Black and white photo exhibit highlights NoDa’s colorful past

Friday, March 6 will kick off a weekend of festivities to celebrate the four-year anniversary of the NoDa Company Store. That night, we will re-hang a photo exhibit that was arguably the best and most popular art show and exhibit at the store to date. It was certainly one of our favorites.

In July 2017, we first hung the exhibit titled: “North Charlotte, Photography of 100 Years of Charlotte’s Mill Village; Highland, Mecklenburg, Johnston & NoDa.” The photos (curated and provided by the Back in the Day Committee, part of the NoDa Neighborhood Association that gathers the history and stories of NoDa/North Charlotte) will again be on display, this time throughout the month of March.

The photos span decades and show the dynamic and ever-changing area we now lovingly call NoDa. They are sourced from the collection at the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room at the library uptown, from current and former neighborhood residents, from photographer Lewis Wicks Hine, and from a student at UNCC, Barry Lester, who did a photo essay of the neighborhood in 1977.

There are photos of the mills and mill homes, the mill workers (some as young as eight years old), and the business district along North Davidson and 36th streets.

One photo, in particular, seems to be the most symbolic of them all. It was taken in 1949 on 37th Street and features two siblings, a boy and a girl, on bicycles with a row of mill homes behind them. Carol Hopkins Williams and Tom Hopkins were those children, and they attended the exhibit’s opening in 2017. At that time, they were 78 and 69 years old and had long moved away from the area.

We didn’t know they were coming but it was a wonderful surprise. They graciously answered questions, adding colorful commentary and a beautiful human connection to the black and white still images on the wall. They said their father had worked in the Johnston Mill and their grandmother had lived, and passed, in our spot, when the building that now houses the store was still a residential duplex. They told us about life and community in what was then known as North Charlotte. They reminisced about the businesses and people in the photos, painting a picture that just a photo alone couldn’t convey.

The brother and sister pair weren’t the only ones to visit and take in the photos and share their connection to the neighborhood. Over the span of a month, a couple dozen folks came through, introducing themselves and telling their stories as they passed by the images, relaying their unique experiences and marveling at how their neighborhood had changed as well as its many “lives” over the years.

Many buildings in the photos from the past have new lives and new uses today. Pharmacies turned to fish tacos, the gas station to a coffee shop, and the movie theatre turned live music venue that once moved from mainstream cinema to pornography. The storefronts along North Davidson have had many lives, reflecting the ups and downs of the area, and we all are part of that story today, one that will continue to evolve once we are gone.

The story of this neighborhood is far from over, so all of this, to us, gives a sense of place. A glimpse into what used to be; the rise and fall and rise again economically. A place once known for cotton and textiles, the heavy industry that brought people and money and development. A place that had its fall after those mills closed and the jobs disappeared, a place still on the move. Though the three mills that once spun cotton have been reused and repurposed, many of the mill homes that once surrounded the Highland, Johnston, and Mecklenburg mills are now being razed to make way for larger, more modern homes. Many vestiges of the past are disappearing, and it’s our hope that this exhibit helps foster a desire to save at least some of the evidence of the stories and people that came before us.