Charlotte can seem both deceptively large and small, and in a city teeming with transplants, it’s not always easy for a newcomer to find a sense of belonging.
When I moved here from the Boston area in 2009 – from a city where I was used to walking to all the bars, coffee shops and student hangouts I could imagine – I thought it would be easy to find a community. I hadn’t even visited Charlotte, so I did what seemed logical: Rented an apartment in the heart of downtown (which I immediately learned was called uptown) and went for a walk.
It wasn’t long before I realized I might have made a mistake. It wasn’t that I was in a bad area – I just had no idea where to look for a home within this new place, which was bigger than I had imagined.
It took me a few years and a move to Dilworth, but I found my neighborhood in a city that offers plenty of variety. Whether you’re brand new or you’ve been here for several years, you can find your own “small” in a city that’s still adjusting to the idea of being “big.”
Stroll down East Boulevard, just outside of uptown in the tree-lined Dilworth neighborhood. The area was built as Charlotte’s first “streetcar suburb,” when since-defunct rail lines allowed a wave of people to move outside the city core. You’ll find Copper, a modern Indian restaurant, Thai Taste, a favorite neighborhood haunt, and Paper Skyscraper, a local shop offering gifts, books and decor.
Further down the street, you’ll find Bakersfield, selling street-style tacos and local beers, and then JJ’s Red Hots, where Buffalo natives can eat their fill of authentic Sahlen’s hot dogs and sausages. East Boulevard then leads past burger staple Bad Daddy’s and hot new restaurant Kid Cashew to the entrance to Freedom Park, which on a sunny day draws thousands to play sports, jog or pass a lazy afternoon with a lakeside picnic.
That’s where I’ve made my home and found my own small slice of Charlotte. But there are plenty of different neighborhoods for other tastes.
Running down South Boulevard, the Blue Line light rail has drawn a major wave of redevelopment to South End over the past decade. You’ll find residents walking dogs, strolling and riding bikes up and down the Rail Trail, a broad, art-accented sidewalk that runs for miles alongside the light rail tracks.
The area’s breweries – Wooden Robot, Sycamore, Lenny Boy, Triple C, Unknown, Sugar Creek, Olde Mecklenburg – are a short walk or light rail ride away. They’ve helped make the area a haven for millennials, and now a cidery, Red Clay Ciderworks, and a pair of distilleries, Doc Porter’s and Great Wagon Road, have added to the area’s reputation as one of Charlotte’s best places to socialize. With live music many nights and a rotating crew of food trucks hopping from brewery to brewery, there’s always plenty to do.
Head north on Davidson Street, and you’ll soon find yourself in NoDa (named for North Davidson). The enclave of old textile mills and mill houses used to be the gritty epicenter of Charlotte’s arts scene. While waves of newcomers and high-end apartment buildings have started to change (some would use the “g-word,” gentrify) the area, NoDa is still home to many of Charlotte’s most popular restaurants, bars and hangout spots.
You can walk from laid-back (and usually crowded) eateries like Crepe Cellar, Revolution Ale House, Boudreaux’s Louisiana Kitchen and Cabo Fish Taco to the Smelly Cat Coffeehouse, or to the original Amelie’s, a 24/7 French bakery that’s spawned a half-dozen spinoffs throughout the city and even down to Rock Hill, S.C. and Atlanta. Catch a live music show at the Evening Muse, bring your dog along for a drink at the Dog Bar, or browse at Baku Art Gallery or Pura Vida Worldly Art.
And the area doesn’t lack for local beer options: You can grab a drink at local bar Growler’s Pourhouse, Free Range Brewing NoDa Brewing Company, Heist Brewery, and, a few blocks south on North Davidson, Birdsong Brewing Company.
Further north, University City is a rapidly changing corner of Charlotte, with the light rail extension that’s opening in summer 2017 set to link UNC Charlotte directly to uptown. Built around the school, UNC Charlotte’s football team offers fans and local residents a rallying point each fall, and the boardwalk abound the artificial lake at J.M. Keynes Boulevard and North Tryon Street is a surprising, hidden oasis among the hustle and bustle, with satisfying places to eat like Ciro’s Italian after a boardwalk stroll.
Even uptown feels like more of a community now than it was when I lived there. In the last seven years, thousands of new apartments have opened and more are on the way. Uptown’s population is about 15,500, and Center City Partners estimates another 1,000 new residents will call uptown home by the end of 2016.
Two major parks – First Ward Park and Romare Bearden Park – have opened uptown, offering places to relax, people-watch and play with the kids that didn’t exist just a few years ago. And uptown is the place to go for sports: BB&T Ballpark, home to the minor league Charlotte Knights, opened in 2014, while the stadiums that are home to Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Hornets, the city’s two major league teams, have both recently been renovated and upgraded.
That’s just a small slice of the different areas in Charlotte you might find yourself in (we didn’t even touch on Plaza Midwood, Elizabeth and the surrounding towns like Matthews, Mint Hill and Huntersville). And the city’s continued growth – with thousands of new residents coming each year and new apartments, shops, offices and restaurants being developed from University City to south Charlotte – means the number of places you can look to make your own is only growing.
For example, on Monroe Road east of uptown, a group of neighbors is launching an effort to brand the area as “MoRa” and draw more businesses and residents. It’s starting to pay off, with a Hawthorne’s Pizza and other businesses that will give the area some more vibrancy set to open this year. In south Charlotte, on Providence Road near Interstate 485, three Charlotte companies are building about 2,000 residences in new developments that will include grocery stores, hotels, offices, parks and shops, carving entirely new neighborhoods that newcomers will make their own.
So jump in. Find your own “small.” And remember: Charlotte’s still a young enough city that you can have a hand in shaping your home.
Ely Portillo is the Observer’s development reporter.