Two decades ago, Charlotte landed the NCAA basketball tournament’s Final Four. After city leaders stopped celebrating, they realized they had a bit of a problem.
For a weekend, the nation’s eyes would turn toward Charlotte, but the city’s uptown didn’t really have much going for it. When the people who worked for the city’s major banks called it a night, pretty much everything closed up shop.
Poking fun at the twilight tumbleweeds, an Observer business editor found the city failed a key test – it was impossible to buy a candy bar after 5 p.m. in uptown Charlotte.
“Once an estimated 50,000 office workers clear out,” Doug Smith wrote in 1993, “Trade and Tryon streets become cold and imposing.”
The city fathers got the message. For the 1994 Final Four, they erected “The Street of Champions” – hastily built temporary bars and restaurants to give the appearance that uptown Charlotte had a slew of entertainment venues.
Over the next 20 years, they got started on the real thing.
My family moved here in 1996. Then, we rarely ventured inside the Interstate 277 belt line. We didn’t have much reason to. Now that I’ve moved to the center city, if I play my cards right on the weekend, I don’t have to leave.
Living uptown, everything comes to me – whether I want it to or not. The Lynx light-rail line was built in 2007, and its fanciest stops are in uptown. Charlotte started a streetcar route in July that pierces the heart of uptown. The stadium for the city’s NFL team is a 10-minute walk from the arena for the city’s NBA team. In between is the ballpark for the city’s minor-league baseball team, which has the best view of uptown’s skyline.
For the culturally inclined, the southernmost part of center city has a block full of museums: the Mint Museum, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Harvey B. Gantt Museum of African-American Art + Culture. For racing history, the NASCAR Hall of Fame is a few blocks east.
Head north on Tryon Street and you’ll encounter an assortment of restaurants, from affordable pizza places like Vapiano’s to special-occasion steakhouses like Chima. There are still a lot more options during the day, when office workers swell the number of people uptown, but evening and late-night offerings have increased.
At College and Trade streets, you’ll find EpiCentre, which attracts weekend revelers at night like a mosquito lamp. There’s a bowling alley, a movie theater and a mechanical bull (at the bar partially owned by NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.)
Besides the baseball stadium, another recentaddition is Romare Bearden Park, a green space with fountains for kids to play in and a frequent location of free concerts and other gatherings.
Or give your feet a rest entirely. The best thing about uptown in the past five years are the people willing to cart you around. You can see uptown by horse-drawn carriage, Segway, golf cart or pedi-cab.
If you feel like chatting up the driver, ask him to take you somewhere to grab a candy bar.
Cleve, the Observer’s public safety reporter, has lived in uptown for seven years.
Take the Streetcar: Charlotte got its first streetcar in July. The ride is free, and the car leaves from the uptown Transit Center every few minutes.
Stroll through the uptown tunnels: The “hamster tunnels” are part of the Overstreet Mall complex, which is more of a sprawl of office worker lunch places than a set of retail stores. But it’s air-conditioned, and you can get from Hearst Tower to the Duke Energy building in July without worrying about your feet sticking to the sidewalk.
Catch a ballgame: The Carolina Panthers play at Bank of America Stadium in Third Ward. The Charlotte Hornets host home games at Time Warner Cable Arena near the city bus station. But for the best view of the city, go see the minor-league Charlotte Knights at their new ballpark.
Bring a blanket to Romare Bearden Park: It has a great view of the city’s skyline, a fountain for kids and a lot of great (free) events.
Grab a bite at Alexander Michael’s on West Ninth Street: It’s been at that location for 32 years – well before uptown Charlotte was cool.