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Choosing Community

by Martin Grable

October 5,2006

“And you chose Charlotte?” That’s the common response I get whenever I tell people we looked all around the country before deciding to move here from the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve frequently said the Bay Area was a great community…with no real sense of community. Turns out our decision to move had a lot to do with community.

I feel more at home in Charlotte after two-and-half years than I did after twenty seven years in the Bay Area. Why? It’s not just because “people are nicer here.” Broadly, the choice to move was about quality of life. We wanted access to all that cities have to offer: great restaurants, sports, the arts, museums, quality health care, recreation, ethnic and cultural diversity, and neighborhoods with charm and character. But we also wanted a community in which to live – “community” not always being synonymous with cities.

The dictionary definition of community reads something like a unified body of individuals with common interests living in a particular area. Close, but my definition would include warmth, caring and commitment to one another. And by that definition, Charlotte is a city with a discernable sense of community.

One reason is structural. Charlotte is the result of leadership and vision superimposed on thoughtful planning and development. Say what you will about the development of Uptown; a vibrant center city does a lot to curb urban sprawl. Bringing sports, parks and activities to Uptown brings people in, instead of pushing them out. Probably bad timing on my part, but count me in as a supporter of light rail. The same is true of the plan to bring housing, a park and a baseball stadium uptown. The payoff will come. You’ll see it in the economic development of the South Corridor and increased property values broadly across the region.

Another reason we have community is diversity. Both economic and cultural. Charlotte’s economy is growing and diversifying. We are a center for banking and entrepreneurs. Banking brings access to capital; entrepreneurs bring new business to the region and return on investment. Whether in the expanding bio-tech or restaurant sector, new companies bring jobs and job diversity supported by strong academic environments at both the university and community college levels.

We have cultural diversity too. We have a growing and diverse population that brings with it the richness of differing nationalities. And we are more integrated than many might think. For all of the San Francisco Bay Area’s cultural diversity, as I left it I was struck by how insular it had become. Ethnic groups in the Bay Area had become highly concentrated. Interests had become far less broadly unified, and were, to a growing extent, polarizing and dividing. The richness of sharing differences and culture was lost. Charlotte has to take care not to subdivide our broad sense of community into cultural or ethnic enclaves. Looking for ways to bring better integration of mixed income housing growth to Uptown is but a single example.

Growing cities have growing problems. Charlotte is no different in that regard. Crime, homelessness, infrastructure, schools, taxes – it’s a long list. What’s different here? I believe we still have an environment of openness that provides opportunity for access and input. Access and input brings more people to the table, allows us to work together more as a community, and solve more of our problems.

In the final analysis, what makes Charlotte different is community. Community is about participation. To participate in a meaningful way is to belong. Belonging creates ownership and value. We must be inclusive to create a broader sense of belonging and a broader group of owners – a broader community. Now is the time to strengthen and reinforce access and input.

The alternative? We become victims of urban sprawl, unconnected and disassociated; focused on our differences as problems. Racing through life, but not engaged. Forgetting our humanness; falling into the anonymous, transient, individualistic environment that seems to define many of today’s cities.

Charlotte is a great canvas. Part of it has been painted in, much of it remains open to new talent, but we must continue to create while building the bonds of community.

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