The pounding of drums, the Black National Anthem and homages to the ancestors colored the corner of Beatties Ford Road and Tate Street on Saturday during the grand opening of an outdoor community space.
Dozens of residents looked on as community and city leaders sawed a board in half, signaling the opening of The Ritz at Washington Heights.
The 0.17-acre property once housed the segregation-era Ritz Theater and will now be used as an education and entertainment hub, or more simply a place for community members to gather.
It features amenities including Wi-Fi, a performance shelter, cafe-style seating and a play area. In addition, a large shipping container showcases a mural by local artist Makayla Binter. Inspirational words from Maya Angelou, James Brow, Harry Belafonte and other Black notables line the walls of the space.
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Residents will use the site as a meeting space and for social gatherings such as movie nights in honor of its namesake — The Ritz Theater, which was erected in the early 1960s and closed in 1971.
The theater sat vacant for a while with its marquee intact before being demolished. In the planning process for the space, community members chose “The Ritz” for its name to honor the site’s history.
“What a great, great day,” said District 2 Council member Malcolm Graham, who represents the area on Charlotte City Council. “This has been an amazing week for the Beatties Ford Road community.”
In addition to the new public space, Graham noted a string of philanthropic gifts that were pledged to assist Historic West End and its economic development.
During Saturday’s event, Graham thanked Lowe’s for a recent $10 million gift to JCSU and the company’s design and construction of The Ritz at Washington Heights.
Lowe’s completed the space in three months, using a $200,000 grant from the Lowe’s 100 Hometowns initiative and $25,000 from the Washington Heights Neighborhood Association.
The city of Charlotte contributed $50,000 from its Corridors of Opportunity initiative — a $38.5 million budget item focusing on six corridors throughout Charlotte, many of which have been historically neglected by business and city leaders. The Beatties Ford Road/Rozzelles Ferry Road corridor is one of them.
“Can we give Ms. Mattie Marshall a hand,” Graham said, rallying the crowd as he introduced the longtime Washington Heights leader, who helped make the public space possible.
Marshall said the relationship between Lowe’s and Washington Heights has been ongoing for more than ten years. The company has assisted residents with home improvements and repairs and has donated energy-efficient appliances, she said.
“We have been at this for a while,” Marshall said. “We are grateful to build an inclusive, equitable public space co-created by residents…and we must never forget that we are standing on the shoulders of greatness and our ancestors.”
While Marshall addressed the crowd, Dawn Neal looked on, recording the event. She has lived in Washington Heights for 59 years and recalled going to the Ritz Theater as a child, seeing movies for 25 cents.
In more recent years, she said, she and Marshall had dreamed of having a cup of coffee in the former space.
“This has been a long time coming,” Neal said. “It’s exciting to see growth and the continued goals for us to have a place and bring back life to a space that we once had to go to.”
The Washington Heights neighborhood dates back to 1910 and was named in honor of Booker T. Washington, who helped establish Tuskegee Institute. Streets in the neighborhood were named after prominent African Americans, such as Frederick Douglass and Thad Lincoln Tate, one of Charlotte’s earliest Black businessmen.
Throughout much of the 20th century, the neighborhood was home to Black professionals — doctors, lawyers, preachers and professors from nearby JCSU. But as segregation ended and Black professionals moved away to live in other communities, Washington Heights saw its character change, especially during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s.
“Drugs were so bad,” Marshall said. “It was bad, bad, bad. It was nothing to have a death every week on our street for people overdosing and so forth.”
Marshall has been a fixture in leading the Washington Heights community for more than 30 years. Her aim has remained to return it to its former glory by organizing and working with city officials through grassroots efforts.
In the late 1990s, the Washington Heights Neighborhood Association began working on a vision plan to improve and revitalize the community. The Charlotte City Council adopted the program in 2002.
John Howard, a former city planner who worked with the neighborhood on its vision, said they accomplished many things in the first few years, such as adding a street, redesigning Habitat homes and preserving its history.
Marshall invited Howard to attend Saturday’s grand opening. (He is now a Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) planner.)
“A lot of plans take years to accomplish,” he said, “but you have to have the vision to put it out there, and at some point, the next leader, the next generation, will take it on and forward.”
Taking the tradition and history of the Washington Heights neighborhood forward is the hope of Marshall.
“It’s bigger than Mattie,” Marshall said. “What anyone that comes after me must do, they must take that book as a guide and check off what needs to be done.”
She said the new public space will now be a central, permanent place for residents to gather, not only for meetings, but as a way to pass down and preserve the history of one of Charlotte’s oldest Black communities.
“We’ve lost some things, but we’re going to use that to strengthen our resolve to move forward and be stronger,” Marshall said. “This is a transformational space where we can come and tell our stories.”
This article was published as part of our West End Journalism Project, which is funded by a grant by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.