Welcome to Charlotte!

Now what makes this place tick?

Written by Tom Hanchett for Charlotte Agenda

How would you define Charlotte’s identity? What factors contribute?
Charlotte is a New South city — and I’m not saying that just because I work for Levine Museum of the New South. Charlotte’s history dates back to the 1700s, but it didn’t really start to cook until after the Civil War. Slavery was gone, the economy was a mess, so Southern leaders started talking about reinventing their region as a “New South” that would no longer be dependent on farming and slave labor. Over the last 150 years we’ve moved from slavery to segregation to Civil Rights, from fields to factories to finance. But the one constant throughout this New South era has been an enthusiasm for re-inventing this place.

Today we are in the midst of another reinvention as newcomers pour in from across the country and around the globe. Charlotte’s newest identity, I’d say, is as a city of newcomers. That’s rooted in our history; from the Charlotte newcomer who erected the city’s first textile mill in 1881, to the Charlotte transplant who built Bank of America, this city has always been unusually ready to welcome ambitious outsiders. Today, though, growth has gone into overdrive. The county zoomed from half a million people in 1990 to over a million today. Our metro area leads the nation in Latino population increase — but that’s only a small stream compared to the numbers coming from New York and the Northeast, from Ohio and the Midwest, from California and Korea and Bosnia and Bhutan.

How do we handle all that growth? Some aspects of that question are technical and economic: how do we add highway lanes and/or should we extend rail capacity? But the most important, I think, is how we develop a shared sense of community. Can we avoid being a city of strangers? Getting to know each other isn’t just a feel-good thing. It’s essential to finding ways to work together on making this a better place.

How does your line of work impact Charlotte’s identity and why?
At Levine Museum of the New South, we use history to build community. We strive to tell the stories of all who have shaped Charlotte and who are shaping it today. “History” is just a fancy name for stories. Add stories together and you begin to get a sense of how a place works, how decisions have been made. That’s tremendously empowering. The more you know about the decisions that got us to where we are today, the better your chance to affect decisions that will move us forward.

As a community historian with Levine Museum and independently, I’ve enjoyed exploring questions about change in Charlotte, both long ago and in our own time. My book Sorting Out the New South City: Race Class & Urban Development in Charlotte 1875 – 1975 asks how and why Charlotte got segregated into neighborhoods sharply divided by race and income. Exhibits I’ve helped create at Levine Museum include the permanent installation Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers, an overview of the Charlotte region’s restless reinventions throughout 150 years, and the recently-opened NUEVOIution: Latinos and the New South. For the Charlotte Observer I write a monthly column called Food From Home which spotlights eateries where you can taste the many cultures that are coming together to forge the newest New South. All of these, I hope, enrich the stories that Charlotteans tell ourselves about our identity — about what this city is and what it can become.

Next 5-10 years? Advice for getting involved?
Historians are much better at predicting that past than predicting the future. But I’m willing to bet that the expansion we’ve seen recently will continue. Even the 2008 Great Recession did not slow Charlotte’s population rise. Today we are the second fastest growing city in the entire U.S. At the same time, I’ve heard many people point out that Charlotte is still a place where one person can make a difference — a reality you can see in the creation of Charlotte Agenda or in Garrett Tichy’s #WeLoveCLT gatherings.

The key is to reach out. Get beyond your workplace and your home screen. Seek out people doing interesting things. Volunteer. Check out Leadership Charlotte, Community Building Initiative, Mecklenburg Ministries. Take a chance on some local theater (I love Actors Theater and On-Q Productions), find local music and art (I dig Jazz Arts Initiative and the Wall Poems project), wander a farmers market to connect with the locavore food scene, read more than one local news source regularly.

Frustrated by what you don’t find? Yes! That’s your cue to dig in, to struggle to make changes, to make history. There is much that needs to be done here.

Don’t Be a Prisoner of Your ZIP Code

Newcomer tips for digging into Charlotte’s diversity
by Tom Hanchett

The first edition of Charlotte Agenda Live turned out 300 participants in February 2016, eager to talk, connect and dig into Charlotte. We’re a city of newcomers, bubbling with ethnic and economic diversity. But this is also a town — like most in the U.S. — where it is all too easy to stay insulated in your own particular sector. Here are some ways learn about aspects of Charlotte that might be outside your regular daily work/home/shopping/entertainment rut. Don’t be a prisoner of your zip code!

Eat the world
Cultures from across the U.S. and around the world are bringing hundreds of cuisines to Charlotte.
Hot-spots are South Boulevard and especially Central Avenue. But interesting eats are everywhere from Taste of Buffalo at I77 Exit 25, to hyper-international Super G Mart out Independence Boulevard, to the excellent “real Chinese” restaurant inside Grand Asia Market on the edge of Matthews. To explore on-line:

*Taste of the World, an annual restaurant crawl in east Charlotte, has a great website year-round, regular e-blasts, and an active Facebook page: http://charlotteeast.com/taste-of-the-world/
* Food From Home, which I write for the Charlotte Observer, explores a different eatery each month.
* Tricia Childress at Creative Loafing regularly turns me on to new restaurants — and new cultures.

Visit a museum
If you think museums are boring, you haven’t seen what’s happening here. Two unexpected examples:
*Levine Museum of the New South, where I work, was honored at the White House for its innovative vision of “using history to build community.” The big, interactive permanent exhibit Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers puts you in touch with the people who have shaped this region from cotton mill workers to sit-in activists to bankers. Another current exhibit, NUEVOLution: Latinos and the New South, tells stories via videos — and a Latino concert series kicks off March 30. There’s even a series of evening programs called The New South for the New Southerner.
* McColl Center for Art + Innovation is housed in what used to be a burned-out church uptown on North Tryon. It gives space to local, national and international artists to create art. Which would be cool enough — but the aim of most of the art is explicitly to engage with social issues and make Charlotte and/or the world a better place. Watch for the free studio-crawls — next is April 29 — hang out with the artists, enjoy munchies, meet interesting people.

Scope out a community issue
Read the Charlotte Observer regularly and you’ll get a quick handle on what this city is arguing about. Charlotte Agenda is another good resource, of course. And there’s an exciting UNC Charlotte blog PlanCharlotte.org. If folks are arguing, that means an issue is deeply important to a lot of people — and that means it likely affects you.

Here are two issues, with one way to start exploring each one:
* Can schools be less segregated by income and ethnicity?
* Can we create neighborhoods that mix incomes?

Be watching for the more editions of Charlotte Agenda Live throughout 2016!