Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Does Charlotte have a soul to love?

I figure any column that brings similar responses from avant garde-ista Little Shiva AND civic stalwart Frank Bragg must have hit a nerve. (Feel free to add your own responses, below.)

Last Saturday’s Urban Outlook column was about learning to love Charlotte after living here 28 years. (Ouch, typing that “28” still hurts.) Compared with places like Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, Asheville, or even Fayetteville, Charlotte’s personality is, well, elusive.

Years ago, I was at a job-recruiting fair trying to meet promising young journalists who might want to work for The Charlotte Observer. One photographer stopped by the booth, and we chatted. She asked, “Does Charlotte have a soul?”

Long pause. Remember, I was being paid to make people think they’d want to work here. Finally, I came up with a convoluted response that I hope didn’t sound too desperate. It went something like this: “Charlotte’s soul is subtle. You have to live there a while before you can figure out what it is. It’s hidden, sort of ... ” The photographer never, to my knowledge, applied for a job here.

I wrote, years ago, that Charlotte may have no “soul,” per se – although some people pointed out to me that the city probably does have a soul, just not one I approve of. Whatever.

Anyway, several people I’ve talked to about my Saturday column – one has lived here 30 years – have confessed to ongoing ambivalence about Charlotte, but that they’re starting to suspect that they, too, may be feeling more affection for the place.

Little Shiva, if you haven’t run into her, is a graphic designer and artist who publishes an underground magazine called QZ and who generally makes Charlotte a more interesting place to live in. She wrote:

“Just wanted to tell you that I like your Charlotte Valentine in today’s paper. I’m not quite ready to say the same for myself, but I feel like I might be someday. I’m not as far along as you, having just gotten here in late 1999. I’m still not in love with this place. ... In spite of my family roots here and in spite of the fact that I’ve been fairly well accepted, I’m still dreaming of Mr. Right (referring to some dream city).

"But I have to look at how far I’ve come since 1999, all the commitments I’ve made towards Charlotte, personally as well as creatively, and I have to realize that this dopey town has somehow become a part of me. Whether or not I ever leave, or just keep this as home base and travel a whole lot more, Charlotte will be a begrudgingly fond chapter in my life story."

Frank Bragg, by contrast, is a successful financial adviser and a well-known philanthropist and civic activist – very “establishment,” if you will, and a decidedly different style than Little Shiva. It was Frank and Kathy Bragg, for instance, who recently donated $100,000 to start an endowment fund for the Chamber Music at St. Peter’s concert series.

“Loved your article about your gradual coming to love Charlotte. I feel the same way. Kathy grew up here and we have lived here 43 years ... except we have always lived outside the city. First south, at Elm Lane and Providence Road West on a small farm (now totally developed ...) and then on Lake Norman for the last 16 years. ... But now we live in Fourth Ward in a condo. We bought it in 1999 and lived here only part-time until last August when we sold our lake house. We love the city. It is exciting, stimulating, and beautiful.”


Anonymous said...

As your lunch buddy from that article I will say that when I moved here 25 years ago what I found lacking was: Good Library (got it!) Good public radio station (Got it!) Good University (Got it!) Good symphony (Got it!) A variety of theatre (Got it!)Long, interconnected bicycle paths--(Sorry, not yet). Good swimming beaches (Duh, Mecklenburg County still thinks it's too dangerous to swim in Lake Norman unless you happen to own land there or want to bounce behind a big gassy boat on a tube, go figure -- is there something about being either rich or environmentally irresponsible that makes one safe from the currents?)
We're working on the bike paths, but when will the beaches at Latta Plantation, Jetton and McDowell Parks actually be used as beaches? It's so stupid for the County to outlaw public swimming.

Anonymous said...

No, it doesn't.

Anonymous said...

My family has lived here for 20 years and I have recently moved back after living up North for a few years. The city I've moved back to is a very different place than the one I left. It's better. I give credit to all the people from the executives to the eccentrics, and everyone in between, who have had a vision of what this city could be and have done their best to make it happen. Sure, there still is the snooty establishment and some folks who wished we still had dirt roads and no running water, but they are not the only ones calling the shots now. There are many things this city could do better, but there are many more things we are doing right. Instead of dwelling on whatever history we may or may not have, we should concentrate on making history.

Anonymous said...

To the last poster - I wish there were more people here like you! Sometimes I feel like people here WANT this city to fail instead of thrive...

Anonymous said...

I think Charlotte has always had a soul. A soul fond of its traditions and its civility. That probably frustrates newcomers full of new ideas and new ways to do things.

How can a City have no soul that had the benefit of a Jim Richardson and his uncle (what an interesting piece the other day), a Bill Lee, an Ed Crutchfield, a Hugh McColl and so many others?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think it does, or will soon; it's just not as readily apparent as it might be in other places. The longer I live here (not yet a year) the more Charlotte & environs remind me of where I used to live (Northern VA suburbs). That area might be the epitome of a soulless place to some people but it got better over time. 3 things this area has in common with NVA (or in the case of traffic, NVA 20 years ago) are: (1) rush-hour traffic all flows one way, or mostly, (2) highly affluent area compared with the rest of the state, which loves to grab our money in taxes, but doesn't give us any respect, and (3) no one is from here, they're all from somewhere else. I would certainly say NVA had very little soul in 1985 - I think it finally did by 2005 - it just takes time.

Anonymous said...

I have lived here for 7 years and I have complained about being here pretty much the entire time. But I was recently presented with a chance to relocate to NYC and I didn't take it. Thinking about how different life would be made me realize just how much Charlotte has to offer. Charlotte has changed for the better over the since I've been here and as much as I hate to admit, it does have a soul somewhere out there.

But I'd say right now it's a baby soul. I can't wait until it becomes a teenager with raging hormones. I just hope it ages a little quicker!

Myra said...

Charlotte definintely has a soul. It's not really apparent at first glance, but it's there.

Recently, I've gotten to see it through the eyes of someone who hasn't lived here her whole life, and it's been a new experience. She talks about how incredibly nice people are, bring baked goods when you move in, not snarling at trick-or-treaters. And that's soul, in a way. It's those manners you were talking about.

Soul is partly history, too. Something that was there before you were. That's where Charlotte's budding soul shows, as well. There could certainly be more, if people were better about preserving old buildings. All the old houses with wrap-around front porches have soul.

Even the downtown is getting some soul. So, it's coming. It could come faster, there could have been more of it to start out with, but Charlotte's got a soul - assuming you know where to look.

Anonymous said...

IT depends, doesn't it, on what you mean by "soul"? If it speaks of a social and political culture that makes it unique, of course Charlotte has one. If it speaks of a shared understanding of what the city is about, in reality no city has one.

It seems to me an arrogant queston that might ony be asked by an outsider who doesn't care to adapt to the city, b texpects the city to adapt to him or her. As a transplant form the Midwest, I have no problem whatever recognizing that Charlotte is a unique place. I DID have trouoble understanding the majority culture, since it was quite different form by previous experience, but that is only evidence that it DOES have it's own culture.

The observaton that the city doesn't really have a soul but is developing one seems to me to largely be a matter of not liking what there is and wishing to change it.

Anonymous said...

For me, Charlotte's soul lies in the wonderful neighborhoods that surround our new urban center city. It is the Wilmores, South Ends, Dilworths, Freedom Parks, Myers Parks, Elizabeths, Plaza Midwoods, Fourth Wards, Thirds Wards and Wesley Heights that hold Charlotte's soul. Unfortunately, we are gradually losing that soul to new construction and a mentality that thinks homes in the midtown need everything they had in the suburbs. Bigger is not necessarily better and certainly does not hold Charlotte's soul in it. The neighborhoods that ring our center city give us a glimpse of the past, neighbors to know, sidewalks to stroll and a sense of time that the busy pace of our every day existence sometimes steals from us.

Anonymous said...

I find Charlotte's soul when I drive down Queens Road West or 5th Street under the canopy. Or when I'm at the Wachovia Open, such a uniquely Charlotte event. It's the manners, the smiles, the constant sense of striving and aiming to please. Charlotte's soul lies in its unique brand of boosterism. JS Reed once wrote about this uniquely Southern trait -- and said Charlotte has a virulent strand.

These things, however are very subtle. If you're not looking for them they easily pass you by.

Anonymous said...

Soul and character is what you make of it! As far as preserving historic landmarks are concerned, I don't have a problem with that, but at the same time, me personally, I'm not a nostalgia buff like most other folks. My belief is that you can always make new history. Charlotte is a new big city, so it's still changing by the minute. Charlotte's character will be determined by the people who help change and shape this city. In 30 years, maybe sooner than that, people will talk about Charlotte just like they talk about New York or Chicago when talking about the soul and character it possesses.

Anonymous said...

Charlotte is a great city with huge potential. However, it's hard to find Charlotte's soul, because the area lacks cultural diversity. New York and Chicago have character because they've embraced the nations. We should focus on attracting the world, not just the region.

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