Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The history of arts and banking in Charlotte

Only in Charlotte would the headlining speakers at a giant celebration of the arts be two bankers.

In between performances by members of the Charlotte Symphony and the North Carolina Dance Theatre at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis and Wachovia CEO Ken Thompson took the stage to announce the city’s most ambitious cultural fundraising drive ever – seeking to raise $83 million by 2009.

Their appearance along with Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers was a quintessentially ‘Charlotte’ moment. Whenever anything significant involving the arts community happens, usually one or both of our megabanks gets involved.

The tradition began with former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, who deserves the lion’s share of credit for shaping an arts district on North Tryon Street. He believed a vibrant arts community would benefit both his company and the city where it has its corporate base.

Under McColl’s watch, which ended with his 2001 retirement, the bank paid millions to convert the former ARP church on North Tryon into an artist’s colony. Ditto for the Mint Museum of Craft + Design in the former Montaldo’s department store building. Those Ben Long frescoes in buildings around downtown? McColl’s idea. Walk under the domed archway in the Transamerica building, between Therapy Cafe and Rock Bottom Brewery, then look up and you’ll see McColl’s image in one fresco – he’s the one with an hourglass and pup tent.

And so the tradition has fallen to the two Kens, of Wachovia and Bank of America – Rogers of Duke Energy drew laughs on Monday night by calling himself their Barbie. The two banks have pledged $15 million apiece to the fund drive, and Duke has pledged another $5 million. The funds will be used to operate new cultural facilities being planned in uptown.

Some wonder whether the Arts & Science Council will be able to reach its goal. For years, Charlotte held the rank of the No. 1 city for per capita giving to the arts in the nation. So I’d say the chances are good.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Happy Halloween!

Newcomers may not be aware of just what a large - and interesting - Charlotte institution Morris Costumes is.

It's more than just a retail store on Monroe Road - it's also one of the nation's largest wholesale costume businesses and its wares have appeared in many movies and TV shows.

See my report about them with WCNC here, and here is a link to my column in today's paper.

See Saturday's and Sunday's columns here and here.

Is this your first Halloween in Charlotte? If so, what are your plans for the holiday? Post them here or drop me a line.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Out and About

Events over the last two days represent both new Charlotte and old Charlotte:

Wednesday night brought me to the Ballantyne Village Theatre to see Jonathan Taplin, a film producer who worked on some early Martin Scorsese films, receive an award and screen his film “The Last Waltz.” (I love this theater for its unique “spaceship” look, the fact that it supports independent film and because it’s in a thriving area that I remember as a cow pasture not so very long ago).

Taplin was tapped for the “Power of Image” award by the Light Factory, the museum of photography and film based in uptown Charlotte’s Spirit Square. I got a chance to ask him during the reception what he thinks of Charlotte, and he said he’s impressed by our up-and-coming arts scene. But he said he hopes we don’t grow and change so much we lose what makes us special and different from other cities.

During the Q&A after “Waltz,” a 1978 documentary about The Band’s farewell tour featuring performances by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and others, an audience member asked why contemporary popular culture doesn’t seem to be producing anyone as timeless as the musicians featured in the film. Taplin’s take: Culture runs in cycles. Just one year before the Beatles hit, the biggest musical acts were Fabian and other 60s versions of prefab boy bands.

Artificial, “plastic” culture can’t last forever, he said. Here’s hoping he’s right.

Earlier today, of course, I had to stop by the famed Mallard Creek Barbecue, a 77-year-old tradition in northeast Mecklenburg. On the way I realized I’d forgotten to warn newcomers about how atrocious the traffic is getting there. Yes, recent growth in the area has exacerbated the situation, but it’s always been bad.

Once there, however, I loved the atmosphere and the old-fashioned pre-election politicking. Where else can you meet county commissioners, members of Congress, judges and soil and water conservation board candidates? I shook hands with at least 29 candidates or their representatives, including Congresswoman Sue Myrick and Mecklenburg Sheriff Jim Pendergraph.

(Most bizarre moment: Democrat Larry Kissell, challenging incumbent Robin Hayes in the 8th District Congressional race, handed me a flyer that endorsed a Cumberland County sheriff candidate alongside Kissell. When I asked why he’d do that so far away from Cumberland County, he had to turn and ask a campaign staffer, who told him “That’s what we had in the car.”)

Oh, and the barbecue and Brunswick stew were pretty good too.

Newcomer Bethany Boyd told me she enjoyed her first-time experience at the event. Boyd, 22, moved to Charlotte from Raleigh three months ago.

“With all the political signs lining the way, there was more color on the ground than there was on the trees!” she e-mailed.

“It was a great, cheery atmosphere. Everyone was smiling and the workers were happy to help wherever they could. I'm very glad that I went!” she wrote.

What events have you been to lately that are unique to this area? Let me know your impressions.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Is it difficult to make friends in Charlotte?

My recent columns about ways to make new friends have showed me that lots of people out there are having trouble forming friendships in Charlotte. (Click here and here to see them).

I’m still getting the occasional e-mail from someone who confesses that she, too, is having trouble finding friends (and yes, it’s almost all women who’ve said this – when I hear from men, more often they’re searching for a place to “hang out,” which I suspect is the same thing).

My theory: This isn’t about how friendly or unfriendly Charlotte is. This is about the same national trends that everyone was buzzing about back in June – a survey found that since 1985, the number of people who say they have no friends to discuss important matters with has doubled, to one in four people.

One culprit: longer working hours that allow for less socializing. Another: Increased solitary TV viewing and computer usage.

But I’ll wager that in Charlotte, where 80,000 people a year are moving to this region from outside the Carolinas, it’s easier to make friends than in other cities that aren’t growing as fast.

With that many newcomers looking for ways to get involved and fit in, every social group, workout gym, volunteer organization, church and neighborhood group has the chance to be transformed by new people over and over. If something was a dud the first time you tried it, it might be completely different when you go back. Or there’s always a new group to try.

To find those friends, you’ve got to keep getting out there.

What do you think? Are there things about Charlotte that make it easier or harder to make friends than other places? Let me know.

Monday, October 23, 2006

On pork and politics

Autumn and politics are in the air – and so is the smell of barbecue.

This Thursday, it’s time for the annual Mallard Creek Barbecue in northeast Mecklenburg – and if you’ve never been to a church barbecue, this is the one to start with.

As I wrote in today’s column, up to 20,000 people are expected. (Click here to read the specifics on timing, location and costs).

And if you’re wondering who to vote for in the local elections, now’s your chance to shake hands with county commissioners, state legislator wannabes and more.

Here’s a link to today's video report about the barbecue on WCNC, the Observer’s news partner (and every Monday on the 5:45 a.m. broadcast, I’ll be bringing more reports of interest to the region’s newcomers).

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Margaret Maron offers a lesson in being Southern

Want to read about the South without feeling like it’s homework? I suggest Margaret Maron’s books.

The eastern N.C. native has written a series of mysteries featuring Judge Deborah Knott, a N.C. district court judge who presides in both the fictional Colleton County, near Raleigh, and as a fill-in judge around the state.

During her travels and her sleuthing, she explores N.C. institutions including tobacco, furniture, pottery, fisheries and even race relations.

I heard Maron speak Tuesday night at ImaginOn as part of the Novello Festival of Reading, and she gave her take on what distinguishes Southern writing. Some of her themes echoed some things author Michael Parker of Greensboro said during a recent visit to the Museum of the New South, which I chronicled earlier on this blog.

Among the influences Maron cited are the evangelical Protestantism that gives many Southerners the feeling they are personally acquainted with Jesus; the fact that we were both battlefield and conquered nation in the Civil War; our historically rural agrarian economy; deep-felt family ties, and even the pervasive heat and humidity.

So far I’ve only read “Killer Market,” an entry from the middle of her series, but it taught me a lot about the High Point Furniture Market and the Triad community. I plan to put the rest of her works on my reading list.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Monday newcomer reports with WCNC begin today

Each Monday, I plan to explore a place or thing that's important to this region's past, present or future, with the help of the Observer's news partner WCNC.

Today, we examined the remarkable history and future of the Epicentre site at College and Trade Streets in uptown Charlotte. In the next two years, it will be home to new bars, restaurants, shops, a hotel and a 53-story condo tower that will be one of the tallest in Charlotte's skyline. And in its history, the patch of land was important to Charlotte's gold mining history and played a crucial role in the Civil War. See the WCNC report by clicking here, and read my column about it here.


My colleagues have compiled some great tips for anyone who's interested in heading to Western N.C. to view the fall leaf color. Here's a guide on where to stay if you're making a last-minute hotel booking in the mountains: Click here. And today's Your Week section of the paper has some more valuable inside info about the best leaf-viewing spots; click here.

Friday, October 13, 2006

History comes full circle in Dilworth

In one part of Charlotte, history has come full circle.

That was the message of a walking tour Thursday sponsored by Charlotte Trolley Inc., the organization dedicated to preserving memories of the city’s original electric streetcars.

Tour leader Stewart Gray of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission pointed out that the early development of Charlotte was limited by transportation. The city developed as an urban core with four wards and a ring of small villages around it whose names still survive in current neighborhoods, including Biddleville, Seversville and Cherry. Beyond that lay cotton fields.

The only convenient way into the city from beyond the inner ring was by train – horse-drawn carriages were the other primary mode.

So in the 1890s, industrialist Edward Dilworth Latta conceived the idea of building the city’s first suburb, Dilworth, and connecting it to the city core by trolleys. He brought Thomas Edison to Charlotte to design the electrical system to power them.

The trolleys ran for 50 years and then the system was dismantled, replaced by the automobile that helped shape Charlotte into its current sprawling shape. Some parts of Dilworth fell into neglect.

But in recent years, city leaders have decided to again embrace mass transit and Dilworth is thriving. Next year, a light-rail line – which will also carry trolleys – will connect uptown Charlotte with the city's south side. Homes and businesses are clustering along the line’s path so people can take advantage of the easy transportation to work and amenities. What was once old is new again.

If you want to drive around Dilworth and explore its historic homes, don’t miss the one at East Park Avenue about two blocks off South Boulevard. It’s the spectacular Villalonga-Alexander House, a Colonial Revival home built in 1901. Read more about it here.

Want to learn more about Charlotte’s historic neighborhoods? Charlotte Trolley is leading two more walking tours, to Fourth Ward next Thursday at 5:30 and to Plaza-Midwood on Oct. 26 at 5:30. They cost $8 per person. More info here.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Events to learn more about this region

Here are a couple of upcoming events that are useful for anyone who wants to learn more about this region – and have a little fun in the process:

--This Thursday at 5:30 p.m., there’s a walking tour of Dilworth hosted by Charlotte Trolley, Inc. It will cover the history, landmarks and personalities of the neighborhood, Charlotte’s oldest streetcar suburb.

Participants meet at Carrabba’s Italian Grill at the corner of South Boulevard and Park Avenue. Cost is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and free for members and volunteers of the Charlotte Trolley organization. It lasts an hour; wear walking shoes. Call 704-375-0850 to reserve a spot.

More info: www.charlottetrolley.org.

--This Friday evening brings a chance at two free concerts. The Charlotte Folk Society hosts traditional music from the British Isles and U.S. at 7:30 p.m. at the main CPCC campus at 1220 Elizabeth Avenue (Bryant Recital Hall, Sloan-Morgan Building). Ray Owens and Marc Rudow perform.

Free parking is available in the Staff Deck, accessed from Fourth Street between Independence Boulevard and Kings Drive. More info: www.folksociety.org.

And the Gaston County Museum of Art & History will be home to the final Blues Out Back concert of this year from 6:30-8 p.m. The Circuit Riders will perform a bluegrass lineup. The museum is at 131 West Main Street, Dallas, NC 28034, near Gastonia on the square in historic Dallas. More: www.gastoncountymuseum.org

--This one isn’t free, but it’s just five bucks a person. The Hickory Museum of Art will hold a concert Friday at 6:30 p.m. with the La Catrina String Quartet, which will share information about Mexican culture and Latin American folk music. Admission also brings access to the museum’s exhibits, including “Live With History: Images from The New York Times Photo Archives.” Admission is also $15 per family (free for HMA and Western Piedmont Symphony members). Call 828-327-8576 for reservations.

The museum is in the Arts and Science Center of Catawba Valley at 243 Third Ave NE in Hickory. More info: www.hickorymuseumofart.org

--TiVo alert: I’ll begin a series of weekly reports about living here this coming Monday at 5:45 a.m. on WCNC-TV, the Observer’s news partner. We’ll be talking about the surprising history of a prominent site in uptown Charlotte. On coming Mondays I hope to explore other places and things that are important to Charlotte’s past, present and future, and I welcome suggestions of things to include – please drop me a line.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Best places to see fall leaf color?

As prime viewing season for fall leaf color approaches, there are plenty of spots within an easy day’s drive to see some spectacular views.

This Web site has updates on where the color is best, day to day, as well as recommended trails and driving routes around the Asheville area: Click here.

If you’re looking for a group to hike with, two local suggestions are the Berg Wanderers, a social hiking club (Berg is German for mountain), and the Sierra Club, which combines hiking with environmental activism (click their names to get to their Web sites).

Does anyone out there have tips on where they like to go for leaf viewing? I love the Blue Ridge Parkway, but its traffic gets terribly backed up during leaf season. I’ll hunt for some out-of-the-way spots and follow up – please e-mail me if you know of something I should include.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Welcome to the neighborhood

As I was researching how Welcome Wagon home visits have been replaced by direct mailings targeting newcomers for today’s article, I grew a little sad about the loss of the personal touch.

Welcome Wagon, the pioneer company that delivered baskets of gifts and coupons to new arrivals, stopped home visits in 1998 and began mailing address books listing local businesses instead. Other smaller companies with similar business models switched to direct mailings soon afterward, and the companies are thriving in the Charlotte area thanks to our 80,000-plus newcomers every year. Movers in targeted ZIP codes can expect to find an envelope of coupons for free meals, deals on dry cleaning and hair salons, and more.

I’ve seen the coupons, and they offer some great deals that are no doubt convenient for those who have recently moved. They also benefit the local businesses who pay to be included in the coupon packets, by giving them first crack at newcomers’ loyalty. And I understand that most people don’t have the time for a home visit or the trust to open the door to strangers these days. But there’s something appealing to me about the idea of a knock at the door and a personal welcome.

And it turns out those home visits haven’t gone away completely. I heard today from Suzanne Meyer, president of The Welcome Committee in Mooresville. Personal welcomes haven’t gone the way of the dinosaur, she wrote.

“I have been running a successful personal welcome service business for eight years.... Many newcomers enjoy the personal welcome visit. We can answer their questions about where to get their driver's license, NC car inspection, how to register to vote, what day is trash collected and how to get a trash/recycle bin? These are everyday questions that my staff and I answer in person.

“I believe that we need to continue with the personal welcome visits. It makes the newcomers feel genuinely welcomed, they have someone they can call if they have questions about their new community. Our society is losing the personal touch as we are inundated with direct mail, TV and radio commercials, billboards, kiosks, internet advertising, etc. Automated voicemail is more popular than ever. I'm afraid our society is losing contact.

“My ten Welcome Reps and I are invited back to their homes. During visits we're offered everything from coffee and lemonade to lunch and dinner invitations. Newcomers offer us tours of their home and ask us to help them choose paint and wallpaper samples during our visits.”

I was glad to hear about her business. You can check it out at www.thewelcomecommittee.com.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Favorite things, and more Southern sayings

Readers are continuing to share their favorite things that they’d miss if they moved away from the Charlotte area, as well as some of their favorite Southern expressions.

“The one store I’d miss (if I moved away) would be the amazing Mary Jo's Cloth Store in Gastonia (401 Cox Road),” writes Jan Mahannah of Gastonia. “With its selection of millions of yards of reasonably priced fabric, it is truly unique. It was the first store I visited when we were considering moving here. Mary Jo’s has been the fabric source for countless dresses for holidays..., proms and for wedding gowns for my three daughters.”

Adrian DeVore of Charlotte’s Scaleybark Road wrote with a shout-out to Park Road Books (in Park Road shopping center at Park and Woodlawn roads), Carpe Diem (1535 Elizabeth Ave.), Volare Ristorante (545 Providence Road) and The Wine Shop (Dilworth location, 2442 Park Road).

Meanwhile, Chris and Kelly Williams did move away – to Amelia Island, Fla. “We miss Bubba's Barbecue (4400 Sunset Road), SouthPark mall (4400 Sharon Road), and our friends. We don't miss Charlotte traffic at all and North Carolina's road construction inabilities,” they e-mailed.

And here are two more examples of Southern sayings:
Beth Shoffner of Hickory said her Midwestern friends were amused by her expression “getting gussied up” (i.e. to get dressed in your best finery).

“It wasn’t long after we returned to North Carolina (from living in the Midwest) that an article in the food section of the Observer had a large headline that was something like, ‘Gussy Up Your Potatoes.’ Needless to say, I clipped the article and sent it to Iowa!” she wrote.

Jere Baxter of Charlotte shares: "One of my favorite Southern responses to 'How cold is it?' has always been, 'Colder than a bad marriage.'"

And Charles Hodge of Charlotte, a Gastonia native, shared an amusing story from when he first met his New Jersey-born wife Pamela.

“We were having one of those early-on, get-to-know-you chats.... After one of her very amusing and clever comments, I made the innocent and complimentary (I thought) remark: ‘You are a mess!’ Well! From the way she reacted to this, you would've thought I had paid her the highest insult one could give a Jersey country girl!

“I tried to explain that calling someone a ‘mess’ around here was an endearing term for one who is a lovable, humorous and mischievous kind of character.... Now this has become one of our favorite family stories we like to tell.”

Thanks to everyone for the great examples – and keep them coming!
I’m still collecting examples of the best advice for helping newcomers get settled here. Please e-mail me at Ldyer@charlotteobserver.com and include your name and contact information.