Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A drive through the layers of a city

(A shopping cart, removed in recent days, at the desolate North Park Mall.)
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but when I took my new job at UNC Charlotte, the one thing I dreaded was my new drive to work. For more than two decades I’d commuted 4.2 miles to downtown from a neighborhood near Wendover Road along streets lined, for the most part, with half-century-old oaks. Depending on the hour and the traffic karma, it took as little as eight minutes up to (on rare occasions) 25.

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.
I notice that the view of  50-year-old Garinger High School, designed by renowned local Modernist architect A.G. Odell, is all but obliterated by mobile classrooms plopped out front. I have become familiar with the extremely rough Norfolk Southern Aberdeen, Carolina & Western railroad tracks between Sugar Creek Road and The Plaza, possibly the bumpiest on any major thoroughfare in the city. I eye taquerias, Latino grocery stores and African braid salons, and today I caught a glimpse, as I zipped past, of a small business near Shamrock whose sign read: Cambodian Video.

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
The overall condition of that section of east and northeast Charlotte is of concern, naturally.  Some areas (that strip center on The Plaza at Eastway, for instance) all but shout “disinvestment.” But it’s the evidence of change – thriving ’60s and ’70s suburbia that has passed through down-at-the-heels and, in many places, into immigrant entrepreneurialism – that make this drive so much more interesting. With so many small-scale businesses, you see more evidence of changes than along the oh-so-sedate section of Providence Road lined with the big Myers Park churches or along Morehead Street, where most of what changes is Carolinas Medical Center consuming ever more land. It’s more intriguing to spot a new taqueria, an African grocery store or something called Cambodian Video.

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.


Scott said...

You're observing the urban design principle of "hard/soft". Churches, civic buildings and other things-built-to-last tend to be "hard," i.e. less likely to be torn down. "Soft" uses like parking lots, pre-fab buildings and shopping centers are much more pliable. If the LRT line ever gets built on N. Tryon St., land values would likely increase and warrant more "hard" development.

Also, immigrant communities are amazingly entrepreneurial and resourceful, especially in reusing buildings/sites that have been abandoned by previous users. One trend I've noticed is national chains going under, then local/ethnic businesses filling them. Examples I've experienced are a former Taco Bell (stucco brick arches and all) that's now a Thai restaurant in Augusta, GA. Former Pizza Huts (low-slung red building, pentagonal windows) are now an Indian restaurant in West Ashely [Charleston, SC] and a Peruvian rotisserie chicken place in Beltsville, MD [near D.C.].

Anonymous said...

If crossing tracks on Eastway between Sugar Creek Road and The Plaza, that would be the AC&W, not NS RR.

Mary Newsom said...

Dear Anon, 1:36 pm: I'll check that out. My city map, circa 2004, labels it NC.

Gary O'Brien said...

Mary, I'm glad you're getting a chance to see the Eastside world I lived in. It isn't as comfortable or pretty as the other world you describe, but I would venture to say it feels more vital and alive.

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