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.
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.
Johnny Daniels enthusiastically talks about two college graduates who participated in his West Side youth program and now volunteer to help with the youth group every Friday night. "I'll take two, man," says Pinkney.
On an afternoon drive through the West Side, Pinkney points out the public-housing complexes the ministry serves. Some dilapidated units are under renovation. Others are crumbling and will soon be demolished. One whole complex has been condemned, and the families forced out. "We have no idea where these people went," says Pinkney, driving down an empty, trash-strewn street.
Families remain in run-down units, and some homeless people live in condemned houses with boarded-up windows, no electricity, and no running water, according to Pinkney. Every Saturday morning, buses from Urban Restoration roll through the neighborhoods, picking up kids for a Christian-based program at the center.
Not all public housing is in disrepair. The city recently built a new set of mixed-income townhouses, where some families on public assistance live. Repaved roads with bike paths and widened lanes have also improved the neighborhood.
Across the street sits the well-maintained Arbor Glen Recreation Center, a community center built by the county's Parks and Recreation Department. The department maintains the building and grounds but leases the center for free to Urban Restoration in exchange for the ministry's community programs, which it runs at the facility year-round.
Pinkney applauds the local government's efforts at revitalization, including a new shopping center in an intersection that was formerly notorious for drug deals. He says an improved environment is good, but he still cautions: "If you don't change the demographic, how is it going to work?"
There's one demographic Pinkney is particularly concerned about: fathers. As he drives through public-housing complexes, he says they all have one thing in common: "You won't see many men around here."
Pinkney, a father of six, is president of the PTA at his son's West Side public elementary school. He recently started a program at the school to promote the role of fathers, and more than 100 dads now attend. The superintendent of Charlotte's public-school system has asked Pinkney to replicate the program in three more West Side schools.
Pinkney is the seventh of nine children who were abandoned by their father when Pinkney was 9 years old. His father's absence wreaked havoc on his household, and that motivates Pinkney to engage other dads. "We've complicated the role of fathers in some ways," he says, "but one of the most effective things you can do is to make sure you're there."
While he's encouraged about the impact that Urban Restoration's ministry and cooperation with local government could have on the West Side, Pinkney says he constantly reminds his staff that inner-city revitalization is a long-term investment: "It's never politically correct to say that this is going to take longer than you think-but it will."