By Michele Lemere
On a Friday night in August, clusters of families and friends gather in the fading light for an outdoor screening of Moana. About 75 people munch on free popcorn and hot dogs. Some snap selfies at the photo booth under the massive willow oak tree in front. “The history in this place is really amazing,” Tim Vanderbeek says as we sit on the front steps of the Johnston YMCA on North Davidson Street. With its sprawling porch and massive white columns, the building looks more like a millionaire’s mansion than a fitness center.
For more than 70 years, it’s been a community gathering place for the neighborhood once known as North Charlotte, now rebranded as NoDa. But, like so much in this neighborhood, its end looms. The YMCA of Greater Charlotte plans to sell the 5.78-acre property. Initially, it planned to close the Johnston Y at the end of this year. But in September, the YMCA announced that a deal to sell to a developer who wanted to build a 455-unit mixed-use complex had fallen through. Nonetheless, the YMCA will continue to seek a buyer. Charles Bowman, who chairs its board of directors, told The Charlotte Observer: “We’re back to the drawing board.”
Vanderbeek is an elder in NoDa Church, which meets Sunday mornings in the gym and hosts community events like Movies on the Lawn in summer. The church is searching for a new home. Vanderbeek gestures toward the crowd. “To be able to partner with the Y on food drives and summer camps, the direct involvement in the community,” he says, “that’s what we’ll lose.”
Rather than pay to upgrade the 72-year-old building, the Charlotte YMCA is selling the Johnston property as one solution to its balance-sheet problems. Y membership fell 25% from 2019 to 2021, The Charlotte Observer has reported—admittedly, the height of COVID. The property is worth $19.4 million, Mecklenburg County tax records show. But the sale, in one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods, will likely generate much more.
I understand the Y’s dilemma, but to me, the sacrifice is too great. I have been a NoDa resident since 2008 and a member of the NoDa Neighborhood and Business Association’s history committee. The sale means losing services and a connection to Charlotte’s cotton mill past that no longer exists in other parts of the city. From the Johnston Y’s front door, you can see where mill workers worked and lived.
To the left is Highland Park Manufacturing, the 1903 cotton mill that gave birth to the neighborhood, now converted into an apartment building. Behind the Y is a string of repurposed mill houses, originally built with no plumbing or electricity at the rate of a dozen a day. Two other mill buildings have been repurposed as apartment complexes.
In 1920, Highland opened the first recreation center for mill families at Electric Park on 36th Street, a former amusement park named for its proximity to the end of the North Charlotte trolley line. Richard Horace Johnston, son of mill founder Charles, dreamed of a community center in the heart of North Charlotte—but died of a heart attack before he could break ground. His son, David, negotiated a land swap with Spencer Memorial United Methodist Church.
The church moved to Electric Park, and the Richard Horace Johnston Memorial YMCA opened in 1951. The Georgian Colonial Revival tri-level structure functioned for years as a community hub. Thousands of Charlotteans learned to swim in the indoor pool. There was even a duckpin bowling alley in the basement. By 1975, however, all three neighborhood mills had shut down. The Johnston Y was on the brink of closure throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Residents of a blighted neighborhood could not afford the membership fees.
The Charlotte Y, businesses, and nonprofits rallied to fund renovations and community programs. As North Charlotte became the NoDa arts district and membership increased, the Y updated with modern fitness equipment and classes. In 2021, the Y asked local residents for our input on the future of the site; we stressed the importance of saving the tree, retaining the building facade, and keeping a YMCA presence. There was talk of a parking deck to generate income. Instead, the Y took the deal that would generate the most cash—we learned through a press release that our requests would likely be ignored. The NoDa NBA argues that Johnston and his foundation gave the property to the YMCA to benefit the community, and this deal defies that intent.
To live in gentrified NoDa in 2023 is to live in a perpetual construction zone. It seems foolish to complain about living in a desirable neighborhood in a growing city; development is inevitable and not always bad. But this project stings. It signals the shift from a mostly intact historic mill village with remodeled infrastructure to a modern neighborhood with bits of history sprinkled in. NoDa is losing affordable services that draw people from surrounding neighborhoods and a place for people of different backgrounds to mingle.
The after-school program will close this month. NoDa Church will relocate. Summer camps and swim lessons will happen elsewhere. The Y organization says it will look for ways to serve area children without a building.
Businessmen opened mills here 120 years ago and attracted hundreds of men, women, and children to work for them in a tough industry. A majestic recreation center seemed like the least they could do in return. Today, those deals happen in private. The developer doesn’t need to rezone the property or ask the neighborhood for support. We like to call the Y “NoDa’s front porch.” With the front porch gone, what’s next?
Michele Lemere is a NoDa resident and former high school teacher for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is pursuing a master’s degree in public history at UNC Charlotte.