Friday, September 28, 2007

Stop the honking!

Today I heard from Carla Parks, a transplant who was distressed by a burst of honking she heard in traffic this morning.

She and her husband moved to Myers Park last year after 25 years in Connecticut. Here’s what she wrote:

"I’m a little upset by what I heard this morning at the corner of Selwyn and Queens Road West.

Someone was making a left turn in their black SUV, blocking the ‘thru’ lane on Selwyn, thus stopping traffic in a lane that should be allowed to flow. These things happen, and as I have noted in the past, many people in Charlotte exhibit the patience to wait until the traffic moves again WITHOUT blowing the horn in their car.

As a transplant from the NY Tri-State area, horn blowing was a common occurrence. Drivers blow their horns for the least little thing, and that is the way of life....THERE.

However, I feel that transplants should be reminded that it is NOT the norm in the Charlotte area to be quick on the horn and that local, albeit ‘Southern’ customs should be respected and upheld.

Yes, one of the best things about moving to Charlotte is that there are so many transplants here. However, it is my opinion that transplants need to adopt the charming/patient ways of this new community they have moved into."

It’s interesting that she wrote me with this point today, because I have been working for several weeks now on an article on a related subject that will run in this Sunday’s paper.

I’ve crunched the latest numbers that came out this month from the U.S. Census, and perhaps nobody will be surprised to know that in many parts of this region, transplants outnumber the natives. Thus, the resulting mixture of driving habits, food preferences and accents from all over the country, and the world.

So, what are the implications for our culture? Are we still the South? And what does it mean to be the South these days anyway?

Big questions – I asked newcomers, natives and experts for their views, and even after all that research I’m not sure it’s possible to give a definitive answer. You’ll see my take on Sunday, in conjunction with the publication of Living Here magazine. Meanwhile, I welcome you to post some thoughts here or get in touch.

SUNDAY UPDATE: My article about the changes to our culture published today; Click here to see it. And Living Here magazine is on the streets - its content will be available year-round at

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Latino newcomers: Myths vs. Facts

Everyone in this region has to cope with myths.

Northeasterners who move here have to battle stereotypes about their accents, food preferences and driving habits.

Southerners – well, they have to deal with different stereotypes about the same things.

And if you’re Latino, you have a whole other batch of myths to contend with.

I gained a new perspective on this issue this week when I attended a brownbag lunch organized by Tom Hanchett at Levine Museum of the New South. Heather Smith, an associate professor of geography at UNC Charlotte, presented findings from research she did with colleague Owen Furuseth to contribute a chapter to the recent book "Latinos in the New South: Transformations of Place" (Ashgate Publishing).

Charlotte is ranked fourth among the nation’s fastest-growing Hispanic communities – 932 percent growth from 1980 to 2000. Census numbers are notoriously unreliable for counting, but it’s estimated about 100,000 Latinos are in Charlotte now, and tens of thousands more around the region.

Here are some of the myths they’ve faced:

MYTH: Charlotte had no Latino population before 1990.
FACT: Charlotte’s community of Cuban, Puerto Rican and South American residents was booming by the 1970s.

MYTH: Charlotte’s Latino immigrants are overwhelmingly young, male Mexicans.
FACT: The immigrants are 41 percent Mexican, 17 percent Central American, 9 percent South American and 33 percent other ancestry. And while the majority are male, females and complete families make up make up the fastest-growing categories of immigrants.

MYTH: Latinos are primarily undocumented.
FACT: Forty-three percent of Charlotte’s Latino residents are U.S. citizens and an unknown additional number are legally documented residents moving from other areas of the U.S.

I’m not presenting this to get into an immigration debate. I’m doing it to show that the facts about newcomers often challenge or contradict stereotypes.

We’re a region increasingly dominated by transplants all drawn here for the same reasons: A good economy, good weather, a good quality of life. As this blog has shown, sometimes there are tensions as our diverse newcomers learn how to get along with each other – and the natives.

If you’re a transplant, what do you think are some of the predominant stereotypes about where you’re from – and which ones are unfair?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Hard to keep up with Charlotte's changes

A short drive is all it takes to see how much Charlotte is changing.

This week, I took one with Bobby Sisk of WCNC, the Observer’s news partner, to tape a report that will air Monday on the 5 a.m. and 11 a.m. newscasts (UPDATE: To see the video, click here.).

We started by the construction site of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, a pile of red dirt at College and Stonewall streets uptown that will be a major tourist attraction with national draw when it opens, as planned, in 2010.

A few blocks away, we drove past the construction site of the Metropolitan condo tower, Target store and Home Depot rising at the site of the former Midtown Square. It’s bringing a pedestrian-friendly, greenway-oriented development to the spot that once held Charlotte’s first enclosed shopping center.

We turned south and drove for a while along the light-rail line, set to open along South Boulevard this November. It’ll give commuters a new option for getting to work, and it’s sparking major new development along the corridor.

Then we swung a little to the west, to the site where the former Charlotte Coliseum was imploded in June to make way for a development of townhomes, retail and more called City Park. It’s part of the revitalization of westside Charlotte, formerly a mostly-abandoned side of town. But given its easy proximity to uptown, major highways and Lake Wylie, developers have definitely discovered it.

We then returned to the WCNC station off Billy Graham Parkway, beside the new home of the Billy Graham Library, which opened this spring. It’s home to the definitive history of the nation’s most famous evangelist, who’s also a Charlotte native.

And that was just one small circuit. We didn’t even venture out to the new developments taking place at Lake Norman, Cabarrus and Union counties, Ballantyne and further south. All of the area’s changes can be hard to keep up with sometimes, which is why the Observer annually publishes the Living Here magazine – a complete guide to the region.

You may have seen that the magazine will publish soon – next Sunday, Sept. 30 – in most home-delivered Observers, newspaper racks in Mecklenburg and Union counties and on I’ll be posting updates here and you can see more information next week in the Observer and on WCNC.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen taking place around Charlotte, and what are their best or worst aspects?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Want to learn more Charlotte history?

Ever wonder who’s behind the names of Charlotte places like Myers Park, Wilkinson Boulevard or Brevard Street?

There’s a place in Charlotte where you can go to find out who nearly all of the city’s important early residents were and when they lived.

It’s Elmwood/Pinewood Cemetery, open since 1853 in uptown Charlotte, with an entrance off Sixth Street. I promise this place isn’t creepy – it has the peaceful, hushed feel of a park. Joggers, bicyclists and dog-walkers frequent its pathways. I went there this week on a guided tour led by Historic Charlotte, to write a column that will run in this Saturday’s paper.

Incongruously, it’s surrounded on all sides by "new Charlotte" – bank towers, Interstate 77, and Gateway Village peep through the trees. A little further off, the tower of Biddle Hall at Johnson C. Smith University is visible.

The 100-plus acres consists of Elmwood, the 9th Street Pinewood Cemetery – a segregated resting spot for black residents until a wall between the two was torn down in 1969 – and Potter’s Field, a pauper’s cemetery. Though all plots have been sold since 1947, there’s room for 5,000 more burials to take place.

If you explore, you can find tombstones telling the story of local soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War, the Civil War, both World Wars and more. In the Pinewood section, you can see the graves of early Charlotte black leaders such as W.W. Smith, architect of the Mecklenburg Investment Co. building at Third and Brevard streets uptown. You can also see the sad evidence of vandals, damage from lawnmowers and neglect that has toppled some valuable tombstones.

For more info, contact Historic Charlotte for a brochure with a map and guide to some of the historic tombstones, 704-375-6145, or e-mail local expert Lynn Weis to set up a guided tour:

Many people – myself included – have lamented that Charlotte has obliterated much of its history, but if you look around, you’ll know it isn’t gone yet. Are there any aspects of Charlotte history you’ve been curious about? Get in touch and I’ll try to get the answers for you.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Charlotte vs. Portland: A comparison

Charlotte and Portland, OR are frequently compared to one another, thanks to their similar populations and demographics. Also, both are experiencing a boom in high-rise condo construction in their center cities.

This past weekend, while visiting friends who moved there from North Carolina, I found myself pondering those factors that comprise a city’s "quality of life," the factor that keeps newcomers pouring into Charlotte in droves – much faster, in fact, than they’re flowing into Portland, according to Census statistics. Some thoughts:

--Scenery. Both cities are blessed with great natural beauty. Within 20 miles of Portland, we visited the Columbia River Gorge, with stunning vistas and waterfalls easily accessible from the highway. On clear days, Mt. Hood and Mt. Saint Helens are visible on the horizons. It takes a bit longer to drive to the N.C. mountains, but the Oregon mountains don’t have the same fall leaf-viewing season we do because so many of their trees are evergreens, my friends tell me.

--Public transportation. Portland’s system is much more extensive, with a combination of buses, light rail and streetcars. It’s also extremely bicycle-friendly. My Portland friends bike or take trains most places. The transit system is well-used there, probably due to a combination of dense development and a high environmental consciousness among residents.

It remains to be seen how well-used Charlotte’s first light-rail line will be when it opens as expected this fall along South Boulevard, but it’s hard to imagine this city will be anywhere near as bicycle-friendly as Portland anytime soon.

--Weather. Most of the weekend was gray and cool – typical, I’m told, for Portland. There’s no doubt the Charlotte area gets more sunshine – but we also get more extreme temperatures, particularly our summer heat.

--Greenery. Both cities have formidable tree canopies. I was particularly impressed by how many Portland houses had elaborate flower gardens in their front yards. Charlotte is also blessed with a long and abundant gardening season, but I don’t see as many front-yard gardens greeting the passers-by here.

--Fashion. It was a far cry from the buttoned-down bankers-and-churchgoers that dominate much of the public scene around Charlotte. I saw lots of T-shirts, fleeces, jeans, shorts and sandals or flip-flops – and plenty of body art too.

--Food. While Charlotte probably has a similar range of choices now, they’re more scattered about and a bit harder to find. On my final night in Portland, my hostesses and I pondered whether we’d prefer Cuban or Lebanese food – both easily accessible and reasonably priced. I could find both of those in Charlotte but I’d have to drive a lot further. (We went with the Cuban and it was amazing).

Portland also had many great breakfast restaurants, which I enjoyed partaking, but the biscuits were terrible. I’m also told that in Portland you can’t find pork barbecue or any places where macaroni and cheese and banana pudding are considered vegetables. I loved my visit, but I was also perfectly happy to get back home and drink some sweet ice tea.

Charlotte is also frequently compared to Nashville, Raleigh and Austin. Anyone out there have some thoughts on comparisons between Charlotte and these or similar cities?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Russian group's impressions of Charlotte

Talk about newcomers. What would it be like to spend a few days in Charlotte if you grew up in Russia?

I had lunch today with a group of women from Russia who are spending a week visiting here. It’s a program teaming Charlotte Sister Cities with the Open World Leadership Center. They’re from several different parts of the country, including the Moscow area, near St. Petersburg and Siberia. Naturally, I wanted to hear their impressions.

How does Charlotte compare to Moscow, I asked Natalia Maslova, who is traveling with the group and acting as a translator.

"Moscow is a very, very big city, and it is easier to compare Moscow with New York City," she said. "Life in Charlotte is a little bit slower and maybe more relaxed. I have seen some traffic jams, but not as bad as in Moscow."

Like newcomers from elsewhere in the U.S., the group commented repeatedly on the friendliness and hospitality they’d encountered here. Group members said they were pleased to see Charlotte’s high number of churches and the importance of worship – something that is also very important for them back home, they said.

For Svetlana Largina, who lives in the town of Dubna outside Moscow, Charlotte’s affluence was obvious. "What we can see is a very high level of living here," she said through an interpreter.

Olga Kovalevskaya, from the Siberian town of Seversk, was surprised to learn Charlotte has nuclear power stations nearby – it’s difficult in Russia to build nuclear stations close to highly developed areas, she said.

She and a Siberian travel companion also said Charlotte’s architecture is different from what they’re accustomed to in their colder climate – there are more big glass windows on buildings here and the interiors are lighter, they said.

Other differences? They are not accustomed to being offered so much cold water with ice at mealtimes. Women in Russia wear higher-heeled shoes than women here. Hot tea is more popular than ice tea in Russia. And one pleasant surprise?

"They had a stereotype about American food that it is not tasty," said Maslova. "Here, they can see the food is very varied."

To other newcomers out there, what else in Charlotte has surprised you since you got here?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Uptown condo boom: All good news?

What do you think of Charlotte's boom in building uptown condos?

I posed that question to readers after Monday’s article and WCNC report from the top of the TradeMark, the second high-rise tower to open to residents in uptown. It’s among 20 high-rise condo projects planned or underway inside the 277 loop.

Respondents had mixed views of just how positive the trend is. Examples:

---Jimmy Jordan: "It is amazing that a market the size of Charlotte can support the seemingly ‘sudden’ and ‘overnight’ construction of 20 new residential high rise condominium towers in the (center city). I believe it says a lot about desire of America to return to the heartbeat of its greatest cities. Very exciting!"

---Bob Ellis: "Years from now the view could be the seventeenth floor of the next tower. Give me my view of my trees from my deck."

--Marcos: "Charlotte has plenty of jobs available so far. However, we have to stop building so many condos because this growth is unsustainable for the next three years."

Now it’s your turn to weigh in!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Provocative questions at Charlotte filmfest

What does it mean to be a Southerner? And what is our place in the larger world?

I had the chance to reflect on these questions over the weekend after watching the Charlotte Film Festival selections "Moving Midway" and "Facing Sudan."

The first, "Midway," is a documentary about a Raleigh man examining his family's history as plantation owners. His cousin, who inherited a plantation home held in the family since before the Civil War, recently responded to encroaching development by deciding to sell his land, pick up the plantation home and move it via an elaborate system of steel beams, cables and trucks to an undisturbed tract a few miles away.

Much of my family hails from the South. So for me the film was an occasionally painful experience. It examines why Southerners proudly consider themselves, as UNC-Charlotte professor Owen Furuseth recently said in my article about Southern stereoypes, "somehow different from the rest of the country," yet feel compelled to rationalize the South's shameful role in perpetuating slavery. It examines the "plantation myth," a la "Gone With the Wind," which portrays the tracts as places where only genteel traditions were practiced and of course every slave was treated kindly. And it explains why, even today, developers have no qualms about including the word "plantation" in the name of a shopping center or neighborhood.

A newcomer once told me of her shock about that practice when she learned of the Providence Plantation neighborhood in Charlotte. And the shopping center built where the titular Midway once stood in Raleigh now bears the name "Shoppes at Midway Plantation." Until I spoke to that newcomer, it had never struck me as strange - the word "plantation" in my mind primarily evoked images of white-columned homes and magnolia trees. Now, it evokes conflicting feelings to know that plantations are part of my family's heritage.

Sunday, the festival wrapped up with the documentary "Facing Sudan." It was a harsh - yet occasionally hopeful - look of the genocide that has torn apart Africa's largest country, generating mostly indifference from the rest of the world. It left me reeling to learn the conflict there has cost more lives than Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Somalia combined, yet has generated comparatively little public attention. It left me wondering how people can be so inhuman to one another.

It also proposed solutions, such as investing in charities that are building wells in Sudan and giving its tribal people some much-needed safety and stability. And it gave an inspiring look at those who participate in the work of Doctors Without Borders, bringing medical care to those who so desperately need it.

I am grateful to the organizers of the festival for bringing works that provoke such thought, reflection and desire for change. While I enjoy the occasional brainless Hollywood film as much as the next person, I'm glad that some filmmakers take their roles more seriously and I'm glad for the chance to see works I wouldn't see otherwise. There's another film festival coming up soon in Charlotte, the Cackalacky Film Festival, Oct. 18-21, Festivals like these are a chance to provide some much-needed support for independent film.

Did anyone else out there make it to the filmfest? If so, what did you think?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Got weekend plans?

What are you doing this weekend?

All I can say is, your answer had better not be "nothing." There’ll be no better time to get out to see what Charlotte has to offer.

"September is a wonderful month in Charlotte," said Michael Smith, head of Charlotte Center City Partners, at Wednesday’s official kickoff of Charlotte Shout!

Shout is a festival stretching through Sept. 29 that includes more than 200 performances and events at 40 venues around town.

Even if you’re one of those who views the "Shout!" identity as a somewhat meaningless way to package arts events that would most likely be occurring in September anyway, why complain about that?

Take this weekend for starters. Your choices include the Charlotte Film Festival, the Charlotte Dance Festival, the Greek Festival, and Saturday’s "cultural free-for-all" in which nearly every attraction in town has free admission.

Participants: Carolina Raptor Center (10am - Noon), Charlotte Museum of History (10am - 5pm), Discovery Place (9am-11am), Historic Latta Plantation (10am - 5pm), Historic Rosedale (1:30pm - 4:30pm), Levine Museum of the New South (10am - 6pm), McColl Center for Visual Art (11am - 4pm), The Light Factory (9am - 6pm), Wing Haven Gardens & Bird Sanctuary (10am - 5pm) and Mint Hill Arts (10am - 2pm).

And at SouthPark mall, you can catch free music performances all day Saturday: Carolina Voices (11:30am), Chamber Music at St. Peter's (12:05pm), Community School of the Arts (12:35pm), Charlotte Philharmonic Orchestra Musician (1:10pm), Afro-American Cultural Center (1:45pm), Charlotte Symphony Quartet (2:20pm), The Gold Standard Chorus (2:55 pm), Charlotte Civic Orchestra (3:30pm) and Martha Connerton/KineticWorks (4:05pm).

Click on to get details on all these events plus options for the rest of the month.

If you're planning to go out and try something you've never seen here before, please write me and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Should every local specialty go national?

Most of the bigger names in the retail and restaurant business want to open new locations here in Charlotte. But some businesses popular in other parts of the country are destined to keep their reach small for the forseeable future.

One of those is In-N-Out burger, a chain with a hungrily cultish following in California, Nevada and Arizona. It started in 1948 as the nation’s first drive-through hamburger stand. After I invited readers to name their favorite businesses missing from Charlotte, many former Westerners sang the burger company’s praises.

"The most wonderful burgers in the world are from In-N-Out Burger. If they ever expanded out this far east, people in Charlotte would become addicted," wrote Sara Stevens, a Charlottean who spent six months living in California.

"My wife, kids and I just moved here last year from southern California (L.A.). We love it, but do miss a couple of the fast food places over there. One is In-N-Out burger. Nothing else is on the menu except burgers and fries, and they are both the best," added John Nasir.

I called the company last week while I was working on last Sunday’s article about Charlotte’s most-requested missing retailers, and didn’t hear back in time for my deadline. But this morning, I had an answer from them waiting in my inbox:

"We're quite flattered that many of your readers mentioned us in your survey. We don't have any plans to expand to the east coast in the near future. We make all our hamburger patties ourselves and deliver them fresh to all of our stores. We don't have a freezer in any of our restaurants. Our freshness standards have a great deal to do with our growth plans. While we do hope to be on the east coast someday, it's still a ways off in the future."--Carl Van Fleet, V.P. Planning and Development, In-N-Out Burger.

My question is, is this necessarily a bad thing? Regional specialties like distinctive burgers or pastries or old-time hardware stores are part of what makes each city fun to visit or live in. I wouldn’t want to see Bill Spoon’s Barbecue franchised – would you? What are some other examples of local specialties that are better off remaning local?