'Just Let Charlotte Be Charlotte'

Mayor Jennifer Roberts on urban growth, tolerance, poverty, and why rural areas and cities need different rules: America isn’t “one-size-fits-all.”

Bob Leverone / AP

It’s an understatement to say that Jennifer Roberts has had a tumultuous time since her election last November as mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. When Republican Governor Pat McCrory (ironically a former Charlotte mayor) and the Republican-controlled state legislature passed HB2, a measure to overturn a Charlotte city-council ordinance that added gays and transgender people to the city’s anti-discrimination laws, a battle ensued—one that has riveted national attention, polarized the state, and prompted boycotts and investment cancelations from business groups and other local governments.

Roberts, a Charlotte native, former State Department diplomat, and member of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, sat down this week with Atlantic senior editor Ronald Brownstein to discuss the debate over HB2, the tension between cities and nonurban areas in many states, and the challenge of channeling Charlotte’s dynamic economic growth into its low-income communities. The following is an edited and condensed version of their conversation, held in Charlotte on Tuesday as part of The Atlantic’s Renewal Series exploring local innovation.

BROWNSTEIN: When you look at Charlotte, it seems emblematic of a lot of fast-growth, successful cities, where you have a positive overall economic story to tell. But the challenge has been ensuring that that growth connects with all of your families, all of your communities. In your swearing-in speech, you said, “We cannot endure as a city of haves and have nots.” How is the city doing on meeting that test?

ROBERTS: It’s something that we talk about quite a bit, and when you talk about things in Charlotte, it’s not just the city council and the county commission; you talk about it with the community as a whole. We actually have a task force underway looking at that opportunity gap and that challenge, and it’s involving the faith community, it’s involving our schools, our public/private sector, our universities. I call it “The Two Charlottes.” And when I start speeches to groups, I say, “It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times.” If you are one of those people who owns a construction company that has all the cranes going on uptown, it’s a great time for you. But if you’re someone on the west side or the east side of our city—and there is intergenerational poverty in your family, and you don’t have access to reliable transportation, you don’t have access to a high-quality school, you may not have anybody in your family who can get you that summer internship if you’re a youth—then you’re facing a lot of challenges.

BROWNSTEIN: To what extent has the growth that you have seen reached into those communities?

ROBERTS: Some of the growth does, but not enough. Take affordable housing: I was county commissioner before I was mayor, and several years back, our gap was about 17,000 units. Our gap is now 34,000 units. We know that we are not working hard enough to partner with our private sector to try to figure out a way to supply more affordable housing within the city. We have folks who are living in other counties who have to have that long commute in, and that long bus ride, and that is part of their challenge in growing out of poverty.

BROWNSTEIN: Many fast-growth cities face the same dilemma: overall very positive economic story but difficulty getting their own kids, particularly their low-income African American and Hispanic kids, on a track to compete for the jobs they’re creating. What’s unusual about Charlotte is the extent to which you are addressing this overtly with the task force. You served on a task force on immigration last year, and also the school board is engaged in a serious process now about deconcentrating both economic and racial segregation. As you go through these various efforts, what are the main things you are learning? What it will take to create more inclusive growth?

ROBERTS: Well, it’s multifaceted. And this is why the public sector can’t do it alone, because there are so many aspects to it—social capital, for example, where you’re talking about communities, you’re talking about community leadership, faith leadership, family structure, a lot of things that government can’t dictate. But if we work with our private sector, if we work with our faith community and our community leaders, we can start to address some of those challenges.

Early childhood is a huge piece of that … Exposure for our young people to vocabulary, to museums. You know, there are great museums here. Can they afford to go? Do they have transportation to go? Do they have out-of-school programs that enrich what they’re doing while they’re in school? And so one of the things that my office is focused on is on youth employment and mentoring, and we also have an initiative that’s trying to strengthen the capacity of our afterschool programs.

BROWNSTEIN: I was going to ask you about that because I thought that would be an interesting case study: As you try to strengthen that capacity, what’s the role of the public sector? What’s the role of the private sector? What’s the role of the nonprofit sector? How does it all fit together in your mind in that one example?

ROBERTS: Well, there’s so many aspects to that out-of-school time, and our kids are going to school for six or seven hours, and they’re not getting all the vocabulary they need, they’re not getting all the creativity they need, they’re not getting the downtime with creative play. And so we work with our arts community. We have an arts and science council that works very hard to get projects not just in our center city where our cultural assets are for the most part, but we also work to get them in the community. In our faith community, many of our churches have opened their doors after school, on weekends, and in the summer. And they have piano teachers and violin teachers, they have dance, they have tutoring.

We have some programs that keep kids on track in the summer. I was actually on the board of a group called International House, part of that immigrant integration, and they have programs in several of our schools on the east side. We have many bilingual students who work on English reading over the summer. Summer is the most dangerous time for our teenagers. If they’re not doing something productive, it’s dangerous. Also, for our elementary- and middle-school students, they forget what they’ve learned during the school year. And if they’re in a non-English-speaking family, they’re not having the opportunity to keep their reading skills up, to keep growing those reading skills, and to keep those language skills going.

BROWNSTEIN: Research we’ve done at The Atlantic has looked at big cities across the country: We find an enormous gap in the share of white versus African American versus Hispanic kids who are in schools where most of their classes qualify as poor or low-income. The concentration of economic poverty here in Charlotte is: 23 percent of white kids are in schools where a majority of the students qualify as poor or low-income, 77 percent of African American kids are in such schools, and 80 percent of Hispanic kids are. Can changes inside the four walls of a school overcome that? Or if you have that level of concentrated poverty, are you unlikely to get the results that you want?

ROBERTS: It has to “both and.” And in Charlotte, we have this can-do attitude: We know the odds can be stacked against you, but we believe that if you get the right number of organizations and groups together and focus on a problem and put some real collaborative effort into it, then we can improve it. Statistics are challenging when you have high concentrations of poverty, so what are we doing? We’re looking at our housing policy. We’re constrained by our state in many ways, but we have some tools—for instance, inclusionary housing, trying to get more workforce and subsidized housing in some areas of town. So we want to work with the private sector to help that happen. We’re looking to rewrite our zoning ordinance, which is one tool we have for trying to get that mixed-use development. How do we work incrementally to bring about some of those changes so that we get more of our students in diverse settings?

BROWNSTEIN: What is your view of the process the school system is going through now, examining the options for trying to break up concentrated poverty?

ROBERTS: Well, it’s a big community conversation. If you’re happy with your school, then at any sign of change, you’re terrified that you’re going to have teachers that aren’t as qualified or results that aren’t as high when grading our schools.

BROWNSTEIN: But do you think there needs to be change to break up the level of economic isolation that we’re talking about?

ROBERTS: There needs to be incremental change. And we look at everything, including grading and assessment, including how we empower principals to do more with the resources they have. I’m also all about local control when you look at our state, because we’re not a one-size-fits-all state, and we’re not a one-size-fits-all school district.

BROWNSTEIN: As we’ve talked about this challenge of creating broadly inclusive growth, you’ve talked about early childhood, you’ve talked about transportation, you’ve talked about housing, you’ve talked about education. When you think about how you’re going to grapple with those issues here in Charlotte, what’s the role you see for the federal government? Are you expecting anything out of Washington?

ROBERTS: Well, we actually have been helped by the federal government quite a bit. If you look at housing, if you look at education, magnet programs, free and reduced lunch—that’s federal dollars. If you look at our transportation, of course it’s never enough, it’s never fast enough—

BROWNSTEIN: You do have a friend in the Transportation Department [Secretary Anthony Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte]…

ROBERTS: (laughs) We do. He’s been very helpful, but we’re competing with cities all across this country. Look at our blue line: That’s our first light rail, opened in 2007; our next segment of that is going to open next year, 2017 in August, on time and on budget. And you look at the transformation that has happened along that line: $1.4 billion additional private-sector investment that really sped it up. And we’ve got multifamily, we have mixed-use, we have young people. Half the people moving to our community are under age 35. And they want that transit option. They want the arts and culture. They want to see innovation, and they want good schools.

BROWNSTEIN: That kind of brings me to the next area: the state. When you passed the original ordinance that led to HB2, which overturned the ordinance, did you view that and did the city council view that solely as an expression of your values? Or did you think that it was important from an economic-development point of view to have a stake in the ground as an inclusive, tolerant city?

ROBERTS: Well, it’s pretty evident that it has an economic aspect to it. We know that talent comes in all shapes and sizes. We’re the 17th-largest city in America. We’re competing with 20, 30 other cities—not just in the U.S. We’re competing with Singapore, we’re competing with Johannesburg. We want to attract talent, and we know that we’ve got to show that we are welcoming, that we are inclusive, and that we are going to treat people equally, because we want that talent to come, stay, raise a family, make a living. And we know that there are more than 200 other cities in America who have passed ordinances like this, that say the LGBT folks will be treated equally and we will not tolerate discrimination.

Think about what Richard Florida writes about: What are you looking for in a 21st-century city? You’re looking for technology, talent, and tolerance. And that is incredibly important, especially in innovation and entrepreneurship. If you want to solve complex 21st-century problems, we’re talking about all the things that we must address as a city. If you want someone to think outside the box, well, that means people in the LGBT community, very creative, thinking outside the gender box, thinking outside a lot of boxes. We want that talent to feel welcome, to feel embraced, and to feel comfortable right here in Charlotte. And we stood up for that.

BROWNSTEIN: If I know the history correctly, you had a dry run, in effect, with what happened with the civil-rights resolution that was passed a year before on immigration, which was also overturned by the state. So, there’s a dynamic here where the city basically says, ‘Here are the policies that reflect both our values and our view of how we grow economically,’ and you then have the state legislature—often reflecting viewpoints from outside of the metro areas—overturning them. What is the core conflict here, and is there a way out of this impasse?

ROBERTS: Remember, this is Charlotte. There’s always a way out of the impasse. This is absolutely not something that just Charlotte is facing. I talk to mayors: In Seattle, they have rural areas that often don’t understand what they’re doing—Phoenix, Atlanta, so many other cities have this challenge. And this is a critical issue in America because we have many states that are still controlled largely by rural legislators. And there are different needs. We’re not a one-size-fits-all country. So if you are in a rural area, you’re thinking about things differently. If you’re in a densely developed, urban center that’s dynamic, where change happens every day, you’re looking at things differently than if you’re in a town or rural community where things haven’t changed in decades. And so, my worry for America is that we have states that are holding our cities back.

We have read that cities are the center of innovation. They are laboratories for how we face the 21st century, how we solve the energy crisis, how we work on climate change, how we make sure people are included, how we work on public safety in an increasingly diverse universe of people who are moving, are transient, are mingling, and are living close together. And how do we solve all those issues if we have a rural mentality where things are static? We don’t have the tools. This is a great challenge in America: How do we convey that it’s okay to be different? I love our rural areas. I spend time in the mountains, in small cities, and small towns. We have wonderful people in North Carolina. But, how do we show them that we’re not competing with them in our cities, that it’s not diminishing them? That we are actually providing sales tax for them? Just let Charlotte be Charlotte. Let Charlotte work.

Atlantic assistant editor Leah Askarinam contributed to this article.