Cultivating Community in Druid Hills

It was April 22, 2016, and more than 125 REALTOR® volunteers from the Charlotte Regional REALTOR® Association (now the Canopy REALTOR® Association) gathered their shovels, hammers, rakes, saws, nails and wheelbarrows—and got to work. The task ahead was building 12 raised beds to establish the first-ever community garden in the Druid Hills community in Charlotte, NC. Work assignments that day also included hauling multiple loads of dirt, relocating existing plants, planting new flowers and vegetables, and working with recycled concrete to level the existing garden footprint.

But why this neighborhood and this project?

Druid Hills, less than two miles from Charlotte’s Center City, was initially established in the early 1900s when the Ford factory was built along Statesville Avenue. After the manufacturing industry left this area, homeowners began a move to the suburbs. In light of that, by the ‘70s, Druid Hills was considered an unsafe place to live. During the early 1990s, the drug epidemic [AF1] and a high rate of crime had a profoundly negative impact on the neighborhood.

Through the years, several key housing nonprofits have worked to address home improvements in an effort to help stabilize the neighborhood. The Canopy Housing Foundation (the charitable arm of the Canopy REALTOR® Association) was one of those groups (along with St. Luke’s Missionary Baptist Church, Habitat for Humanity Charlotte Region and DreamKey Partners).

At that point in time, a movement began to rebuild Druid Hills by using REALTOR® volunteers to complete multiple exterior home repairs. Completing the home repairs wasn’t the only task taken on by the REALTORS®. As mentioned, they led the completion of the much-needed community garden. This was accomplished with the help of a National Association of REALTORS® Placemaking Grant.

Now, in 2024, the community is thriving. However, progress means that the neighborhood also battles the effects of displacement, gentrification, aggressive investors, changing demographics, and rising rents and property taxes… but the history and heritage remain intact. The residents feel like the changes have also created a lot of positive attention. Their pride is such that they are currently campaigning to have the neighborhood declared a historic district – allowing them to further preserve the history.

To this day, the seven-acre garden remains a focus of the Druid Hills Park and is now one of the 21 officially recognized community gardens within the Park & Recreation system. The garden area has been so popular that plots have typically been limited to one per family per year, and the waiting list has been extensive.

Since the gardens were installed, both the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have committed to additional improvements including a restroom and pavilion area, public art, improved basketball courts, playground and fitness equipment, walking trails, covered seating areas, and water fountains (for people and animals). All of these new amenities are expected to be completed by June of 2024 (delayed due to COVID-19). Mecklenburg County has also committed to double the current number of garden beds as part of the renovations.

James Williams, park planner, Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation, says of the initiative, “This garden project provided the impetus for change in the Druid Hills Park. Creating a community garden enabled us to offer nutritional alternatives in an area considered a food desert. With the help of the REALTOR® community, we were able to create an attractive environment for this often-overlooked neighborhood.”

Perhaps no one explains the impact of this project more than Darryl Gaston, a third-generation Druid Hills advocate who had said, “Knowing that the neighbors in this community are visible, vital, and valuable sparks neighborhood pride. Nothing has done that more than the creation of this garden.” Unfortunately, Gaston passed away in 2021 but not before seeing the revitalization efforts take hold.

Melissa Gaston applauds the work done by her husband and others. With a great deal of affection, she explains that the Druid Hills community has now become an emerging urban community built on partnerships—all while ensuring inclusivity for everyone.

The Canopy REALTORS® continues to be invested in this community and can certainly embrace the concept of everyone being “visible, vital and valuable.” Thanks to the National Association of REALTORS® for their support of this project.

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