My favorite photo of Charlotte is this one. The frame is dominated by apartments; but down there in front is the little Thirsty Beaver Saloon, a cinder-block bar on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood. The neighborhood looks nothing like it did a year ago, which in turn looked nothing like it did three years ago when I left town, or 13 years ago when I first arrived. People are stacked on top of each other in apartment buildings that appear overnight, casting long shadows across the narrow sidewalks. The development has been so over-the-top in places that it’s almost Felliniesque, resplendent with the trappings of modern millennial culture, or at least developers’ best guesses as to what millennials want: Yoga. Beer. Coffee. Wi-Fi. A pool. The structures are as new, as present, as of-the-moment as they could possibly be. As soon as the last beam is put in place and the last crane swivels away, the clock is ticking. More people are coming every day, every hour, and they need somewhere to live.
But in Plaza Midwood, when developers started buying up property, The Thirsty Beaver wouldn’t sell. It wouldn’t fade away like the other shabby, well-loved places: The Penguin Drive-In on Commonwealth. Jackalope Jack’s over in Elizabeth. The original Repo Records. Fat City Deli a few miles away in NoDa. The Coffee Cup outside of Uptown. They all closed up. Some took the money. Who could blame them? The Thirsty Beaver isn’t anything special, which is its whole point. It serves macrobrews. Some days, large packs of motorcycles park out front. The decor is delightfully tacky, planted ostensibly by an organic farmer who is trying to grow a Hooters. There is no slick PR agency behind it. Its branding statement might as well be welp.
So when the developers came, The Thirsty Beaver said no.
And here we are. The bar is in the shadows. But it’s still there.
What does it mean? It means whatever you think it does. What you see in this picture will tell you how you feel about North Carolina’s largest city: a place that is of this state but not from this state. You might see farce or coexistence. Persistence. Progress. Tension. Supply. Demand. Regardless, you see something. How you view Charlotte tells you a little bit about how you see the modern world. In some cities or towns, you can escape to an era gone by. You can insulate yourself with money or acreage. Not in Charlotte. It’s a city that has become too big to put your arms fully around, to see from one side to the other, to paint with a single word or pithy sentence. It’s a city we have a hard time figuring out; a place you can’t explain neatly.
The buzz saw of growth seems to clear-cut everything, and yet, vestiges of old, small-town, Southern Charlotte remain — or grow anew. From new restaurants with nods to the past, to a long-standing community theater hidden in leafy Myers Park. From a hotel in Uptown keeping a family name that’s still important in Charlotte, to a dive bar standing its ground, against all odds, for its right to remain a dive. Homogeneity be damned.
When I look at this picture, I know what I see. It’s not what you see. And that’s the way it should be.