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West Side story

Special Issue | Beneath the financial frenzy that is Charlotte, urban revitalization remains long,

Issue: "Building a city," March 24, 2007

CHARLOTTE- In a small, yellow building near a pawn shop and a used car lot in west Charlotte, the student artwork outside a third-grade classroom at Brookstone School is revealing. Bright letters on long strips of blue, white, and green paper read: "Drugs are a bad thing to do," "Get high on God," and "Gangs kill people."

These third-graders know the realities firsthand. High concentrations of crime and poverty have plagued the West Side for years. Businesses have moved out and prostitutes have moved in. Single-parent homes dominate and public schools report dismal results: Nearly 60 percent of students in the area's major high school failed state tests last year, and the school battles escalating violence.

But the 106 inner-city kids at Brookstone, a K-6 Christian school that targets at-risk children, quietly defy those bleak statistics. Some 90 percent perform above grade level, and behavioral problems are scarce: Well-mannered children in neat uniforms sit quietly in classrooms and quickly obey teachers.

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Down a short hall from Brookstone's seven classrooms, Colin Pinkney sits in his office early on a Monday morning, sorting through a long to-do list. Pinkney is the executive director of Urban Restoration, an inner-city Christian ministry that serves as an umbrella organization for several West Side ministries, including Brookstone School.

The organization's modest building sits in the shadow of Charlotte's expanding skyline, which tells the larger story of the city's dramatic growth over the last decade: a soaring, 60-story skyscraper houses the corporate headquarters of Bank of America, making the largest city in North Carolina the second-largest financial center in the country. Towering cranes dot the horizon in a profusion of development projects, including a series of high-rise condominiums that could nearly double the city's uptown population over the next three years.

But in a handful of depressed areas, a gloomier plot has unfolded, and city officials have grappled for solutions. In recent years, they've concentrated on the West Side, aiming for economic revitalization in an area that serves as a major corridor between the city's airport and uptown. Meanwhile, churches and ministries like Urban Restoration have worked with youth and families on the West Side, aiming for spiritual and social revitalization in one of the most troubled areas in town.

Leaning over a silver laptop in his small office, Pinkney says the best plan is to dovetail those efforts. To that end, Urban Restoration has cultivated relationships with local government that have produced promising results and may serve as a model for revitalization efforts in other inner-city neighborhoods.

Pinkney's savvy in working with government officials shows up in one of the first calls he makes on a Monday morning: A vacant fire station sits directly behind Urban Restoration's cramped building, and Pinkney has convinced the county to allow the ministry to use the space while it remains empty. He's following up with a contact to arrange a walk-through of the facility.

The ministry's need for more space is acute. Besides the 106-student Christian school, the small building houses administrative offices and a broad range of activities during the week: a GED prep class on Monday nights, a food pantry on Tuesday nights, parenting classes on Thursday nights, free income tax preparation for low-income families two nights a week, youth group on Friday, kids clubs on Saturday, church on Sunday, and an after-school program five days a week.

"People ask me, 'Why do you guys do so many things?'" says Pinkney. "I tell them it's because there are just so many needs."

Pinkney says the community's greatest need is stronger families, particularly stronger fathers. The county agrees and has awarded the ministry two grants to conduct family-oriented social services programs. On Thursday nights, parents gather in the center's computer lab for classes that include instruction on parenting, budgeting, and managing a household. The county requires the classes for parents seeking to be reunited with children they have lost to the system due to abuse or neglect.

A county grant also allows the ministry to recruit and provide initial screening for foster parents, and pays for an after-school program for at-risk kids called "Champions for Christ."

The grant money helps Urban Restoration stay afloat, but budgets are still tight. While preparing for a morning meeting, Pinkney breaks to make an appointment for a man who calls about the center's low-income tax preparation service. "I don't have an administrative assistant," he says, smiling, as he hangs up the phone.

At 10 a.m. Pinkney convenes a chapel service for leaders of various ministries at the center. After Bible study and prayer, the group of seven moves into the crowded conference room adjoining Pinkney's office for a lively leadership meeting. Jason Oberman gives an update on his East Side ministry to inner-city youth. "A lot of these kids can't see past the drugs and the crack in their apartment complexes," he says. "They have no hope." Oberman hopes to mentor youth who will eventually mentor other kids in the community.

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