With Charlotte in the spotlight because of the Democratic National Convention, and 35,000 outsiders coming to visit, maybe we should take a look at ourselves before they all do.
Some people are sure to show up with the usual stereotypes about Southerners as bigots and rednecks, slow-walking, slow-talking, slow-thinking. They may be wary of venturing here because of the ugly legacy of slavery. Or they may arrive with a cinematic vision of magnolias and mint juleps.
Theres certainly some truth behind the stereotypes, but no culture can be simplified so easily. Over the summer, I hope these stories will help us better explain this place we call home.
We are a city of newcomers and some of us are still learning about the echoes from the past.
Like the rest of the South, the Charlotte area is burdened by a complicated and sometimes sorrowful history. Were only a few generations removed from separate water fountains and the lynching of hundreds of innocent black people. Ill write about some of what still haunts us, including the flag. (If you have to ask which flag, youre obviously not from here.)
But our Southern roots are only part of what makes this area distinctive. I hope to discover some things that may surprise visitors and maybe some locals, too. Unlike Savannah or my hometown of Charleston, which cling to the past, Charlotte has strived to distinguish itself as a forward-looking New South banking center and more recently as a 21st Century energy hub.
We have no ocean, no stately mountains, not even a river unless you count the Catawba, which flows 12 miles west of Uptown. But we beat out Cleveland, Minneapolis and St. Louis for the convention. As historian and author David Goldfield so wryly put it: The DNC would not locate a convention of this type in Dogpatch.
The South generally has this lingering image as a God-hopping, backward, livermush-eating province that hasnt quite seen the light of the 20th century, let alone the 21st century, said Goldfield, who teaches at UNC Charlotte. On the other hand, if youve been reading newspapers or popular magazines for the past decades, you recognize that Charlotte at least is certainly becoming a much more cosmopolitan city.
In case anyone hasnt heard from the citys many boosters, we have the NFL, the NBA and NASCAR. We have an international airport though, in a nod to our front porch come-sit-down-and-rest-a-spell heritage, the concourse provides rocking chairs where you can do just that. We have tall buildings. Big banks. Classy art museums.
But as Goldfield concluded: Charlotte, I think, is almost a blank slate to many people.
So what should I tell our visitors?
From mush to matzo
I turned to experts for suggestions of how best to describe the city, and the folks at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute had lots of ideas. Owen Furuseth talked about everything from the staying power of rednecks to the influx of immigrants. Despite the fact that Michelle Obama praised our barbecue, Mary Newsom pointed out that this region is better known for livermush.
I found a big pot boiling in a tiny crossroads town called Fallston, 45 miles from here, and Ill fill you in on the gastronomical secrets next week.
One interesting take on Charlotte came from Heather Smith, who teaches geography and directs UNC Charlottes urban studies program. She grew up in Toronto and sees Charlotte headed in a similar direction. Were not a global city, she said, but over the past 40 years weve transformed from a regional backwater into a globalizing city.
I think thats one of the things that people coming here might not anticipate, Smith said. Charlotte is now becoming a multi-cultural city and thats unusual. We see it. We hear it. We taste it.
A smorgasbord of people
Historian Tom Hanchett at the Museum of the New South said many new arrivals are settling in the suburbs rather than the inner city, where immigrants historically relocated. Charlotte now includes what he calls salad bowl suburbs, where youll find enclaves of people from countries as far flung as Guatemala and Ethiopia.
Ill explore some of those neighborhoods and some of those ideas, and more. Ill introduce you to a Vietnamese refugee who longs to speak English fluently and be all things American. A missionary working to end poverty in nearby Anson County. A folk artist who paints about our segregated past. And three Jewish women who moved here from up North with trepidation and were surprised at what they found.
But I want to start with a story about one of the first things people notice about us: