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The Resonant Idea

by Mark Peres

October 6,2007

Back in the day, 22 years ago when I graduated college, there was a short list of cities that beckoned young talent from around the country. Living on the east coast, my list may have been different than one from a young graduate out west, but the odds were, there would have been significant overlap. Of the dozens of large and medium-sized cities in America, there were a handful of stand-outs. In the mid 1980’s, the cities that drew in talent by the planeload were Washington D.C., Boston, Atlanta and Dallas. Each of those cities, in different ways, offered possibility and prosperity.

In the summer of 1985, I graduated from Rollins College, a liberal arts college in Winter Park, Florida. With my history degree in hand, I moved to Boston, backpack on my shoulder, uncertain of next steps. I did not have a job or graduate school lined up. All I knew is that I wanted to be in a place where historical and newsworthy events happened, and a place whose energy and diversity would help broaden and deepen who I was. Everywhere I turned, I met engaged and opinionated people. I would take the Green Line in from West Newton, jump off near Fenway, and find my way to a university commons, coffee shop or bookstore. Over time, I settled on law school. Boston was a destination city because it offered an idea of place that was greater than me.

Charlotte is now on the short list of cities for students, entrepreneurs and families from around the country to arrive and claim as home. But the resonant idea that attracts people here is different than what attracted me and others to Boston (and later in life to Washington D.C.). People are not coming to Charlotte because history and newsworthy events are happening here. In fact the opposite is true: Charlotte is outside the stream of history (and thus has no connection to its history). Nor are they coming because the city’s energy and diversity helps one discover oneself. Again, the opposite is true: if anything, Charlotte’s conformity can be intellectually and spiritually deadening. Instead, people are coming to Charlotte for a different aspiration: to make money and to live well.

Livability is an ancient and powerful siren. We want safe, clean streets. We want order and predictability. We want beauty and commerce. And Charlotte is not only good at it, it is on the verge of being great at it. Charlotte has a passion for all the refinements of Southern Living, it indeed can be best in the world at it, and it has the resources and the buy-in of its constituents to pull it off – a good to great formula that leadership guru Jim Collins would note and praise.

Striving to become the most livable city in America resonates with our desires for comfort and acclaim. Work and see your personal wealth grow. Be untroubled by world events. Buy culture created elsewhere. And live with the civic pride that we made the list of desirable places noted on the cover of national magazines.

Given how so many places are on the decline, being a functional and ascendant city is no small trick. Exceptional civic and managerial skills have made it so. Attention must be paid for sustaining what makes Charlotte livable is a full time task. We are fortunate to have so many lending their talents to the job.

The warning in aspiring solely to livability is that it can devolve into very parochial and selfish interests. If the city is simply about money and lifestyle, than it can quickly become about my money and lifestyle – my neighborhood, my transportation, and my taxes – at the expense of common interests and public infrastructure. We are witnessing the unattended consequence of simply aspiring for livability play out in our current civic debates.

The antidote to the devolution of community is a resonant idea that calls us to something greater than ourselves. Is there more to city life than home, car and high-rise – even if all done well? Is there more to civilization than well-considered consumption? Is there something about Charlotte in particular that calls us to something beyond livability?

Stay tuned.

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