In 1953, Helen and Benjamin Hoover bought a home and later moved it to Berryhill, a rural township where her grandfather had farmed since the turn of the century. Now 91 and 97, the couple lives there still. Their son, Marcellus Hoover, 55, checks in daily and swings by to tend his nearby garden, on a couple of acres that have been in his family for four generations. Marcellus, who played defensive tackle in high school, paints a picture of time gone by, in a soft Southern lilt at odds with his large frame.
“We didn’t have a playground, so we made our own playground,” he says. “We didn’t have streetlights. We left our toys and our bikes out.” Many women in his community, including his grandmother, worked at Berryhill School, so he tried to stay on his best behavior.
Dixie-Berryhill, once two separate townships, consists of about 8,000 acres. Bounded on the west by the Catawba and east by Interstate 485, the neighborhood runs north to Interstate 85. Steele Creek, Shopton, and Rock Island roads separate Dixie-Berryhill from Steele Creek to
Marcellus guesses that when he was growing up, the neighborhood was about 60% white, 40% Black. (Today, Latinos make up a larger share. As of 2020, 46% of Dixie-Berryhill’s roughly 5,000 residents were white, 30% Latino, and 15% Black.) Marcellus played with and spent time at the homes of friends of both races. “Everybody knew everybody,” he says. “Everybody waved on our street.”
In retrospect, Marcellus says, his childhood was idyllic, though it didn’t always feel that way. He remembers envying the city kids’ paved basketball courts; he and his friends played on a dirt court with homemade baskets. Later, in high school at Harding, cultures collided. When Marcellus invited classmates to his house, they were fascinated by the pigs penned outside. But when the breeze was just right, Marcellus hated the stench. As a kid, farming was the last thing he wanted to do. Sometimes, he wished he lived in the city.
Now, the city has come to his childhood home. The River District, Mecklenburg County’s biggest planned development since Ballantyne, broke ground in March and will transform the riverfront over the next few decades. The project will ultimately consume a fifth of Dixie-Berryhill and pave the way for potential development of the rest.
The rich soil along the Catawba River attracted white settlers to the region in the 18th century. They grew cotton and built mansions that overlooked the river, and what’s now Steele Creek and Dixie-Berryhill became one of the county’s most prosperous areas.
But war came, and infrastructure followed. The Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line Railway sliced through the area in the 1870s. North Carolina’s first paved four-lane highway, Wilkinson Boulevard, opened in the mid-1920s and became one of the state’s busiest thoroughfares. In a chatty account, J. Bruce Brown, a member of the Steele Creek Historical and Genealogical Society who died in 1996, wrote, “It was this new highway that sealed
In the 1930s, Charlotte began scouting locations for an airport to replace the Cannon Airport, off Ashley Road. Pilots use visual cues to locate runways, and the neat lines of the railroad and highway, plus the river, made the spot an attractive option. Mayor Ben Douglas set his heart on it. “This of course, endeared him to everyone in this part of the county!!!” Brown wrote. “That’s a joke, son! He incurred the wrath of everybody in the area.”
But tucked between the new airport and the river, in a forgotten corner of the county, pastoral life flowed on. The plantations of yore gave way to small family farms, largely immune to Charlotte’s outward and upward sprawl—until November 2016, when a City Council rezoning cleared the way for the River District.
Over the next 30 years, real estate developers Crescent Communities and Lincoln Harris will transform 1,400 mostly wooded acres into homes, offices, hotels, retail, and public green space. The county has committed to provide $30 million in infrastructure, the culmination of years of discussion about how to responsibly and effectively develop its “final frontier.”
The neighborhood’s statistics reflect its status as a rural outlier. “Neighborhood” is almost a misnomer—48% of the area is vacant, and trees shade more than 70% of the land. None of its residents live within a half-mile of a grocery store or bank, and less than 1% live within a half-mile of a pharmacy. Of the area’s paved streets, .1% have sidewalks.
On the city’s scale for bicycle friendliness, Dixie-Berryhill has the lowest possible score. When the River District arrives with its thousands of apartments and homes and millions of square feet of offices, the changes will be drastic.
But in other ways, Dixie-Berryhill closely reflects the county. The employment rate is 95.1%, compared to the county’s 95.2%, and the median household income here is $68,642, just $598 shy of the county median.
Dixie-Berryhill’s prosperity lured the railroad, highway, and airport, which ruined its reputation for splendor. The area became a transportation corridor, and residential developers focused on Charlotte’s east and southeast. In his history, Brown speculated that without that infrastructure, developers would have been drawn decades ago to the rolling countryside and proximity to the river and Lake Wylie. Now, Crescent and Lincoln Harris cite those assets as key to their vision of making this area a magnet once again.
“Just realizing where this property sits … you’ve got the global reach of the airport, which continues to go through billions of dollars of expansion,” Crescent’s Creighton Call told this magazine in 2017. “You’ve got a robust transportation network, 485 with access to 77 and 85, to really get anywhere, and the labor pool you can draw from, given how centrally located this is within the region. It just really makes sense.”
Heavy machinery rumbles into the woods, driving deer to places like Marcellus’ garden. He’s attended meetings with the developers and advocated for the residents, like his parents, who have been there for decades. His parents’ home was once part of a barracks for Morris Field Air Base during World War II. At one meeting with Lincoln Harris, the developer explained what they had in mind. Marcellus recalls saying, “OK, so I see your plans, but all of these existing houses that are there—what are you going to do with those?” They were momentarily flummoxed. They said something like, “Well, that’s a good question.” But Marcellus says the exchange launched a productive dialogue.
He hopes the development can honor the legacy of the neighborhood, perhaps with street names that recognize families and residents who were pillars here. One nod to the past in Crescent’s plans is a 2-acre working garden, where crops will benefit from the nutrient-rich soil that made this place a destination to begin with.
Marcellus cites the Brooklyn neighborhood uptown, a casualty of so-called urban renewal, as a cautionary tale. “Now, we’re going back after all these years and trying to fix it,” he says. “So I’m like, let’s fix it before, so we don’t have to go back and fix it 40 years down the road.”
But he’s optimistic. It’s sad, he acknowledges, to witness the waning days of a way of life that will soon be extinct in Mecklenburg County. But he welcomes change and progress. Marcellus has come to appreciate the childhood he had in Dixie-Berryhill, in what he calls a “secret” part of Charlotte. His family wasn’t rich, he says, but they had everything they needed. “I think it made me a better person.”
He even learned to love farming. “As I’ve gotten older,” he says, “I enjoy using the soil that’s been handed down.” We’ve been talking in a noisy, bustling Starbucks in Berewick Town Center, a development south of Dixie-Berryhill and a harbinger of all the changes to come. Later, Marcellus will head to the quiet of his garden, where he’ll tend tomatoes, squash, and okra. “I like seeing things grow.”
ALLISON BRADEN is a contributing editor.