By: Anna Jean Mayhew
# of pages: 352
Challenges: Alphabet Soup
In 1961 Charlotte, North Carolina, the predominantly black neighborhood of Brooklyn is a bustling city within a city. Self-contained and vibrant, it has its own restaurants, schools, theaters, churches, and night clubs. There are shotgun shacks and poverty, along with well-maintained houses like the one Loraylee Hawkins shares with her young son, Hawk, her Uncle Ray, and her grandmother, Bibi. Loraylee’s love for Archibald Griffin, Hawk’s white father and manager of the cafeteria where she works, must be kept secret in the segregated South.
Loraylee has heard rumors that the city plans to bulldoze her neighborhood, claiming it’s dilapidated and dangerous. The government promises to provide new housing and relocate businesses. But locals like Pastor Ebenezer Polk, who’s facing the demolition of his church, know the value of Brooklyn does not lie in bricks and mortar. Generations have lived, loved, and died here, supporting and strengthening each other. Yet street by street, longtime residents are being forced out. And Loraylee, searching for a way to keep her family together, will form new alliances—and find an unexpected path that may yet lead her home.
As a geography major at a university in this city, I learned about the gentrification of Second Ward in the city of Charlotte, so when I saw that this book was the local library’s book club choice I was eager to read this version of history!
The story follows Loraylee, a young woman who lives in the neighborhood of Brooklyn, a black community that happens to be close to uptown Charlotte. The neighborhood is segregated for decades until local developers, government, and wealthy citizens decide that it’s a “blight” (aka: prime real estate from which they can’t monetarily gain.) In their eyes the best way to handle the run down sections is to bull doze the entire ward and rebuild it as more upscale and worthy of the new image wanted to change “downtown” Charlotte into “uptown” Charlotte. Yes, around that time Charlotte was rebranded and one major way of doing that was referring to the main area as “uptown,” which it is still referred to as now.
Loraylee is an interesting character, mainly because of how progressive she is while still appreciating her family and neighbors and their traditions. Other characters whose POVs were included were a preacher in Brooklyn dealing with the destruction of his church and its graveyard and a white woman who doesn’t live in Brooklyn, but whose husband is a member of the board in charge of the Brooklyn redevelopment. Was it super realistic to have so many characters who were open minded during that time? Maybe, or maybe not. But obviously there were people living at that time who were progressive and taking risks by interacting with other people of different races. I’m grateful they did so and set the stage for where we are now and where we will hopefully continue as a country.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and was excited to read about the city and countryside (now suburbs!) of the area I call home. At the end of the book the author clarifies what was true and what was fiction in her story. I was disappointed to read that much of the preacher character’s story about the church and graveyard mystery was fiction. I wonder if there was another cemetery that really existed in Charlotte that was affected by the gentrification. I don’t know, but it would be cool if another author would tackle the same subject from different angles!
I know this is a controversial subject, but I always appreciate authors of any gender/race writing about minorities as long as they make a visible effort to do the characters/subject justice and respect. It’s totally fine for others to disagree because I understand feeling otherwise, but that’s my personal feeling about the matter. This was an original, important, and interesting subject to write about as a historical fiction book and I’d love to see others do the same… Either about the same subject, Second Ward in Charlotte, or about gentrification in other cities. And I’d love to see authors of color write about the subject, especially if they had ancestors affected by displacement.
So overall, I recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, if only to add to knowledge and fuel the quest for other books about similar subjects.