|(A shopping cart, removed in recent days, at the desolate North Park Mall.)|
My new drive is 12 miles, along streets decidedly unlike Providence and Queens roads and Morehead Street. Even apart from the extra time out of my day (it’s a 25- to 30-minute trip) and extra auto expenses to absorb, I was not looking forward to it. This new commute goes through neighborhoods that had little urban beauty even when new, and now are decidedly down-at-the-heels.
But I was wrong. What I lose in visual splendor is giving me a better-rounded view of the city.
The commute takes me through parts of Charlotte that of course I’ve seen before – I’m a journalist, remember – but never daily, or even weekly. And an occasional cruise up Eastway Drive is not at all the same as seeing it daily, because it’s those routine views that inevitably shape our understanding of and expectations for, the places we inhabit – what urban design writer Kevin Lynch (who worked in Greensboro early in his career) described as “mental maps.”
Knowing, intellectually, that Providence Road runs through some of Charlotte’s most affluent neighborhoods isn’t the same as absorbing, every day for years, the sight of tree-shaded sidewalks, well-watered lawns and well-proportioned four-lane streets. For years I’d drive through neighborhoods built as early 20th-century streetcar suburbs. Now I see car-oriented suburbia, much of it tattered. But despite its lack of obvious beauty, it offers something just as interesting, which isn’t easily found in those more static neighborhoods: a quality of visible transition through time.
I drive north to where Wendover becomes Eastway, then all the way to North Tryon Street, finally turning onto University City Boulevard. Along the way, I notice massive oak trees which don’t get near the publicity of Myers Park’s but are just as impressive. A few years ago I spotted chickens in someone’s yard across the street from the Aztec Apartments, and enjoyed the sight. This was before the chic urban chicken craze hit the city. Now, though, while I have looked daily since late June, I have not seen a single fowl there. On Tuesday night, however, I did see, near the Kilborne intersection, a white rabbit hopping along the grassy verge.
I drive past strip shopping centers of various ages, in varying degrees of transition, decay and stability, and marvel at how Eastway Crossing at Central and Eastway has kept up its rental spaces over decades. How will it fare after its Wal-Mart closes, once the new store on Independence Boulevard a mile away opens?
|Nation Square, a new strip center on North Tryon Street.|
Once on North Tryon Street – which has been a designated light rail transit corridor for, oh, about 13 years – I
marvel daily at how much new retail development has gone up in recent years that’s not at all transit-friendly: Amid mobile-home graveyards and the vintage Holiday Motel sit numerous newly constructed small strip centers and even a fast-food joint with drive-through windows.
I stopped one recent morning at one of the newest strip centers, Nation Square, which houses a handful of businesses including Panaderia Odalys, a Mexican bakery. I sampled cookies with guava and other sweets and was surprised to learn that Odalys is a small chain, with outlets in, among other places, High Point, Asheboro and other nearby Carolinas cities. Who’d have thought?
One of the bleakest spots is North Park Mall, where Eastway ends at North Tryon. Those jutting sawtooth skylights on its roof evoke the old Richway store of the mall’s founding in the 1970s. Richway later became Target, which left the mall more than a decade ago. A Kroger Sav-On became a Bi-Lo and now sits empty. The mall is all but derelict, with weeds and pockmarks in its parking lot. Right next to it, a much newer strip center seems fully occupied with small businesses – braid shops, salons, etc.
|Baked goods at Panaderia Odalys at Nation Square|
My daily commute now shows me a living city, one changing visibly from decade to decade, its modest neighborhoods evolving with the outflows and inflows of different people from different places. I compare that with uptown Charlotte; for all its wealth of nightclubs, restaurants, museums, sports arenas and people, uptown’s virtually all-new development has mostly obliterated evidence of the multi-layered past. Cities have memories, made visible in the layers of buildings, pavements and history. We all need to be able to see the evidence of what went before us, what James Howard Kunstler called chronological connectivity. In his 1996 book, Home From Nowhere: he wrote: “Connection with the past and the future is a pathway that literally charms us in the direction of sanity and grace.”
For me, it's the places where small stores go in and out of business, where new signs sprout in Spanish or Vietnamese or English, that are making it easier to sense the past as I travel toward the future.