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Make Charlotte Weird

by Christa Wagner

April 4,2005

One of the recent discoveries I've made in the annals of creative idiosyncrasy is the "Keep Austin Weird" campaign in Austin, Texas. Explained as "collaborative fission of coordinated individualism," the zany milieu of Spamarama and art car parades is the kind of concentrated eclecticism that only happens when it's endorsed by the right mix of people at the right time.

The Austin campaign is, I think, a spontaneous way of expressing what people really care about when the pressure of increasing property values seems more imminent. Austin dwellers care about being kitschy; a bizarre need, perhaps, but one that is still transcendent of baser notions like housing values.

The movement has spawned a number of copycats including “Keep Portland Weird,” “Raleigh Unchained,” and “Keep Louisville Weird.” All are efforts to push back against corporate big box retailers that drive homegrown businesses out of town. Many of the “Weird” movements have sprung up in red state cities where residents are concerned about the increasing uniformity of their community.

Like the other towns, Austin is a progressive oasis in a sea of, shall we say, imperial oil rigs, and it reminds me somewhat of the neighborhood I'm about to make my new home, NoDa. Otherwise known as the North Davidson Arts District, at the intersection of old mill town and emerging urbanity, NoDa promises to be an excellent venture into establishing a tradition of weirdness in Charlotte.

I'm interested in the way my new neighborhood is growing and changing, but I also wondered what it was like in the past. So I did some research.

North Charlotte was settled at the turn of the century. Like Cannon Mills in Kannapolis, Springs Industries in Fort Mill and Pharr Yarns in Belmont, North Davidson and 36th Street was at the crossroads of a traditional mill town built by Highland Mills. Families moved in to work as yarn spinners in Charlotte's first large, blue collar community. The town was separated from the rest of the city by farms and fields and existed more or less independently until the mill boarded up in 1975.

North Charlotte is now a pretty happening place. But I want to pause and probe that reputation a little deeper.

On the one hand, NoDa is modern, eccentric and cool and certainly absent of any chain retailers. On the other, North Charlotte may be victim to the same phenomenon that is changing (some would say corrupting) other older parts of the city. As Charlotte grows, the inner beltline neighborhoods are being forced to let go of their old demographics. New construction drives up property values, pushing out renters or low income homeowners who can’t afford the higher property taxes.

Does NoDa have a similar story? Which families have been displaced? According to the history of the neighborhood I found on the web, the mill closing in the mid-seventies actually left the old town deserted for almost a decade.

In 1986, an artist couple resurrected the Lowder building on North Davidson Street. That building became the home of high-end art galleries, followed by restaurants, a wine bar, coffee shops, a book store and several concert venues.

What makes the community tick is the grassroots involvement of neighbors who are more invested in building community than fabricating a franchise. Ultimately, NoDa has successfully integrated the culture of the old neighborhood with its new identity – definitely getting weird.

Interestingly, though, NoDa still seems apologetic to the greater Charlotte that it hopes to distance itself from. Under the cuisine tab on the neighborhood website, the Cabo Fish Taco restaurant promises diners they can "untuck [their] shirt and get away from everyday Charlotte." I feel safe making the anti-booster comment that by everyday Charlotte, they mean buttoned-up, banker Charlotte. Sort of like saying NoDa is a retreat from the Charlotte nearly everyone lives in.

The decisively independent blue collar community that once populated the area is being supplanted by a new identity. But those roots shouldn't be forgotten. The greatest legacy of the old neighborhood is its tradition of isolationism as a "satellite city," not considered part of Charlotte. That tradition of resisting assimilation makes it possible for NoDa to get weirder.

Make NoDa weird. After all, it's our birthright.

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