How West End residents transformed a neglected space into an outdoor gallery
Just months ago, a neglected lot near the intersection of Beatties Ford Road and Lasalle Street was considered an eyesore. It housed a dilapidated trailer, and illegal drug activity was said to be common.
Now the property has been transformed into a tranquil space that features freshly painted picnic tables, a concrete stage and, perhaps most impressive, an outdoor photo gallery that displays artistic images of Black women.
The project is the latest public space to come to the Historic West End, a long-neglected community that has seen a recent wave of new investments.
To transform the space, Lowe’s, the home-improvement retailer based in Mooresville, gave a $20,000 grant through LISC Charlotte, said J’Tanya Adams, leader of Historic West End Partners (HWEP), an economic development group.
Historic West End
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The transformation had been a long time coming, Adams said. For years, she said, residents and business owners had complained about the parcel’s condition and the illegal activity that was said to be happening there.
Adams said the property’s owner, William Johnson of Johnson Account Tax, who had been unable to control activity on the property, allowed HWEP to step in and remediate the issue with a three-year lease.
With control of the site, HWEP and others in the community began the revitalization process.
First, they removed the trailer. Then, in the planning process, Adams remembered a photography book she bought years ago, ”Women of a New Tribe,” by photographer Jerry Taliaferro.
Adams asked Taliaferro to use some of his images for the space, and he agreed, with no charge. Roz-kareem Jackson of RA Signs Inc. stepped up to enlarge the photos, which are made of aluminum composite, and hung them on a wooden fence to form an outdoor gallery.
The LATIBA Collard Green Museum built the fence; the youth from Drills of Hope Marching Thunder, a community band, painted and restored the picnic tables; Bobby’s Painting has agreed to stain the fence.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Adams said. “The purpose is, we want to bring life, light and unity and our communal brotherly love to all these spaces. So for however long we are fortunate to continue to maintain this space, we will.”
Taliaferro, who lives in Charlotte and owns Jerry Taliaferro Photography, said the photos are from a traveling exhibition that debuted in 2002 and is still ongoing. It has twice come to Charlotte and was used by the U.S. State Department in countries including Slovakia and Hungary, he said.
The exhibition looks at African American women and all of their many manifestations, Taliaferro said.
“You can see yourself in the exhibition,” Taliaferro said of his work, showcased at 1915 Beatties Ford Road.
The black-and-white photos capture Black women in various roles, from ballerinas to warriors to mothers. Taliaferro said the exhibit garners compelling reactions.
“You can find yourself, your sister, your mother,” he said. “I think the Black woman in this particular exhibition is showcased in a way she’s rarely showcased.”
The project started two decades ago when Taliaferro was a commercial photographer in Memphis, Tenn. He and others would work weekends photographing models, who sometimes wore African masks, to build their respective portfolios.
Actor Morgan Freeman’s charity benefitting Africa subsequently tapped Taliaferro to donate some images, he said. The photographs sold quickly, giving birth to the traveling exhibition.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, the exhibition would stop in six to seven cities a year. In each city, Taliaferro said, he would photograph local women to be included in the exhibition, which grew his collection to thousands of images and allowed the exhibition to be perpetually “new.”
When asked to speculate about the exhibition’s long-running success, he said: “I think it’s pride. It’s showing a Black woman almost regal-like. I hope when people look at the images they are elevated in a way. You look at yourself, and you look at the possibilities.”
A changing corridor
Robin Woods, who co-founded Drills of Hope Marching Thunder, a community band for at-risk youth, said that for the 25 members who painted picnic tables as a service project, beautifying their community gave them a sense of belonging. Even some parents got involved.
“You’re taking care of what’s yours and seeing the success of it,” Woods said. “It’s very important that we give back, and kids need to learn that instead of tearing down, we build up.”
Indeed, the Beatties Ford Road corridor is undergoing unprecedented investment. Working through community groups, local government and some of the city’s biggest corporations have committed millions of dollars to the corridor’s economic development.
[Related: Fifth Third Bank will invest up to $20 million to assist Historic West End]
Part of that investment involves the creation of more pocket parks and outdoor spaces: Earlier this month, community leaders dedicated a public space they named The Ritz at Washington Heights. In the Five Points neighborhood, workers are completing Five Points Plaza, a city-funded project near Johnson C. Smith University. And plans are underway to transform a green space at the Allegra Westbrooks Regional Library — Beatties Ford Road.
Adams, of Historic West End Partners, said she’d like to see the corridor’s news space named in honor of Taliaferro, who supplied the artwork, because “those photos are so powerful.”
Adams said community members are eying January for a grand opening. Meanwhile, work continues. Adams said she wants to add soft lighting under each of Taliaferro’s photos, so that the images can be seen at night. She also wants to install bike racks, plus seating around a pecan tree on the property. As for the picnic tables, Adams said she wants to add affirmations.
“There will be a couple of other things happening before the spring as we continue to perfect it,” she said, “but I see this as a space for nurturing, edification, serenity and meditation.”
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