Saturday, June 30, 2007

Charlotte: Top City

Whether or not you’re a follower of those “top cities” lists - the magazines and firms that rank the best cities for living, working, dating or eating - you might be interested in knowing how many of those lists Charlotte has been making it onto lately.

I detailed many of them in Sunday’s paper, but you’re probably wondering who ranked No. 1 in each category Charlotte was mentioned in. Read on for the info:

--City for African Americans: Washington D.C. was No. 1 in Black Enterprise Magazine. Charlotte ranked No. 7.

--Most Fun Cities: Minneapolis-St. Paul was tops, according to board game maker Cranium. Charlotte was 29th.

--Most Adventurous Cities: San Francisco topped the list in a ranking from Zest; Charlotte was 9th.

--Top 100 Ideal Cities to Grill In: Propane tank company Blue Rhino says Sacramento, CA is best and tied us for 49th.

--Rich Bachelors: San Francisco is the best large city for finding them. Citytowninfo says we’re No. 7.

--But not young singles? We failed to make Kiplinger Personal Finance Magazine’s list of best cities for young singles, while Raleigh hit No. 4.

--Walking City: Prevention Magazine gave Madison, WI the crown, and we were No. 4.

--Sizzling Restaurants: Nation’s Restaurant News named “Top 50 Cities that Sizzle,” but printed them in alphabetical order instead of ranking them. Click here and scroll down.

--Dangerous cities: Local police rejected the validity of our ranking as the No. 8 most dangerous large city in America, as did those in the No. 1 city, St. Louis, Mo.

--Bad Drivers: We hovered near the worst rating at 93rd out of 100 cities in Men’s Health Magazine, but another Carolinas city claimed the dubious honor of worst of the worst: Columbia, S.C.

Which rankings do you agree or disagree with the most?

Friday, June 29, 2007

Fun at the Bobcats draft party

If you didn't stop by Bobcats Arena in uptown Charlotte last night, you missed a fun draft party.

As I walked past ImaginOn on my way to the party Thursday evening, I saw a huge line of people snaking around one side of the arena. It was the line just to walk into the plaza - and to claim one of the T-shirts offered to the first 2,500 fans to arrive.

Once inside the free event, everyone walked around sampling live music, food (hot dogs were the main choice), putt-putt games, wall climbing and a chance to preview Charlotte's light-rail train, which will have a prime hub in front of the arena (if the upcoming transit referendum doesn't kill it). Giveaways were plentiful - "I got so much free stuff I had to make a trip to my car to drop some of it off," one friend told me.

I'm no sportswriter - I was there because many of the Bobcats management, staff and fans are newcomers. But it was a thrill to hang out with the sports journalists and watch the suspense as the draft proceeded and the trade of Brandan Wright for Jason Richardson unfolded. When Michael Jordan came out to talk with reporters, his eyes were reddened from the fatigue of tense negotiations but his manner was easygoing.

The event wasn't just for hardcore season ticket holders - I saw plenty of casual fans, and the all-ages crowd was well-behaved. Even if you're one of those who resents how the arena was built - following a referendum in which voters turned it down - it's there now, so you might as well enjoy it.

As a Charlotte native who remembers when that area was a wasteland where you'd want to clutch your pepper spray tightly if you found yourself walking in it, it was nice to see so much life and fun going on there, and to see so many diverse people united to root for the same team.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Idea: Charlotte movie tour

I've got an idea for Charlotte: A movie tour.

You'd pay a fee, board a bus, and see sights associated with the many movies that have been filmed in and around Charlotte. The stops would include:

--The triangular Government Center building uptown. It doubled as the hospital that housed Jodie Foster in 1994's "Nell," which featured Mayor Pat McCrory as an extra.

--Freedom Park. It's where Jack Black saw the lovely Gwyneth Paltrow while his friends saw a much-heavier version of her in the 2001 Farrelly Brothers film "Shallow Hal."

--Memorial Stadium at Central Piedmont Community College. Later this year, George Clooney and Renee Zellwegger's "Leatherheads" will bring it to movie screens as the site of some 1920s football games.

--Lowe's Motor Speedway - Take your pick. It's where Tom Cruise met Nicole Kidman while filming 1990's "Days of Thunder," leading to their ill-fated marriage; the ESPN biopic of Dale Earnhardt was filmed there; and more recently, Will Ferrell visited for last year's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." If your tour guide is super-generous, he or she might mention that Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson visited for 1983's "Stroker Ace."

--Perhaps extended versions of the tour could take visitors with lots of patience out to the South Carolina fields where 2000 Revolutionary War pic "The Patriot" brought Mel Gibson for filming, or the countryside in Anson County that served as the single N.C. shot in 2003's "Cold Mountain," which provoked outrage when producers made the much-cheaper Romania double as the film's North Carolina setting.

This idea struck me last weekend while visiting friends in Boston and taking the Boston Movie Tour, which visits sites associated with such memorable Boston films as "The Departed," "Mystic River" and "The Verdict," along with TV shows including "Ally McBeal" and "Boston Legal" (hey, we've got local sites from teen TV faves "Dawson's Creek" and "One Tree Hill" too!). The tour guide played DVD scenes from the movies as we passed the actual locations. We stopped mid-tour to knock back a pint in the L Street Tavern, home of scenes from "Good Will Hunting," and concluded at the bar that served as the exterior shot for TV show "Cheers."

Those who've followed this blog are probably aware I'm a movie geek, so this tour was perfect
for me. It seemed to do pretty good business in Beantown. North Carolina's status as the third-most-popular state for filmmaking behind California and New York provides us with plenty of opportunities to create a similar tour here. Click here to see a list of movies filmed in this region.

What do you think? Would you pay to take this tour?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Info on joining a social club

When you're trying to meet new people - especially when you're single - a popular option in Charlotte is joining a social club.

The clubs organize activities that could include meeting in a bar for a few drinks, catching a movie or cultural event, going river rafting or getting out of town for the weekend.

In Saturday's New Home section, I'll be writing about one of the very few clubs in town that's free, Go Social Club (better check them out quick - the organizer may start charging fees later this summer). There are others that range from about $20 a month to a few hundred dollars per month.

The Observer's annual Living Here magazine contains a listing of both outdoors-themed social clubs and those specifically targeting singles and dating activities. Click here to see it. (One important change since that article was written: Events & Adventures has changed to Venture - click here for the new site).

If you haven't seen the Living Here magazine, copies are still available if you call 800-532-5350. And I'm currently working on a new issue, which will be out Sept. 30. If you have ideas for information that should be included in it to give people a proper introduction to this region, please get in touch.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A freebie worth checking out

Before computer-generated special effects, before the dawn of the summer blockbuster, before Technicolor, movies could be just as captivating as they are today - or more so.

That was the lesson of my visit Sunday to the Public Library’s summer film series at ImaginOn, the library/children’s theatre in uptown Charlotte.

I mentioned the series in Monday’s column about places to see free movies in the region this summer, and both that list and the video report I did with WCNC might have left the impression that the only free movies in town are for kids.

Not so - be sure to check out the remaining lineup of this Public Library series. From this Sunday through July 29, the Wachovia Playhouse theater at ImaginOn will be home to notable films of Joseph Mankiewicz, from “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” to “All About Eve” and “Suddenly, Last Summer.”

Last Sunday marked the second and final chance to see a classic silent film - in my case, Buster Keaton’s “Our Hospitality.” Local pianist Eytan Uslan provided live musical accompaniment during the 74-minute film, and I found his blend of popular tunes from the 1920s, classical music and improvisation flawless.

I knew of Keaton’s legendary reputation for physical comedy, and had seen clips of his films before, but never a full movie. I was pleased to see the theater was nearly full on Sunday, with a diverse all-ages crowd. They gave Uslan's playing a standing ovation.

Sam Shapiro, manager of the Main Library’s Music & Movies Room, gave an introduction with such intriguing details as the fact that Keaton did all of his own stunts - including one that led to his near-drowning, captured on film and included in the finished movie. I wished there’d been a chance for a Q&A afterwards.

Parking is simple - you can park under the ImaginOn building by entering from Sixth Street, or at the neighboring Seventh Street Station parking deck, and get your ticket validated. And surely you don’t have something pressing to do every Sunday at 2 p.m. from now through July.

So, I’d encourage you - especially if you’re a newcomer - to come check out this great free opportunity.

I’ve written several times before about free things to do in Charlotte. What other freebies do you like participating in?

Monday, June 18, 2007

Causes of culture shock for newcomers

What are the main differences between the Charlotte area and other parts of the country? Plenty, I learned after I asked people to describe what caused them culture shock when they moved here. Some more examples from transplants:

“For culture shock, lack of places to eat was one. The number one was bakeries. We were used to going and getting rolls, etc., and there was only one bakery in town and they only made cakes and cookies and were CLOSED ON WEEKENDS.

The next (big change) really was how nice people were and their willingness to talk to you anywhere and be helpful just out of habit. One example - a woman came up to me and put her hand on my shoulder and said at a Blockbuster Video, ‘We rented that last week and you will love it.’ In New Jersey, A) no one is that nice in public, B) people don’t talk to you if they don’t know you and C) they definitely don’t touch you.” Jim Fritz, now of Charlotte, first moved to Concord in 1990

“We met more of our new neighbors in the first week (met two in the first day) than we met in our old neighborhood in four years in Michigan.” Sherry Swett, moved to Concord in October

“When my husband and I moved here from the San Francisco Bay Area, we experienced plenty of culture shock. We love it here because it is so different! Some of the things we noticed:

-There are few privacy fences between houses. You can drive around neighborhoods, and see through to the next block!
-No one is offended by terms like sweetie, hun’ or darlin’ when used by a stranger!
-There are churches everywhere you go - little one-room churches, huge community churches, old churches, new churches - and their members will invite you to come sit with them on Sunday as comfortably as if they were inviting you to a barbecue.
-There is a commute hour instead of a commute three hours.
My husband says that California is a good place to be from, and North Carolina is a great place to live.” Heather Rodeman, moved to Concord in 2004

“Culture shock: Incredibly warm and friendly people. I love total strangers waving to me as I run, sharing smiles and greetings, and not trying to run me off the road - unlike South Floridians. Yes, drivers here may be aggressive on the road, but they do share and are nicer about it than those in south Florida.
-TREES.. so many beautiful trees. And flowers. South Florida is a palm-tree-and-concrete jungle.
-NO HURRICANE SHUTTERS. (Only a Floridian could truly appreciate this.) We would spend weeks, sometimes months living with our windows covered by heavy metal shutters.
-Porch rockers in the airport - this was one of the first wonders of the city that I noticed - and I still smile at the image of them in my mind.
-The lovely Southern twang.
-Getting lost. I had a good sense of direction until I moved here (of course living in grid zones with bodies of water on both sides helps immensely.) I keep a map of the city in my car at all times and am still trying to find even one road that goes in a straight line.
-Car and state taxes. They don't exist in Florida. But we pay them, just so happy to live here.”
--Mindy and Ed Amster, moved from south Florida in April 2006 to Berewick in southwest Charlotte

And I like this stream-of-consciousness entry: “Wildflowers like the daffodils on the side of the road (485), incredibly irresponsible drivers, ready with the horn and using the shoulder to PASS! Friendly, smiling talkative clerks making running errands so pleasant, WAVING, everyone walking, biking and driving through our neighborhood, strip malls so beautifully constructed, unfortunately costly groceries, (not the competitive market I'm used to), $4 for milk???!.” --Colleen Oakes from Michigan

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A tip for this weekend

The Charlotte Symphony’s Summer Pops season is nearing its halfway mark, and it’s one of my favorite summer events around here.

I haven’t had a chance to catch a show yet this month, but I hope to head out this weekend. If you’ve never been before but you’re planning to go, here are a couple of tips (and keep in mind there are other shows around the region besides those at SouthPark):

--At SouthPark, the first thing to know is to arrive early. Hard-core fans get there around 8 a.m. on Sundays, spread a blanket to mark their spots and then return closer to the concert time. Don’t try to leave blankets earlier than that, though, or they’ll be removed – and don’t use tent stakes or gravel from the walkways to weigh them down. Mosquito-repellent candles make nice weights.

--Make sure you’re using low beach chairs so you won’t block those behind you. Don’t bring large umbrellas, pets or open flame cookers. And for heaven’s sake, turn off your cell phone.

--Go all-out with your picnic. Bring an elaborate basket, and then sneak peeks at all your neighbors to see who went to the most trouble.

More info:

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Glad to be home

I recently returned to Charlotte after 10 days out of the country – hence the long recent blog gap.

Travel is a passion of mine – I take any excuse to visit friends or family in other cities, and try to plan at least one longer vacation a year.

But I always feel comforted to return to Charlotte. It’s home.

True, it’s difficult here to find food as exciting or historic monuments as interesting as they can be in the world’s larger cities.

But some of the things I can find here that I can't find elsewhere include:

--Our skyline, almost impossibly new, with construction cranes adding more to it daily. And our uptown is considerably cleaner than most.

--The Penguin, The Cajun Queen, Mert’s Heart & Soul, Hawthorne’s NY Pizza and other locally-owned restaurants where I always feel welcome.

--The beautiful scenery of Independence Park, Freedom Park and the other neighborhood parks scattered around the "streetcar suburbs" that ring our uptown.

--Most importantly, the people. Most of my family and many dear friends live here. I also feel more comfortable walking down streets here than many other places, relatively certain that I’ll receive a friendly smile and wave from strangers.

What about you? What makes you glad to return home to Charlotte after you’ve been away?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Body Worlds marks new era for Discovery Place

The opening of the Body Worlds exhibit on Wednesday means many newcomers might soon be visiting Discovery Place, the science center that anchors uptown’s museum district, for the first time.

In my newcomer coverage, I have mentioned Discovery Place several times as a family-friendly resource for new arrivals. Growing up here, I remember that it was considered a national leader in science education for kids after it opened in the early 1980s. Leaders of other cities visited it to research how to create their own science centers. It was also a pioneer in the effort to bring life to uptown Charlotte’s streets.

But by the late 1990s, it had grown a bit tired. Paint was peeling. Exhibits were aging. Attendance was dropping. An effort to fund a $30 million renovation and expansion in 2001 failed when it was put before voters as part of a $342 million sports and cultural package that included a basketball arena. As any Bobcats fan knows, the city later built the arena anyway. Now leaders have crafted a plan to get $158.5 million in tax money for a cultural package that includes new museums on South Tryon street and $16 million to renovate Discovery Place.

But Discovery Place, under the leadership of president John Mackay, hasn’t waited for an infusion of new tax money to seek improvements, as the Body Worlds exhibit and last year’s exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls show.

"Those exhibits presage a new level of thinking for the organization," Mackay told me this morning at a media preview for Body Worlds. He’s seeking to bring Discovery Place back to being national leader among science museums, by developing its own exhibits that are high-caliber enough to go on tour to other cities. (Discovery Place developed the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit itself; Body Worlds has been on tour for a while, but Charlotte marks its only stop in the Southeastern U.S.)

As far as Body Worlds goes, I’m squeamish and I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience of seeing exposed muscles, bones, tendons and organs. However, I noticed I grew more comfortable with them the longer I stayed in the room. Parents should consider whether their kids under age 13 are ready for the experience. If they are, they’ll probably come away with more knowledge about how the human body works – and perhaps some positive messages about the harm that obesity, smoking and substance abuse can do.

Mackay said he believes the exhibit, running through Oct. 28, will top the performance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which brought in more than 222,000 people in its 102-day run.

So if you go, and you explore the rest of the museum, don’t judge too harshly if you notice a somewhat dated layout or an area that could stand to see physical improvements. Full renovations should come within the next two years if everything goes according to plan, and an expansion is still in the museum’s long-term future, Mackay said.

In the meantime, this spot on North Tryon Street offers plenty for this city to be proud of.

For those who’ve had a chance to explore some of Charlotte’s museums, what’s your favorite museum experience here? Or what should we be aiming to add to our cultural scene? Post here or e-mail me.