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Charlotte is still seeking "world class" status. Professional sports, theatres, museums, banking and the airport keep it in the running. And while finance anchors our economy, technology-based companies bypass the Queen City for more creative, progressive places. Many people, particularly people of color and residents with modest and low incomes, see the same stubborn problems and fear things are getting worse. So, as Charlotte merrily continues on its path to greatness, below the surface is growing anger, resentment and distrust between racial and ethnic groups and between those who "have" and those who "have less".
It's 2015. Charlotte-Mecklenburg continues to seek the elusive "world class" status it has chased for years. Professional sports teams, first-rate cultural facilities, an expanded USAirhub and new entertainment and shopping venues keep Charlotte in the running.
On the business front, banking and finance continue to anchor our economy, although we're seeing more and more corporate lay-offs in this and other white-collar sectors. The overwhelming success of the Nascar Hall of Fame and expansion of Lowes Motor Speedway has fueled tremendous growth in our hospitality and tourism industry. Unfortunately, though, cutting- edge technology-based companies and enterprises run by young entrepreneurs still bypass Charlotte for more creative and socially progressive markets.
The unemployment rate in Charlotte now hovers around 6%, but is much higher among people of color living in more urban neighborhoods. Many of the lower skilled manufacturing jobs lost over the last decade have been replaced by relatively low paying service and call center jobs, most of which are in suburban office and business parks. With the rising cost of housing and other living expenses, an increasing number of families are struggling to make ends meet. The devastation of the 2007 mortgage crisis lingers for many. Far too many of these working families are knocking on homeless shelter and other agency doors, but due to the alarming demand for assistance, our shelters are forced to turn people away most nights and social service agencies are overwhelmed. It's clear that a growing segment of our population is living in the shadows of the growth and prosperity many continue to experience in Charlotte.
And yes, growth and prosperity continue as developers continue filling in the remaining empty spaces in the county. Efforts to curb suburban sprawl have worked in some areas but failed in others. Traffic congestion along the interstates and other major arterials, as well as around the I-485 interchanges, remains thick. Light rail is operating along the South Boulevard and North Tryon Corridors and has been fairly successful in its first years of operation. However, continued opposition to increased densities along corridors and expenditure of additional local funds to construct and operate transit has challenged City Council to move forward with plans to expand and support mass transit.
Charlotte's inner-city has witnessed success with many of its revitalization efforts through the years. A consequence, however, has been inflated housing costs and gentrification of an increasing number of neighborhoods. Many lower income residents, particularly people of color, are being pushed out and are seeking affordable housing in the older, declining suburban middle ring. This is also where many of the new ethnic groups moving into the area are locating. Businesses continue to abandon this middle ring for locations further out in the suburbs, leaving area residents without convenient services, shopping and jobs. New ethnic entrepreneurs have opened businesses in some locations, but the loss of large grocery stores and other mainstream retail, along with manufacturing and warehousing jobs, has left a major void.
For many people of color, being pushed out and marginalized seems like history repeating itself in Charlotte. Resentment, anger and distrust are building because of it, not only between people of color and whites, but among different ethnic groups as well, particularly blacks and Latinos. Gang violence between these groups is getting worse and fences and walls are going up all over town. Faith community leaders continue coming together to talk about the issues and need for bridge building, but little collective action has been taken to intervene and push the public agenda for change.
Clearly, the ongoing debate over our public school system is stoking this fire of distrust. We continue talking about the need for all children to have access to an equal education, no matter what school they attend. Despite some progress, schools in the suburban areas remain overcrowded, and many of the inner-city, urban schools continue to fall far behind academically. Each year we continue seeing our more experienced teachers leave the underperforming schools. Tragically, a high percentage of our students are still graduating from high school reading at a 6th grade level and unprepared for the world of work. Because discipline and academic problems continue in many of the schools, an increasing number of middle and upper class white, black and Latino parents are sending their children to private schools. Thus, the trend continues for the public school system to increasingly be dominated by low-income students of color. North Mecklenburg residents and leaders are again talking about creating a new school district for the northern end of the county.
Growing competition for increasingly limited public and private sector resources is also fanning the flames of discontent and distrust. To keep taxes low and still provide basic services to the community, elected officials have had to cut or significantly reduce funding for many programs and services. Consequently, the annual City and County budget hearings have become more heated and frustrating to those involved. Citizens, particularly people of color, are growing more disillusioned with the stale public input processes we continue to use and the perception that the predominantly white, corporate power structure has unfair influence over priority setting and resource allocation in the community.
Despite this slow boiling anger, resentment and distrust, Charlotte merrily continues on its path to greatness and world renown. Our economic engine continues to run, but fewer people have access to it. In The Beat Goes On, we remain fairly cordial, and some of us from differing cultures and backgrounds remain friends outside the workplace. But in the process of stepping over the "unspoken", we slowly, but surely, are becoming more separate and alienated from one another. Our "us and them" mentality remains firmly entrenched and fuels this polarization. It limits our ability to fully and positively embrace our growing diversity and stop the insidious and unproductive blaming of each other for why things are the way they are — or why they aren't.
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