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The Resonant Idea II

by Mark Peres

November 6,2007

When we were last together, our narrative explored how certain cities attract people because the events of the day happen there and because they are places whose energy and diversity broaden and deepen us as individuals. These cities – Boston, Washington, New York – offer a resonant idea of talent and tolerance, of clash and conflict, of action and significance – big city cauldrons where one goes to shape and be shaped by others, art and history.

We also explored how Charlotte is a destination city of a very different type. Charlotte is now on the short list of cities for young graduates and families from around the country to arrive and claim as home. But the resonant idea that attracts people here is different than what attracts people to traditional large northern urban centers. As we noted, people are not coming to Charlotte because history and newsworthy events happen 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: Charlotte’s conformity can be intellectually and spiritually stifling. Instead, people come to Charlotte for a different aspiration: to make money and to live well.

Like other New South cities, our resonant idea is livability. We strive for order, cleanliness and civility wrapped in Protestant sensibilities of work and wealth. We are a money town. With banking at our core, we measure success by what money can buy. Our validation comes from being ranked by any national source as the best good place where one can prosper untroubled by world events.

We went on to note that the danger in all this is that the aspiration for livability can devolve into very parochial and selfish interests. If the city is 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 noted that we are witnessing the unattended consequence of simply aspiring for livability play out in our current civic debates.

We left our narrative by asking if there is 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?

And there is. It is progress. In our DNA is a constant remaking of ourselves. We are an open canvas. We are a blank slate. We are the Next Big Thing. It is what we talk about. It is what we lift up. It is our culture code.

The constant creation of the future may be what drives the historical preservationists in our midst crazy, but it is also what energizes thousands of talented people to choose Charlotte over Charleston. And indeed over Boston, Washington and New York. Talent is coming here – and staying – because they can create the future. They can participate in the shaping of the skyline – literally – putting their physical stamp of imagination on the landscape. They can revitalize neighborhoods. They can launch film festivals, schools and universities (over a dozen in the last 10 years by my count), and new media-thought leadership ventures (like our own).

I have met hundreds of people in Charlotte who migrated to the big cities to experience the bright lights and the rush of being in the center of events. By some twist, they found their way here, and now they are not leaving. Unlike those other places that may be overwhelming or byzantine, they can plug in here. They are more energized about the possibility of Charlotte (and what that might mean for their own lives) than the actuality of other places.

It is this ability to create the future that we must continue to nurture. A city of open doors, of access to people and capital, of ideas and meritocracy is our saving grace. It is our antidote to monied oppression and short-term, parochial self-interest that rears its head when livability is our only aspiration.

For the Chamber marketers among you: Charlotte: Live Well. Create the Future.

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