Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A local ghost story for Halloween

Whether you're among the 34 percent of us who believe in ghosts, I hope you find local ghost stories as interesting as I do.

For one opportunity, you can visit Historic Rosedale, a plantation home just north of uptown on North Tryon Street, tonight - they're conducting ghost tours at 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. (click here for details). Many say its basement is haunted by a former slave named Cherry who cared for children there; other presences have been felt in the home's upper floors and on its grounds.

Meantime, I'll share this ghost story from The Duke Mansion, a historic inn and meeting spot at 400 Hermitage Road in Myers Park, which they sent out in one of their e-newsletters:

"Some time ago, a journalist was invited to write about guests attending a dinner party at White Oaks (former name of Duke Mansion). At the party she met a man. In fact, as the story goes, ...he was the most handsome man I had ever seen...dark curly hair with a distinguished hint of gray, expressive blue-green eyes and a dazzling smile.

"The two hit it off, not just that evening but at many other White Oaks parties at which they met throughout the summer. The only thing that precluded a relationship beyond all those parties was the fact that he had a wife who was in a sanatorium.

"After some time, the journalist realized that the relationship would never work. At an August evening party she told him that they could no longer see each other. He agreed, but insisted that they meet near one of the fountains in the White Oaks gardens at midnight, one year from that August evening and every year thereafter. He made her promise to meet him, dead or alive.

"And so, the story goes, they did meet, every year, until one year when the journalist had become engaged. She decided she would go one more time to tell the handsome man of her impending nuptials. She did not want to attend this rendezvous alone, given the news she needed to deliver, so she took a girlfriend with her.

"They arrived at the fountain shortly before midnight. She saw the handsome man walking toward her from a distance. As he got closer, she realized he was dressed in formal evening attire. Just as he seemed about to walk past her, she extended her arms as if to embrace him. He then proceeded to walk right through her arms, whispering the words, 'Dead or alive!' She and her girlfriend, who had watched the scene from afar, hurried home.

"The next day she called someone in his family on some other pretext. Eventually the conversation turned to him. She was informed that he had died three days earlier. His last words were, 'Dead or alive - will I get there?' And so goes the ghost story of White Oaks."

The story is told in the book "Haunted Houses - Tales from 30 American Homes," by Nancy Roberts, published by The Globe Pequot Press.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What you can learn about the South from movies

Hollywood has loved portraying the South from its beginning, but the only problem is that many of Hollywood’s ideas about this region are wrong.

That was the message from Bob Mondello, arts critic for National Public Radio, who visited Charlotte Monday evening to give a talk at ImaginOn entitled “Everything I Know About the South I Learned from Movies.” (Click here to read my earlier Q&A with him).

Among the things he learned, he said during his talk:

–Southern belles are a combination of hopeless incompetents and steel magnolias. Examples range from Buster Keaton’s hoop-skirted girlfriend in the Civil War-set “The General,” a 1927 silent film that screened following Mondello’s talk, to Scarlett O’Hara, to Sally Field’s Oscar-winning turn in 1984’s “Places in the Heart.”

–Southern beaux are rebellious nonconformists, a la Rhett Butler.

–The “Old South” was a paradise on earth, as shown in the controversially racist 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.” It was seen in its day by more people than saw “Star Wars,” and many other early films followed its example.

–Racial justice in the South requires the intervention of a Northerner, as learned by Sidney Poitier’s character from 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night” and many injustice-themed films afterward.

–The major themes in the South are conflict, race, alcohol, sex and depravity (i.e. “Deliverance,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” etc.).

The truth, of course, is nowhere near as stereotypical as these images, Mondello said. And later films have touched on many of the positive features of the South, such as the importance of family, strong community and attachment to the land.

Perhaps, he suggested, Hollywood – and the South itself – will wean itself of the negative aspects of these stereotypes and embrace the positive traditions. Perhaps, much like going to see a Western, filmgoers will someday talk of going to see a “Southern.”

What’s your favorite or least-favorite Southern film?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Are homeless people bums?

Are the homeless people you see in uptown Charlotte “bums”?

Some commenters on an earlier post on this blog used the term freely when referring to the people who panhandle and sit on benches in uptown. I got a chance to consider a different viewpoint on the term this weekend.

Saturday was Hands on Charlotte Day, a big annual event that encourages thousands of locals to pitch in and volunteer to help dozens of local charities.

As an active Hands on Charlotte volunteer, I scanned the list of available projects and chose the Urban Ministry soup kitchen. I was interested in learning more about an agency I hadn’t volunteered with before.

When I pulled up to the facility on North College Street just north of uptown, I saw men and women waiting all around the property. Most appeared to be single and kept to themselves; a few small knots of people chatted with each other. They come to Urban Ministry to shower, do laundry, check possessions into and out of lockers, eat the daily soup kitchen lunch, or enroll in programs including art, photography and soccer. The facility offers a variety of services and referrals to homeless people, but is not a shelter. There are shelters nearby, but many of Urban Ministry’s clients sleep in woods or under bridges.

A man named Tommy who works with a group called “Homeless Helping Homeless” spoke to our group of volunteers. He told the story of how he became homeless for a time – he was struck by a debilitating neurological disorder that caused him to lose two former jobs; he couldn’t find a new one, and couldn’t cut through red tape to get disability payments. He stayed in the Uptown Men’s Shelter for a while but said he “felt like the walls were closing in,” so he put himself onto the streets. Frequently, he said, he’d take a bus to the airport and stay there overnight, pretending to be a stranded traveler. He said he’s sometimes asked why he chose to leave a shelter, and he said he doesn’t quite know. “I guess God wanted me to go through this,” he said.

Eventually, he got his condition under control with medication, got a job and received a grant to get an apartment. Now he speaks to many local groups to put a face on homelessness, he said. I was surprised to meet someone who was educated, not mentally ill and not a substance abuser who ended up homeless.

His advice for dealing with panhandlers: Don’t give them money. There are a lot of places around Charlotte for homeless people to find food and services. If they truly appear hungry, you can offer to buy them food – and their reaction will tell you whether they intended to use the money for food or enable an addiction.

As for the other people I saw at the agency, most took the time to smile, nod and express appreciation for the volunteers. We spent the day weeding, spreading mulch and generally tending to a garden that provides food for the soup kitchen. A couple of clients pitched in and pulled a few weeds with us. One walked by and said hello, then said: “I’m on day 11 out here. The nights are really cold.” I didn’t quite know what to say back, but I returned his greeting.

Personally, I won’t be quick to call anyone I see on the streets a bum. I won’t give them money, but I’m happy to support the agencies that can help them get back on their feet the way Tommy did.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Do you honk and yell at other drivers?

If you’re one of the Charlotte drivers who likes to honk, yell and gesture at other drivers, I have a question for you:

Does it make you feel better?

I was somewhat amused last month when I wrote a blog post about whether a tendency to honk comes from the Northeast. It posed the question, should drivers here observe Southern driving styles and restrain their use of horns?

More than 40 comments failed to resolve the issue – they reinforced the idea that there are widely diverging driving styles here and many of them clash, hence the near-universal complaints about Charlotte drivers.

Not long ago, though, I had some personal experiences that got me wondering about this topic. In one case, I turned out from the driveway of the Manor Theater on Providence Road and cut it too close with an oncoming car, which had to brake. The woman driving it started gesturing and mouthing something at me. When we pulled up to the next stoplight she was still at it. I thought something was wrong, so I rolled down my window. She just wanted to make good and sure I knew she was yelling at me for my turn.

Then last weekend, I was driving at night to visit my sister-in-law in Mint Hill. Even though I grew up in Charlotte, Mint Hill has never been one of my regular haunts, and I find some of its roads confusing – especially the ones that are unlit at night. I missed a turn and slowed to find a place to turn around. When I turned onto a side street, the car behind me let loose with a long horn blast, apparently offended by my slow driving.

For all that driver knew, I could be a newcomer driving in Mint Hill for the first time. It wouldn’t have exactly been a welcome consistent with Southern hospitality. Every day we have newcomers trying to find places in our region for the first time; I hope they don’t all get honked at when they’re uncertain about their turns.

I freely admit I’m not the best driver around. In both cases, I made mistakes. But the yelling and honking from the other drivers did nothing to make anything better. All they did was upset me, and I can’t help but wonder what they did for the other drivers.

So, I’ll ask the question again: Shouldn’t we all try to restrain our honking?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Newcomers: Know much Charlotte history?

Do you have to be from Charlotte to be interested in Charlotte’s history?

Not if you work at the Charlotte Museum of History, home to the Hezekiah Alexander Homesite, which dates to 1774 and is Mecklenburg’s oldest surviving residence.

When I visited recently to write today’s column about ghost tours at local historic sites, I met with three newcomers who joined the museum’s staff shortly after moving here from other cities.

Anne Raman, a Philadelphia native, moved here in May 2006 from Columbia. Her background is in the arts and culture – she’s been a curator and gallery director – so she looked for a job that had a sense of place when her husband’s job brought her to the Charlotte area. She became the museum’s community relations manager.

“It just seemed to be such a natural fit to work with Charlotte’s history,” she said. And she was particularly interested to learn that this area’s early settlers originally traveled down the Great Wagon Road from her native Pennsylvania.

“I like to say I took my own great wagon road here,” she said with a laugh.

Also recently joining the staff was Christy Williams, a Chicago native who arrived here in July. Her job as the museum’s executive assistant and special events coordinator fit with her background from her previous job, working for Walt Disney World in Florida, but it was Charlotte’s present more than its past that lured her here.

“I really love the South. I love the weather. Charlotte seems to have it all,” she said.

The most recent arrival is Jan McCormick, the director of education, who moved here Sept. 15. The native of the Lake Placid area of New York has a masters in history, so it’s not surprising that she ended up at the museum.

“Everywhere I move,” she said, “the history is fascinating.”

If you’re a transplant, have you had a chance to learn much about this area’s history? What do you find interesting, and what would you like to know more about?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Biggest unmet local needs

Where should you direct your charitable efforts?

Last night, a panel of philanthropy experts received a great question from the audience I sat in. If someone has a limited amount of time, energy and money to give to local nonprofits, where should they try to get involved first?

I often hear from newcomers who want to get involved in volunteering fairly soon after they move here. It’s a great way to meet new people and learn about the community – in addition to helping causes you’re passionate about.

Last night’s discussion was part of a program I’m enrolled in, the Impact Fund for Emerging Philanthropists at the Foundation for the Carolinas. Young professionals who want to get involved in philanthropy apply to be a member of this fund for a year. We agree to make a personal donation; go through the process of assessing community needs; seek grant applications from targeted agencies and learn how to give out the group’s pooled money where it will do the most good.

Last night’s panel was aimed at helping members of this group learn other ways to stay involved after this program ends in December. The greatest local needs, according to the panelists, include environmental causes; organizations that help small businesses; and social issues, defined broadly as the “haves” helping the “have-nots.”

If you’re looking to get involved somewhere, check the Web sites of the Foundation for the Carolinas, the United Way of Central Carolinas and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Arts & Science Council for some ideas. Both of the latter groups have their own similar programs for getting young professionals involved in local nonprofits (called, respectively, the Cultural Leadership Training program and Leading the Way). A good way for newcomers to get started is with Hands on Charlotte, which works with a lot of local agencies to supply volunteers to a wide range of causes; they’re especially looking for volunteers for Hands on Charlotte Day, coming up Oct. 27.

Meanwhile, I’m curious to know your thoughts on some more specific needs that aren’t being sufficiently met in this community, and some suggestions of charitable agencies that need more volunteers or donated dollars.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Excited about the new Target store?

Seen the new uptown Target yet?

Word raced through our newsroom last week, before Sunday's official grand opening, that the store's doors were open early for a "soft opening." So I went by one evening after work, and was thrilled by the experience of walking through a brand-new, clean, nearly-empty store with fully stocked shelves, eagerly beaming employees and nothing out of place.

It's funny to get excited about a Target, when there are so many around the region, but I know I wasn't alone. And when Wal-Mart opened its store on Wilkinson Boulevard not long ago - bringing some much-needed retail to an underserved area - it was mobbed by excited throngs too.

For me, the thrill isn't so much about the mass chain merchandise, but about seeing us finally get some "big-box" stores constructed for an urban setting. The Wal-Mart on Wilkinson is concealing its ugly sea of asphalt with a row of more-attractive outparcel stores on the street edge of its parking lot. Meanwhile, the new Target at the Metropolitan development, site of the former Midtown Square on Charlottetowne Avenue, is actually a two-story building. The first level is the Home Depot Expo Design Center, scheduled to open this Thursday. Instead of an unsightly giant asphalt parking lot, the stores adjoin a more compact parking deck.

Many of Charlotte's big-box retailers abandoned corridors such as Independence Boulevard and Albemarle Road to move further out into the suburbs in the last two decades. They left their empty carcasses behind, and many of them have yet to be replaced. I'm hoping that these newer urban-style developments - along with the new Lowe's store under construction on South Boulevard as part of a mixed-use block - won't meet a similar fate.

Have you had a chance to check any of these spots out? If so, what do you think?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

What's the ideal driving tour of Charlotte?

If you’ve got just a few hours to give someone a driving tour of the Charlotte region, what sights should be included?

Thanks to Drew for e-mailing me this question. He lives in Ballantyne:

“I’m curious as to what you would suggest as a route. I’ve tried to hit the following things: a nice view of the skyline; Trade and Tryon where they can see the tree-lined streets and character of uptown; Bank of America Stadium is visible from just about anywhere so that’s easy to point out; since we have young kids, I like driving by Discovery Place, the library, and perhaps ImaginOn; and I somehow snake down to Myers Park and the older homes. I know I’m missing a bunch of things on that drive and I sometimes find myself taking a less than beautiful detour.”

I suggested that while he’s uptown, he should swing through the Fourth Ward neighborhood bounded by Trade, Tryon, Graham and 11th streets to see some of Charlotte’s most historic Victorian-style homes. While there, he could perhaps bring his guests to neighborhood joint Alexander Michael’s on 9th Street for a drink or some fried dill pickles.

I also suggested that from uptown, he could travel to his tree-shaded Myers Park drive by way of Third Street, which changes into Providence and leads to the famously confusing intersection of Providence, Providence, Queens and Queens.

But there’s certainly a lot more of this region to see, from all points of the compass. Where else would you go?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Newcomers: I-485 confusing enough for you?

My heart goes out to newcomers who have to use Interstate 485.

I’m a near-native who was in high school here when work began on the outerbelt in the late 1980s, and I still made a whopper of a mistake while driving it yesterday. I can only imagine how confusing it must be for first-time-drivers from other cities.

I was supposed to meet someone off the outerbelt’s exit 44, in the Union County community of Fairview. I had no idea where that particular exit was and just figured I couldn’t be too far off if I headed down 77, started in Pineville and worked my way east.

Wrong. I entered the outerbelt at exit 67- a full 23 miles away from my destination exit. I had to sheepishly call my appointment and say I’d be 25 minutes late. Since I was coming from near uptown, I would’ve been far better off heading to the loop via Independence Boulevard.

What makes me feel even more foolish is that as editor of the Living Here magazine, I oversaw the creation of an exit-by-exit map of the outerbelt (find it on page 101 of the magazine or click here for an interactive online version). I won’t be heading to any more unfamiliar destinations without checking it first.

Last week, when I met with a newcomer group, several members asked me about the confusing "inner" and "outer" designations for the directions on 485. Since it’s a loop, you can’t keep things straight if you try to use north, south, east and west, so you have to think of it like the face of a clock – "inner" is the clockwise direction, the lanes closest to uptown. It’s the way you’d go from University City to Matthews, for example. "Outer" is the counterclockwise direction, the lanes furthest from uptown, which you’d take from Steele Creek to Mint Hill for example.

Drivers, I’d like to hear from you. What do you think is the most confusing part of the 485 outerbelt? What’s your pet peeve about driving it (other than the rush-hour backups, of course)? What do you think should be done to improve it?

Friday, October 05, 2007

Stink at bowling? Not a problem for making new friends

I've got a new tip for those seeking ways to meet new people: A bowling league through Sports Connection.

I should hasten to say that I really, truly, stink at bowling. I did not officially join a league, but a group of my friends did, and they asked if I would be one of their alternates. This is a co-ed league, so they need to have two women and two men willing to show up each week.

Turns out, you can stink and still do well in this league. Standings are calculated by the percentage of times your team's total beats the total of the team you're bowling against each night. So if you're the weak link and the opposite team has an equally weak link, you'll still win. Or if the other team has a no-show, that helps too. So, after three weeks - two of which I bowled as an alternate - my team is tied for first in the league. My highest score: 102. Lowest: 68. (Hence the stinking).

The alley is packed every night for this league, and opportunities abound to meet new people at the jukebox, in the beer line or in the lane next to you.

Click here ( to see the info. about Sports Connection adult bowling leagues - another one starts Nov. 29. And if bowling isn't your thing, Sports Connection has leagues for soccer, flag football, kickball, softball, volleyball, basketball and more, in addition to many other social activities.

This is just one of the groups mentioned in the recent listings that appeared in Living Here magazine (click here and here to see them), our annual guide to the Charlotte region.

My blogging friend Deirdre McGruder has started a discussion on activities specifically for singles on her blog We Can Relate:

Anyone else out there have tips that can help other newcomers - not necessarily singles only - meet new people?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Should all of Spirit Square be saved?

Perhaps you’ve heard there’s been a flurry of attention around Spirit Square, the arts venue based in a historic former Baptist church in uptown Charlotte.

Originally, most of its structure save for the historic church sanctuary was slated for redevelopment and likely demolition as part of the complicated land-swap deal for an uptown baseball stadium. That plan was put on hold after a public outcry, but city and county leaders persist in trying to reap the benefits of the valuable land it sits upon, along with the Main Library next door. Expect to hear about changes to that block in the coming months.

Yesterday, a member of the task force studying what to do with the complex gave an update to members of Historic Charlotte, accompanied by local historian Tom Hanchett.

As a near-native (I was born outside Charlotte but grew up here from age 6), I’ve been aware of Spirit Square’s significance to the uptown landscape since it opened in the 1970s. Most of my affection was directed toward domed First Baptist Church sanctuary, the creation of architect J.M. McMichael.

But what I didn’t realize until last night is that the rest of the structure, even though it seems to be a hodgepodge that’s ugly in spots, is also historically significant.

The original church building opened in 1908, replacing a structure that had been erected there in 1884. In 1922 came the gallery in the rear, originally a printing plant and now home to the main gallery of local film and photography museum The Light Factory, with a distinctive sawtooth roofline. In 1923, the neighboring education building – now home to a number of local arts groups – opened. In 1952, a second educational building – the one facing Seventh Street, with a WFAE radio studio visible through its ground-floor window – joined the complex. It’s one of the only surviving examples of international-style architecture in the center city, Hanchett said.

Renovations in the 1980s added the new lobby entrance adjacent to the sanctuary on Tryon Street and a new rear entrance facing College Street.
Architect David Wagner, the task force member who led last night’s discussion, noted that Spirit Square has already evolved several times from its original use. The current question, he said, is "what is its next iteration?"

The task force, he said, is "trying to figure out what this building needs to be for the next 15-20 years."

There are already plans to put a soaring condo tower atop another nearby historic structure – the Carolina Theatre. It’s difficult to imagine that either Spirit Square or the Main Library could retain their character and charm if they were dwarfed by condos above them. What happens to the arts groups that use the buildings if the block is redeveloped? And from a historical perspective, does Spirit Square retain its full historic value if any of the structures around the sanctuary are torn down?

What’s your vote – would you keep all the current uses at Spirit Square and Main Library and just develop the parking lot portion of the block, or would you rather see a different use for more of that area? E-mail me or post here.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Great local resource: Discovery Place

Discovery Place was an uptown Charlotte pioneer when it opened in the early 1980s, and it has continued to be an asset to this community. Recently, it extended its run of the popular Body Worlds exhibit through early January. And, this week, there's a unique opportunity to hear from a famous astronomer, John Dobson, and to see the stars during a free "star party" on the roof of the parking deck this Saturday night.

I interviewed Dobson last week, and he was a hoot - many of his comments were spicy and unprintable, but he clearly has a passion for bringing the stars closer to people and increasing our awareness of the universe around us. I promised readers of today's paper an extended version of my interview, so here goes the printable parts (please don't forget the newcomer-related discussions in previous blog entries, which have led to some lively discussion, so scroll down if you're not interested in astronomy!)

Q. How did you get so fascinated with looking at the heavens?
When I looked through a 12-incher at the third-quarter moon, I was shocked. I had no idea the moon looked as though I was about to come in for a landing. I thought, ‘My God, everybody has got to see this."
That’s what the sidewalk astronomers do, we try to make it possible for the people who live in this world to see where the hell they live.

Q. To see their place in the universe?
Yes. Most people don’t notice that they’re in the universe. They think they’re in Carolina or wherever. That’s as far as it goes. They think the sun and the moon are about 200 miles up there. And it’s really not like that at all.

Q. Are you still teaching classes?
Yes, I still teach cosmology classes and telescope making classes.
My mission is to bring people to the universe. I was not particularly interested in pushing these types of telescopes, except that they’re easier to use, and we could manage them cheaply, you see, so that’s why we do it that way. I didn’t mean to start a revolution. That was not my intention at all.

Q. But you did, didn’t you.
Well yes. That’s what they blame me for.
I’ve become a cult hero, you see, because of that. I’ll tell you why. In the 60s, when you adults were using their telescopes, they were little tiny telescopes, maybe 4 inches across the glass, and they weren’t anything to look through anyway. They were set up for taking pictures. They were not really any good for seeing galaxies and things. You need a much bigger glass for seeing those things. So while they were running those things, we were running a 24-incher that sleeps three in the tube.

Q. Has interest remained strong today in amateur astronomy?
There was almost no interest in amateur astronomy when sidewalk astronomers started in the 60s. There was no such thing as a star party. Their telescopes were too small. What we do now with star parties with a whole lot of people there and a whole lot of telescopes, that was not going on in the 60s. They blame that all on me.

Q. Has light pollution in cities affected what you do?
Those dim fuzzies, we call them, galaxies and things, you can’t see them, they’re too far away you see, if you have a lot of lights around. We do that in our national parks with our 24-incher. When we’re in the national parks, we usually don’t have a lot of light pollution.
That’s one problem. But letting people see the planets and the moon in the cities. They’re lit by the sun for crying out loud, they’re not intimidated by the stupid lights from a city.

But one time in Los Angeles, the lights were so bright we could hardly find Jupiter with our bare eyes. That wasn’t a good night.
We give them a slideshow first. Show them pictures, so they have some idea what the hell’s going on out there you see. Then I get up on the ladder and explain what’s seeing. And then I tell them when you’re finished looking, you can get right back in line, and then when you get up to me again, you can tell me ‘I’ve already seen those dumb stars,’ and I’ll get you something else.

One time at the Grand Canyon, after we’d closed down at midnight, the Australian astronomers stayed up the whole rest of the night sketching galaxies with the 24-incher, galaxies that they can’t see in Australia, they don’t come over the horizon in Australia. And they spent the whole rest of the night sketching those galaxies.

Q. Why is it important to look through telescopes? What would you say to someone who never has?
I just tell them to come and look. Most people just walk by, they’re not about to look. Most people think they already know all they need to know. I know perfectly well that they don’t. And so many of them are shocked when they look through, at Jupiter or Saturn or any of these things. They’re shocked. They had no idea you could see anything like that. No idea the moon looks as though you could walk on it. What I often say nowadays is that if we can walk on the moon, we can understand this universe. And we have walked on the moon. So the universe is an understandable affair. So let’s just attack it.

You can make a telescope in about a week and you can see these things yourself. But understanding what we’re seeing, we’ve been working at it for several thousand years, and we haven’t got it finished.

Q. Anything to add?
Keep your eyes open.