Charlotte's arts district reimagines its landscape

With two prominent art gallery closings in the North Davidson Street arts district this year, the North Charlotte retail corridor is again in transition.

Many say it's still a viable arts district without stalwart Center of the Earth gallery, the pioneer whose opening launched an era of rebirth nearly 25 years ago in the once-blighted textile village.

With the closing of Beet Contemporary Crafts and Functional Art gallery in September, traditional art galleries are less prominent in the heart of the corridor.

So today NoDa is redefining what it means to be an arts district in Charlotte.

"Maybe we need a broader view of what an art district is," said Nancy Neely, who ran Beet in a space that now houses Pura Vida gift shop. "I think there is a broader view that is about community."

The appeal of Charlotte's bohemian arts district was built on an individualistic approach to commerce, proximity to the uptown skyline, and the absence of big businesses and corporate logos.

The NoDa variety show has focused on the offbeat in visual art, music and food.

"I like to think we all have a little black sheep in us, no matter what the income level, background, race, religion or sexual preference," neighborhood association President Hollis Nixon said of residents and merchants.

NoDa galleries have always had interesting neighbors. Fixtures at the district's hub, North Davidson and 36th streets, include the Smelly Cat coffee shop, Neighborhood Theatre, intimate concerts at the Evening Muse and a growing assortment of eateries.

Long-timer Cabo Fish Taco restaurant expanded as galleries closed. Bars and tattoo shops also are settling in.

"There are still people who have a dream of owning their own business," said commercial broker John Nichols of The Nichols Co. "That's what's happening in NoDa and Plaza Midwood. Some of these areas are not quite as expensive as Dilworth and South End."

Shift from textile days

In its day as a textile center, the village was self-contained and separated from the city by farms and fields.

That separation probably contributed to its decline after the last mill closed in 1975 and the local economy shifted to banking.

In 1986, Paul Spires and his wife, Ruth Lyons, bought the Lowder Building, a rundown strip of storefronts.

They opened Center of the Earth among shuttered and neglected buildings.

"They brought serious art to NoDa," said Paul McBroom, former owner of Neighborhood Theatre and still a NoDa property owner. "They were not selling art for schoolteachers to put on the wall."

The transition was slow, Spires said. Drugs and prostitution were persistent problems, others recalled.

By 2003, new and renovated condos, lofts, homes and retail spaces were coming to NoDa. And traffic through the area got a boost from twice-monthly Friday night art gallery crawls, where bands amp up and vendors hawk jewelry, art and other wares.

NoDa became a destination, but not at the expense of the village.

"The one thing that's constant is the real human connection between the people, the business owners, the neighborhood and people on the street," McBroom said. "That's still there."

There's a debate about whether the bohemian character survived the transition.

"I think it's just as edgy as it ever was," Nixon said. "There are still boarded-up buildings. There are still homeless people. The place is not gentrified to the point where everybody drives great cars and makes six-figure salaries."

Adjusting to new landscape

Gallery owners faced a new challenge as the economy fell into recession.

Since 2008, several shops have closed, including The Art Preserve and P.Meyer gallery and gift store.

The spiral continued into this year for Neely, owner of Beet. Finding good art and artists to represent was not the problem, she said. Finding buyers was.

Residents and visitors are still adjusting to the new landscape, Nixon said.

"You have your camp of people who don't want too many bars and you have people who want more bars," she said. "I'm happy to have more places to eat."

Ask about the future in NoDa, and most see good fortune in the fact that their community is attracting businesses during the recession, some with art or gallery space in their mix.

"I don't see that NoDa has stepped back," McBroom said. "I see we're holding our own - and probably better than a lot of other areas."