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Charlotte in the New South: Restless Re-Invention

Look at Charlotte and you might think it’s all brand-new.  But look close and there’s history here to see.

Charlotte is a quintessential New South city.  What’s the New South?  At the end of the Civil War, with slavery ended and the economy in tatters, the South had to re-invent itself.  Charlotte’s never stopped re-inventing — from fields to factories to finance.                                                                                                                                                                                   

Before the New South there was the Old South.  Charlotte came to life as a tiny courthouse town in 1768, named for England’s Queen Charlotte.  A Revolutionary War battle raged along its main Tryon Street.  British General Cornwallis is said to have called us a “hornet’s nest of rebellion.” To this day a hornet’s nest is the civic symbol emblazoned on police cars and Boy Scout badges.

A boy named Conrad Reed discovered North America’s first gold nearby in 1799. Today you, too, can pan for gold at the Reed Mine historic site east of the city, and you can see the reconstructed 1837 U.S. Mint that forms the rear of the original Mint Museum of Art out Randolph Road.

Charlotte’s gold economy dwindled after the 1849 California Gold Rush.  Instead our future lay in railroads and cotton.

Civil War battles bypassed the town, leaving its railroads intact. At the same time, the end of slavery wiped out plantations in other parts of Dixie. Soon leaders here were building what they called a “New South,” and by the 1920s the Carolinas led the nation in cotton manufacturing.

You can see that history today in the Charlotte arts district known as NODA (for North Davidson Street), in parts of the villages of Pineville and Cornelius, Kannapolis and Belmont, Mount Holly and Gastonia. Big brick mill buildings, turned to fresh uses, brood like mother hens over rows of look-alike cottages.

Cotton’s legacy lies behind other landscapes as well. Myers Park — gracious greenways and curving, oak-shaded streets — was laid out in 1911 for mill owners and bankers. Lake Wylie began as a hydroelectric project of James B. Duke who sold power to textile companies. NASCAR ran its first stock car race here in 1949, knowing that millhands had money jingling in their pockets on weekends.

Indeed, our banks – the crown of Charlotte’s skyline – sprang from textile money. Wells Fargo’s Charlotte presence rests on First Union, founded by a cotton broker. Rival NCNB became so adept at putting branches in far-flung Carolina cotton towns that in 1982 its leader Hugh McColl figured out how to buy an out-of-state bank. That triggered America’s shift to interstate banking. McColl’s Bank of America became the nation’s very first coast-to-coast bank in 1998.

Mecklenburg County has doubled in size since 1990, from half a million to over a million residents. People are flooding in from across the U.S. and around the world. You can taste this newest New South on older suburban streets such as Central Avenue, where a Mexican tienda, a Somali restaurant, a Salvadoran papusa joint, a Lebanese deli and a Vietnamese soup parlor mingle on the same block.

Today Charlotte is still yearning toward a New South, still re-inventing itself. That’s our history.  And our future.

Now what makes this place tick?

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:
* 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 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!

Charlotte History -- 10 things to know

Charlotte is a quintessential New South city. What’s the New South? At the close of the Civil War, with slavery ended and the economy in tatters, the South had to re-invent itself. In Charlotte, the re-inventions have never stopped, from fields to factories to finance.

  1. Old South roots. Charlotte is older than the United States, chartered in 1768. It sat astride two trading paths carved by the Catawba Indians, today the main avenues Trade Street and Tryon Street.
  2. Why the Queen City? Charlotte’s name honored Queen Charlotte, wife of King George of England. The county recalls her birthplace, Mecklenburg-Strelitz in Germany.  The names curried favor with English government, which chose Charlotte to be site of a county courthouse, aiding its rise as a trading village.
  3. Hornet’s nest of rebellion. Late in the Revolution, British General Cornwallis encountered sharpshooting Patriots at the 1780 Battle of Charlotte and the Battle of Kings Mountain nearby. A “hornet’s nest of rebellion,” he is said to have called Charlotte. Cornwallis departed, soon to be defeated by General George Washington at Yorktown, ending the War.
  4. Civil War crossroads. Rail connections made Charlotte a supply depot for the Confederacy, including a Naval Yard producing boat parts. At war’s end President Jeff Davis fled Richmond for Charlotte, holding his last full cabinet meeting here. A South Tryon Street sidewalk plaque marks where he heard of Lincoln’s assassination.
  5. New South boom. Since railroads first linked Charlotte to global markets in the 1850s, the city has never seen a decade without population growth. From about 3500 people at the close of the Civil War in 1865, city population climbed to 18,224 in 1900, to 100,899 in 1940, to 772,627 today. 
  6. Textile threads. Railroads made Charlotte a cotton trading point after the Civil War. Then regional boosters began building cotton mills. From the 1920s into the late 20thcentury, Charlotte reigned as the trade hub for America’s main textile manufacturing belt, where factories produced such household names as Cannon towels and Springmaid sheets.
  7. Buckle of the Bible Belt? Scotch-Irish Presbyterians built Charlotte’s first churches, namesakes of such thoroughfares as Providence Road and Sharon Road. Baptists took the lead through much of the 20thcentury, notably native-son Billy Graham, world famed evangelist whose Library is a major attraction today. Catholics now are pulling ahead due to new arrivals from the northern U.S. and Latin America. Other key groups – all members of the bridge-building organization Mecklenburg Ministries today – include AME Zion (world headquarters here), Greek Orthodox, United House of Prayer, Cambodian and Vietnamese Buddhist, and Islamic.
  8. Civil Rights transformations. Charlotte business leaders strove to avoid violence that scarred other Southern cities. Sit-ins by Johnson C. Smith University students set the stage for Mayor Stan Brookshire to ask Chamber of Commerce leaders to each invite an African American counterpart and go together two-by-two to integrate elite restaurants, 1963. The Supreme Court made Charlotte the nation’s test case for court-ordered busing in 1971, ended in 1999. Harvey Gantt won election in 1983 as the first black mayor in a major predominantly white Southern city.
  9. Banking boomtown. Charlotteans led in inventing interstate banking, beginning with NCNB’s purchase of a Florida bank in 1982. Hugh McColl built the nation’s first coast-to-coast bank in 1998, Bank of America, and his down-the-street rival created First Union (now part of Wells Fargo), making Charlotte the second-biggest banking center in the US as the 2000s dawned, behind only New York City.
  10. Immigrant magnet. Immigrants avoided the impoverished South during America’s last big immigrant wave around 1900. But in the 1990s Charlotte unexpectedly emerged as one of America’s top four “Hispanic hypergrowth” cities (along with Raleigh, Greensboro, NC and Atlanta) according to the Brookings Institution. Since 2000 Charlotte has become the fastest growing major Latino market in the U.S, according to Nielsen. Other major immigrant populations include South Asians (India, Pakistan), Vietnamese and Koreans. On streets such as Central Avenue you can eat your way from Somalia to El Salvador, Bosnia to Bhutan.