Thursday, September 28, 2006

Sense of place in Southern literature

There are many Southern writers whose works are unmistakably set in this part of the country. This week brought a chance to hear one of them speak about the influence that growing up in small-town North Carolina had on his writing.

Michael Parker, the author of four novels and a short fiction collection, is a professor in the M.F.A. writing program at UNC Greensboro. Most of his works, including his latest, “If you Want me To Stay,” are set in the fictional town of Trent. It bears more than a passing resemblance to his actual hometown of Clinton, home to about 8,700 near Fayetteville.

“There is a lot of Clinton that seeps in,” he told a group at a Levine Museum of the New South brown-bag lunch meeting Wednesday. Trent also has bits and pieces of other places he’s been, and some made-up details. But the landscape and the names of many people, streets and creeks come from his youth, he said.

“To a writer, names are words and words are music,” he said.

The new story of the South, he said, is found in the changes brought about by an influx of Latino immigrants. He expects more fiction writers to address that theme in coming years, and he’s at work on one of his own.

“This is no longer a biracial culture, and I think that’s a really good thing for the South, but you also have some problems associated with it,” he said.

Wednesday kicked off a two-year thematic literary luncheon series at the museum. For details on future (free) events, keep an eye on

And for a list of suggested books to read about the South, check this article compiled by Observer Reading Life Editor Jeri Krentz from our new edition of the Living Here magazine: Click here.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Charlotte Shout festivals

This past weekend I managed to attend three of the big happenings in town - Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival in Southend, the Festival in the Park at Freedom Park and the Southern Women's Show at Charlotte Merchandise Mart. I know Charlotte Shout, our annual month-long cultural festival, is supposed to be jam-packed with activities. But we have enough weekends around the year without festivals that I wish these events could have been staggered more. By the time you hit the third one, fighting crowds gets really old.

Questions and suggestions for improvement:

--Festival in the Park vendors shouldn't be allowed to pack up and leave before the festival ends. I went to the festival twice, once to scope out the merchandise and a second time the following day to purchase some things after I'd thought about them a while. Some of the vendors I'd planned to buy from had left - and didn't even leave business cards where they could be reached. Surely I'm not the only customer they missed.

--Why is it that the outdoor vendors at the Festival in the Park could accept credit cards, but the indoor vendors at the Southern Women's Show couldn't?

--I attended Blues, Brews & BBQ as a volunteer through Hands on Charlotte - I helped the judges who were picking winners in the barbecue competitions - so my experience wasn't typical of most attendees. But I heard from some visitors that they found the layout confusing and had a hard time figuring out where to go to buy barbecue. Signs could be improved next year.

In all, it was gratifying to see how well-attended each event was and to have so many choices on how to spend a beautiful weekend in Charlotte.

Southern sayings

Want some tips on sounding and acting Southern? Here are some excerpts from an e-mail making the rounds, which I also wrote about in today's column. I don't know who wrote it and it leans a bit heavily on stereotypes, but some of the sayings are worth a chuckle:

--All Southerners know exactly when "by and by" is. They might not use the term, but they know the concept well.

--Only a Southerner knows instinctively that the best gesture of solace for a neighbor who’s got trouble is a plate of hot fried chicken and a big bowl of cold potato salad. If the neighbor’s trouble is a real crisis, they also know to add a large banana puddin'.

--Only Southerners grow up knowing the difference between "right near" and "a right far piece." They also know that "just down the road" can be one mile or 20.

--No true Southerner would ever assume that the car with the flashing turn signal is actually going to make a turn.

--A Southerner knows that "fixin" can be used as a noun, a verb, or an adverb.

--Only Southerners make friends while standing in lines ... And when we’re in line, we talk to everybody!

--In the South, y’all is singular .... All y’all is plural.

--Every Southerner knows tomatoes with eggs, bacon, grits, and coffee are perfectly wonderful; that red eye gravy is also a breakfast food; and that fried green tomatoes are not a breakfast food.

--Only true Southerners say "sweet tea" and "sweet milk." Sweet tea indicates the need for sugar and lots of it - we do not like our tea unsweetened. "Sweet milk" means you don’t want buttermilk.

--And a true Southerner knows you don’t scream obscenities at little old ladies who drive 30 MPH on the freeway.
You just say, "Bless her heart"...And go your own way.

--And to those of you who are still having a hard time understanding all this Southern stuff ... Bless your hearts, I hear they are fixin’ to have classes on Southernness as a second language!

--And for those who are not from the South but have lived here for a long time, all y’all need a sign to hang on y’all's front porch that reads "I ain’t from the South, but I got here as fast as I could."

Friday, September 22, 2006

Big weekend for newcomers

This is a big weekend for newcomers to the Charlotte region.

That’s not just because there’s so much going on in Charlotte, from the “Blues, Brews & BBQ” festival in Southend to Festival in the Park at Freedom Park to the Southern Women’s Show at the Charlotte Merchandise Mart (see Friday’s E&T section of the paper for more details).

It’s also because I’ve been working hard to bring you lots of information for and about newcomers during the next two days.

Saturday at 11 p.m., you can watch the Observer’s news partner WCNC’s report on how newcomers are transforming our region. You can see more details on who the Charlotte region’s new arrivals are and where they’re coming from in Sunday’s Observer and here on

And most importantly, Sunday brings the debut of the 2006-07 issue of Living Here, the Observer’s annual guide to the region. It’s highly useful for both newcomers and longtimers alike. As its editor, I’ve worked on it off and on for more than five months (I was also the editor of last year’s edition). More than 65 writers contributed to its 160 pages of information about neighborhoods, schools, food, shopping, entertainment, ways to make new friends and more. If you don’t get a copy, you can call 800-532-5350 to request one. And if you have feedback on information that should be included in the next edition, please e-mail me.

Starting Sunday, watch for lots of cool online extras, including videos shot around the region. And, of course, I’m always looking for suggestions of things to include in my regular columns Saturdays in the New Home section, Sundays in Arts & Living and Mondays in Your Week. Whether you’re a newcomer or a longtimer, I’m interested in hearing what you’d like to know about Charlotte.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Newcomer events

A recent “newcomer schmooze” at the Levine Jewish Community Center in south Charlotte was a great opportunity to hear newcomers talk about why they moved to the Charlotte region.

After eating bagels and mingling during the Sunday event, they stood one by one to introduce themselves. They came from Florida, New York, California, Pennsylvania and many other states. They came for jobs, family reasons and a better lifestyle. And they were hungry to meet new people and get involved.

It’s like being a kid on the first day of junior high school, one man said. “Everything is new. It’s an adjustment.”

A woman from Philadelphia said: “I saw the Dr. Brown’s Diet Cream Soda at Dean & Deluca and thought ‘Well, maybe I can live here.’”

I’m preparing an article about newcomer groups offered through faith communities around the Charlotte area. Please e-mail me if you know of others I should check out, and watch the Faith & Values section for updates.


To follow up on Monday’s column about another great event for newcomers, the Levine Museum of the New South’s “New South for New Southerners” series of events: I goofed. I somehow neglected to include the hours of this Thursday’s event for those interested in learning more about NASCAR – it’s from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

I also forgot to give the museum’s address: it’s 200 E. Seventh St., at the corner of College and Seventh Streets uptown – there’s easy parking in the colorful Seventh Street Station parking deck next door.

I’m well aware of how hard it is for newcomers to find their way around, so I’m sorry my column wasn’t clearer – I’ll do better in the future!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Davidson, and other great things about the region

How cool is it that we have a college in our back yard – Davidson – that’s not only one of the top-ranked liberal arts schools in the nation, but can regularly draw world-renowned authors to the area?

I was there last night with family members and friends to catch Annie Proulx, author of the short story that became last year’s “Brokeback Mountain” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Shipping News.” Previous authors to appear in the Davidson series have included Salman Rushdie (“The Satanic Verses”) and Michael Cunningham (“The Hours”).

The Q&A after Proulx’s reading, in which she confessed that “Brokeback” was the most difficult story she ever wrote, was the liveliest part. Not cool: Someone let their cell phone ring an ice-cream-truck-on-steroids tune for so long that she actually had to interrupt her reading to ask them to turn it off.

Davidson College is one of the things I appreciate about living here (full disclosure: My great-grandfather was a professor there). What about you?

Following some of the recent discussions about what restaurants, stores and other institutions that Charlotte-area transplants miss from wherever they moved from, I’m turning the discussion around in my column in tomorrow’s New Home section of the paper. What would you miss if you moved away from Charlotte? Please e-mail me at

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Advance peek inside the new Neiman Marcus

If you're a newcomer from one of the 19 states that already has a Neiman Marcus store, and you're a high-end shopper, you're probably happy that the Texas-based retailer is opening its first Carolinas store in Charlotte on Friday.

The store has already brought newcomers to the area - among its 200 employees are people who moved here from California, Minnesota, Texas, New Jersey, Florida and Illinois just for the chance to work there, said Kristine Ottens, the store's vice president and general manager.

I was among the media who got a preview of the 80,000 square-foot store at SouthPark mall, the 37th in the chain. One thing that distinguishes it from other Charlotte-area stores is its art collection. Following in the tradition of other Neiman Marcus stores, it has a collection of 151 works by regional artists. Five are equipped with video monitors shoppers can use to find out more about the artist and the work.

And then there's the merchandise. It's almost as carefully displayed as the art. It has the expected assortment of high-end designers - Armani, Prada, Chanel and more. And in the collections already available elsewhere, such as St. John, which has its own SouthPark boutique, there will be pieces exclusive to Neiman Marcus, our tour guide said.

Non-newcomers are well aware that this is just the latest addition to a years-long effort to build up the luxury offerings at SouthPark - the early pioneers included Tiffany & Co. and Coach.

I felt underdressed walking around as glamorous models showed off the store's fashions. I checked a few price tags and knew I wouldn't be doing much shopping there on my reporter's salary - I eyed a $2,900 red velvet evening dress and wished I had places to wear it to.

High points: The escalator atrium filled with glittering strands of butterflies made for a nice visual effect; and the home goods section has a funky artist-fashioned table and chairs made from kudzu vines.

The store opens to the public Friday at 10 a.m.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Charlotte region's rich history

Charlotte seems like such a new city that it’s sometimes easy to forget this region is steeped in rich history. Last week, the Mecklenburg Historical Association Docents and Historic Charlotte put on two events illuminating both the nation’s early days and the post-Civil War era:

--First came William R. Davie, known to Chapel Hill grads because he established the University of North Carolina in 1793 and his name graces the landmark Davie Poplar tree near the center campus.
The Mecklenburg association brought in guest speaker Harry Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill, to discuss his role as a Founding Father who helped frame the U.S. Constitution.

Davie grew up about 10 miles southeast of Charlotte in the Waxhaws region, just over the S.C. line in Lancaster County. He was wounded in the Revolutionary War, and later served in the N.C. General Assembly. He became one of five N.C. delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

There, he was active in brokering the compromise that allowed each Southern slave to be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of political representation. In that respect, Watson noted, Davie left an “ambiguous legacy” – the compromise helped preserve the union for seven decades, but it did so by strengthening the institution of slavery. At the time of Davie’s death in 1820, records show he owned 116 slaves.

Watson said the Founding Fathers left unfinished work behind them. “Their best legacy is to remind us that we should be founders ourselves,” he said.

--Later came a look at the school founded by Presbyterian missionaries to educate former slaves, now Johnson C. Smith University.

Historic Charlotte invited Stefan Pienkny of Gantt Huberman Architects to discuss the award-winning renovation of Biddle Hall, the beloved centerpiece of the university’s campus off Beatties Ford Road northwest of uptown.

The architects had to preserve and update the c. 1884 brick building. Pienky said workers encountered asbestos, water damage, cracked foundations and more during the multimillion-dollar renovation, which stretched beyond the original one year predicted in 2002 and continued into 2005. They also successfully battled code enforcement that was sometimes unfriendly to historic preservation.

“It works as a functioning building. It’s also historically correct,” he said.

My favorite bits of trivia: There’s a “ghost room” on the building’s third floor, above the stage of its auditorium; and the building’s exterior appeared in the movie “The Rage: Carrie 2” (the 1999 sequel to the Sissy Spacek classic) to represent an insane asylum.

If you’re a newcomer, getting involved in local historic groups can be a great way to learn more about the community and meet new people.

Historic Charlotte, a nonprofit group that promotes historic preservation, can be reached at 704-375-6145. The Mecklenburg Historical Association is always looking for volunteers who can serve as docents at local historic sites; reach them at 704-563-7080.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Resources for retirees

Retirees are one of the leading categories of newcomers to the Charlotte area, and most are eager to make new friends and get involved.

I wrote a recent column suggesting several ways they could get started meeting new people. Several readers have gotten in touch to mention some resources I left out:

--Charlotte-Mecklenburg Senior Centers offer social, recreational and educational programs for people 55 and over.The main center is at 2225 Tyvola Road. (704) 522-6222.

--Don Kent of Indian Trail wrote to highlight the new Levine Senior Center in Matthews, 1050 Devore Lane, which opened in March and already has about 800 members. "Most of these folks are new to the Charlotte area and are looking for activities and new friends," wrote Kent, who volunteers as a greeter there.

--I neglected to mention there’s more than just one Shepherd’s Center in Charlotte. The interfaith senior centers offer volunteer opportunities, classes and other services. The one at 3115 Providence Road can be reached at 704-365-1995.

Shepherd’s Center South at 4420 Rea Road is 704-541-0100.
Shepherd’s Center East (no Web site listed) at 2101 Belvedere Ave. is 704-338-1511.

--The Sandra and Leon Levine Jewish Community Center at 5007 Providence Road, 704-366-5007, is open to all faiths and offers recreation, classes and activities for all age groups.

On another note:
For those who missed it, here’s a link to Saturday’s column with discussions of the uptown vs. downtown debate and the expression “bless your heart.”

And here’s Sunday’s column about the South African community in Charlotte and some information about the newly-opened U.S. National Whitewater Center.