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If Youve Got the Money - Honey

by Christa Wagner

May 4,2005

In my last column for this magazine entitled “Make Charlotte Weird,” I described the effort of mid-sized cities like Austin and Raleigh to resist big box development and to invest instead in local entrepreneurs and grow on a neighborhood scale. I suggested that NoDa, the neighborhood I moved to last month, was Charlotte’s most eligible contender to become more “weird.”

Not everyone agreed. A local business owner and artist wrote in response: “From my perspective and the perspective of many others who thought of [NoDa] as a destination in the pre-condo days, it's dead, dead, dead…There used to be a weird, wild “blank canvas” feeling about the place: not anymore. Now it might as well be wearing a button-down shirt and khakis.”

For urban hipsters, novelty is sacrosanct. Also, apparently, is the idea that values like social capital can trump economic viability.

I became more interested in the contrast between economic capital and social capital when I attended a presentation sponsored by Mecklenburg Ministries, an interfaith organization that works to promote inter-religious, racial and ethnic understanding in Charlotte.

Mecklenburg Ministries invited Betsy Leondar-Wright, a sociologist who studies relationships between people of different economic classes and author of “Class Matters,” to speak about ways that middle class people can support efforts for social change without alienating people from other economic classes or feel powerless themselves.

Even though I work for a progressive organization, and come across many people working for social change, I still sometimes feel a dearth of people committed to a similar set of issues and values in the larger community. One of these issues is economic stratification between the wealthy and the working class.

Much has been made recently of Charlotte’s “cool” factor by groups such as the City Committee and the Charlotte Chamber. As these groups think about ways to attract and retain young people to the city’s workforce, are they considering all types of jobs that pay all levels of income?

Andy Baxter, Executive Director at Mecklenburg Ministries, is not convinced. “The City Committee’s way of thinking about citizens and potential citizens as customers is a destructive way of thinking about what a community is,” he says.

Baxter thinks that we should emphasize the personal rather than the pecuniary aspects of creating Charlotte’s future. Instead of attracting young workers who will stay in Charlotte as life-long earners and spenders, Baxter said we should be attracting people based on other qualities. “I’m not just giving the community my business, but some of who I am,” he says.

The identity of the people moving to Charlotte will invariably shape the identity of the city. But a looming historical precedent has long interfered with helping that identity take shape. Charlotte became obsessed with “boosterism” at the turn-of-the-last-century – so much so that the Charlotte Chamber once had a slogan, “Charlotte – A Good Place to Make Money.”

“The kind of boosterism we’re talking about is how we attract wealth,” says Baxter. “We’re not asking how we can attract people that have non-traditional lifestyles, for example.”

When the chairs of the City Committee appeared on Charlotte Talks last week, however, they said they made an effort to reach out to the larger community as they identified people to fill their focus groups. But for Baxter, who spends his workdays trying to help foster cross-cultural dialogue, outreach is not the same as diversity. “If you have integrity, the show doesn’t go on until you get that diversity.”

When Rebecca Ryan, whose firm Next Generation conducted the focus groups, was asked whether diversity was part of the recruitment strategy, she explained that the survey represented the “richest mosaic” of the Charlotte community.

In a sense, that’s accurate and the problem. The richest and wealthiest shouldn’t hold the only keys to the city. Ryan says that the young professionals will create a more “inclusive community” - hopefully one that includes people of diverse race, ethnic and sexual orientation, as well as economic classes. As I learned from Leondar-Wright, the sociologist, class matters.

Charlotte has a tendency to approach diversity in a way that is incomplete. In the new conversation about what makes Charlotte a great place to live and work, we need to hear more than one group’s idea of “cool.”

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