Last week, I had a New York-style breakfast bagel, an Indian lunch buffet, an Ethiopian dinner and Chinese ginger ice cream for dessert. And thats what I like about the South.
The New South, of course. The Charlotte we know, home to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, is emblematic of the New South, and we have a history museum to define that transformation. (Its called, aptly, Levine Museum of the New South, and its worth a visit).
Historians say this era started in 1877, when Reconstruction ended. But Charlottes explosive growth has taken place over the last four decades.
When I moved here in 1980, Mecklenburg County had 40 percent of the population it does now (nearly 1 million). You could stand at Trade and Tryon streets on a weeknight and feel like the last survivor of a nuclear attack in an apocalyptic movie. Not one of our dozen uptown museums or performance spaces existed. To eat after work, you slipped into one of three dull downtown hotels.
Back then, out-of-staters might be greeted with cutting kindness: The same person could say, We dont care how you did it where you came from while extending credit if you ran short of cash. But over the last 30 years, weve figured out how to combine Southern graciousness and traditions with newcomers innovations. Sweet tea and chai co-exist comfortably on the same table.
We dance in red-hot clubs on Saturday nights and worship in red-brick churches on Sunday mornings. We have pits for both a stimulating symphony orchestra and some of NASCARs biggest races. (We also have the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the only building devoted to auto racing that bears a huge sign of a woman carrying bananas atop her head. As of this spring, the building also houses Chiquitas corporate headquarters.)
Charlotte was one of the first Southern cities to see that small-mindedness and antiquated visions wouldnt work. We figured out a peaceful way to integrate public schools in the 1970s, even if weve debated the nature of this process ever since. By 1987, wed had our first black and female mayors, Harvey Gantt and Sue Myrick.
Weve been a business center since Indian trading paths met at what is now Trade and Tryon, colloquially called The Square by old-timers. Most big cities get their start next to water, which provides easy access to goods, but we didnt settle along the Catawba River.
This area has seen a gold-mining craze a U.S. Mint operated on Trade Street from 1837 to 1861 and was later moved to become the Mint Museum on Randolph Road a railroad boom and a long period of textile production. By the time textile jobs had gone overseas, wed attracted big banks: Wells Fargo and Bank of America have headquarters here.
Banks inspired tremendous growth through the 90s and 00s, giving generously to social and cultural institutions. The recession (which their mistakes helped to cause) has curtailed that growth but not cut it off; the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce estimates another 46,000 people will have moved here between the time when the 2010 Census was taken and the end of this year.
Many are Hispanics seeking a better life. Theyre the most recent wave of immigrants in a sea of humanity that has flown in this direction for more than three centuries: Scots-Irish from western Europe, slaves from West Africa, businessmen from the West Coast.
If youre look for the most obvious evidence of these diasporas, youll find it along Central Avenue, where Lebanese and Vietnamese and Dominican people run restaurants and pool halls and manicure shops.
But the real story of Charlotte of the New South itself is that weve learned to accommodate these folks, profiting by their skills and culture and food, while hanging onto valuable customs that have defined us since before the Civil War. Whoever you are, youll fit into this crazy quilt somewhere.