Peter St. Onge

Could Charlotte have saved South End’s soul?

Phat Burrito, which opened in 1998 in a very different South End, closes Saturday.
Phat Burrito, which opened in 1998 in a very different South End, closes Saturday.

I took my son to lunch at Phat Burrito a little while back. He doesn’t get to South End that often, and I wanted him to sit on the cracked cushions and soak in some genuine Charlotte funkiness.

It’s sometimes a little hard to find around here, that funk. And honestly, with South End getting a little less gritty and a little more glossy, I wondered how long Phat Burrito might stay around.

This weekend, after nearly two decades on Camden Road, it’s gone. It becomes one more memory – along with Tremont Music Hall and the old Food Truck Friday lot – of another kind of South End. It’s also a reminder: The more hip that places become in Charlotte, the more likely they are to lose their hipness.

Usually, it happens when landlords raise rents that kill small shops and restaurants, or property becomes too valuable not to sell. For Phat Burrito, it was about the loss of a nearby empty lot where most of its customers parked. No matter the details, though, the story is pretty much the same. As a friend put it this week: The dirt got richer in South End. And that was that.

Or maybe it didn’t have to be. Could Charlotte have saved South End’s soul?

People who know planning tell me that cities can do some things to help neighborhoods stay weird (in a good way). Officials can put height limits on buildings in a community, or size limits on lots. In Phat Burrito’s case, the city might have proactively found a way to help South End’s inevitable parking crunch, maybe with more municipal parking decks in key areas.

Would that have offset the loss of the empty lot across from Phat Burrito? Maybe. Or maybe it only would have delayed the inevitable. Because unless Charlotte decided to be more heavy-handed than most cities like to be with urban neighborhoods, South End was going to change.

Remember this, though: South End’s growth probably helped Phat Burrito thrive this long. Growth also is what’s making other, once-struggling neighborhoods become a little hotter right now. In fact, growth probably brought a lot of us to the communities we live in now.

The thing is, once we find those thriving places, we tend to want to freeze them as they are. We want cool neighborhoods to keep the right amount of vibe. We want our leafy suburbs to stop getting denser. We think sprawl is any neighborhood farther from uptown than ours.

But cities don’t usually work that way. They tend to grow or get tired. They thrive or hollow out. Which one do we want?

Ours is growing, and with that growth comes a slow transfer of soulfulness. Independent, quirky joints are put out of business. Other independent, quirky joints pop up in yet-to-be-too-popular parts of town, until the same cycle happens all over again, like whack-a-mole.

It’s happened in South End, and it’ll happen eventually in other places close to uptown. Can the city accommodate that growth yet displace fewer folks and keep at least some of the funk? Sure, and saying no a few more times to sterile apartment developments would be a start.

But that probably wouldn’t have saved most of the Phat Burritos we mourn. It also doesn’t change this: We’re a more interesting and diverse city than we used to be. That’s because we’ve invited people to join us, not locked the door behind us.

Peter: pstonge