My brother and I had some pork over the charcoal the other day when we heard a noise in the oak tree in my backyard.
At first it sounded like a squirrel slashing around. Then more like a tree-crawling hippo, which would be odd anywhere but in east Charlotte especially. We took a few steps toward the ruckus and saw my neighbor, across the fence and in her backyard, tugging on a long vine that’d jumped the property line, treetop to treetop to treetop.
“I like pulling stuff down,” my brother said, so he went to help. I flipped the chops and followed.
Susie, our neighbor, is a Crossfitter, and this thing even had her worn out. She handed Kenny the vine and he backed up, bent his legs, and started a tug-of-war with nature. Eventually he gave the vine to me. Then Susie pulled. Then Kenny again. And then we heard it: Snap. Kenny fell on his rear (ha). The vine came down (success). Limbs and leaves from the oak fell into the yard like confetti (hurray). And in the yard behind us, our other neighbors cheered (how long were they watching?).
The thing about yanking on a vine that’s up high is that you can’t really see your progress. It could be moving; it could be stuck for a while. You just have to have a little faith that what you’re doing is working.
Maybe it was the rain, or maybe it was the closing of the Manor Theatre, but this week in Charlotte felt like the week the virus, and everything about it, was going to break us.
Frustration with the governor’s orders mounted. The debate over the Republican National Convention intensified locally and was being fanned by national outlets. And beloved businesses are closing. This week we saw stories of mask-deniers shaming mask-users, and vice-versa.
Now we head into Memorial Day weekend. How we handle this summer — this fragile, hopeful summer — is critical to our future as a city. This isn’t an alarm, but a pre-summer call to treat yourselves and your neighbors with care.
CMPD says it’s seen a sharp increase in violent crime over last year, which, remember, was the deadliest year since the early 1990s. And the summer is when things typically get more dangerous. In a county that already had a shortage of affordable units, another 42,000 people filed for unemployment in March alone, meaning more people are in troubled or desperate homes and looking for ways to pay rent.
Add in the fact that weather forecasters predict an extremely active hurricane season. Add in the reality that the county this week reported a surge in reported COVID-19 cases on construction sites, and a startling jump in cases in the Hispanic population.
Add in the presidential election. Add in that we’re a swing state in a presidential election. Add that we’re a swing state in a presidential election in a city that’s in a twist over the convention — should we still have thousands of people from all over the world flying into the city this August? — and there’s a tension in Charlotte that we haven’t felt since 2016.
We’re reopening some things this evening at 5, and perhaps that’s a reason to be happy. But all signs point to a long, hot summer ahead. It’s best to take steps to lower the temperature rather than to wish it to be another way.
Early 2016 was a good time for Charlotte, same as early 2020 seemed to be. The recession had finally let us go. We were growing. The Panthers won the NFC Championship.
Then they lost the Super Bowl. And the state legislature enacted a law called HB2 that overrode a local ordinance that extended nondiscrimination protections to gay, lesbian, and transgender people. The new law drew national attention, and sparked formal and informal bans on doing business in North Carolina. Companies pulled out of moving here, concerts were canceled, and so was the NBA’s All-Star Game.
In hindsight, through 2020 corona lenses, that economic fallout of 2016 was nothing. But it was part of a summer of discontent in Charlotte and around the world. That was also the summer of Brexit, and the Orlando nightclub shooting, the police shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, and assassination of five police officers in Dallas.
Then it happened here. In the last week of that summer, a police officer shot Keith Lamont Scott in his apartment complex. It was followed by a week’s worth of protests, the death of protester Justin Carr in the streets of Uptown, and the supposed awakening that followed.
On Tuesday this week, I talked to Jennifer Roberts, who was mayor back then. Roberts, a former U.S. State Department diplomat, now works for ecoAmerica, a national organization that aims to help educate people on climate change and develop climate leaders in communities around the country.
I asked Roberts if she saw any parallels between that summer and this one we’re entering now.
“Some things are similar, but a lot of things are different. This is something that we’re confronting for the first time,” she said of the virus. “In 2016, a lot of the protests were localized. This time, the national government feature is larger, and the state government, too. Those are going to have more of an influence. But we have a better environment locally in terms of our local heroes.”
She might be right. This week our team sent out a short survey to the Agenda’s newsletter subscribers, to ask them their feelings on reopening. We got 1,200 responses in the first 15 minutes.
What struck me as I read through the responses was how low-key and measured most people were. One question we asked that could’ve drawn the wolves: “Political beliefs aside, should Charlotte host the Republican National Convention given the current situation with COVID-19?”
Of the 6,703 people who responded to the survey, 61 percent of them said no, we shouldn’t have a convention. About 38 percent said yes. And 3,483 left comments, which were mostly calm and thoughtful. Hardly the political performance theater we see online these days.
A no voter: I’m a Republican and think it should cancel. But, the restaurants and hotels need the business so ANY little thing will help.
A yes voter: Only if it’s on a much smaller scale than originally planned. We don’t have a vaccine or medicine to alleviate symptoms yet.
And then a no: These conventions seem dated and there must be a better way to accomplish the official candidate.
That type of thinking — of choosing a new path rather than a yes or no to an old one — is where Roberts’ mind goes these days, too. Not just in her work on climate change, but here in Charlotte, the city that ranks last in the country in terms of upward mobility.
“Don’t return to normal. Normal was harmful. Normal was unjust. It was discriminatory. It was prejudice. It was preying upon the weak, the minorities,” she told me. “There’s a lot of great work that’s going on, or gone on. We have to be a little more patient. But we have the opportunity to rebuild better.”
We all have people we turn to for a calming voice. For many in Charlotte, that person is Shaun “Lucky” Corbett.
He’s a barber and one of the most widely respected voices in the city. He runs Da Lucky Spot in the Walmart on Wilkinson Boulevard. He also helped organize the Cops & Barbers program that held conversations between young black men and police.
I’ve known Lucky for most of my seven years in Charlotte, and I’ve documented his story, from a man who was in and out of prison in his early 20s to a successful businessman who pours his resources into keeping kids from doing just that.
He was at home when I called him Wednesday afternoon, same as he has been for two months, waiting on the news about whether he could reopen. He thought Cooper would be coming on at 3 with news about phase two.
“I’m sitting here watching channel 9 waiting on Roy Cooper to pop up,” he said. “I wish he’d hurry up, because I have General Hospital on and I’m pretty tired of it.”
When I told him Cooper’s press conference was actually at 5, he laughed. “Guess I’ll turn this off then.”
Those programming frustrations aside, he was calm, especially for a business owner who’d been out of work for two months. He told me he’s worked every Saturday for 15 years since becoming a barber, so the time off with family has actually been nice. He said he’s practiced what he preaches to the students who come through his school: If you’re lucky enough to have a job, save up four or five months of expenses.
“I’m a barber,” he said. “If I cut my hand or something I can’t work. So I have to save.”
Many of Lucky’s customers in west Charlotte are people who’ve been hit hardest by the virus and the downturn. He knows violence is on the rise. When he can reopen this weekend, he knows Da Lucky Spot will be needed as much for its role as a community space as it is its haircuts. Lucky’s pooled his resources with the No Grease Barbershop team, and together they plan to offer 19 full scholarships to barber school this year in response to COVID-19.
He’s ready to reopen. Safely, of course. And like Roberts, he says he doesn’t want to use the word normal. He’s limiting the number of people who can be in the shop, and cutting the number of chairs that can be filled at one time. He’s disinfected the place. He’s purchased buzzers like you see in restaurants so that customers can wait outside until it’s their turn.
Better to be prepared, in Lucky’s mind, than to be disappointed.
“We should be more focused on how to maintain this new norm,” he told me as he turned off the afternoon soaps he’d rather not watch much longer.