By Anna Smith
Farewell to Plaza Midwood
In a self-proclaimed love letter to Plaza Midwood, Greg Martinez lamented his former neighborhood, which he lost to gentrification.
He grieved the local small businesses that, like the residents, could not afford to stay. If a neighborhood is made of its residents, culture, community, local commerce, and art, then the old Plaza Midwood no longer exists. Gentrification is turning Plaza Midwood into a neighborhood that its original residents can no longer call home—not only because they cannot afford the rise in rent but also because they cannot recognize the neighborhood as the home they once knew.
Lauren Rogers, Director of Community Engagement at International House, described the old Plaza Midwood similarly. She said it used to have a more international presence and be more community focused. But as the costs of renting homes and commercial space have increased, the people and businesses who made up that international presence and community have gotten pushed further down Central Avenue.
If they are lucky, they can relocate and reopen their business. If they are not so lucky, they could be forced to close their business and lose housing altogether. This can be seen in a map that shows 4.6% of Plaza Midwood’s residents identify as Hispanic or Latino until that number jumps to 51.5% once the eastern boundary is crossed and the next neighborhood profile area begins.
So although the Plaza Midwood Neighborhood Association boasts the neighborhood’s “international flair,” the flair in question today is characterized by a few restaurants and not by international residents. Lauren explained that as International House’s clients have been pushed out of the neighborhood, International House has been pushed out too.
For the past decade, International House has made a home of an old school on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood. The building is a recognized historic landmark and was constructed circa 1935, still in the age of segregated schools. The classrooms that were originally filled exclusively by White American students would later be filled by students of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities.
The hallways would echo with conversations in countless languages. Diversity would be celebrated and differences in cultures embraced throughout that building. Those who walked in the door would be welcomed with inclusion and assured they belonged there.
The poetic justice of Midwood Elementary’s transformation from a school for White American children to a landing pad for all international newcomers as the Midwood International and Cultural Center (MICC) is not lost on me.
The future tenants and visitors would understand something the school boards didn’t: diversity benefits everyone. In a book titled Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow that tells the story of the desegregation and resegregation of schools in Charlotte, the editors share that students at desegregated schools “exhibit greater levels of intergroup friendships, demonstrate lower levels of racial fears and stereotypes, and experience less intergenerational perpetuation of racism and stereotypes across multiple institutional settings."
Along the same vein, research suggests that attendance at socioeconomically and racially diverse schools “improves academic achievement, increases graduation rates, raises lifetime incomes, improves intergroup relations, and decreases involvement with the criminal justice system.”
The students who filled the International House classrooms in eagerness to learn about America as well as other countries, languages, and cultures gave the school another life as a center for diversity, acceptance, and integrative community.
Return to Roots
Midwood Elementary eventually closed due to low enrollment in 1983. That same year, Harvey Gantt was elected mayor, making history as the first elected Black mayor of a large, predominantly White southern city. Coincidentally, that was also the same year St. John’s Baptist Church donated the Staton Mansion to be used as an international center.
International House’s first home was on that church’s campus in the Elizabeth neighborhood at 322 Hawthorne Lane. The organization was born from a mission to increase and improve interaction between Charlotteans and international students and migrants.
As time went on, more needs of internationals became increasingly apparent, like friendship, community, and support. They struggled with loneliness, legal hurdles, language barriers, and economic mobility.
To help internationals meet those needs and overcome those obstacles, International House launched several programs, including an international women’s support group that is still going strong today.
Another original program was Friendship Connection, which combined fellowship and English language skills development, paving the way for future conversation hour groups in various languages and several other cultural clubs.
Other programs that have since been formed include a law clinic, afterschool and summer literacy programs for children, English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, citizenship preparation classes, tutoring services, and a diplomacy department that coordinates an international professional exchange program.
A central location has always been integral to achieving International House’s goals. David Upshaw, who founded the organization in 1981, noted that similar organizations in Charlotte had all lacked a central location. The site in Elizabeth was ideal at the time because of its proximity to uptown, emergency medical services, and a growing international population.
International House’s current Executive Director, Autumn Weil, emphasized the importance of that last point in relocating in 2023 during an interview with WFAE and La Noticia. Staying as close as possible to east Charlotte was a top priority.
International House has found its new home just a mile away from the old MICC building on Central Avenue and a three-minute walk from its original location on Hawthorne Lane. Staff and volunteers have spent the past few weeks moving in and working tirelessly to make their new home a place where all feel welcome.
As the Elizabeth neighborhood has welcomed International House home, the International House staff is excited to welcome immigrants home to Charlotte in their new/old neighborhood.
International House is inviting everybody to the ribbon cutting ceremony and open house at the new location:
International House Open House
and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony
June 16, 2–4 PM
1611 E 7th St
Charlotte, NC 28204