Photo: digidreamgrafix/Shutterstock

Finding Charlotte’s Soul Amid the Towers of a Banking Town

by Matthew Meltzer Dec 13, 2019

There is nothing more soulless than a banking town.

The term alone conjures images of imposing glass towers full of boring people who care about nothing but money and how to make more of it. In America’s second-largest banking center, it’s an image that’s been tough to shake.

It’s not a bad image, necessarily. Charlotte never had a river catch on fire or a string of federally indicted mayors. But to many, Charlotte is landlocked and nondescript, a city built on banking that’s got about as much character as a credit card bill. Ask anyone what they think about Charlotte, and they’ll typically shrug and mutter something about rocking chairs at the airport.

But in 2019, a sea of transplants and finance-weary locals are finding the beauty in this city and crafting a culture in the shadow of glass towers.

A dive bar as cultural icon

Photo: Google Maps

The soul of Charlotte may well be personified by the Thirsty Beaver Saloon, a funky honky tonk filled with vintage beer ads and reruns of Hee-Haw, where $4 shots of tequila go to die. It’s a one-story brick building with a cartoonish, cowboy-hat wearing beaver painted on the side, and it’s surrounded by five-story apartment buildings.

When the developer of the painfully generic apartments around it demanded the owner of the land to sell, he essentially told them to fuck off. It was kinda like Up if the balloons were filled with PBR.

Now the Beaver stands as a defiant anchor to the Plaza Midwood neighborhood, which is dotted with odd boutiques, breweries, and restaurants. Not at all the kinds of businesses you’d expect between apartment buildings touting “luxury living” and studios starting at $1,200.

From there, it’s just a short distance to other worthwhile stops. After sampling beers at both Legion and Pilot Brewing, I wandered into the Cltch boutique, lured by its display of Golden Girls prayer candles.

Inside was a wonderland of pop-culture tchotchkes. It’s the kind of place you saunter in after three beers and realize your life wasn’t complete before you had a Freddy Mercury pillow doll. The collection was expertly curated by Scott Weaver, whose business card calls him an “owner/raconteur.”

“This city’s got a ton of soul,” he said after I complimented his collection and spent $150 on stuff I absolutely didn’t need. “You just have to get out and find it. There’s underground concerts every week; the music scene is fantastic. You see all the banking over there, but the culture is here, if you know where to look.”

When I returned home and gave my “Please don’t do cocaine in the bathroom” sign to one friend, and the “Schitt’s Creek” David Rose “I’m trying very hard not to connect with people right now” mug to another, they all asked if I’d gotten it on a trip to San Francisco or Laguna Beach.

“Charlotte,” I said proudly. They both told me they’d never seen that kinda stuff at the airport.

An influx of transplants finds a place to try new things

Photo: Joanna K Drakos/Shutterstock

Delving a little further into the city’s soul, I took the Lynx Blue Line light rail to NoDa, a not-so-creatively named creative neighborhood along North Davidson Street. Walking from the 36th Street station I was immediately met by a row of colorful stucco buildings housing a coffee shop, a gourmet ice cream shop, and a fish taco joint. Further up 36th Street I found a live music venue, two breweries, and murals on nearly every building.

“People are coming from all over the country to live here in Charlotte,” says Jamie Brown over a massive chicken tender and waffle at Haberdish, her NoDa restaurant. “And they are bringing ideas and experiences here and then essentially starting a spa or a food truck or a bar or a magazine. And I think it’s helping build the look of our city in a totally different way.”

NoDa — and most of Charlotte — is surprisingly devoid of chains. Despite its unfounded reputation for the generic, it was hard to find anything from outside the area inside the city aside from a smattering of Starbucks and some roadside fast-food franchises. Brown said that’s a testament to how residents are beginning to take ownership of Charlotte.

“Our personality is just starting to come to fruition,” Brown, a Pittsburgh transplant, says. “I think we’ve been an adolescent for a very long time. But we’re starting to become whoever it is we’re going to be.”

What, exactly, Charlotte is is a little hard to pinpoint. Even after a trip through its fascinating Levine Museum of the New South, one is left with a burgeoning desire to figure out the city’s identity.

Founded in 1768, Charlotte’s modern history begins after the Civil War. As one of the few southern cities that wasn’t completely decimated by Union forces, it quickly drew new residents as soon as Reconstruction began.

The city boomed as a railroad hub in 1865, with nearly a hundred buildings shooting up in the first three months after the war. Textile mills followed in the decades after, but few of those mills still exist. The city paved over history for progress in the 20th century.

“Charlotte, we’re always tearing stuff down,” says Levine Museum staff historian Willie Griffin as he guides me through the exhibits. “Always had people coming here and trying to make something new.”

Photo: Camp North End/Facebook

But this time around, the people coming to make something new are embracing the old.

On a Friday night on a hill outside Uptown, artists are peddling sculptures made from Steve Urkel dolls while food trucks serve pad Thai outside an old Model-T factory. It’s the weekly Friday night fete at Camp North End, a beautiful red-brick factory that was a Ford plant and a missile facility for the US military before its current incarnation as an art space.

Camp North End is perhaps the shining example of how Charlotte is beginning to embrace its history and use it as a place to cultivate a creative class.

“It’s ironic that old is new in Charlotte,” says Varian Shrum, who moved here from Washington DC and is the development director for Camp North End. “The Charlotte way has been to tear things down and become the newest, shiniest city it can be, which I love that ambition that Charlotte has. It’s a city with an inner drive.” Shrum adds that while a focus on the new is still present, people also “respect where we came from and bring that up and along in our growth trajectory.”

Charlotte learns from mistakes as it grapples with gentrification

Photo: Blue Blaze Brewing/Facebook

The inherent challenge in developing character — especially in a city as newness-obsessed as Charlotte — is displacement and gentrification. But Charlotte’s Historic West End, at least for now, seems to be learning from the mistakes of other cities.

Dianna Ward, owner of Charlotte NC Tours, took me on a bike ride through one of the city’s less-visited areas: the historically black neighborhoods in the West End that are slowly drawing new development.

“I just bought the building over there,” she says, pointing to a triangular brick building currently housing a beauty supply shop. “We’re gonna put in some places people can go and get good food, cheap, you know? So the people who live around here can just walk or bike up here and get a slice of pizza or ice cream for a couple dollars.”

The building sits just a few blocks from Johnson C. Smith University, an HBCU that’s rapidly expanding with new dorms a few blocks from campus. Biking farther into the West End, we pass by a series of colorful craftsman homes with architecture from the 1940s that were built in this decade. They’re the creation of the developer-realtor team of Michael Doney and Michael Hopkins, who have opted to keep the architectural integrity of the West End rather than building yet another corridor of low-rise apartments.

“Whenever they build something, they always go into the black churches first,” Ward tells me over beers at Blue Blaze Brewing. “They ask if anyone wants to buy it, so people in the community get first dibs.”

This is a stark departure from what happened in Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood in Charlotte’s Second Ward that was razed in the name of 1960s “urban renewal,” then quickly put off-limits to African-Americans. That’s not to say Charlotte has solved the problem of displacing communities as the city grows, but it does seem to have people — even real estate people — who care about preserving its heritage.

In a city where your voice is heard, great things are possible

Photo: The King’s Kitchen/Facebook

Greg Collier, who will be opening a restaurant at Camp North End, was the first black chef from Charlotte to receive a James Beard nomination. He gained his fame with The Yolk, a popular breakfast and lunch spot in Uptown’s 7th Street Public Market. He moved here from Memphis to forge his culinary career and in the process has become one of the biggest names in the Carolina culinary scene.

“Charleston is the way it is. You know what I mean?” he says when explaining why he’s chosen to set up shop in Charlotte rather than bigger-name southern food cities. “Charleston has been that way for the last 600 years. It’s the old South, like Savannah is the old South. Here in Charlotte, my voice is valued, and for me, that’s extremely advantageous.”

Collier wasn’t the only person to explain to me that Charlotte was, effectively, a large city where the barriers to entry are small. At Haymaker, at the foot of the banking centers of Uptown, I sat at the counter and chatted with its chef de cuisine. He tells he moved here from Brooklyn, New York, so he could do more in the kitchen for less. The restaurant’s menu is full of inventive Southern stuff like crispy Carolina pork belly with sorghum glaze, and panisse with dragon tongue beans and shishito piri-piri.

Another bastion of innovation in the shadow of finance is King’s Kitchen, a non-profit Southern food restaurant that hires homeless people to train them for a career in the service industry. The idea was novel, and the service was better than the majority of restaurants I’ve been to.

“I used to come down here, and if me and my friends wanted to go out all there was were steakhouses,” my friend dining with me at Harvester, a native Carolinian, told me. “All finance bros. All these new places have opened up now with actually cool things on the menu.”

So locals, it seems, are welcoming transplants’ ideas as exactly what the city needs.

In Charlotte, even the great outdoors is made new again

Photo: Malachi Jacobs/Shutterstock

About 20 minutes from Uptown you’ll find The US National Whitewater Center, which is a sampling of all the great outdoors in one tidy 1,300-acre park. It has become a hub for nature lovers and beer lovers alike. The park offers access to 40 miles of hiking and biking trails, whitewater rafting, kayaking, paddleboarding, and ziplines, plus a beer garden in the middle of it all.

It’s another example of a new innovation in Charlotte making the most of the beauty that was already there — a 21st-century playground set among the pines on the Catawba River.

The teenagers and college students running the attractions remind me more of the rafting guides I’d met in Colorado or Washington; people more concerned with spending time in nature than spending money. Atop the center’s 120-foot tower, preparing to speed among the treetops as part of an eight-line ropes course, I ask the young man strapping me in what he thinks of Charlotte.

“Charlotte, we’ve got a lot of people who love great food and great music,” he says. “We’re foodies with gauges in our ears and sleeves of tattoos who’ll stay out all night on a weeknight to hear bad-ass music. We’re a culture and a personality, and you know what? Fuck the bankers.”

And with that, he sent me on my way. From atop the platform, the financial center skyline was nowhere in sight.

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