Living Here Guide

Charlotte: A place where you can belong

By Peter St. Onge

DJ Brown, 12, left, sister Aliyah Brown, 10, back center, and mother Ayanna Brown, right, throw a frisbee at Romare Bearden Park.
DJ Brown, 12, left, sister Aliyah Brown, 10, back center, and mother Ayanna Brown, right, throw a frisbee at Romare Bearden Park. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

This year marked a bit of a milestone for me: I’ve lived longer in the South than in New England, where I was born and raised. I mentioned this to my wife, who is from Alabama, and I asked: Can I can claim myself as a Southerner now?

I’ll pause while all the Southerners out there shake their heads “no.”

But for those of you just stepping into our city, we should explain that Charlotte is a different kind of South. It’s definitely not the Old South, for better or worse, and while it might be the New South, we’re not sure anyone has quite figured out exactly what that means.

What Charlotte is, most of all, is a place where it’s easy to belong.

That’s not true of all places. I’ve lived in several cities, some large and some quite small. It’s hard to feel like more than a speck in those larger ones. The small ones can make you feel like a perpetual guest, especially in places that are wary of outsiders.

But outsiders are part of Charlotte’s DNA. In many ways, it’s a city that’s been built by and for people who aren’t from around here. Because of that – and because it’s had a lot of practice – this also is a city that’s good at welcoming. There are countless opportunities, big and small, to be a part of something.

You can belong to one of the most old-school things about Charlotte – its churches. Charlotte continues to be ranked in the top 10 U.S. cities for churches per capita, and those houses of worship are more diverse and active in the city than they’ve ever been.

You can belong to one of Charlotte’s hip neighborhoods, like South End, and be a part of the developing, vibrant communities near Uptown’s edges.

You can join your northeastern expats in south Charlotte, or find your spot in the comfortable burbs of Pineville and Matthews, where newcomers are part of the fabric.

You can be a mountain lover (a sorta short drive away) or a beach lover (a sorta long drive away). Or you can be part of a lake community. We have two – Norman to the north and Wylie to the south. If anything, it’s a good way to get the folks back home to visit.

You certainly can belong to the fan base of one of our professional sports teams. The big-league teams – the NFL’s Panthers and the NBA’s Hornets – are still in their relative adolescence, so people around here don’t raise an eyebrow if you root for them yet keep your allegiances to the teams you grew up rooting for. Just say you have a “1A” team” and a “1B” team. They’ll understand.

There also are plenty of other scenes to belong to, including our flourishing craft beer scene. We regularly appear in roundups of Best New Beer Cities, and we often share those lists with Asheville, just a couple of hours away.

Yes, there’s also room to be serious-minded, to belong to groups and organizations that want to help make Charlotte a better place. There are plenty of them doing important work throughout our city, but there’s also opportunity here to have a voice in tackling the bigger challenges that that Charlotte and a lot of places face.

That opportunity didn’t always exist here, by the way. Used to be just a handful of people had sway over helping and improving Charlotte. Now there’s room for more people at the table. Our government bodies are diverse. Our community leaders are diverse. They’re collaborating more. They’re listening.

We’re not a perfect city, in that way or some others. But we’re a dynamic city, and a lot of us understand the value of living and working together – old and young, center city and suburbs, long-timers and, yes, newcomers. Sure, it might take a while for you to be a Southerner, but even if you’ve just started living here, you’re well on your way to being a Charlottean.

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