That’s right. The big city. For years, we thought it was too much to describe. For years, we thought it was too “city” for us, too removed from us, too big for us, too crowded. Let us say it now: We weren’t looking close enough.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in August 2012.
I used to like Amélie’s French Bakery, but I fell in love with it when I fell in love there. I brought a board game in one night, and a friend showed up with a blonde, and I instantly wished I didn’t bring the game. I did my best to explain the rules. I offered her half of my French press coffee. I let my guard down because it wasn’t a date. I would find out later that it was. My friend had brought Kelsey expressly for us to meet. After the game was over (I won), I sheepishly followed her into the parking lot and said we should do this again sometime in a way that let her know I was serious.
On our second date, we had our first kiss as I walked her back to her car. A few months later, I told her I loved her. Two years after that, I married her.
But it all started there at the bakery, at the place where people constantly are, where they’re working on something 24 hours a day, even at 3 a.m. or 3 p.m. Amélie’s never closes. It is the kind of place where you can play a board game, in public, and nobody will give you a second glance. Clumps of people sit around tables among the two-tone, light blue walls. The funky artwork hangs in even funkier frames. The people match the pictures. Fun. Different. The line seems constant in front of a display case full of caramel salted brownies, éclairs, and macaroons. Sometimes a band rehearses out in the atrium. Sometimes people are there to meet as part of their book club. And sometimes, people are there just to talk over a croissant.
Kelsey and I wish Amélie’s were closer to our place in SouthPark, but then we think, Amélie’s couldn’t exist anywhere but NoDa (it has a tiny location uptown, but it’s not the same). It just wouldn’t be Amélie’s. So we make the drive. We go up there from time to time and look over at the table where we met and think about this place. Because in that moment, over a game, over coffee, the place became ours. And if you fall in love in Amélie’s, hell, if you fall in love with Amélie’s, then it becomes yours.
Maybe it’s not Amélie’s. Maybe it’s Freedom Park. Maybe it’s Price’s Chicken Coop. Maybe it’s your neighborhood. Maybe it’s your church. But when you find Charlotte, when you truly find it, you fall in love with it.
I looked for Charlotte for a long time. I’ve ridden through this town on a bus and on a train and in the back of a fire engine. I’ve grabbed a late-night meal at Landmark Diner out on Central Avenue, where the night owls pile in after midnight and fill their yawning stomachs in vinyl booths. I’ve gone over to Plaza Midwood where the cycle of hip works more quickly: People discover a place and simultaneously ruin it because everybody else has discovered it, too. There are trees everywhere. I’ve driven under the leafy willow oaks planted 95 years ago. They turn Queens Road West into a series of green tunnels where runners jog and pelotons of bikers mix with cars. I don’t work uptown. But I’m drawn to it. That’s where the shiny things are. Here, we seem a bit like the other big cities, with wide sidewalks and corporate lobbies and fountains and men in button-down shirts and women in sharp skirts. Everybody is busy. But then people head home, out into the leafy neighborhoods, and take off their ties, and look at their yards with the trees and fireflies, and think to themselves, well, isn’t this nice?
Charlotte is exceedingly hard to pin down. It’s a banking city. No, it’s a family town. No, it’s the New South. No, it’s friendly. No, it’s growing. Every time you try to describe it, you interrupt yourself and think of something better. Most people give up on trying to attach any one label to it, so they just say it’s nice. That’s what my parents and friends told me before I moved here seven years ago. Oh, Charlotte? I hear it’s nice there.
And that creates a bit of a problem because Charlotte is a teenager about to take her next step in life, where she’s going to have to choose what she wants to be when she grows up. Remember that feeling you had when you finished high school? You could do anything. You could go anywhere. You could be whoever you wanted to be. You were pure potential. But every decision you made at that point in your life shaped who you would become. These decisions would define your identity, whether you liked it or not. And right now, at this moment, at this point in history, that is Charlotte. We’re on the verge of something.
We’re lucky. Some towns in North Carolina are locked into what they’ve been for years. There are beach towns. Furniture towns. Mill towns. Farm towns. Suburbs. Mountain getaways. Interstate oases. Tobacco towns. When the realities of a new era force them to change, sometimes they have a hard time doing so. Some places dry up. The stores close. The weeds grow. The people move. The heritage is so strong that it’s hard to stop living in the past. People point at those towns and say, I know who you are.
Not Charlotte. They say we’re nice. But we know we’re more than that.
I sat by myself one weeknight on a bar stool at Providence Road Sundries, an unassuming, little neighborhood place in Myers Park with brick walls and a long, wooden bar. It is the kind of place you’d bring your family on a Sunday afternoon to watch football. It’s been able to operate like this since 1933. The place was practically empty and silent that night I stopped in, except for the baseball game on the TV. A guy next to me sat hunched over his beer, elbows splayed out. His name was Eric. He was a graphic designer. He’d had a rough day at work. We got to talking. Eric was upset because Charlotte wasn’t creative enough. He wanted to make something. Do something. He wanted to create this spark that he thought was lacking. He turned to me and put down his beer.
“Let’s you and me,” Eric said. “Let’s do it.”
“Let’s create something.”
Whatever Eric wanted, Charlotte didn’t have, so Eric was going to make it. He admitted that he really didn’t know what it was, or what it should be, or what it would look like, and he probably had too much beer to figure it out that night anyway. But we resolved that we should probably think a little more about it for the next time we met up. We never did, of course, because Eric finished his pint and walked out the door, and that was it.
That happened on my first week in Charlotte, and it made me think: Charlotte must be boring. I grew up in northeast Ohio, where the steel mills where my father and grandfather worked are now rusting, empty hulks. I lived in West Virginia for three-and-a-half years, where coal was a constant presence, deciding which mountain would be dynamited and which people would get jobs and which politician would get elected. And then I moved here. And I didn’t know what to say because while there is struggle and strife, too, it seemed like Charlotte had it pretty good. So I said it was nice.
A year and a half later, I got a part-time job as a raft guide at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a concrete, man-made, looping river with rapids meant to look like those on the Nantahala River. I loved the place, but I found it hard to explain. Just come here, I’d tell people, and you’ll understand. You’ll love it. I tried to sell the Whitewater Center like I sold the city. Just come to Charlotte. Look around. You’ll understand.
I’d tell them to start at Trade and Tryon, the center of Center City, which is built on top of old gold mines. A statue stands at each corner. On one side is Commerce, where a gold miner is sluicing his pan over the head of Alan Greenspan. Uptown is the beating heart, the attention-getter. It’s bathed in light, even after the sun goes down. The 48-floor Duke Energy Center, the skyscraper with the carrying handle on top, changes its hue every half-hour. The usual white lights flash into a rainbow of color.
From uptown, Charlotte spreads out in every direction, south to the Dilworth bungalows and vinyl-sided Ballantyne palaces, north to Lake Norman and the mansions that sit on tendrils of land that stick out into the water, east to the 1960s-era ranches, west to the apartment complexes and airport runways. Every block is different. And that creates some friction. Charlotte’s most affluent neighborhood is Eastover, with manicured lawns that sprawl out around bankers’ mansions. It rubs up against Grier Heights, where the run-down homes and boarded up apartments give way to violence that happens way too often. All of that description is a hideous generalization, of course, because Charlotte isn’t defined by giant swaths of homogenized sameness. It’s dozens of little puzzle pieces that don’t always fit together easily.
I used to make one sweeping generalization: Everything is new. Even everything that feels old is relatively new here. It’s as if the whole town was built 20 years ago or less. If you trace the new things in Charlotte back in a sort of oversimplified way, as far back as you can, your trail almost always runs through Hugh McColl. You’ll find other names, too: Leon Levine, Harvey Gantt, John Belk, Ed Crutchfield. But nearly everybody knows Hugh McColl. He became CEO of North Carolina National Bank at age 39 and expanded his company with military precision. McColl had a hand grenade on his desk. Still does. He turned NCNB into NationsBank and later into Bank of America, and by the time McColl retired as CEO in 2001, he had spun a network of small banks into one big one, headquartered here in an 871-foot-tall building that overlooks the intersection of two ancient trading paths. Along the way, he decided that Charlotte was going to need art. And culture. It was going to have to be a place that people would want to come to and not be stationed in. Charlotte is Hugh McColl. And McColl is Charlotte. Dressed nicely. Ambitious. Tan.
Seven years into living in Charlotte, I’d never met Hugh McColl. But I knew I probably would run into him somewhere around town. It is not unusual to see a big name here in a small place. I’ve run into the head coach of the Carolina Panthers at a Starbucks near Park and Woodlawn. He was sitting by himself eating oatmeal. I’ve been cut off in traffic by Ric Flair, who extended a meaty arm into my lane from the window of his oversize, white Camaro. I’ve seen the mayor wearing a ball cap and a jacket at the farmers market on Yorkmont Road, shaking hands as he picks through the tomatoes. For a city of more than 730,000 people, it is an exceedingly small place. That is Charlotte, too.
In fact, Charlotte is such a great many things, so diverse in character and characters, so assorted in culture and institutions, so old and so new, that it is easy to look for a narrative that suits your purpose. It is also easy to find the evidence you need to back it up. Want proof that we’re a boomtown gone bust? Just look at the concrete pilings that were supposed to hold up a doomed condo tower that was designed to sit on top of the now-bankrupt EpiCentre complex of nightclubs and restaurants. Want evidence that we’re bouncing back from that bust? Look at the bulldozers moving dirt around again along the light-rail line that stretches from uptown to the far southern edge of town. You can find whatever suits your story along the patchy, run-down storefronts on Wilkinson and Independence boulevards, or in the SUV-jammed parking spaces at the Arboretum shopping center and the small lots of University City. Whatever you’re looking for, you can find it. And that is Charlotte, too.
It is hard to explain all of this to somebody from the back of a raft at the Whitewater Center, or to a traveler sitting in one of the famous rocking chairs at the airport, or to a guy in the back of a taxicab. Eric couldn’t explain it to me from a bar stool. It is hard to see all of this from the outside.
We’re a bit insecure. We want so badly for outsiders to like Charlotte. So we try to sell it. We try to look good for the cameras. We want others to take us seriously. We point at the big buildings and the chic restaurants and the new museums. But for those of us who live here and work here and raise our families here and die here, we have grown to learn one big truth about this place. The Charlotte we sell is not the Charlotte we live in.
Charlotte’s most historic place is a rock. It’s back in the woods behind the houses in a neighborhood on Elm Lane, way down in the southern edges of town. History books say the first people to visit the Piedmont used this rock as a campsite as far back as 12,000 years ago. Today, kids play on it. It’s covered in graffiti.
Charlotte was founded in 1768. In 1775, Mecklenburg County became the first place to declare independence from England. Five years later, British Gen. Charles Cornwallis came to town for 10 days. That’s all he could stand. He called the town a “hornet’s nest of rebellion.” It’s ironic, since the town was named for the wife of England’s King George III, a German woman born in Mecklenburg-Strelitz. (Today, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers wear a depiction of a hornet’s nest on their badges.) By the time President George Washington arrived in 1791, things had not improved much. He called Charlotte a “trifling place.” Then he left behind his wig powder.
The town remained a trifling place until the Civil War. By then there were gold mines and cotton mills here. The railroads were good. So good, in fact, that the Confederacy moved their naval yard here from Norfolk, Virginia, 154 miles from the nearest ocean (the yard is now the site of Time Warner Cable Arena). Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was in Charlotte when he learned that Abraham Lincoln died. Somebody figured out the exact spot. It’s there, marked by a plaque on the sidewalk in front of McCormick & Schmick’s on South Tryon Street.
People say they care about the past here, but their actions show something else. The Coffee Cup restaurant was among the first restaurants in Charlotte to serve black and white customers together. A home builder tore it down to make way for a development that never materialized. Today, the land is empty. The sign is all that remains. It’s now an exhibit at the Gantt Center. Old postcards of uptown show a city unrecognizable to us. The Charlotte Coliseum is where the old Charlotte Hornets were born and played basketball for sold-out crowds. The place wasn’t even open for 20 years. It’s gone, replaced by nothing — another development that never materialized.
We have a Charlotte Museum of History. It shut down in May. It ran out of money. Not enough people were willing to pay to go see it.
Charlotte has a past. It’s just not living in it.
A woman had been listening to me talk over the dull din of the bar for a few minutes when she turned around. “Excuse me,” she said. “How old are you?”
She sat on a stool next to my wife at Soul Gastrolounge, a place where you can eat early and dance late. It’s upstairs from a little art gallery in Plaza Midwood. The woman wore a sleek, gray dress, and she sipped water with a slice of cucumber bouncing off the bottom of her glass. Her hair was brown, and her skin was tan, with slight wrinkles to suggest she’d had the same dark pallor for a few too many years.
“You know,” she said, “you remind me of somebody I know from Morehead City. You guys are so much alike. You could be twins.”
The woman had been in Charlotte for all of a week now, although she had been traveling here, off and on, for years. A few months before we met, she decided to leave Morehead City. She had been there all her life. She had been working in banking out there. For now, she just wanted to get here. She figured she’d go to the Charlotte School of Law. She wanted to be a lawyer who works with young people, she said, because a young man’s brain doesn’t fully form until 25, yet kids who are getting in trouble at age 16 are being tried as adults, and that’s not really fair, she said.
For now, though, she didn’t have a job.
I asked her why she moved to Charlotte. She heard it was nice here.
I couldn’t tell if she was running away from something or toward something. I didn’t know if she’d get her law license or if she’d run back to banking. But she decided to leave the past behind to see what the future might hold. She couldn’t change Morehead City to fit her needs. So she came to this town to try. She was here.
And that’s Charlotte. No matter what, people keep coming here.
Between 1990 and 2010, Charlotte’s population grew by 84 percent. Tens of thousands of people still move here every year. The recession didn’t stop them. They come from places like Chicago and Los Angeles, upstate New York and Florida. People I went to high school with in Ohio are here now. I run into them sometimes.
But the people also come from North Carolina, looking for more money and a better life. They come from other countries, too. There are blocks full of carnicerías and Mexican restaurants on South Boulevard. Central Avenue has Korean churches. Food trucks pull into parking lots all around town. The minorities are a majority here. Charlotte has been welcoming people from everywhere for years. It seems to know no other way.
The newcomers have turned Charlotte into a bit of an island in North Carolina. There’s a name for this: the New South. There’s a whole museum dedicated to it in uptown Charlotte.
Want Old South? Look at Charlotte four or five decades ago. Elvis performed here then*. He took the stage at the silver-roofed Charlotte Coliseum (now the Bojangles’ Coliseum) on Independence Boulevard. At one point, the sign out front listed everything that was happening during that particular week in April 1972, the dates after each event:
Billy Graham Crusade: 5-9
Elvis Presley: 13
Ice Hockey: 11 & 14
That is the Charlotte that helped give birth to NASCAR and wrasslin’ and televangelism. It was a week in Charlotte’s long childhood, which started to come to an end when Hugh McColl began making his big bank. Racing still lives here. The church traffic is still heavy on Sunday mornings. But we’re not kids anymore. We’re growing up.
Back in the 19th century, Charlotte was The City of Churches, and today, it’s still full of them. There’s an empty one up the road from my home. It’s a Lutheran place. Slowly, the pastor told me once, the congregation of 32 started to dwindle. By the time they shut it down, less than a dozen members remained. So it closed. A Korean minister is going to give it a try next.
I got married in a church that has 5,000 members, and it’s packed every Sunday. It is also in one of those Charlotte places that locals can find easily. Problem is, it can confuse even the best GPS. Myers Park United Methodist and its stone sanctuary loom over the intersection of Queens, Queens, Providence, and Providence, where two busy roads cross without really crossing — rather, they bounce off of each other.
Up the street is one of Charlotte’s most curious pieces of art. Charlotte has a lot of statues and public art pieces. The Queen’s Table is an anonymous group of donors who chip in money to pay for statues and creations that it feels Charlotte is lacking. They put in the four statues (including Commerce) at Trade and Tryon. They paid for the bronze statue of Queen Charlotte at the airport. They paid for a pair of light-up, well, things, that flank South Tryon Street. But they didn’t pay for this statue.
From the late ’50s until 1976, there was a guy who wore a raincoat and directed traffic at Queens, Queens and Providence and Providence. Hugh McManaway lived in a mansion up the street. He was the only son of a prominent doctor. He was mentally disabled but gentle. He used to make up poems. After he died, some sisters from the neighborhood thought he ought to be directing traffic there for eternity. So they found a sculptor and put up a statue for him there at the corner. Among the people who chipped in money was Charlotte’s other Hugh, McColl.
The statue is golden. Hugh McManaway is holding a dishrag and pointing. People dress him up. For my wedding, I hung a sign on his neck. That’s the tradition.
This is Charlotte, honoring not just the extraordinary, but the everyday. In this one neighborhood, people just knew one Hugh better than the other.
I’ve been here for seven years now. I figured I’d leave someday. It was going to happen, I thought. I had never fully committed to a town. I’d lived in a lot of places, but everywhere I’ve been, I knew I’d be moving on after a matter of time. It’s why I left Ohio. It’s why I left West Virginia. I figured someday I’d want to live in New York or Chicago. I thought that’s where I’d have to go to discover myself. There was plenty of time to come back to Charlotte, or someplace nice like Charlotte.
So for the first year I was here, I looked for a way out. I sat in my apartment and schemed. Maybe I’ll get a new job. Maybe I’ll just go to a big city and figure something out. And then, Charlotte started to wear down my defenses. After a year, I bought a place here. I became a Big Brother. I met Kelsey. I made friends. I used to tell people I was from Ohio. After a while, I told them I lived in Charlotte. Then, I told them I was from Charlotte. I don’t know when it happened. People say it’s hard to find a native Charlottean here. They’re right. And it doesn’t matter. Where you’re from takes a backseat to where you are. Eventually, we all become natives.
I didn’t feel like a native until one day when I sat on a blanket on a hillside at Freedom Park. I looked up from my book. I watched people pushing strollers, riding bikes, and jogging on paths. The ducks kicked their legs in the pond. The sky was blue, and the wind gently rustled the willow trees. I was happy. A thought overwhelmed me.
I don’t want to leave.
At first, I thought Eric knew Charlotte. But then I realized I’d been getting Eric’s message wrong. It wasn’t: It’s not here. It’s: We can make it. What it is depends on what you want. You can make money. You can make a family. You can make culture. People make things here. It’s not just nice and polite. It’s malleable. It’s possible. You know what Charlotte is? Charlotte is you.
A few months back, I was walking past the Firebird. It’s a shimmering Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture of a bird on a perch made from mortar and mirrors, the one in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art where out-of-towners and a lot of in-towners stop to take their pictures. Somebody caught my eye. A short man stood and listened to a tour group speeding around uptown’s sidewalks on Segways. The man wore what a lot of bankers wear here: blue shirt, red tie, aviator sunglasses. His hair was bright white, and his skin was dark from the sun. His finger was a hook, holding his black jacket over his shoulder. He stood and listened, and nobody paid him much attention. Nobody knew who he was. He seemed fine with that.
After a few moments, the man satisfied his curiosity. He started walking toward the Knight Theater. I watched him walk past the sparkling Firebird, through the shadow of the Bechtler, under the watchful eye of the Duke Energy Center. There was so much to distract the eye and the mind here. There were people having lunch on the plaza across the street. There were flowers planted in raised beds on the sidewalk. Traffic whirred by behind him. But the man kept looking forward, only focusing on his destination. He never looked back.
Quietly, Hugh McColl pulled open the door and walked inside.