Thursday, May 28, 2009

Stimulus bucks? Tar Heels get hosed

Want to get mad? Here's a good one for you:

A USA Today analysis of where stimulus money has gone so far, compared to unemployment rates, shows North Carolina (jobless rate 10.8 percent, among the nation's highest), is getting way below its per capita share of stimulus money. Here's a link to the article.

Here's the telling paragraph: " ... the first contracts [for spending stimulus money] have amounted to only about $7.42 per person on average in the eight states with unemployment rates higher than 10% last month. By comparison, government records show it has awarded about $26 worth of contracts per person in North Dakota, whose unemployment rate is the nation's lowest."

The nationwide average is $13 per person, the story says. In North Carolina, the figure was only $1.56 per capita.

No wonder we're laying off teachers and gutting our colleges and universities. You'd think President Obama would be a tad more grateful for his much-touted victory here last November.

Even South Carolina, where Gov. Mark Sanford is trying his best to stop incoming stimulus money despite its 11.5 percent jobless rate, got $81.34 per capita. Sanford must not be trying hard enough.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blue Line or Green Line?

Should the existing Blue Line be renamed the Green Line, to please UNCC? Tomorrow the Metropolitan Transit Commission takes up the discussion at its 5:30 p.m. meeting. Here's a link to the meeting agenda.

At first, it sounds like an easy and simple decision: The transit line that's planned to run from uptown to UNC Charlotte should be the Green Line, to reflect the 49ers school colors.

But with transit – and transportation in general – things are rarely as simple as you'd think. Here's the biggest sticking point: The new line will be a continuation of the existing Blue Line. That is, you could hop on at I-485 outside Pineville and ride all the way to beyond UNCC.

There's already been significant investment in "Blue." Even the train cars are blue, not to mention the signs, etc.

As CATS officials note, they couldn't find any other transit system that "changed colors midstream" (hmmm, interesting turn of phrase). It might well confuse riders. I mean, we're not talking a lot of riders here with New York-caliber subway expertise (where one line simultaneously might have two numbers or letters or colors, and you have to notice whether you're hopping on a local or an express route, for instance). Starting on the blue line and ending on the green line might be as confusing as starting out on Woodlawn and, without turning, finding yourself on Runnymede and then Sharon Road then Wendover, and then Eastway. Or maybe Tyvola to Fairview to Sardis to Rama. Or ... well, I could go on but I won't.

Hmmm. Now that I think about it, a Blue-to-Green Line transit corridor fits right in. How very Charlotte.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Agriburbia? Tell that to Detroit

My earlier posting on "agriburbia" – saying "Agriculture is the new golf" and reporting on an in-the-works development near here that will feature farm fields instead of a golf course or – brought an e-mail with this link to a story from the online Detroit Free Press.

It seems some visiting urban planners, noting the enlarging areas of disinvestment in the Motor City, have proposed that eventually the city will resemble clusters of villages surrounded by farmlands. Back to the future, indeed.

Does anyone know of any urban land that has successfully reverted to farmland?

I asked a soil specialist some years back about the feasibility of turning abandoned big-box stores and their huge parking lots back into farmland and was told that, unfortunately, the development scrapes away the topsoil, which takes centuries to create. Maybe with enough chickens and livestock one could replenish the soil?

'Agriculture is the new golf'

The latest career advice, I hear, isn't "plastics." It's "agriburbia."

A developer-land planner-type pulled me aside this week to talk about his newest project: A development, in the general vicinity of Kannapolis-Salisbury, that they're dubbing "agriburbia." It's a residential development but instead of common open space and big lawns, they'll have a civic farm, land leased to a farmer. There will be do-it-yourself options for backyard gardeners. They'll market it, he said, to people affiliated with the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis – the health-and-wellness related research operation.

The term "agriburbia," he said, was coined by a guy in Colorado. Sure enough, here's the Web site. "Agriburbia" is even trademarked. But it's such a great word it may have a life of its own, like "locavore." Its slogan: "Growing Sustainable Communities by the Bushel!" Its goal: "the re-integration of food production directly within the living environment ... by focusing on agriculture as the centerpiece of both new and existing communities."

This dovetails with a talk in Charlotte last fall by New Urbanism godfather Andres Duany, about what he termed "agricultural urbanism." It was Duany who quipped "agriculture is the new golf." By that, he meant an activity and marketing point for developments.

"Only 17 percent of people living in golf course communities play golf more than once a year," Duany said. "Why not grow food? By the way, food is very good-looking." (I wonder if Duany, an urbane Miamian, has ever seen fading tomato plants at the end of a hot, aphid-ridden summer, or squash plants wilting from vine borer assaults. But I digress.)

Duany suggested the $40 billion that Americans spend on lawn care might be better diverted to food production. And this may be the biggest eyebrow-raiser, coming from a devoted urbanist devoted it to agriculture: "The large lot (as in large-lot suburbia) can be justified primarily as the making of food." When Duany is trying to justify large-lot suburbia, you know the world is changing.

Being Andres Duany, he even came up with a "transect" (translation: context-appropriate designs) for agriculture in a range of conditions from rural (your basic farms, with farming village clusters) to center city (container gardens on terraces and rooftops). His transect has specific allowances for how many chickens are allowed – though no cluckers in the most dense urban neighborhoods. If memory serves, you can't have a rooster unless you're in one of the more rural zones in his transect. Whatever.

The local developers said they'll be going public in a few weeks. Theirs isn't "agricultural urbanism," they said, but suburbia with farms instead of big lawns. Stay tuned.

Transit lovers, and Portland haters (an update)

Friday, May 22, 12:21 PM update:
If you like reading about Portland, check out this piece from the Oregonian's Anna Griffin, whom some of you will remember as a former Charlotte Observer writer (who covered the growth beat here in the QC before moving to our Raleigh bureau.)

Today, a little something for transit-lovers and then for transit- and Portland-haters.

First, here's a newsy dispatch from Mary Hopper at University City Partners:

"The most recent cost estimate for building the LYNX Blue Line Extension from Center City to University City now exceeds $1.1 billion. That's a lot of money, to be sure. But is it too much money? A study paid for by University City Partners suggests that every dollar spent on transit construction will come back three-fold in additional development and increased property value and tax base within our municipal service district through 2035." Here's a link to the study she refers to.

Hopper, executive director for UCP, also points to a proposed high-rise office building from Bank of America:
"University City's proposed transit line is already spurring plans for intense transit-friendly development on North Tryon Street. Bank of America has requested a zoning change to allow up to 1 million square feet of offices in buildings up to 16 stories tall, just south of Mallard Creek Church Road. The wooded 24-acre site lies within a quarter mile of a proposed light-rail station on Mallard Creek Church Road. The Charlotte City Council will consider the request at its June 15 zoning hearings." Read more. And here's a link to the rezoning petition.

Finally, for those who like to read opposing opinions, here's some red meat for you anti-transit, anti-planning, anti-density readers: George Will on "Why Ray LaHood Is Wrong and Portland Stinks." [My title, not his.]

2:15 PM – A friend shares with me this riposte to George Will. Link here.
3:28 PM – A TV station in Portland is running an online poll on who would win if George Will debated U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Portland Democrat who's an avid supporter of transit, bicycling, pedestrians and planned growth. Link here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

High-speed rail roadshow comes to town

If you're hot for high-speed rail through the Carolinas, then pay attention Wednesday.

Charlotte will bat lead-off in a national high-speed rail vision road show – a series of workshops in seven U.S. cities put on by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The workshop – the only one to be held for the Southeast Corridor – will be 1-4:30 p.m. at the Renaissance Charlotte Suites Hotel, 2800 Coliseum Centre Dr. (off the Billy Graham Parkway).
If you'll remember, President Obama has offered up $8 billion in grants for high-speed rail corridors, intercity passenger rail and congestion grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, as a pirates would say). Competition is likely to be fierce. Last month I heard Xavier de Sousa Briggs, associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, talk about what would give regions a leg up in competing. He said regions that can demonstrate solid regional cooperation will have an advantage.
N.C. rail insiders suggest it's not coincidence that Charlotte and the Southeast Corridor are first on the schedule. Folks from Atlanta are expected to attend. And let us hope our sister state to the South shows some interest, despite its governor's dislike of stimulus money.
Here's a link that will tell you more, including linking to the letter from FRA administrator Joseph C. Szabo. Szabo's letter says the FRA seeks input "to provide us with your regional visiton of high-speed and intercity rail networks," among other things.
If you want to attend you may RSVP here. And to submit comments for the public docket, click here. It's Docket No. FRA-2009-0045 and the deadline for comments is June 5.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Modern architecture -- Oh, the terror!

This may explain why I, and many other people, aren't so fond of Modernist-style buildings. We're instinctively reacting with fear.

(See my previous posting about the Mid-Century Modern home tour this weekend. Link is here.)
I stumbled on this piece from Fast Company about how surroundings shape our minds and bodies. Among its interesting tidbits: People instinctively prefer objects with rounded edges (think of arches, for instance) over sharp-edged objects (think of most 20th-century buildings, such as the Westin hotel in Charlotte, shown above, with the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the foreground). The theory is that it has to do with hard-wired fear of sharp objects.
Memo to architects designing libraries: High-ceilings in rooms encourage you to think more freely and abstractly.
And memo to minimalists: Clutter increases the "memorability" of a place. As the article says, "A generous scattering of objects generates a fondness for the place." (But I'm pretty sure that doesn't include dirty socks or last night's grease-splotched pizza box.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mid-Century Modern: Charlotte's bulldozer bait?

If you think Mid-Century Modern is outdated and ugly, and ought to be torn down, you're probably over 45.

The nonprofit group Historic Charlotte has put together a Mid-Century Modern home tour this weekend, (here's a link where you can see a list, a map and buy tickets) featuring 17 homes built from the 1950s to 1970s, to try to show everyone why a lot of younger people are interested in preserving and living in houses from that era. It's part of a whole month of celebrating Mid-Century Modern.

The houses range from modest to impressive, and with local architects Murray Whisnant and the late Jack Orr Boyte among those represented.

It's an architectural style and era not beloved around here – until recently. Diane Althouse, executive director of Historic Charlotte, told Tuesday night's Civic By Design forum that buildings from the era are in greater risk of demolition than others in Charlotte. And of course, we know virtually everything here that doesn't have preservation in its deed restrictions is at risk of demolition.

Here's a measure of how unpopular this modern architecture is. Last fall, in an unprecedented move, the City Council in a 6-4 vote, rejected a move to name a 1957, Jack Boyte-designed house in the Cloisters neighborhood a local landmark. The owners wanted the designation; the city-county historic landmarks commission wanted the designation, the state preservation office had concluded the house was eligible. Usually the council doesn't have a problem, if the preservation experts say something's worth designating, and the owners concur. But council members just said they didn't think the house was very attractive.

If you're old enough to think Mid-Century Modern is ugly, you're probably old enough to remember when Victorian-style buildings were being demolished because they were "too ugly" and far too many treasures were lost.

I confess to some ambivalence about Modernism. As generally carried out, it's too bleak and stark. One modernist building amid older, ornate buildings is sleek and elegant. A whole city (or even whole city block) of nothing but square angles, bare concrete and cold glass would be depressing. But the point of preservation isn't only to preserve buildings we think are pretty. It's to ensure that eras aren't obliterated.

And it's worth pointing out that buildings from this era are coming to be treasured and sought-after. I know of several people who are specifically looking to buy homes from that era.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Atlanta vs. Charlotte for 'King of South'

Atlanta Journal-Constitution weighed in last weekend on the Charlotte-Atlanta rivalry with a piece by former Observer reporter Dan Chapman: Rivalry to be economic King of South heats up.
Read it, then read the comments. Then tell me whether you don't suspect that a lot of the talk about how well (!!) Charlotte has dealt with growth and transportation comes from Atlanta types hoping to goad their legislature with some jealousy. The story says the Georgia leg won't let Atlanta or other metro regions impose sales taxes for roads, and won't even let MARTA use its own money to fill budget holes.

Is Charlotte doing things better than Atlanta? Depends on what you look at. Definitely we're doing better at tying land use to transit – at requiring transit-oriented development along our light rail line. Atlanta didn't do that during MARTA's earliest decades and results show.
Is Charlotte doing any better at controlling sprawl? That's a tough question. I think some of the counties and smaller towns in the region (Cabarrus County, Davidson, Belmont, etc.) are, indeed, doing better. Further, N.C. annexation laws have left Charlotte in a healthier situation and have allowed the city limits to expand, instead of being hemmed in like the actual city of Atlanta itself.

Yet Charlotte and Mecklenburg have done virtually nothing to preserve farms or any section of the county from suburban-style development, other than a few county parkland purchases. Eventually every square foot of the county will be developed except for those parts purchased for parkland or privately donated to land conservation groups such as the Catawba Lands Conservancy. No serious farmland or forestland protection measures have been taken by local governments other than Davidson.

Atlanta is definitely bigger. Is it better? I think that depends on what you're looking for and how closely you look.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Trashing public art -- again

Mayor McCrory, council members Andy Dulin and John Lassiter, can I make a request? If you don't like the city's 1 percent-for-art program, then end it. But as is, it's tediously predictable that whenever you get a presentation about what the money is being spent for, you go off on the program's administrators and trash the art.

Guess what. Their job is to administer the city program. The city program allocates 1 percent of the cost of most (not all) city projects and dedicates that money for public art.

Now, plenty of people can make good philosophical arguments for why government shouldn't be paying for art. It's a reasonable position: Art should be independent of government, because public money comes with strings attached. Public art typically isn't very cutting-edge, for instance, because that would offend the pols and they'd ax the money. Some people genuinely think art isn't what government should be doing, and I respect that view, even though I disagree.

But there are other good arguments about the value of art to the public and about the value of having artists in your city. And for now, city government (and the county, and the transit system) have concluded it's worth the fractional amount of money it takes to have public art.

The item getting people's attention is a project to put mosaic tile covers on trash cans along Central Avenue, as part of a Central Avenue streetscaping project. Here's a link to the slide presentation; mosaics are on page 6. The City Council heard a presentation on Monday, showing numerous public art projects. Dulin tallied up the cost of the mosaics – $42,000 for mosaics on the outsides of 12 trashcans, 4 mosaics each – and said, "That's $3,500 a trashcan." Then he asked if he could get one of those trashcans at the bus stop near Myers Park High School. "$3,500 per trashcan is a little bit out of line, I'm sorry," he said.

Lassiter wondered whether the primary colors of the mosaics would look good next to some murals also planned along Central Avenue, whose colors looked (in the slide show) more pastel. (Should we cut him some slack? He was suffering jet lag from a trip to Ireland.)
McCrory complained – as he does whenever public art comes up – that he prefers more representational statuary that depicts people and history. "I like the statues at The Square. I just don't think we have enough of them," he said. "The most comment I get from people is the statue at Myers Park Hardware [a privately funded statue of the late, eccentric Hugh McManaway]."

There were snickers and snide remarks about several of the art works. Robert Bush of the Arts & Science Council, which administers the public arts program, was stoic. Public art administrator Jean Greer kept a pleasant smile on her face. Surely they get sick of this, every time they appear.
OK, let's try it one more time: Not all art will please everyone. If it did, it would be awfully tame. Some people like abstract art, and I don't want the mayor, or any mayor, choosing what art I see. Some people prefer ancient Roman busts, or statues of nekkid goddesses or "The Thinker." But art changes with its era, and this art should reflect this era.

Putting art on a trashcan might just be a way to brighten up a part of town that, heaven knows, has felt decades of city neglect. Should all art be restricted to uptown or Myers Park, where more affluent people live? Should art not be allowed on trashcans, only walls?

This is silly, fellas. Can't we just move on?

Friday, May 08, 2009

Was Charlotte's Maya Lin piece an early "Wavefield"?

Was Charlotte's not-so-lamented lost artwork "Topo" (above, in happier days) an early incarnation of the undulating earthworks for which artist/architect Maya Lin is now famous?
Read this New York Times article from today about a Lin work, Storm King Wavefield, at the Storm King Art Center in New York. Look at the wavefield. Does it not remind you a bit of the now-demolished "Topo" Lin did early in her career, in Charlotte?
The piece I did about Gumby and public art (read it here) mentioned Maya Lin's landscape art for the now-demolished Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road. When the City Council turned thumbs down on Joel Shapiro's proposed sculpture, a.k.a. "Gumby," the public art commission turned to the young Yale-graduate Lin, who had won worldwide acclaim for her 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. She and Henry Arnold of Princeton collaborated to create "Topo" – nine large, ball-shaped Burford hollies arranged on an undulating median at the Coliseum. The original plan called for a misting system so the balls would appear to float. That idea was dropped because of its cost.
"Topo" was installed in 1991. It was pleasant, and I always liked the undulating berms, the shaping of which Lin herself supervised on site. But unless you were in a helicopter, it was a bit hard to get the overall sense of "Topo." And it always seemed to me that any sculpture lively enough to have acquired a name even before it was built would have become a kind of beloved civic character – maybe not as beloved as Charlotte Hornet Muggsy Bogues, but beloved nonetheless.
Look at Lin's work since then (somehow, "Topo" doesn't show up on her Web site) and it's clear she has put that undulating earth concept at the center of much of her recent work. Storm King Wavefield looks magnificent – like a mature and confident version of the baby version in "Topo." As Lin's fame has grown, "Topo" might well have become notable simply for being one of her earliest.
The city sold the Coliseum for private development, and the building was imploded in 2007. The new owners tried unsuccessfully to find someone to adopt "Topo" and its nine hollies. "Topo" was demolished in 2008. The photo below shows the work in its last days.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Why conservatives should love transit, and more

A few links to interesting reading: A piece on "Why Conservatives Should Care About Transit," here.
One provocative excerpt: "Support for government-subsidized highway projects and contempt for efficient mass transit does not follow from any of the core principles of social conservatism.
A common misperception is that the current American state of auto-dependency is a result of the free market doing its work. In fact, a variety of government interventions ensure that the transportation 'market' is skewed towards car-ownership."

A wonderful profile of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood by the NY Times' inimitable Mark Leibovich here.
Here's a closer look at the new state of Virginia standards that won't put state highway money into developments that don't meet a connectivity index. The article is from New Urban News, and it criticizes VaDOT for not being aggressive enough with its connectivity standards.
It also references the study done in Charlotte by CDOT and Fire Department staff that found more cost-efficiency for emergency services in connected neighborhoods than in cul-de-sac-collector neighborhoods. Here's a link to where I wrote about it, and here's a link to a slide show about the study itself.

(Note, Delaware is doing something akin to Virginia. The New Urban News main web site says: Delaware mandates connected streets The Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT), which has jurisdiction over most streets and roads in its state, is — like Virginia — requiring that new subdivision streets be connected to neighboring areas.

From the Colorado-based High Country News, a piece on the possible end of Exurbia, at least in the West.

A word about that story: I've read several pieces in recent months in which people say suburbia is on its last gasps, and the recession will kill it. I'm skeptical. Among other reasons: At least in my neck of suburbia (Charlotte), financial stress means people are less mobile than before – they can't sell their houses, or find jobs to move to. Thus, they are not leaving exurbia even if the want to. In addition, housing in the far 'burbs is still, dirt for dirt, cheaper than in the city (vast exurban McMansions and uptown luxury condos notwithstanding.

Many "Death of Suburbia" themes are premised on the assumption energy prices will rise. I believe they will, and savings from cheap housing will be undercut by the gasoline prices needed for long commutes to work and shopping. But for now gas prices seem to have stabilized. Further, local governments around here – and I suspect elsewhere – are in no mood to crack down on any kind of development, there being, for now, virtually none going on.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Another arts flap we need to live down

Before the Actors Theatre of Charlotte's recent play, "Southern Rapture," there was the 1996-97"Angels in America" flap that inspired that new play. And before "Angels" there was "Gumby." All are part of Charlotte's continuing uneasy relationship with "art." And maybe a new National Endowment of the Arts grant will help redeem the city, in some small way, from its "Gumby"-tainted history.

Because the Angels flap made national news – it sparked a sort of revenge-on-the-gays vote by the then-county commissioners, who axed the county's yearly allocation for the Arts & Science Council and then, except for the eternal Bill James, all lost their next elections – it lives on on local memory (and embarrssment).

But an earlier, similarly embarrassing flap came in 1987. The city's public art commission chose a semi-abstract bronze work by noted sculptor Joel Shapiro for the to-be-built-and-now-already-demolished Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road. Morning DJs John Boy and Billy and plenty of other folks ridiculed the piece. Among them was arts commission member Robert Cheek, who dubbed it "Gumby." And to be just, there is a certain familial resemblance to the '50s claymation fellow. (Art gallery owner Cheek pleaded guilty a few years later to cocaine smuggling and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.)

So the City Council in an act of not-unprecedented spinelessness, rejected the Shapiro work. Instead the city chose a work by Maya Lin – a collection of Burford hollies supposed to look like balls rolling downhill. It, too, was demolished. Shapiro went on to worldwide fame and success – his works are now at the National Gallery in Washington and art museums in Houston, New Orleans, Raleigh and even on the Davidson College campus. That $400,000 sculpture would have bought the city a work surely worth many multiples of that today. But no, our elected officials instead consulted the drive-time DJs about their cultural purchases and exhibited the political spines of earthworms.

Redemption ahead? Recent news says we got a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to go toward a monumental sculpture costing approximately $300,000 at the planned Romare Bearden park uptown (named for the Charlotte-born artist) near the Panthers' stadium. Is it too late to get something by Joel Shapiro? Maybe. And anyway, Shapiro (who has sold numerous other copies of the model he did for our city) might not want to play. In 1993, in conjunction with an exhibition that included the model for "Gumby," he opted against returning here to be on a panel. Of the brouhaha here, he told Observer reporter Ricki Morell, "It was a farce and quite humiliating. It was a low point in my career."

And by 1993, even the DJs were having second thoughts. "John Boy" Isley told Morell: "I've grown attached to it over the years. Viewing the bushes that are at the Coliseum now [the now-demolished Maya Lin art], maybe we were a little harsh on Gumby."

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Before we leave Gastonia

Downtown Gastonia is either experiencing a major rebirth (see below), or mired in the same old problems. At least, that's what the commenters on "What Ails Gastonia" have been saying.
This one was among the more interesting comments, from Alicia Demeny $#8211; and she nails me for using an old photo from the Observer's files. I hope she's right about the new energy. So many times and so many hopes have gone into trying to revitalize Gastonia's downtown. Would be great if this time it worked:
"The author of this article has failed to mention that there are over 8 bright, nice new businesses that have come to the downtown area, with more coming soon. Included in these great new places are restaurants and coffee shops, a cool new pub, boutiques and salons, nice office complexes and condos. A photography studio and event center ... and more.
Most of all of them doing major upgrades and renovations to the old buildings. These improvements are bringing out the beautiful old exposed brick, hardwoods and architecture of these once glorious structures. The author of this article also failed to use a photograph that is recent. The photograph used shows a building that no longer exists. A lovely park is at this very moment is being built in its place. As an employee in the downtown area I am excited about the potential and positive growth. As a women I feel totally safe walking down the street to the new restaurants and pub. Just last week the downtown area hosted an art crawl that included many of the businesses, live music on the street and wine tastings. The general statement by the over 300 in attendance was that it was a great event and that it should happen more often.
If it's been six years or six months since you have been downtown you owe it to yourself to visit again before believing a biased article that simple focuses on the past and politics. Those of us downtown are focused on growth and the future."

Friday, May 01, 2009

What ails Gastonia - one view

It's always been a mystery to me why downtown Gastonia hasn't economically revived like Salisbury, Mooresville, Concord and other downtowns around here. Last night I ran into a former Gastonia City Hall-type who gave me an interesting insight, as we were chatted over wine and hors d'oeuvres. Here's a paraphrase what the person said:
It's all politics. And its roots go deep into Gastonia's milltown culture.
A little history, in case you didn't live through it or know about it: That culture lured thousands of dirt-poor Carolinas farmers to towns to work at textile and cotton mills during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mill culture permeated this region, including large chunks of Charlotte. Workers made more money than at subsistence farming, but child labor was common. Whole families had to work in the mills to earn enough to live. Many of the mill owners pretty much controlled everything: They supplied workers' houses, owned stores and in some cases even told the workers where to go to church. Mill workers were despised as "mill trash." It wasn't as bad as slavery, but it was a lot closer to economic slavery than many people realize. When some workers tried to unionize or held strikes to push for better wages and conditions, mill owners in some cases brought in gunmen. Gastonia was the scene of one of the bloodiest strikes, when a police chief and a union organizer were killed. (Charlotte has its own bloody labor history, and there appears to be an unspoken civic agreement here to ignore it.)
How does this relate to Gastonia's downtown development? It's worth remembering that at one time, Gaston County boasted more spindles than any other county in America. Mill history runs deep. My City Hall-type companion opined that city government there was perceived by many Gastonians to be like the old mill owners: We know what's good for you, just do what we say. Rightly or wrongly, there's resistance and resentment among the citizenry. And there's an oblivion to that situation on the part of some city officials.
It's a shame. Gastonia has the makings of a great downtown. Maybe, by 2009, Gastonians can consciously decide to change the old patterns, put aside old resentments and biases, and focus – together – on reinvigorating downtown.