Tales of the New South

comments

‘The little city that could’

Call it Southern swagger: What Charlotte wants, it figures out a way to get

By Elizabeth Leland

More Information

  • Leland: I like the Queen City. Really.
  • Tales of the New South series
  • 10 New South Tales

    June 17: Southern Drawl

    June 24: Livermush

    July 1: Jewish life

    July 8: Globalizing city

    July 15: Segregated past

    July 22: Rural poverty

    July 29: Gateway to city

    Aug. 5: Still Bank Town?

    Aug. 12: Flying the flag

    Today: Booster gene

    For DNC visitors, the series is featured online at charlotteobserver.com.



CHARLOTTE, N.C. In a Charlotte Chamber video filmed in 2011 after the city snagged the Democratic National Convention, executive director Bob Morgan asked developer Johnny Harris: “What can Charlotte do next?”

Harris replied without hesitation: “Go get the Olympics and bring it to Charlotte.”

Don’t laugh.

The city has been ridiculed for what Peter Applebome of The New York Times coined as “the purest strain of the Southern booster gene.” But to its credit, Charlotte’s accolades include an international airport, huge banks, the NBA, the NFL, the NCAA Final Four, the DNC and soon the PGA.

“It’s almost like the little city that could,” said UNC Charlotte historian David Goldfield. “The one word that this city doesn’t know is: ‘No.’ ”

So why not the Olympic Games?

“It’s not far-fetched,” said Harris, who has played a key role in shaping Charlotte. “We’re continuing to become a very unique community, one that’s moving through a downturn of financial services, but we continue to survive and to glow and to be really, truly the fastest-growing urban area in the country.”

If you came from somewhere else (and many of us did), you may have wondered about the city’s swagger. Charlotte has no ocean. No mountains. Few historic buildings. But what pride.

When I arrived in the ’80s, promoters grumbled because out-of-state media referred to us as “Charlotte, N.C.” How dare they! Atlanta needed no Georgia at the end of its name.

One of my favorite anecdotes about Charlotte is in Applebome’s 1996 book, “Dixie Rising: How the South is Shaping American Values, Politics and Culture.” He interviewed Thomas Storrs, the former chairman of NCNB bank (now Bank of America).

“When I first came here in 1959, a cousin in Richmond told me Charlotte’s a wonderful place,” Storrs told Applebome. “She said the best way to summarize Charlotte is to say that if the Russians bomb us and the first wave of bombs that comes over doesn’t include one for Charlotte, people here would be very much disappointed.”

“That’s Charlotte,” Applebome wrote, “a place that would rather be incinerated than be small time.”

‘Beating the big boys’

Goldfield has an interesting theory about Charlotte’s drive to be the best. It dates, like so many things Southern, to the Civil War.

“We were scarred and impoverished by the Civil War and now we have to run twice as hard not to get ahead but just to keep up with everybody else,” he said, explaining the ethos of a New South city. “We’re going to be loud, we’re going to offer lots of incentives, we’re going to try our darnedest to create an investment in our community.

“There’s almost a devilish joy in beating the big boys, like getting the Federal Reserve bank, or building an international airport or, more recently, getting an NFL or NBA franchise, or even more recently getting the headquarters of Bank of America.”

One thing that has distinguished Charlotte from other Southern cities, Goldfield said, is that many of our city leaders came from elsewhere.

“Your great-grandfather needn’t have fought in the Civil War and you don’t have to own a plantation to be prominent,” he said. “All you have to do is have a willingness to contribute, have some good ideas and work hard for the community.”

Goldfield arrived in 1982 when the city’s aspiration was to grow up to be the next Atlanta. Charlotte eventually decided that being like Atlanta wasn’t such a smart idea, and so we aspired instead to become a “world-class city.” “Now our aspiration,” Goldfield said, “is to be like Portland, Ore. – to be green, to have a light-rail system, to be diverse, to be curious. Intellect is important. Knowledge economy is very important, and generally that’s un-Southern.”

A ‘trifling place’

Charlotte was incorporated as Charlotte Town in 1768, with the heart of the settlement – the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets – built where two Indian trading paths crossed. George Washington passed through in 1791, and the president dismissed the town as a “trifling place.”

This trifling place grew to become the 17th-largest U.S. city based on population. The way up was paved with a gold rush in the early 1800s, followed by growth as a textile center and railroad hub.

One early instance of the city’s determination to get ahead came after the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. The economy was floundering so city leaders lobbied the federal government for a military training camp. Charlotte competed against Syracuse, N.Y., Athens, Ga., Fayetteville and Wilmington.

When the general in charge of selecting sites arrived to look over Charlotte, some 8,000 of the city’s 50,000 residents turned out to hear him speak.

Charlotte got Camp Greene – and a financial boost.

“There are just so many times that we do that as a city,” said Mary Hopper, director of University City Partners. “To me, it’s the most interesting thing about Charlotte. When we want something, we just go to whoever has it and explain why we should get it.” Boosterism isn’t an adequate enough term to use for Charlotte, Hopper believes. “It’s boosterism bordering on hubris.”

In 1940, city movers and shakers were looking forward to results of the new census expecting that, finally, the city’s population would top six figures.

The count came in at 94,501.

So what’s a proud city to do? Demand not one recount, but two. The Chamber of Commerce partnered with the two newspapers to track down anyone the first count missed. Charlotte grew by the hundreds. It is now listed in the 1940 census as the 91st-largest city in the United States with 100,899 residents.

Still Charlotte, N.C.

Charlotte never let up.

It changed the name of the center city from “downtown Charlotte” to what city leaders considered the more distinguished “uptown Charlotte.”

In 1994, when the city landed the Final Four basketball tournament, it built a fake four-block façade uptown called “Street of Champions” with temporary nightclubs and street vendors. “A new dimension in disposable culture,” Applebome wrote in the Times.

There was more eye rolling in 2008 when the late Susan Burgess, then Charlotte’s mayor pro tem, suggested Democrats hold their 2012 convention here.

Naysayers learned it’s best not to underestimate the little city that could.

“There’s no reason Charlotte over the next 20 years cannot be in a position to attract the Olympics,” Harris said. “Charlotte really is a spectacular coming together of a lot of great things that are the South. People believe in taking care of each other, having respect for each other and working together. I think the growth of Charlotte and the diversity of Charlotte long term will be one of the biggest pluses we have going forward.”

That said, despite all the efforts, by all the many promoters, most out-of-state media writing about the DNC still refer to us as “Charlotte, N.C.”

Bring on the Olympics!

Leland: 704-358-5074
Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email local@charlotteobserver.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.

  Read more



Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email local@charlotteobserver.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.

  Read more


Quick Job Search