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Reading Charlotte

by Christa Wagner

February 4,2005

So the city hires a consultant of cool to decide if Charlotte is hip and learns from a cadre of recent college grads that it's not. Quite. Ouch.

The February 1st cover story of the Charlotte Observer asked the question that's been posed in a number of panels and focus groups lately– is Charlotte attracting promising young well-educated people?

As Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson pointed out in a quick retort the next day, Charlotte already has all of the most desired amenities the young and hip were clamoring for, those amenities just aren’t concentrated in enclaves accessible by foot. Of course, the great cities of the world have one common theme between them: they are as the people make them--people interacting with the buildings and streets in a lively interplay of pedestrian traffic.

Charlotte is moving toward the real city groove, though. I hear positive reactions from "boomerangs" (people this survey’s consultant identifies as living in Charlotte, moving away, then returning) to the city's rapid growth. Most are admittedly surprised, sort of a “who knew uptown could be Alive after Five?” attitude -- even after that boosterish program had fallen to the wayside.

Uptown IS more alive now during the work day and after. In spite of a new emphasis on urban development, though, the core of uptown remains surrounded by a sea of parking lots. City blocks were once filled with buildings that reflected the changing architectural styles and tastes of Charlotte as it grew. We don’t have much of that living history in our buildings anymore; we have parking lots. And oh!, how some people complained about potentially having to pay more to park in those precious lots when the city was debating a parking fee increase to cover arts spending for the transit lines!

Just between you and me, urban parking lots do no good for anyone. They waste space; they encourage single passenger commuting; they collect oil and other gunk that washes into storm sewers, polluting lakes and rivers downstream.

Which makes me think of an issue the erudite panelists didn’t appear to discuss: the quality of the air and water and prevalence of parks and other open spaces in the greater Charlotte area. What is the real secret to gaining urban vitality and hipness, integration and economic development?

How do you create communities people care about? My answer is put the environment first. Most of us want clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and play in and beautiful arboretums or rolling pastures to look at. So what kind of cities do we build in order to maintain those basic rights?

Charlotte has come along way since George Washington visited and called it a “trifling place.” In its many incarnations, Charlotte has been many things.

But I wonder if it can take a cue from the lesson I learned from Salmon Rushdie, the novelist, who spoke at Davidson College recently. He talked about his evolution as a writer and confessed that it took a few attempts at writing full-length novels before he found his real voice. Born in India, but educated in England, he claimed that he started writing with an English voice, but it was after he was willing to acknowledge his more authentic Indian voice that his writing became an exciting and honest process for him. What was significant about the very obvious realization that he was Indian and not British was his discovery of the uniqueness of his Indian-English tongue.

If the evolution of Charlotte can be compared to the evolution of one of the world’s great living writers, it would be to say that Charlotte is still finding its voice. But it must find its authentic voice. The voice that remembers that Charlotte experienced its first growth from a gold rush and the second significant growth from banking. That it was a city solidly embroiled in civil rights struggles and still has a shortage of tolerance for diversity.

The fact is, coolness won’t result from one giant development project or one focus group. It takes time and its growth must be organic, unchoreographed and spontaneous. The next chapter in Charlotte’s history will be an interesting one to watch.

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