception of some occupied office space in the MICo and occasional events in the church, Brooklyn’s last standing buildings are quiet now and have been for some time. Jason Wolf, who purchased the buildings in 2014 and first spoke to us about his vision for the block back in 2016, has spent years laying the groundwork for his vision.
Now he and his partner Lindsey Braciale, founder and CEO of Advocations (a disability-only staffing and recruiting firm with office space in the MICo) and newly appointed executive director of the Make It Work umbrella organization activating The Brooklyn Collective, are ready to put that plan in motion.
It’s something they speak about in possibilities and generalities as they start to seek input from the community on how the project should take shape. Of particular importance, of course, will be feedback from former Brooklyn residents, but they are still early in that process. Wolf says they “absolutely plan to get input from those associated with the original Brooklyn” as part of their community engagement and historic preservation initiatives driving the bigger vision. He says that community outreach got underway about a month ago.
In the meantime, they’ve stuck their flag in the ground with subtle window signage announcing the arrival of a new coffee shop in the MICo building. The wheels are in already motion.
The first piece of The Brooklyn Collective puzzle, the coffee shop will be on the ground floor of the MICo building. Wolf and Braciale expect it to be open by the end of the year.
Make It Coffee (shortened to MICo, conveniently enough) will function as a small business incubator with an “entrepreneur in residence” program designed to give aspiring coffee shop owners the resources and experience they need to spin off and open their own location.
“In addition to serving a great cup of coffee,” says Braciale, “we want to create a place for our city to connect, learn, collaborate, and no matter the constraints, default to action.”
When it opened in 1922, the MICo was designed for six stores on the ground floor, 16 offices on the second and four offices and an assembly room on the third. It attracted black doctors, lawyers, dentists and other small business owners, including Yancey’s Drug Store, which operated out of the corner unit, and a popular restaurant called the Savoy Inn.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmark Commission described the building as “a center for social, business and professional activities for Charlotte’s black citizens.” The Commission’s 1981 report on the building suggested that “a renovated MICo Building could still play a vital role in the business life of Charlotte, and at the same time a unique part of the city’s history could thereby be preserved as a cultural link with its past, which helps identify the city’s distinct character.”
Decades later, Make It Coffee is on deck to see if it can prove out that ideal scenario.
Adjacent to the MICo is a one-story building that will serve as an expansion of the coffee shop, with space for community functions, meetings and social events.
Right now, it’s a large bar and wide open space that can be arranged to accommodate a number of functions, including art shows, presentations and casual work space.
Plans for this building sound flexible as it could be a catch-all for a number of different activations. Most immediate, Braciale and Wolf picture a weekly multi-vendor pop-up shop as a way to attract daytime foot traffic from nearby office towers.
Wolf also sees an opportunity for a social and professional membership model for the space but hasn’t ironed out the details for the fee structure or benefits yet.
He says his focus is on building a community of like-minded individuals, “those that celebrate our diversity and want to participate in helping Charlotte to reach its collective potential.”
Plans for the iconic Grace A.M.E. Zion Church are still in the works and could include everything from community space to a restaurant and even a potential basement speakeasy.
Wolf says they’re still feeling out the right fit and speaking with interested parties.
Grace A.M.E. Zion Church was born out of the temperance movement in the late 1880s as an offshoot of Clinton Chapel, Charlotte’s first black church. In December 1886, a small group of 28 prohibitionists met to draft a letter withdrawing from Clinton and forming their own congregation under the motto “God, religion and temperance.”
Abstinence from alcohol remains a literal cornerstone of the church with the original motto still engraved on the building.
Would a speakeasy fly in a church built by prohibitionists? They’re exploring all the options.
For now, the Grace plays host to a free lunchtime meditation every Wednesday from 12:10-12:40 p.m.
The Brooklyn Collective’s plan is ambitious and still evolving. We should see the most concrete program, the coffee shop, in action by the end of the year.
Wolf and Braciale say they’re looking to collaborate with individuals and organizations that align with their effort to “reimagine and reuse the spaces of historic Brooklyn for their original purpose as a nerve center for elevating the economic, social and cultural outcomes of diverse communities of Charlotte.”
Ultimately, they want the community to help define the space.
“We want the Brooklyn Collective to continually evolve because its purpose is defined by the people that are in it,” says Braciale. “It’s a coffee shop, art gallery, a marketplace, a hub for small business, a place to learn new skills, and a convening space for our city’s past, present, and future leaders.”
Follow The Brooklyn Collective’s progress on Instagram at @makeitcharlotte.
If you’re interested in learning more about Brooklyn’s history, I’ve included links to some great resources I referenced for this piece below.
- Bittersweet Legacy: The Black and White “Better Classes” in Charlotte, 1850-1910 – Janette Thomas Greenwood
- Brooklyn Oral History – Graduate project from Dr. Karen Flint’s Oral History and Memory class at UNC Charlotte (2004 and 2007)
- Brooklyn was the center of black life in Charlotte. Until the bulldozers arrived. – Tim Funk for the Charlotte Observer
- Grace A.M.E. Zion Church – Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmark Commission
- Historic Charlotte Neighborhoods: Brooklyn – UNC Charlotte Special Collections
- How urban renewal destroyed Charlotte’s Brooklyn neighborhood – Pam Kelley for the Charlotte Observer
- Mecklenburg Investment Company Building – Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmark Commission
- Old Anger and a Lost Neighborhood in Charlotte – Pam Kelley for City Lab
- The Once and (Potential) Future Brooklyn, Charlotte – Ben Bradford for WFAE