Belmont shooting victim took pride in renewing homes
Matt Hawkins was fixing up East 17th Street house when robbed and shot
Matthew Hawkins July 2012
Matt Hawkins could fix anything with his hands and loved renovating houses.
In December, Hawkins bought his most recent fixer-upper, a small frame house on East 17th Street in Charlotte’s Belmont community just northeast of uptown. He owned at least one other house in Belmont, on 19th Street, and was trying to improve the long-troubled neighborhood.
Hawkins, 39, was renovating the 17th Street house with his girlfriend Tuesday afternoon when an armed robber demanded money and then shot him in the head. He died Thursday night at Carolinas Medical Center, and the suspect is still at large.
A decade ago, Belmont was notorious for crime. It still is, though crime has decreased over the past decade and is attracting people like Hawkins who are investing their time and money in making it better.
“I’d definitely say it’s improved over the years,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Lt. Tonya Arrington, whose area includes Belmont. “…We’ve got some people in the community working really hard to benefit the community.”
She said officers meet weekly with people in the neighborhood to discuss issues and develop strategies to address them.
Arrington said Tuesday’s shooting was unusual for the area these days.
“We really haven’t had a whole lot of issues in that area for violent crime,” she said.
Still, Charlotte police keep the neighborhood on its radar.
According to CMPD’s online crime map, here’s a sampling of crimes in a half-mile radius of Hawkins’ 17th Street house since July of last year: 54 larcenies, 48 residential burglaries, 44 cases of drug possession, 22 aggravated assaults, five armed robberies, six strong-arm robberies and three cases of arson.
Sitting on front porches
Belmont today is a mix of houses – most small, some in disrepair, but many renovated and repainted. Folks sit out on their front porches and you might see some kids playing in the street.
Vicki Jones, president of the Belmont Community Association, said people noticeably began to renovate houses in Belmont in 2004.
“With the economic downturn, a lot of that stalled,” she said. “But really within the past six months or so, I have seen more renovations happening.”
Jones said location is a big pull.
“It’s in close proximity to uptown… and there are great old houses here that you can’t afford in Dilworth or Elizabeth or Plaza Midwood,” she said.
That’s why James Denman, a military contractor, moved into a house on East 18th Street two years ago that his high school buddy bought.
Just as Hawkins was doing, Denman and his friends have made several improvements to the bright blue and yellow house, including a new front porch, new siding, cabinetry and flooring.
‘The whole idea was to get something older but make it cooler,” said Denman, 29.
Denman said he was saddened by the news of Hawkins’ death, but that the incident won’t deter him from continuing to live there. “I take walks every day outside,” he said. “People who say it’s the ghetto… have never seen the ghetto before.”
Keya Brown is a married mother of four who moved into a house on Seigle Avenue in 2005.
She and her husband agreed to move there because her brother, a pastor in the North Davidson neighborhood, convinced them and other families to move to the area. The Browns have renovated their kitchen, redone the front porch, and added another bathroom and a laundry room.
Shortly after the move, Brown had second thoughts when she and her husband witnessed the murder of a woman two blocks away during a drug deal.
“That was traumatic,” she said. “But a lot has changed since then. A lot.”
She said the neighborhood is relatively quiet now and that she has good neighbors.
“I fell in love with the house,” Brown said. “I didn’t think I would, but I did.”
Pride in the neighborhood
Matt Hawkins owned seven properties in Charlotte, many in working-class neighborhoods, said his father, Bud Hawkins. He also owned the Subway restaurant on Eastway Drive near Central Avenue.
“That was his passion: making something that was broken new and nice and just helping add to that area,” said his sister, Shannon Hawkins.
His father said he had been enthusiastic about the Belmont neighborhood.
“He could take an old house and basically gut it and make it a wonderful place for a family to settle,” Bud Hawkins said. “He took pride in improving the neighborhood.”
His girlfriend, Suzanne Piri, said he was encouraged by people in Belmont who wanted to turn around the neighborhood.
“He participated in one of the neighborhood meetings,” Piri said. “It’s not like he just went in there to flip a house or make a rental. He felt like he was going to be in there.”
Bud Hawkins said he once helped his son with home improvements there.
“Frankly, I was scared, and said, ‘Why did you buy in this neighborhood?’ ” he said. “Once I was there, I got very comfortable because the neighbors embraced Matt and his son.”
Robbery was a blur
Hawkins leaves behind his son, who turns five in September, his girlfriend, Suzanne Piri, and her two children. The couple lived together near the Park Road Shopping Center.
Piri said Tuesday’s robbery was a blur.
“I had a gun in my face. I was worried about Matt. I didn’t even look at the person,” she said. Piri described the suspect as a slender, 18 to 25-year-old, dark-skinned African-American man.
“I couldn’t even tell the police a good description,” she said. “I think he had his face obscured in some way, either with a hat or something covering his face.”
Police said they have not yet found a suspect, and the investigation is ongoing.
Hawkins graduated from Bowling Green University in Ohio, and had lived in Charlotte since 1993. “He had a strong reverence for the earth and birds and trees and everything God has put here,” his father said.
Piri said he felt a spiritual connection with Native Americans, and that he appreciated nature on a deep level.
Hawkins’ sister said she doesn’t want her brother’s death to be in vain.
“My hope is that it’s not just a random act of violence, but that people will become more aware and pull together and do something,” she said. “I hope that others will recognize that people in these neighborhoods are left behind.”