Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Big O Awards!

The votes are in, and it's time to name the winners.

The Observer’s critics have combined their expertise to pick what are in our opinions some of the best dining, shopping, entertainment and personalities this region has to offer. I’ve culled through hundreds of readers’ opinions, too.

The results are our “Big O Awards” (for the unfamiliar, “The Big O” is a common Observer nickname). They’re publishing this Friday as a special insert in the Observer's E&T section.

They’ll also be available for a while online at We’re already posting winners online this week - here are links to the food & drink and shopping sections.

The goal, of course, was to give readers a useful guide to some things in this region they might not know about, or might not have tried yet. We also wanted to have a little fun. We hope you’ll pull out the section and keep it year-round.

But I know many people won’t agree with everything selected. So, feel free to send your reactions and suggestions my way (some of you are already doing that). I’ll probably get ideas of future places to write about from your feedback.

What do you think? What or who else should be winning “Big O” awards? Post here or e-mail me.

UPDATE: The entire section is now available online at this link (follow the links on the right side of that page to see all choices on food & drink, shopping, nightlife, entertainment and people). Or you could always pick up a copy of today's Observer to see it all in one place!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A sad chapter of N.C. history

If you have HBO, you can learn about a sad chapter of North Carolina history at 8 p.m. this Thursday evening.

The cable net is showing "The Trials of Darryl Hunt," a documentary about a brutal rape-murder case that divided the city of Winston-Salem for two decades. It’s a tangled story that makes for fascinating viewing even if you know what happened.

In 1984, Deborah Sykes was abducted, robbed, raped and fatally stabbed on her way to work one morning. Darryl Hunt was arrested in the case.

Sykes, 25, had been a copy editor for the Winston-Salem Sentinel – a now-defunct afternoon newspaper once affiliated with the Winston-Salem Journal.

When I checked in on my first day as a reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal in 1992, my first job out of college, the human resources director told me to be careful in the parking lot in the mornings. I was startled to learn the reason why.

In Winston-Salem, many black people I knew believed Hunt was an innocent victim of a rush to judgment by racist investigators. Many white people who were around at the time of the case believed he was guilty. The case became a symbol of racial wounds in the city.

Hunt was convicted on the basis of testimony from eyewitnesses who placed him at or near the crime scene. He later appealed and won a new trial. He was convicted a second time. He steadfastly maintained his innocence.

I was covering courts for the Winston-Salem Journal in 1993 and 1994, after the second conviction, when Hunt’s defense won the right to perform DNA tests on semen recovered from the scene. The tests used DNA technology that hadn’t been available in the 1980s.

The tests ruled out Hunt as a source of the DNA. But they didn’t win him another new trial. A judge decided the new evidence likely wouldn’t have resulted in a different outcome at a trial. One reason: prosecutors had argued Hunt probably didn’t act alone. But the DNA tests also excluded two men suspected with being with Hunt at the time of the attack.

In 2003, prompted in part by an in-depth series in the Winston-Salem-Journal about the case, investigators finally linked the DNA evidence to another suspect. Willard Brown, who had no known association with Hunt, confessed and told investigators Hunt wasn’t involved. Hunt was exonerated in a 2004 court hearing after serving 19 years.

I drove to Winston-Salem on Saturday, along with Observer colleague Victoria Cherrie, another Winston-Salem Journal vet who had a hand in covering the case, to see the documentary when it screened as part of the RiverRun Film Festival (here’s Lawrence Toppman’s coverage of the festival). It’s an incredible story, and it’s still hard to understand how it all could have happened the way it did.

But one thing gave me hope as I watched the screen. Towards the end of this film, there’s a shot of supporters gathered in a Winston-Salem church to cheer for Hunt’s exoneration. The cameras pan across the jubilant faces – both black and white, celebrating together.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In defense of Charlotte

Lots of people out there are quick to defend Charlotte whenever someone disparages it.

That happened last weekend when I published excerpts from an anti-Charlotte e-mail I’d received from a reader, Jim Domnick. His comments were representative of others that were either e-mailed or posted to this blog earlier. (He’s no longer answering e-mails from me and never provided a phone number, by the way).

Here’s a sampling of responses:

"If things are so awful here, why don’t all of these gripers go back home? I will buy them the gas to do it. Oh, that's right, they can't get jobs back home and the ground is still covered in snow there. Belly up to the bar, boys, and enjoy what you have here. Don't like it? Fix it with your time and talent, not your mouth." –Jeannie

"Seriously? There's nothing to do here? What is it that you want to do? Sports - We have professional, semi-professional, collegiate and amateur. Outdoors - We have the U.S. National Whitewater Center, lakes, parks, fishing, hiking, biking, hunting, nearby mountains and beaches. Cultural - We have museums, galleries, theatre, opera, dance and live music venues. Dining - We have restaurants for every taste and pocketbook. We also have special-interest clubs, service organizations, churches, the YMCA & YWCA, colleges (offering classes and cultural events), etc." --Elizabeth Williams

"Charlotte's citizens are some of the most generous and caring people I know of. There will always be people who love wealth and the wealthy, but they are the exception. From what I've seen, the wealthy here in Charlotte give abundantly to the community. As for racism, it exists everywhere in the world and I don't believe Charlotte is any worse than other places." --Marilyn Nasekos

"Why are we experiencing the population expansion in the Charlotte metro area if all these new folks are bored?" –Anonymous

"It seems to me that there is plenty to do. A good question for that particular reader who wrote those comments would be ‘What things to do (activities/events) would you like to see Charlotte offer that it doesn't already have?’" Karen Eckert

"I guess there is something wrong with me! I love it here!" Marion Loughran

"Sometimes when you move to a new city, it takes a little work to find the things you are used to doing." Linda Allen

"I know Charlotte and other Southern cities have a ways to go before they will be perfect for you Mr. Domnick, but have you checked the numbers of people of different races, religions, backgrounds, age groups, and cultures that are living here? People that retire here? People that relocate here for a better life?? How can a city that diversified not be on the right path to decrease racism and intolerance?" Anonymous

And, I heard from one writer with a lengthy list of reasons why she agrees with Mr. Domnick and wants to move away from Charlotte: "This place is terribly short on loving kindness and plays an interesting ‘us versus them’ insider/outsider game," she wrote.

In my experience, this city certainly could stand to improve, but clearly its defenders outnumber its detractors.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Mark your calendars for a unique event

I blew it.

I missed an opportunity to write about a unique, treasured local institution that newcomers and longtimers alike should know about.

It’s called the Tosco Music Party. Three times a year, between 15 and 20 acoustic musical acts visit the stage of Central Piedmont Community College’s Halton Theater (1206 Elizabeth Avenue in Charlotte). They treat the audience to an eclectic blend of musical styles – anything from rock, soul and country to African-style drumming and a guy with an accordion singing "Edelweiss" from "The Sound of Music." Everybody plays just one or two songs, so if you don’t like one act, just wait and another will be up in minutes.

Tickets are cheap - $12 for adults – and cover only the expenses for the theater rental and program-printing. Performers play for free, with some driving in from Atlanta, New York or even further to share their passions with the audience. They make gentle sales pitches for their CDs, which are on sale during intermission and following the show. The all-ages audience gets a chance to hear music they may never have heard otherwise – and perhaps discover a new favorite to add to their iPods.

The tradition started in the 1980s in the living room of organizer John Tosco, and moved to successively larger venues before reaching the 1,000-seat Halton facility. With no advertising, the event has had no problems reaching sellout crowds through word of mouth.

Until this past Saturday. And there is where I blew it. I attended the event – my second time - after looking forward to it for months. And it was the first time in many years the event didn’t sell out – fewer than 700 tickets were sold, Tosco told the audience.

I like to think that if I had thought to put the event in one of my columns in the newspaper beforehand, a few more people would have ventured out to experience something new. And now, there won’t be another chance until Sept. 15, the date of the next music party.

But you can get a taste of what it’s like sooner. On the first Wednesday of every month, there’s a Tosco Music Party open mike night at the Evening Muse, 3227 North Davidson Street (in the NoDa neighborhood). And on May 12, many of the music party regulars will participate in a Beatles tribute night at Spirit Square. Find out more about the events at

And mark your calendars for September 15.

Friday, April 13, 2007

How should we fix Charlotte's flaws?

When you suggest a discussion of people’s favorite things about where they live, inevitably you start hearing their least-favorite things about it too.

That’s what happened this week after I published some quotes from readers on their favorite aspects of Charlotte. (I'll have a follow-up in tomorrow's column in the New Home section of the Observer).

This is my hometown, and if I didn’t have positive feelings about it, I wouldn’t have applied for this job of educating newcomers on what’s available to them here. But I also recognize this city has room for improvement, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on how that might be accomplished.

Last night at a social event, I met someone from New York who isn’t wild about Charlotte. The only place she’s found where she feels comfortable, she said, is the Evening Muse in NoDa. (I’m a fan of the place myself). I started making suggestions – Ballantyne Village’s movie theater, finding a house of worship (even if her beliefs are nontraditional, there’s a wide variety here), etc. – and she said she doesn’t like to drive far from her home near the center city to find things she’s interested in.

Well, that’s one thing about Charlotte, for good or ill. While our options for entertainment near center city are expanding at the same rate as our skyline, we remain a spread-out, sprawling community. You’ve got to be willing to drive 20 or 30 minutes – or more - to get a full sense of what we have to offer.

I do have a basis for comparison – I have many family members and friends in Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York City, and I visit those cities frequently. I know Charlotte is very different from those places, but I also know we have enough amenities to be a pretty nice place to live or else we wouldn’t be growing at a rate of tens of thousands of people each year.

I know from the blog posts and e-mails I’ve gotten that lots of you believe this place has flaws – from bad driving to occasional shallowness and materialism. So, my question to you is, what will it take to fix them?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Are Southerners more sociable?

Is there a regional difference in attitudes toward invitations and announcements for graduations, births, and other significant life events?

That issue came up in Friday's "Ask Amy," the Ann Landers-esque column the Observer runs. A letter-writer from New York City was offended at receiving a flurry of graduation announcements and baby shower invitations "from south of the Mason-Dixon Line" and assumed they were transparent grabs for monetary gifts.

Amy chastised the writer for an "ethnocentric" perspective and said "it is possible that Southerners are merely more sociable than you Northeastern city dwellers." Read the whole exchange here.

What do you think? Does this exchange come from a true difference in regional attitudes in the Northeast versus the South, or is this just one attitude among many?

Personally, I've never been offended at getting an invitation or announcement from someone who lives far away - and I've never assumed I was obligated to give a gift to someone I wasn't close to. But I've never tracked whether I've received more from acquaintances "south of the Mason-Dixon Line" than other regions of the country.

Post your thoughts here or send 'em my way.

Friday, April 06, 2007

What's your favorite thing about Charlotte?

Last week, my colleagues in the Observer’s E&T section (our Friday section on "entertainment & things to do" – a great resource for newcomers) asked readers to describe their favorite thing about Charlotte.

Their only agenda was to be entered into a drawing for some free event tickets. Many submissions came from transplants. A sampling:

"I’m a skyscraper fanatic, and I love spending an afternoon every once in and a while in uptown checking out the progress of all the new towers and watching those cranes and construction workers do their business. Now on the other hand, if I lived in Charlotte, all the road construction, suburban sprawl, etc. might be a problem. But for me, I love the energy and positive vibe to be found in all the new Charlotte construction." Norman Cook, Hickory

"We have it all. Where else in the United States can you get to both the Great Smoky Mountains and the soft sand of the N.C. beaches in just a few hours? Where else can you get to NASCAR tracks like Darlington, Bristol, and Martinsville in just a few hours, and don’t forget our very own Lowes Motor Speedway? Where else can you visit over 90 percent of all the NASCAR race teams’ shops? Where else are you going to get famous N.C. barbecue? Where else are you going to (visit) the one-of-a-kind U.S. National Whitewater Center?" Steven Youngblood

"My favorite thing about Charlotte is the variety of things to do in and around this city and the nice weather to do them in." Paul Sanford

"When I first moved here and drove through Charlotte, I was amazed at what a clean, beautiful city it was. The sidewalks were clear of debris, the grass was cut, the people in traffic were so polite. It amazed me that there was such a big difference from Pennsylvania to N.C." Ashley Heller

"My favorite thing about Charlotte is the way it looks in the spring. I was born and raised here, and at the beginning of every spring memories come flooding back to me. It makes me realize why people would want to move here." Tim Williams

"I am originally from Colorado, where it is chilly and the temperament of the people is often a match for the temperature outdoors. I currently travel out of town weekly for my job, but what I love about Charlotte is... the fact that no one is ever in a hurry; the idea that Southern hospitality is still alive and well; that there are 30 different types of barbecue sauce; that I can get a sweet tea at any time of the day; that flowers bloom in March; and finally, that no matter where I am flying in from – I am always happy to come home." Jasmine Barnes

Reactions? Additional thoughts? Post here or send ’em my way.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A chapter of Charlotte's history

Many longtime Charlotte residents remember that one of the city’s most revered residents around the turn of the century was Anna Morrison Jackson, the widow of legendary Civil War general Stonewall Jackson. Her funeral in 1915, with full military honors, was one of the largest Charlotte had ever seen.

Lesser known, perhaps, is the fact that she was one of six fascinating daughters born to Dr. Robert Hall Morrison, the first president of Davidson College, and his wife Mary between 1825 and 1840. The sisters, along with four brothers, grew up in Lincoln County. Several lived in Charlotte after the war.

One sister, Harriet Abigail, taught herself architecture because no schools at the time would teach the topic to a woman. She became the first woman to obtain an architectural patent. Other sisters were talented artists and writers.

Five of the six sisters married military officers prominent in the Confederacy, a fact commemorated in the book "They Married Confederate Officers: The Intimate Story of Anna Morrison, Wife of Stonewall Jackson and Her Five Sisters" by local author Kathy Neill Herran.

Herran was the guest speaker Tuesday at the Mecklenburg Historic Association Docents monthly meeting, where she shared snippets of each sister’s life.

Anna Morrison Jackson spent 53 years honoring her late husband’s memory after he was killed in battle. Treated with near-universal reverence, she received free passage on trains and free hotel lodging wherever she went – even in the North, Herran said.

Herran bemoaned the fact that all of the houses in Charlotte where the sisters lived have been torn down.

"This is local history, and we need to do what we can to keep it alive," she said, drawing applause.

I enjoy dropping in on the historic association docents’ meetings, because even as a near-native with deep roots in this community, I always learn something new. If you’re a newcomer, they can be a great way to learn about this city – and about historic sites to visit or volunteer for.

Meetings are free and open to the public the first Tuesday of each month in the fellowship hall at Sugaw Creek Presbyterian Church, 101 Sugar Creek Road. They begin at 9:30 with refreshments, a 10 a.m. business meeting and an 11 a.m. historic program. Click here for more info.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Readers: Favorite foods and family-friendly spots?

This is the final installment in my quest for reader suggestions.

First question: What do you think are the best family activities in this region? What attractions or spots are your favorites?

Second question: Time to get back to talking about food (a perennial reader favorite). What’s your favorite unsung restaurant? Where is it, what type of food do they serve and why do you like the place? And let’s not forget about drinks – where do you find your favorite cup of coffee, milkshake, martini or other beverage?

Please e-mail me your suggestions. And if you’re willing, please attach a JPEG headshot photo I can use in my follow-up.

I’m still looking for suggestions from my previous queries, particularly your favorite personalities and hangouts.

And as always, please send me your questions and suggestions for newcomer-friendly topics to write about!