Arts & Culture

The Story Behind Charlotte’s Great Wall of Pumpkins

The historic Elizabeth neighborhood has a jack-o’-lantern tradition like no other

Photo: Kris Solow

The 2016 Elizabeth Pumpkin Wall.

Kenzie Berube is musing about what to carve on her pumpkin this Halloween. She’s dressing up as Wednesday from the Addams family, she’s decided, so maybe Wednesday or Thing would look good on a pumpkin. “Or a dragon or a dog?” she says. “Or like Taylor Swift.”

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Whatever the ten-year-old decides, admirers of Berube’s creation won’t be limited to the trick-or-treaters who stop by her house. Instead, her jack-o’-lantern will be of one of dozens on display on the Great Elizabeth Pumpkin Wall, an outdoor tradition that began in Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood nineteen years ago.

photo: Kris Solow
Pumpkins from the 2021 wall.

At twenty feet high by sixty feet wide, the wall appears resplendent at night, the 165 pumpkins that can fit along the expressly built wooden shelves illuminated with Christmas lights instead of candles. Neighbors in the historic enclave, considered Charlotte’s second “streetcar suburb,” just southeast of downtown, engrave their designs at an annual carving party, where popular motifs range from animals to superheroes to sports team logos.  

photo: Kris Solow
A grouping along the 2016 wall.

“The intention isn’t necessarily to have major works of art being created,” says organizer John Short, who has been involved with the project for about a decade. “It’s just, hey, have your piece of the pumpkin wall reflect you and what you care about, and then have everybody in the community do the same.” 

A word in lights always tops the wall, the location of which changes each year. It was EARTH in 2019 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, TOGETHER in 2020 during the pandemic, and GRATITUDE in 2021. Five hundred or so neighbors gather for the official New Year’s Eve–style countdown and wall lighting a couple of nights before Halloween, an event emceed by performance artist and entertainer Hardin Minor, who Short calls the “creative spirit of the neighborhood.”

photo: Erin Conrad
The 2022 wall alit in “Harmony” on Halloween night.

The wall began in 2004 with a more festively partisan impulse. The Woodpeckers, a woodworking group active in Democratic politics, had the idea to promote presidential candidate John Kerry with a pumpkin wall and KERRY in lights. They switched to OBAMA in 2008 and 2012. After that, Short says, they’d had their fun and were ready to hand off the quirky tradition. The volunteer Elizabeth Community Association accepted the challenge and the wall officially turned nonpartisan. 

photo: Jim Dimitroff/ShowLove Media
The 2018 wall.

Organizers have since learned a few lessons for optimizing the spectacle. In 2014, they put the pumpkins out a little earlier in the week than usual. Eighty- and ninety-degree days followed. “It was so hot that the pumpkins rotted and melted and started falling off the wall,” Short recalls, requiring some emergency replacements.

People from throughout the city come to enjoy the wall each year, even taking photos with it during daylight hours. The least delightful day occurs after the holiday, when volunteers toss the now-mushy squashes into a trailer for disposal. “You want to wear gloves for that one,” Short says. Even so, the soggy pumpkins still make for a Halloween treat: A nearby farm accepts them to feed to the pigs.