Behind the scenes at Manolo's Bakery, where workers prepare treats from across Latin America.
Behind the scenes at Manolo's Bakery, where workers prepare treats from across Latin America.

We’re bringing you to a corridor in east Charlotte between Central Avenue and Albemarle Road.  It’s a vibrant neighborhood where you can find businesses serving people from around the world — but where change is coming quickly.

The area around Central Avenue and Albemarle Road is now one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Charlotte. About a third of residents along the corridor identify as Latino, a third as Black or African American and nearly one in 10 as Asian and one in five as white or Caucasian.

Bakery owner Manolo Betancur says if you want to experience the world, just cruise Central Avenue.

“It’s beautiful here,” he said, “because it’s a place where Muslims, Europeans, Hindu, African and other immigrants all arrive.”

Central Avenue, where Betancur operates Manolo’s Bakery, feels like home, he said.

Un letrero en Manolo's Bakery

A sign in Manolo's bakery on Central Avenue, in the city's Central/Albemarle Corridor of Opportunity: Kayla Young, WFAE/La Noticia

But cities are about change, explains local historian Tom Hanchett. As Charlotte grows and the city mulls revitalization plans, he says the Central Avenue corridor could change in unexpected ways, as it has before.

“A neighborhood that's not changing is probably dying in some way,” Hanchett said. “That said, what's going on in the Albemarle Road corridor, the Central Avenue corridor, with prices spiraling upward, indeed, it makes it difficult for a small business owner, an immigrant business owner.”

It might interest you: Mecklenburg County prepares for possibility of increased migrant arrivals

A previously segregated neighborhood becomes international

Step back to Central Avenue’s inception in 1899, and the vision was far different from the international and working-class neighborhood that it is today. Developers first conceived of Central Avenue as a wealthy and whites-only neighborhood, Hanchett said.

“Then Myers Park happened,” Hanchett said, “and that suburb won the upscale race, and Central Avenue ended up being a mixture.”

Central Avenue remained almost entirely white until the 1960s. The federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 helped open the neighborhood, and other historically segregated areas, to communities of color.

It was in the 1990s that a combination of job opportunities and affordable housing helped usher in the Central Avenue that Charlotteans know today.

“Charlotte had never had much in the way of immigration. One hundred years ago, when the Northeast got big waves of immigrants, we didn't. This area was too poor,” Hanchett said. “But in the '90s, the center for Latino immigration in the U.S. was basically the I-85 corridor, going from Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem to Charlotte to Atlanta.”

Historian Tom Hanchett in his office on Central Avenue: Kayla Young, WFAE/La Noticia

Charlotte’s first notable immigrant wave also coincided, coincidentally, with the decline of one of east Charlotte’s community anchors.

“Most American cities have dead malls,” Hanchett said. “Ours was Eastland Mall, which died in the 2000s, and the investors basically walked away from it.”

As businesses around Eastland shuttered, immigrant entrepreneurs found an opportunity in the vacant and affordable spaces they left behind.

A welcoming place for immigrants

That was around the same time Alba Sanchez took her first job in Charlotte at what was then one of the city’s only Latino grocery stores, SAV/WAY Foods. The Central Avenue supermarket and its neighborhood were a welcoming landing pad for Sanchez, who is originally from Costa Rica.

“It is a very diverse community,” Sanchez said. “That's something that it has been like for the last 20 years that I've been living or working around this area. It has not changed.”

Alba Sánchez, gives a tour of her department, the Immigrant Welcome Center at the Latin American Coalition.: Kayla Young, WFAE/La Noticia

Sanchez still works on Central Avenue but these days she helps welcome other immigrants to the city.

Last year, her department at the Latin American Coalition received about 4,400 newcomers from all over the world. As director of the Immigrant Welcome Center, Sanchez facilitates many of the same services that first helped her settle in east Charlotte.

“My life, honestly, completely changed in so many different ways because there was an institution like this. [They offered] my first trainings, my first English classes, my legal resident application,” she said.

Now she wants to see more opportunities for the community to come together and share healthy outlets.

“I know our director, our board of directors, they have big dreams about how to expand and how to serve, not just the Hispanic community, but the community in general, with an arts center, with music, with maybe a cafeteria,” she said.

Heal wounds in the community

Carolyn Millen, an organizer with CharlotteEAST, is another person who wants to see community spaces grow.

Like many Charlotteans, she still feels a void left by the loss of Eastland Mall.

“When Eastland closed, it was like all of a sudden taking something and just creating a huge black hole,” Millen said. “I don't know any other way to explain it, because that was a destination. It was active, and people from the community were always there.”

A tag at the former Eastland Mall site on Central Avenue reads, “RIP EAST.”: Kayla Young, WFAE/La Noticia

The site has remained vacant for more than a decade. Community-led efforts to fill the void have been shut down, such as the weekend flea market frequented by Latino families and the skate park built by the skating community.

After years of division, Millen sees a need to heal the east Charlotte community.

“The only way we're going to be able to heal that is if we all are willing to come together, put egos, agendas and all those aside, and come together,” Millen said. “Then and only then will we be able to create upward positive mobility, economic development, growth that we deserve for generations to come.”

Millen said she’s hesitantly hopeful for Eastland’s latest development plan: a mixed-use site with housing and recreation facilities called Eastland Yards.

“I hate to put so much emphasis on Eastland Yards, but just like every area, you've got to have something that is the catalyst,” Millen said. “It's like the old saying, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ That's what Eastland Yards is for us.”

Uncertainty in the face of changes

A fear for many small businesses, however, is that they could get priced out of the neighborhood. Hanchett, the local historian, said the stress of rising real estate prices is being felt by every neighborhood within a five-mile radius of uptown.

“For a long time, corridors like Central Avenue and Albemarle Road suffered from too little investment,” Hanchett said. “You can still see echoes of that as you walk up and down the street. But you can also see businesses struggling to deal with rising rents.”

Manolo Betancur at Manolo's Bakery on Central Ave.: Kayla Young, WFAE/La Noticia

Back at Manolo’s Bakery, Betancur said he’s heard a lot of promises about neighborhood investment.

“‘We care about small business, we want to support you,’ but how?” Betancur said. “One way to support a small business is to let them own their place.”

But, he said, no one wants to sell their east Charlotte real estate, at least not to small, immigrant business owners.

Betancur said many immigrants have a nomadic spirit by nature. If prices rise, he explained, they’ll leave for more affordable places. But for businesses, having to pack up shop is a real concern.

He wants to see an east side where community comes first — where children have after-school programs to attend, where families can enjoy the theater or a game of soccer, and where small businesses can plant roots.

The people who live in east Charlotte, he said, feel proud to be there — even if their future is uncertain.

Find this article in Spanish here.

Kayla Young

Kayla Young

Kayla Young es periodista del programa Report for America. Cubre temas de inmigración y la comunidad latina para WFAE y La Noticia. Estudió periodismo en la Universidad de Texas en Austin.