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When Tomorrow Comes

by Mark Peres

August 7,2008

Driving toward Asheville on a Friday night, refueling on the Eurythmics, smiling at my wife who was reading something about pets in Charlotte Magazine, I imagined when tomorrow comes. The skyline, the parks, the arts, and more frequent mention in top ten lists, it’s the booster drug that infuses the civic minded in the Queen City. It’s why we’re here, why we love it so much, the future is bright even when the present is patchy. Our sleeves are rolled up, our dollars are bet, we’re curious about the next big thing. Before we know it, 2000 has become 2005 and we are closing in on 2010. What are we building? What do we need? When will it happen? Can’t wait.

Future-gazing is time-honored. When ol’ Thomas Spratt pulled into what is now Mecklenburg County in 1763, with his Scots-Irish temperament and ambitions in tow, it wasn’t long before locals imagined a courthouse on a high ridge where two trading paths crossed. And our once-frontier needed it. As Dr. Dan Morrill has noted, “The great majority of people [in Mecklenburg County] were illiterate. Squabbling and fighting were routine. Men purposely allowed their thumbnails to grow long so that they could more easily gouge out the eyes of their adversaries in a brawl. Drunkenness and fornication were widespread.” So what better than a courthouse? That courthouse was the NASCAR HOF of its day. Let’s rally the community, send our best emissaries, write a check, and get it done. And except for 150 years between 1800 and 1950 that no one can remember, this town has been about the future ever since.

And what could be more fun when you have the money to build? The rise of the banks has fueled the rise of the city. We have been able to finance growth, and have had the enlightened leadership to dream. The current nervousness in town is first about the loss of jobs, homes and families at risk – but with our banks down, it is also that our daily projection of cool images of the future is on pause. We’re twisting on the couch waiting for the slide-show to begin again.

We want our Metropolis. The whole bang. We want whizzing trains, spiffy museums, hot young chefs, street festivals, tall buildings, green trails, tourists, café’s, condos and culture. We’re even giving up the coded insistence on “small-town values” (Avenue Q, anyone?). So many people are working hard for it, considering ideas, making plans, balancing interests. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and good will for the city to realize itself, and the great news is we can salute the work while maturing in our creative tension and civic discourse.

Is it the town that makes the people, or the people that make the town? How is it that newcomers – who were disconnected and dissatisfied in their cities of origin – morph into eager, high-school club president types once they arrive? Columnist David Brooks, who would have much glee writing about the ties that bind our city, notes that “Individuals….absorb the patterns and norms of the world around them. Decision-making…isn’t a coldly rational, self-conscious act. Instead, decision-making is a long chain of processes, most of which happen beneath the level of awareness. We absorb a way of perceiving the world from…neighbors. We mimic the behavior around us. Only at the end of the process is there self-conscious oversight.”

That’s what makes Charlotte such a kick. Our city is quintessentially American in this regard: it is conservative in preserving norms, and progressive in that the norm that is preserved is change.

And so we project forward. Bankers, yes bankers, will once again join civic leaders, entrepreneurs and taxpayers in forging the next stage of our development. They will hear the pitches, and will finance the buildings, parks and artistry we want. And whether they are aware of it or not, they will do it not only because lending and investing is what they do, but because it is expected of them to help build our Metropolis. Before we know it, we’ll be back to watching the slide show…imagining when tomorrow comes.

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