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People The Arts

February 5, 2020

Alvin C. Jacobs’ photographs document social-justice events and issues, including urban renewal.

by Vanessa Infanzon

In 2009, Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. taught himself how to use a Nikon D5000, his first commercial camera.
“My life started 10 years ago,” Jacobs, 45, says. “This became what I wanted to do. Art has changed everything about the way I see life.”

Photograph by Slay XVI

Jacobs started documenting social-justice events to be a voice for those who are marginalized and disenfranchised, he says. He has photographed events around the country such as Day Without Immigrants, Fight for $15, Women’s March and House Bill 2 protests. Since moving to Charlotte in 2012, he’s also covered the Carolina Panthers and Jay-Z’s 4:44 Tour. 

Welcome to Brookhill, a collection of his photos, opened at Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in September 2018. The exhibition includes 25 black and white photographs focusing on the residents of Brookhill Village, an affordable-housing community developed in the 1950s near South End. Last month, a joint venture affiliated with South Tryon Community United Methodist Church acquired the land lease at Brookhill Village. The new owners plan to replace the aging homes with a 324-unit multifamily community, with about half of the new units earmarked for affordable housing. 

Comments were lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Why did you want to capture the Brookhill neighborhood?

lt has many important cultural elements — a naturally occurring affordable housing community established in 1951 that reminded me of where I lived as a small child in Illinois. It felt like home. I spent a few weeks in the neighborhoods before capturing images spending time with the families; we were able to develop a powerful project built upon beautiful relationships. 

How do Charlotteans play a role in displacement?
Many of us play a role in displacement by our silence. Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” If you’re saying, I have nothing to do with this at all — I don’t live in this area; I don’t live in this neighborhood — you have chosen a side, and you’ve become complicit by default. … It’s not just prospective homeowners looking for the next “up-and-coming” neighborhood to invest in. Taxes are raised in the area with the construction of more expensive homes . . . Long-term residents and small business owners are priced out. 

In a recent tweet, you said, “Often at the end of the day, it is the artist tasked to put the broken pieces of the world back together.” How are you doing this for Charlotte?

A piece of art can absolutely be subjective, but it can also create dialogue. We can talk about some of these things that are uncomfortable. You don’t have to change how you feel about it, but now you have a different narrative. You can use that to form your own critical analysis. That’s what art can do.

What do you think about the new plan for Brookhill?
South Tryon Community Mission was working closely with the residents of Brookhill Village when Welcome To Brookhill opened at the Gantt museum, but I’m certain the relationship has been cultivated for years. Pastor Ray McKinnon is a great leader and really has a heart for the community. I’m really looking forward to the next steps.  SP

Welcome to Brookhill will be on view at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture through April 12. In “Cycles of Displacement,” part of the Gantt Center’s Talk About It Tuesday series,  Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. and Anthony Patterson, a Durham artist and community historian, will discuss how they use art, storytelling and photography to explore urban renewal and gentrification. The free event will be held Feb. 11 from 6:30-8:30.


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