If you don’t plan to put down roots in Charlotte, here’s some advice:
Get out quick.
Before too long you’ll find yourself settled in and calling this place home.
When I moved here in 1985, I looked wistfully toward the coast in one direction and the mountains in the other, and friends predicted I would not be long for a city that seemed to rise from the middle of nowhere. The uptown was dying, the suburbs sprawling.
I was convinced there was a city employee paid to roll up the sidewalks at night – when I got off work around 10 p.m., the streets were eerily dark and those little “Sorry We’re Closed” signs hung on nearly every restaurant door.
That was 28 years and a whole lot of growing up ago – both for me and for Charlotte.
The city has held on to some of the ways of the Old South – with buckets brimming with fried chicken, the roar of NASCAR rivalries and the wonderfully genteel “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir” that seem bred into the mouths of newborns.
But the Queen City burst out of its corsets years ago and exploded into a vibrant New South mecca with three-quarters of a million residents, internationally recognized art museums, wonderfully eclectic restaurants and a thriving uptown that now leaves its sidewalks down until the wee hours of the morning.
One thing I have always appreciated about Charlotte is, unlike Old South cities such as Charleston and Savannah, it seems to matter less who your great-great-great grandfather was, and more what your contribution to the community is. There’s an expectation that residents will volunteer to help make their hometown better.
Not long after I arrived, I found myself outfitted with a hammer and nails up on the roof of a Habitat for Humanity house with a group of women motivated to make a difference and hoping not to tumble off the side. We all survived, and members of a grateful family who worked with us soon moved into the house.
When there’s a need, residents of Charlotte usually step up to fill it. I can’t tell you the number of times I have written about people in distress, and readers reached out to help.
The little city that could
Another quirk about Charlotte’s personality that has always intrigued me is how proud the city is of itself. No question it has a lot to be proud of, from a progressive civil rights record to a beautiful tree canopy, an international airport, the second-largest banking center in the United States (after New York City), not to mention serving as host of the 2012 Democratic National Convention and the 2017 PGA Championship – and home to NBA and NFL teams.
But we take a lot of ribbing because of our hubris.
I wrote about Charlotte for visitors coming here to the DNC and included an anecdote that still makes me laugh. For his book, “Dixie Rising: How the South is Shaping American Values, Politics and Culture,” Peter Applebome 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.”
You might say we’re still trying to live down George Washington’s observation when he passed through Charlotte Town in 1791. The first president dismissed the new settlement as “a trifling place.”
A place to call home
The journey from that undistinguished beginning to the 17th-largest city in the United States began with a gold rush in the early 1800s, followed by growth as a textile center and a railroad hub. Charlotte is now an emerging global city with immigrants flooding in from places as far-flung as Bangladesh and Honduras.
Newcomers from foreign countries have added a beautiful mosaic to the city’s fabric. And a tasty one, too. To celebrate a string of birthdays and anniversaries one month, my husband and I tried out a Mexican taqueria, then a Vietnamese grill and finally a Colombian diner, all within blocks of each other on South Boulevard.
It’s been fun to watch Charlotte cast off her boring white-bread image.
And if you want to get away? The beach is a three-hour drive and the mountains two hours. But you don’t even have to go that far.
My family has enjoyed spectacular rafting and mountain biking nearby at the U.S. National Whitewater Center on the Catawba River west of Charlotte. Just a few more miles down Interstate 85, we love to hike (and my son to rock climb) at Crowders Mountain State Park south of Gastonia. Other weekends, we head north on Interstate 77 to N.C. Community Sailing & Rowing on Lake Norman near Huntersville, which, as the name implies, has a fleet of sailboats and rowing shells.
I hope you’ll discover what I have about Charlotte: This city that once seemed to rise from the middle of nowhere is right where it belongs. And I am, too.
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