Friday, June 30, 2006

Charlotte's vexing roads, plus a history lesson

Newcomers are frequently vexed by the many road names that change without warning. I feel their pain.

A friend, a resident of Charlotte for less than a year, called me on her mobile phone the other day. She was on Providence Road near N.C. 51 and wanted to get to Phillips Place. Go north on Providence, then turn left on Fairview, I told her.

Oops. I forgot to warn her that the intersection I meant is Sardis on one side and Fairview on the other. She called again after missing the turn – and several others – and I directed her by way of Queens and Sharon roads back to the SouthPark area. It’s a scenic, if tricky, route that any newcomer would certainly enjoy.

I grew up in Charlotte and I went to high school on Sardis Road not far from that intersection, yet I still forgot to warn her. What’s your worst road-name-change driving mistake? Let me know at and I’ll follow up.


With the historical holiday of Independence Day approaching, here's a quick history lesson.

Tom Hanchett, the historian at Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South, has a handy way of boiling down local history: Think Queen, King, Duke and Crown.

--The Queen: Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Germany. She’s the queen who was married to King George III when this area was part of a British colony and local leaders wanted approval to build a courthouse here. So they chose the city and county names to curry favor.

--The King: King cotton, which made the region into a textile trading center.

--The Duke: That would be Duke Energy, one of Charlotte’s Fortune 500 companies and one of our major downtown headquarters.

--The Crown: The Bank of America headquarters building, the jewel of Charlotte’s skyline.

Want to know more about the area’s history? Check out, a Web site of the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County, and click on “history.”

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

More on the statues at Trade and Tryon

Why point out that one of the four statues at Trade and Tryon streets in uptown Charlotte is African American?

A writer to today’s letters to the editor page asked that question in response to an item in Sunday’s Living Here column in which I described the statues. I mentioned that one is an African American railroad worker but did not give the races of the other three.

I should have provided a fuller explanation. The four statues were intended to reflect the general population of Mecklenburg County. They are 50 percent female, three-quarters white and one-quarter African American. The actual percentage in Mecklenburg in 2005 was 60.3 percent white and 29.7 percent African American according to market research firm Claritas, which also estimates the population is about 8.5 percent Latino.

Here's the original item for those who missed it:

A newcomer recently asked about the four bronze statues at The Square at Trade and Tryon streets. They’re some of uptown’s best-known landmarks. A female textile worker represents industry; a male African American railroad worker is transportation; a male gold miner, commerce; and a female with a baby, the future.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Want to visit Whitewater Center?

The U.S. National Whitewater Center has the potential to become a standout tourist attraction in the region - “something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the entire world,” director Jeff Wise said at a media preview I attended last Thursday.

But if you are one of those those who are eager to visit if it opens as scheduled in the next few weeks, be warned: it’s very much a work in progress.

After the preview, I had to go home and change shoes because so many of the pathways were still red dirt - that's scheduled to improve before opening, but shoes that can take a beating will still be advisable. The parking lot is dusty gravel (though I did see a truck spraying what appeared to be water to keep dust down).

The climbing walls aren’t scheduled to be up until late summer. Any shelter on the grounds will be temporary, as the indoor center is still months away from completion. And the temporary access road to the center was extremely bumpy and pothole-filled - it's slated for some unspecified improvements, but it's probably wise to continue taking those "slow down" signs at face value.

Once the water starts flowing, the center will first appeal to hardcore paddlers. Regular tourists might want to wait a bit.


The whitewater center is bringing an influx of newcomers who are buying and renting homes just to be near it.

Among them is Chris Hipgrave, the Olympic high performance director for USA Canoe/Kayak, the affiliate of the U.S. Olympic Committee that moved its headquarters to Charlotte in 2003 in anticipation of the center’s opening.

Hipgrave moved to Gaston County a year ago from Bryson City, where he was living to be near the Nantahala River. “Normally, whitewater paddlers live in the middle of nowhere – that’s where the rivers are,” he said.

He says up to 40 athletes and coaches will move here this summer. Center director Jeff Wise estimates thousands more enthusiasts will factor it into their decisions to move here – he’s heard of an Ohio dentist and paddler who wants to open a practice in Belmont, for example. “You base where you want to live on your lifestyle,” Wise said.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Hands-on activity

I recently discovered for myself a great way to get involved and meet new people: Hands on Charlotte .

It’s a way to volunteer without making a regular time commitment. You sign up, attend an orientation, and then look at an online calendar of events – many of them on evenings and weekends – and sign up for only those for which you have time.

At my orientation, the vast majority were newcomers. Most were in their 20s and 30s.

They offer a program called “TeamWorks,” in which participants are assigned to a team that volunteers and socializes together.

My first volunteering activity was last weekend. I met with a group of about eight others at Crisis Assistance Ministry’s clothing ministry. We sorted through the clothing in the store the agency makes available to its needy clients. We threw away damaged pieces and folded winter inventory for storage. Then we re-stocked the racks with freshly donated items – meaning we could instantly see the results of our work.

That family heirloom might belong in a museum

Wondering what to do with an heirloom wedding dress? You might be able to donate it to the Mint Museum of Art’s costume collection.

Charles Mo, the museum’s chief curator of fine arts, said several factors determine whether the museum will accept a dress: whether it’s from a noteworthy designer; whether it’s an outstanding example of a particular period or style; what condition it’s in; and whether the person who wore it is of local, regional or national significance.

If you want him to consider one, e-mail him at (don’t expect an immediate response; he’ll need time if he gets a flurry of inquiries at once).

The Mint opened a new costume gallery in November and it contains an 1884 wedding gown as part of an exhibit on 18th- and 19th-century fashions; other dresses might be used in special exhibits.

If you’re a newcomer, here’s some trivia: When you enter the Mint on Randolph Road, you’re walking into the back door. Walk around the grass to the other side, and you’ll see the front of the 1830s Mint building that gives the museum its name.

Go visit if you want to see the building; leaders are considering moving the museum uptown.

Odds and Ends

Question from Erika Duncan of Charlotte: I was hoping to find information on uptown parking during working hours (near the IJL Building). I am going to be part-time so don’t need a monthly parking spot.

Answer from Gail Smith-Arrants: The IJL Financial Center garage (6th and Church streets) charges a daily rate of $15.

You can find cheaper rates at surface parking lots, which usually cost $6 to $8 a day. Walk or drive around and see which one has the best rate. Some have “early-bird” discounts if you arrive before a certain time in the morning.

At Discovery Place, you can park daily, but it’ll cost you. The first 30 minutes are free, but it’s a sliding scale after that. for 31 minutes to five hours, it’s $10. Eight hours would be $13, and 10 hours or more, $15. For more on uptown parking, go to

This week’s newcomers are Cheryl DeMaio and Jignesh Shroff.

DeMaio, who Gail Smith-Arrants interviewed, moved to Dilworth from Manhattan in November 2005 for a job relocation with TIAA-CREF.

Her tip: She finds out about Charlotte happenings by signing up for online newsletters through She uses “Around Town,” “Great Escapes” and “Shopping and Entertainment” as starting points for her activities. “You need to be proactively going out and looking for things. I get an e-mail every Friday that tells me what’s coming,” she said.

Shroff, who I spoke with at a recent Center City Alive After Five concert, moved to south Charlotte from southern California last July to find a better cost of living. “It’s a culture shock for me in some ways, because this is the South and it truly feels like the South. I think Charlotte needs to open up a little more and be a little more worldly,” he said.

Do you agree? Post a comment or send me an e-mail.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Free outdoor music around the region

The number of free outdoor concerts offered around the region helps answer the question raised recently by a newcomer of whether there’s enough to do around Charlotte. On a weekend evening in the summertime, you’ve got plenty of options if you like live music.

Of course, some of them involve sitting on a concrete shopping center plaza, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but my experience is that most of these settings are pleasant. Here’s the article and list.

For research, I sampled five outdoor concerts in four days. I started at Center City Alive After Five last Thursday; Stonecrest at Piper Glen, near Ballantyne, Friday; Birkdale Village in Huntersville Saturday; Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas, an annual celebration in Independence Park in Elizabeth, Sunday afternoon; and the Charlotte Symphony Summer Pops concert at SouthPark Sunday evening.

The weather was absolutely gorgeous at every occasion, which was a surprise – often these events have to contend with blazing heat or a rainstorm.

The crowds at Stonecrest and Birkdale were similar, mostly family-dominated. Center City was more of a youngish professional crowd. Juneteenth, which is an annual celebration of the end of slavery, was a predominantly family crowd with African-themed merchandise for sale at many vendors; there was gospel playing at one stage and rap at a second one.

At Pops, the funniest sight was a toddler from the next blanket over who grabbed an umbrella I’d brought and pretended it was a weed-whacker – complete with vigorous sound effects as the symphony played.

A friend, a five-year Charlotte area resident who attended Pops for the first time, shared her impressions:

“My thought was that it is a lovely way to enjoy music and the setting makes it perfect for young kids to come get exposure as well (something that my beloved Hollywood Bowl in L.A. didn’t facilitate). Had a great, festive communal spirit. Great people watching, and I saw some impressive picnic setups.

The tips for newcomers: Don’t sit by the speakers or over too close to the pond where it kind of smells unpleasant. Come early on Sunday – but not before 10 a.m. – to set your blanket out for prime viewing (but don’t use stakes or the gravel from the path to weight it down, as that’s a no-no). Do remember the mosquito candles and your wine bottle opener!”

What’s your best or funniest outdoor concert experience? E-mail me at and I’ll post some of them here.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Finding any fun?

It’s an age-old complaint: There’s nothing to do around Charlotte. And why aren’t there more people uptown?

A transplant from New York City said that to me at an event at the Levine Museum of the New South I attended in my new role as the Observer’s newcomers reporter.

I wondered if she had been uptown on a Saturday morning, when crowds at the Center City Green Market often mingle with those headed to events at ImaginOn (the children’s public library and theater) or Bobcats Arena. I wondered if she’d been there at 10 p.m. on a Thursday or Friday night to see the bar-hoppers.

She might not realize how many new things we have to do here, and how many more are coming.

As a near-native, I lived here when there was truly not much to do - no Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Concord Mills, Carolina Panthers, Ballantyne, Birkdale Village. Those all came in the last 15 years. When I was growing up in the 1980s, uptown was a wasteland during evenings and weekends. That gradually improved during the 1990s as more condos, apartments and houses were built downtown.

Now, high-rise condos are taking shape and the EpiCentre across from the arena will bring more entertainment. Around the region, new developments are creating town centers from Harrisburg to Fort Mill, S.C.

Our options may have a little less fanfare than those in New York City or Miami or Chicago. Are there enough? Tell me what you think and I’ll follow up.

We're occasionally interviewing newcomers to get their perspective on the region. My friend and colleague Gail Smith-Arrants recently spoke to Melissa Shelton, 37.

She lives in Huntersville after moving from Cleveland, OH in July 2005. Our region's better economy and better weather lured her. Her tip for newcomers? “If you just ask around, people are very willing to share their expertise, like where’s the best place for authentic pizza. Everybody was in our shoes once.“

If you're a newcomer, what's the best tip about this region you've learned since you got here? E-mail me at and be sure to include your name and contact information.

Here's a tip: It's a great way to meet people or gather with friends, and best of all, it’s free: Center City Alive After Five, every Thursday through Aug. 31 at Tryon and Second streets, 5:30-9 p.m. This week, Bon Jovi tribute band Slippery When Wet performs. (click calendar).

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Welcome to the new blog

The Charlotte region is filled with newcomers – and sometimes folks who have lived here for awhile can’t keep up with all the new things going on.

I hope to help in my new job as the Observer’s newcomers reporter. I’ll be giving regular tips, facts and inside information about the Charlotte region, helping you learn about where we live. Also, I’ll be meeting with, blogging about and writing stories about the area’s recent arrivals throughout the paper and on

I’ll share with you my perspective as a near-lifelong resident of the Charlotte region. I grew up in the southeast Charlotte neighborhood of Stonehaven. I returned after graduating from Duke University and working for a few years in Winston-Salem. Since then, I’ve somehow managed to live in Concord, Denver (the one near Lake Norman), uptown Charlotte’s Fourth Ward, Birkdale Village in Huntersville, and my current haunt, Elizabeth. (I guess I’m just addicted to packing boxes).

The areas I’ve covered in my 10 years at the Observer have been just as varied – they range from Cabarrus County government to public safety, entertainment, general assignment news and retail business.
I hope it adds up to meaning that I’ve acquired some useful information that I can share. But I’ll need your help. So, here’s what to keep an eye out for:

--I'll run useful information in the paper and on this blog that helps you navigate this region. In the paper, it'll be every Saturday in New Home, Sunday in Arts and Living, and Monday in Your Week.

--I’ll be convening periodic focus groups of newcomers, as well as attending functions where newcomers gather, to meet you and hear your feedback. If you want to participate or give a headsup about an event, let me know at

--I’m also the editor of our annual Living Here magazine for newcomers. The 2006 issue hits the streets Sept. 24 and will be included free in most copies of the Observer that day. Our 2005 content is available at if you click on "Newcomer’s Guide."
An event called "New South for the New Southerner" sounded like a good place to meet newcomers. So I went to the Levine Museum of the New South on a recent evening as my first official duty as the Observer’s newcomer reporter. The museum holds these events about three times a year.

With about 100 people in the room, historian Tom Hanchett asked for a show of hands: How many people here are from Charlotte? A handful, maybe five or six (including my own), went up.

How many are from North or South Carolina? A few more went up.

How many are from the South? Another 10 or so.

How many are from the U.S., outside the South? The remaining 75 percent of the room raised their hands. (And three hailed from outside the U.S.: India, Wales and Jamaica).

Boy, I thought, meeting newcomers for this job is going to be easy.

How do we define newcomer? Officially, if you’ve been here two years or less, you qualify. However, I understand many people consider themselves newcomers for longer than that. If you feel that way, I’m interested in hearing from you too.

Said the museum's Hanchett: "I came here 25 years ago, but I’m still a newcomer because I get lost on Queens Road."

Got a question? E-mail me at and I'll try to get the answer for you.

Need to beat the heat? Try Ray’s Splash Planet, which offers indoor water slides, tubes, squirters and more. It’s at 215 N. Sycamore St. in uptown. Entrance fees range from $6 to $11 depending on your age and whether you’re a Mecklenburg resident. or (704) 432-4729.
If that doesn’t float your boat, here's a list of water parks, public pools, lakes and other wet spots around the region: Click here