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Bright Lights of Charlotte’s DNC Cast Shadow Over City’s Poor and Marginalized

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In the shadow of the world headquarters of Bank of America and the media frenzy surrounding the Democratic National Convention, we look at a side of Charlotte you will not see this week in the network coverage — the city’s poor. We’re joined by Charlotte Observer reporter Fred Clasen-Kelly, who has written on poverty, homelessness and race relations in the city. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Well, we are in Charlotte, North Carolina, broadcasting live. This is “Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency,” Democracy Now!’s special coverage from the Democratic National Convention, inside and out.

We turn now to the so-called Wall Street of the South, Charlotte, where the convention is being held. According to the most recent Census Bureau report, Charlotte is the fastest-growing urban center in the country. It’s also the second-largest financial center in the United States after New York and is home to the corporate headquarters of major companies, including Bank of America and Duke Energy, the largest power company in the country.

On Sunday, demonstrators gathered in the city ahead of the convention to protest corporate influence in politics, among a host of other issues. Police said about 800 protesters marched through the city, but organizers said the number was closer to 3,000. This is Ben Carroll of the Coalition to March on Wall Street [South].

BEN CARROLL: We’re going to organize, and we’re going to fight back. And that people feel really frustrated and rejected by the political system, that politicians of both parties aren’t doing anything to represent the interests of people and, at the end of the day, are representing the interests of these same banks and corporations right here in Charlotte.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama is due to accept his party’s nomination Thursday at Bank of America Stadium, but earlier this summer, Democrats organizing the party’s convention stopped calling the venue Bank of America Stadium, referring to the site instead as Panthers Stadium, even though Bank of America purchased the sponsorship rights in 2004. The move appeared to mark an effort by the Democratic National Committee to distance itself from symbols of the Wall Street bailout like Bank of America after reneging on a pledge to stage the convention without corporate donors.

Well, we’re joined right now by a journalist who has for years covered different aspects of Wall Street South here in Charlotte. Fred Kelly is a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, has written on poverty, homelessness and race relations in the city.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Fred Clasen-Kelly.

FRED CLASEN-KELLY: Glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. So, Fred, here we are in the city of the global headquarters of Bank of America. In the shadow is a population you have been covering for years. Talk about the level of poverty here in Charlotte.

FRED CLASEN-KELLY: The convention is very important to the city, and they want to spread a narrative that this is a booming city, a city on the move and the new South, separate and apart from the old South.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the new South? When did it become new?

FRED CLASEN-KELLY: It’s been new for a long time. I was shocked when I moved here in '05 and learned that they've been using that term since the 19th century. So, it’s been shiny and new for quite a bit.

The ironic part of being here at the convention is all these thousands of people going to very fancy parties with lots of suits on are really less than a mile away from the city’s largest homeless shelters, in places like Crisis Assistance Ministries, where people go for financial assistance to get—to stop eviction and to keep their power on. And so, it provides quite a contrast if you walk just a short distance from the convention site and the corporate towers that are downtown. Every morning, in these places like Crisis Assistance Ministries or the homeless shelter, you’ll see hundreds of people lined up outside waiting for food, waiting for money to be able to stay in their homes.

Charlotte has faced a number of challenges, thanks to its growth. One of the narratives that will be spun out of the convention is that it’s a booming city where a lot of people are moving to, but increasingly, especially since the recession, a number of the people moving here have been poor, homeless or otherwise on their way to those—to those ranks. A number of social service agencies, in fact, have started to implement residency requirements, because people were moving here from the country in North Carolina and from other places because they heard about the city’s reputation, and then, when they got here, they fell on even harder times.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is the home—give us the financial lay of the land here of the power elite in Charlotte. The global headquarters of Bank of America—also Wachovia?

FRED CLASEN-KELLY: Oh, Wachovia went under in the banking crisis and was bought out by Wells Fargo.

AMY GOODMAN: But started here.

FRED CLASEN-KELLY: But started here.

AMY GOODMAN: How did Charlotte become such a banking center? Why is it known as Wall Street South?

FRED CLASEN-KELLY: Essentially, the bankers here, particularly Hugh McColl, who’s sort of the architect of Bank of America, took advantage of the age of deregulation in the laws that permitted banks to start doing banking outside of their home states. And so, a small regional bank basically was able to cobble together by acquiring a bunch of smaller banks and build what became Bank of America. And Wachovia started in much a similar fashion and acquired different banks from throughout the country and built itself up into a national power.

AMY GOODMAN: Your beat, focusing on the poor of this city—tell us some of the stories that you’ve been writing about, Fred Clasen-Kelly.

FRED CLASEN-KELLY: Well, in covering Charlotte, it’s—Charlotte is a city that is sort of in love with its own image and spends a lot of time talking about its own image. And so, when I came here, I said, well, let me see what the other side of—what the other side of all this growth means. And when I came here in '05, it seemed like there was a new condo project going up almost weekly. Of course, that had consequences for the people who were living on the land that the developers wanted. And so, what we've seen over time is increasing rents. We’ve seen people move from places near to the office towers uptown to further out. And so, there are severe consequences for people when you do that.

One of the big issues here has been affordable housing. According to census data, more than 40 percent of the renters here pay rent that the federal government considers unacceptably high, meaning that they pay more than 30 percent of their income towards rent and heat. That leaves them less money for medicine, food and other necessities. The other part is that the poor have been driven from neighborhoods near bus lines and other essential services that they need. So, one of the big controversies here is that much of Charlotte has no sidewalks, because much of the city was built at a time when developers weren’t required to add sidewalks to neighborhoods, and so now you have a number of low-income residents living in sort of suburbanized areas walking on the road in the roadway, and we’re in the midst of a record year of people getting run over by cars.

AMY GOODMAN: The mayor, Mayor Foxx, has talked about—has talked about how booming the city is—and of course that will be highlighted here in Charlotte. What about that aspect of Charlotte being a non-union city in a—course, in a right-to-work state, and the significance of the Democrats choosing Charlotte as their convention city?

FRED CLASEN-KELLY: I think that the way it will play out here is that it will be an affirmation of the lack of unions here. I’m originally from Michigan, and I have to say, one of the things I was stunned by is sort of the anti-union attitude that is—that’s prevalent here. And so, I think that being chosen, for the leaders here and for the populace, for them it will mean “we made the right choice,” that they feel that a lack of unions has allowed the city to prosper and has brought it—has been a part of its narrative that’s brought it to where it is. The city itself views itself as very business-friendly and tries very hard to make that part of its narrative.

For the Democratic Party, of course, it’s been a little bit of a tricky issue, since there are city workers who have used this occasion to picket and to complain about their working conditions. The mayor and the city haven’t really addressed that in a significant way, but the workers were—have been a part of the demonstrations and have been staging events and calling attention to the issues that they face.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Charlotte, the fastest-growing urban center in the United States. According to the Census Bureau, Charlotte’s urban area grew almost 65 percent, as you said, from 2000 to 2010. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx explains why the city continues to hold such appeal for so many people.

MAYOR ANTHONY FOXX: Our quality of life is extremely strong here. If you want to have a good place to work and good place to play, we’re about two hours from the mountains, three hours from the beach. But mostly, it’s that the city continues the upward trajectory.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mayor Foxx. Can you talk, Fred, about race relations here in the city?

FRED CLASEN-KELLY: Race relations—Charlotte, again, is a very boosterish city and sometimes has a tendency to push the unpleasantness sort of under the rug. And the race questions here are—they’re more implicit than explicit. As I was mentioning, affordable housing has been a huge issue. And as a way of tackling that, the city has tried to take its low-income housing or affordable housing and spread it out to suburban areas and to more well-to-do areas, and saying that they were trying to avoid concentrations of poverty. But this has just led to sort of Armageddon in some neighborhoods, with NIMBY forces coming out saying “not in our backyard” and “we don’t want it.” And sort of there’s a racial undercurrent to some of that debate that has gone on.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Foxx is African American himself.



FRED CLASEN-KELLY: He has advocated those policies of deconcentrating poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about education here, public schools?

FRED CLASEN-KELLY: That has been a battle. Just last year, the schools closed, I believe it was, 10 schools that were all in—that were all prominently African Americans. And that sparked a huge public battle between the leader of the NAACP here, Brother Kojo Nantambu, and the Charlotte leadership. At one point, the NAACP leader called the city a “racist bastion” and called for black residents to, at one point, keep their kids out of school for a day, called for them to boycott several high-profile events in Charlotte. And it really sort of set up a battle between whether we should, as African Americans, work within the system for change or sort of work against the system. And the NAACP suffered a heavy criticism from the city leadership, including Mayor Foxx, who used his bully pulpit as mayor to tell the NAACP to stand down.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Fred, you come from—you write for the Charlotte Observer, which a few years ago, together with the Raleigh News & Observer, issued an apology for its practices at the beginning of the 20th century, the whole period of what’s called disenfranchisement. Very briefly summarize that for us.

FRED CLASEN-KELLY: Essentially, the paper wrote a series called “The Ghosts of 1898,” which chronicled the race riots in Wilmington, and had somewhat been written out of the history of North Carolina. It wasn’t much talked about. The paper acknowledged its own role in propagating some of the things that led to the riot and propagating what would later become known as Jim Crow. It was a pretty brave step for the paper, considering the climate we’re in here in North Carolina, and in Charlotte in particular.

AMY GOODMAN: It was poll taxes, literacy tests for people to go to the polls, aimed at African Americans, preventing them from voting.

FRED CLASEN-KELLY: Right. A lot of—and I didn’t know this when I moved here, but, you know, when this—when that movement started that led to Jim Crow, poor white farmers and poor blacks had pulled together and garnered quite a bit of political power and held many seats in the state’s general assembly. And—’

AMY GOODMAN: The state’s general assembly was a majority black or poor farmer, white?

FRED CLASEN-KELLY: There was a party—I believe it was called the Progressive Party—that had, I believe, garnered a majority in the general assembly, and they were setting policies, of course, that upset the old vanguard. And they said, “Well, we’ve got to put the stop to this.” And one of the ways they did that was they used the media to spread their message.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Fred Clasen-Kelly, I want to thank you very much for being with us, reporter with the Charlotte Observer here in Charlotte, North Carolina. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, “Breaking With Convention.” Back in a minute.

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