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Hanchett’s in crossfire of Charlotte questions

By Dannye Powell

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Will the Democratic National Convention forever transform Charlotte?

A reporter for the local Realtor Reflections asked Tom Hanchett, staff historian for the Levine Museum of the New South, that question recently.

Probably not, says this go-to guy for reporters around the globe who are curious about this Southern town that refers to itself as a New South city.

Hanchett, a Chicago native who grew up in Upstate New York and the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, says the convention is “certainly very important” to Charlotte. “But,” he says, “a city’s reputation is not built on one event. Rather on many, many impressions.”

Hanchett, 56, the man who knows so much about Charlotte, arrived here in 1981 with a master’s degree in history from University of Chicago to work for the Historic Landmarks Commission. He studied the origins of Charlotte’s historic neighborhoods, left in 1987 for a doctorate in Southern history at UNC Chapel Hill, and returned in 1999 to the Levine Museum of History to help create a permanent exhibit.

Hanchett has fielded an array of questions. Reporters – from The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, L’Espresso, among others – have visited or called for months. They’ve asked about everything from where to get the best barbecue to where to go after the speeches to the more difficult questions.

When a West Coast public radio reporter based in Washington, D.C., called to ask about Charlotte’s history of race relations, Hanchett pulled no punches. That history is part of who we are, he says.

“I think that in the South, people have worked really hard at owning that history and working through that history,” says Hanchett. “Part of the story the Levine Museum tells is that everything was not OK here, and we needed the civil rights movement.”

Charlotte continues to fascinate Hanchett, mostly, he says, because Charlotte continues to reinvent itself. Not everyone in the media is aware how far Charlotte has come – from a rough-cut crossroads 100 years ago (population 35,000), with cotton growing along the banks of Sugar Creek – to a city of almost a million, the largest in the Carolinas and the second-largest banking center (after New York City) in the country.

So it doesn’t surprise Hanchett that one of the impressions he’s received from the media calling, though no one used the exact word “wannabe,” is that we’re still hankering after “world-class” status.

Twenty years ago, he says, we were indeed talking about “world-class status,” because we were in a such a boom (our population doubled between 1990 and now) we hardly knew what to do with ourselves.

The city’s visionaries were calling for us to dream big, to open our wallets for those very amenities – art museums, an arena, a stadium, pro sports teams, a new convention center – that would make us the kind of city to one day attract something as exciting, say, as the DNC.

We answered that call, re-upping, revamping, revitalizing. And it worked.

Here’s how a Washington Post reporter described us in a June article headlined, “In Charlotte, N.C., the New South rules”:

Charlotte is “all buttoned-up business (a banking center, an airline and retail hub), a multicultural melting pot and a farm-to-table haven. It’s all (well, mostly) about growth, progress, diversity. The Future with a capital F.”

In August, a Boston Globe reporter reminded readers that Charlotte had long been saddled with a reputation as “the Wonder Bread, vanilla-flavored center of North Carolina.” She went on to say that last year someone launched a Facebook page called “Keep Charlotte Boring,” a takeoff on the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan.

No longer, she said. “And just as Austin has become more mainstream, Charlotte,” she wrote, “has livened things up.”

Hanchett says: “Our stated goal seems no longer to be an Atlanta or to be a world-class city,” he says. “We don’t talk about that as much. We’re comfortable with who we are.”

Powell: 704-358-5230
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