Uptown collisions

People The Arts

February 1, 2022

History, commerce and culture converge at uptown’s Brooklyn Collective.

by Michael J. Solender  | photographs by Justin Driscoll

When Charlotte entrepreneur and consultant Jason Wolf began his search for a commercial real estate investment several years ago, he didn’t set out to create a hotbed for creative collaboration, neighborhood development and economic mobility. Yet nearly eight years later, Wolf’s development foray is blossoming into the nonprofit Brooklyn Collective, an entrepreneurial, artistic and cultural hub spawning a creative rebirth in the heart of uptown’s Second Ward.

Wolf closed on his purchase of three contiguous Second Ward properties in 2014, including the historic Grace A.M.E. Zion Church built in 1902 and the Mecklenburg Investment Company building (M.I.C.) built in 1922, along with the more contemporary 229 South Brevard building. 

“I didn’t know the backstory of the properties or the neighborhood,” Wolf says. “I was drawn to the architecture and the sense that this corner of uptown had great potential as a [catalyst] for growth. When I learned what was accomplished here, I became energized at the prospect of taking a part of Charlotte and leveraging it intentionally for purposes to promote inclusivity and entrepreneurial activity.” 

Today, the space includes an art gallery, a performing-arts venue and an entrepreneurial hub housing more than a dozen small businesses. But to understand the philosophy behind Brooklyn Collective, it’s important to understand the area’s history.

Entrepreneur Jason Wolf, right, with Justin Ellis, an artist resident at Brooklyn Collective. 

Pedigreed space

The properties stand at what was, a century ago, the core of Charlotte’s thriving Black community known as Brooklyn. Several blocks here were home to thousands of Black residents, including some of the city’s most influential Black leaders.  

“The Brooklyn name began to come into popular use around the turn of the 20th century,” says Willie Griffin, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. “Most of the African Americans who came to Charlotte after slavery found refuge in what was then called ‘log town’ — low-lying, undesirable land where they began to build log homes. Many African American communities throughout the South began to name themselves after Brooklyn, New York, which had a long history of free African Americans living there and looked to become recognized as a borough of New York City.” Also contributing to the Brooklyn moniker, Griffin says, was the relocation of the A.M.E Zion headquarters from Brooklyn to Charlotte in the late 19th century. 

The area was mostly razed in the 1960s, and nearly 1,500 buildings were demolished. A 17-acre redevelopment is planned nearby, including residential, office, retail and green space.

While Wolf admits he’s not a commercial real estate developer, he says he’s looking at the “long game” vision of how the nonprofit collective can contribute to the city and help build community. “From day one I’ve envisioned the collective as a place where people come in and have collisions — where conversation, idea exchange, collaboration and inspiration happen.”

To that end, he has transformed the M.I.C. building into a hub for entrepreneurs, artists and makers. M.I.C.’s main-floor art gallery, coffee and cocktail bar offer natural convening space. Studio 229, a photography and videography studio, bar, and event space, has become a magnet for local creatives. Grace A.M.E. Zion Church has been made over into a boutique performance space managed by community partner Blumenthal Performing Arts. Hosted events with artists and other community partners such as the Levine Museum of the New South and SOZO Gallery make for vibrant collisions throughout the Collective’s space.

SOZO gallery artist Jill Ricci

Monique Douglas and her husband, Kevin, own CBK Branding & Consulting, which operates out of Studio 229 on Brevard. Monique serves on the Brooklyn Collective’s board and is the nonprofit’s director of community engagement. 

“The Brooklyn Collective is a group of like-minded individuals who have come together from diverse backgrounds and situations with the mission of inclusivity, culture and collaboration,” says Douglas, who notes somewhat ironically the pandemic played a large role in activating the space and extending the collective’s outreach. “What unfolded early on in the pandemic was that many venues where people gathered for live music were closing,” Douglas says. “Local musicians expressed concern regarding the lack of opportunities to play. We opened our doors and had musicians live stream virtual concerts, including singer-songwriter Gena Chambers, musician El Lambert and others.” 

“We opened at no charge for creatives to shoot [photography-videography] using our infinity wall to help them get their projects done,” Douglas says. The resulting buzz and goodwill surrounding Studio 229 and the Brooklyn Collective inspired local artists and enthusiasts to further explore the destination as lockdown requirements eased. 

Monique and Kevin Douglas own CBK Branding and Consulting, which operates out of Studio 229 on Brevard. Monique is the Brooklyn Collective’s director of community engagement.

“From the beginning, I saw art and creatives playing a huge role in what we are looking to achieve here,” says Wolf, who holds new art installations in the gallery space quarterly. Last fall, Wolf teamed with Dear Frontline, a national group of artists creating work to honor and recognize essential workers during the pandemic, hosting a special exhibition and series of receptions for Charlotte frontline workers. Teams from different medical facilities were toasted with champagne receptions in their honor. “I underestimated the impact and joy it brought people,” Wolf says. “It was an opportunity for them to exhale and simply relax.”

A key supporter of the Brooklyn Collective’s visual arts programming is SOZO Gallery’s Hannah Blanton. In 2017, About Face CLT, a nonprofit founded by Blanton and artist Scott Gardner, brought the massive Wall of Compassion, an art installation made from 2,500 Blessing Boxes symbolizing over 100,000 acts of kindness by the community, to Grace A.M.E. Zion Church, helping activate the space for the Brooklyn Collective. SOZO also curated the Collective’s inaugural gallery show in spring 2020. “SOZO is and has always been about connection and inspiring others,” says Blanton, the gallery’s owner and director. “We’ve always focused on relationships, community and art. Art can facilitate thoughtful conversation and help people get to know one another.” 

Brooklyn Grace

Architecturally, the historic Grace A.M.E. Zion Church is the Brooklyn Collective’s crown jewel. The Grace, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, is showcased by a front facade with crenellated towers and matching Gothic arched entrances. Stunning stained glass windows bathe the former sanctuary, now one of the city’s most unique performance spaces, in kaleidoscopic multicolored hues. The windows depict the likeness and names of many of Charlotte’s early Black leaders.  

“Many of us realize we need to find better ways to acknowledge the heritage of this neighborhood,” says Tom Gabbard, president and CEO of Blumenthal Performing Arts. “What the Brooklyn Collective is doing to continue to tell that story is important.” Upon an initial site visit to the Collective, Gabbard immediately saw how BPA could help with its mission. “We saw a genuine opportunity to activate the space. We leaned into this and said, ‘How can we help you succeed here by bringing activity.’ Even during the pandemic when we had gathering limitations of 25 people, we began doing concerts. Poet and writer Boris ‘Bluz’ Rogers, BPA’s director of creative engagement, came up with a programming concept called Acoustic Grace and began doing acoustic concerts there, along with writer workshops and other performances.” 

BPA has helped bring facilities expertise and has supported the Collective with donated time and programming costs, Gabbard says. “With Spirit Square closing down [due to a long-scheduled remodel], we knew there would be quite a few groups needing to find alternative space,” Gabbard says. “For some groups we’ve seen, the Grace is a good alternative, and many demonstrate interest in the heritage of what the site represents.”

Poet and writer Boris “Bluz” Rogers, director of creative engagement at Blumenthal Performing Arts, came up with the idea of using the former Grace church sanctuary as a performance space.

Beyond transactional relationships

Lindsey Braciale, founder and CEO of Advocations, a Charlotte-based organization that helps companies hire people with disabilities, was the first tenant Wolf brought into the Collective under its present structure in 2018. She serves on the Collective’s board of directors and is excited by the relationships that are beyond transactional and encourage collaboration between groups that might not otherwise have opportunities to work together. 

“I met Jason and learned about his vision for the space and realized how it aligned with what our values represent,” Braciale says. “It seemed right to be here. There’s an unwritten story of what brings us all to this place. That is the idea to set aside personal agendas to create impact together.” Having people with disabilities as part of the discussion is affirming, she says. “We often stop [engaging] at the superficial when dealing with others. Being around people [with differences] every day in a way that is more than just a wave and a nod, where we get to know each other on a personal level, allows us to grow individually and professionally outside of the space itself.”  SP

Centennial celebration

To honor the 100-year anniversary of the M.I.C. building in 2022, owner Jason Wolf has a yearlong celebration planned. A special exhibition curated by Charles Edward Williams, a contemporary artist from Georgetown, S.C., is scheduled for this spring. Wolf commissioned Williams to create the Collective’s history exhibit, a mixed-media installation in the lobby of the M.I.C. building that shares the backstory of the space, its founders and the Brooklyn neighborhood. “Charles is working with several artists and having them create original art that showcases the history here and what Brooklyn represents,” Wolf says. “We’ll also be activating all the space here throughout 2022 in celebration and look to include special performances at the Grace to give people a taste of the power of community found here.”

Artist Abel Jackson painted the mural between the Mecklenburg Investment Co. building and Grace church in 2019. 

Intel of Your Wildest Dreams!


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