Monday, June 28, 2021

40 years that built today's Charlotte

The early 20th century's "Watch Charlotte Grow" Drum and Bugle Corps. Because Charlotte always wants to grow. Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

At 9 a.m.Tuesday, I’ll be on a panel of four long-time Charlotteans on NPR station WFAE 90.7, discussing what Big Things have influenced Charlotte in the past 40 years. It’s part of WFAEs celebrating its 40th anniversary. Learn more here. I hope you can listen in, or better yet join us in person.

My fellow panelists – historian Tom Hanchett, documentary filmmaker Steve Crump, WCNC’s Larry Sprinkle – and I aren’t likely to agree, which should be part of the fun. But since I had to reflect and ponder anyway, here’s what I listed as the most significant things shaping Charlotte since 1981. Note: To me this did not mean the biggest news stories, such as the DNC or the Jim Bakker televangelist expose for which the Charlotte Observer won a Pulitzer. I went for things that seemed, in hindsight, to have been essential in shaping the city we live in today. Here are my Top 10. They
’re in NO priority order, lest someone start quibbling that one was more significant than another.

Harvey Gantt elected the city’s first Black mayor in 1983. I admire Gantt for all he’s contributed over the years, but I don’t know that he had more influence than any other mayor. Nevertheless this was a significant milestone for the city’s racial atmosphere and hugely significant in shaping the city’s image as, well, not as racist as a lot of other places in the South.

The 1989 merger of Piedmont Airlines with USAir. This created a huge East Coast airline with a major hub in Charlotte. (Though I still miss the down-home customer service of Piedmont.) Ask business leaders and they’ll verify that the multiple flights in and out of Charlotte make this a very attractive place to start a business, grow a business, or relocate a business.

The 1996 launch of the historic Charlotte Trolley in 1996. The nonprofit used historic Charlotte streetcar #85, rescued from a field in Huntersville and restored. It was run by volunteers along the tracks starting beside Atherton Mill, near what’s now Luna’s restaurant, ending at Morehead Street. This little fun run became a big demonstration project that people would ride rail transit, even when IT DIDN'T GO ANYWHERE. This, arguably, was the spark that lit the fire that eventually became today’s white hot development market in what’s now called South End.

The 1998 transit tax referendum (and a 2007 re-vote). Yeah, the tax doesn’t produce as much money as needed, everyone now agrees. But this was a major affirmation that Mecklenburg voters were willing to tax themselves to build mass transit. And of course

Thursday, June 17, 2021

With Price’s closing, South End loses the last vestige from before “South End”


I took this photo Thursday, after an hour in line waiting to get into the soon-to-close Price’s Chicken Coop. Almost another hour went by before I got to order.

A grease-spotted takeout box, familiar to generations
I stood in line two hours today to order chicken from Price’s Chicken Coop, the iconic fried chicken takeout joint on Camden Road in South End that had just announced it will close in two days, on Saturday.


While I waited, all nostalgic with a bunch of mostly strangers, for that familiar grease-stained cardboard box and the amazingly tender Price’s fried chicken gizzards, my friend David Walters sent some emails reminiscing about the neighborhood where he had a studio for 26 years. He agreed to let me publish it.

And yes, I got gizzards and fried chicken livers, and a 1/2-chicken dinner (dark meat) to split with friends. It was, of course, delicious. 


Price’s Chicken and Memories of “South End”

From David Walters:


The loss of Price’s Chicken Coop on Camden Road in Charlotte’s South End has brought forth an outpouring of regret for the passing of the “old South End.” This echoes a similar flood of emotion when the old Common Market location closed in 2016, just a few yards away from Price’s.


It was particularly striking, then and now, that the predominant feeling was one of angst that “South End wouldn’t be South End” any more. As someone who worked in an art studio for a number of years before that invented name and brand surfaced, I feel those emotions rather miss the point that Price’s was there long before South End was a twinkle in a developer’s eye.

When my wife, painter Linda Luise Brown, and I moved into our studio on Camden Road in 1990 (where the large bulk of Dimension Fund Advisors now sits) the area was an urban wasteland, vacant sites, weeds, barbed wire, and corner drug deals. Just few small brick buildings bravely faced this bleak landscape, most notably the offices of The Charlotte Post, the city
s African-American newspaper, the design and fabrication workshops of Gaines Brown Design, some artists studios (rented out by Gaines Brown at rates artists like us could afford), and two places to eat a few yards from our studio door: Price’s Chicken Coop and a little blue plate special place, the New Big Village (lamb on Thursdays!) run by an elderly Greek couple.

For several years my wife and I made art in our Camden Road studio, surrounded by the detritus of urban neglect, venturing out only to eat either at Price’s Chicken or the New Big  Village. Above our studio, a videographer lived illegally in a self-made bedsit in the old 1900s building. Back then, Charlotte zoning made it illegal to live in a “commercial” district. So everyone was very circumspect about this fledgling, guerrilla, mixed-use urbanism. But we needn’t have worried. No one came down south from uptown in those days, fearing crime and violence. So we were left on our own.

But a series of individual initiatives the 1990s saw the emergence of what we call South End today.

The Greek family eventually sold to Jennifer and Steve Justice, who started Phat Burrito (where Flower Child is now). Then Gaines Brown, who had cleverly assembled a lot of property that no one else considered valuable, sponsored a series of artist
street fairs on Camden Road, and helped lead the effort to renovate an old, pre-war Charlotte streetcar #85. Volunteers crewed the streetcar and rolled it up and down the rusting tracks for a few hundred yards, pushing or pulling a small wheeled generator.


This historic forerunner of our light rail line became a tourist attraction, and combined with the art fairs, began to change the public perception of this former slum-like district.

Meanwhile, at the south end of Camden Road, local developer Tony Pressley renovated the old knitting mill buildings around the water tower and he, Terry Shook, and others got inspiration from a visit to Dallas’ “West End, where old industrial buildings had been repurposed into an entertainment district, and the McKinney Street trolley was a tourist attraction. Charlotte’s trolley ran weekends for six years, carrying thousands, and building enthusiasm for the future light rail. Trolley service ended in 2002 to allow construction of the new light rail track.

Thus were the seeds of “South End” cast upon the cracked asphalt, and the new, invented district arose from the weeds.

Price’s is truly the last functioning survivor of the old business district that served the Wilmore and Dilworth neighborhoods along Park Avenue in the block between Camden and South Boulevard. What is now “South End” was once a thriving industrial district between the residential neighborhoods of Dilworth and Wilmore before it fell into decay, with Park Avenue the retail spine connecting the two neighborhoods. Doug Smith, a retired Observer business writer who previously worked at the long-defunct Charlotte News, once told me how as a boy growing up in Wilmore in the early 1950s he and his family would shop daily and weekly along that one-block stretch of Park Avenue. It had everything they needed, a grocery store, a pharmacy and several local small businesses.

That local lifestyle was not to last. Doug Smith explained how he and others were lured away by the glitzy delights of the new, ultra-modern Park Road Shopping Center (opened in 1956), just a few minutes away by car. White families moved away from Wilmore, the industries  closed, and the once thriving connections between Wilmore, the Park Avenue commercial district and Dilworth decayed and slumbered for a generation.

Linda and I fell victims to the inevitable displacement of urban gentrification, losing our studio in 2016 after 26 years. But we still have a studio in South End (now at C3 Lab on Distribution Street). After 31 years we are still in the
hood. The area is so different of course – unrecognizable is probably the best word – but we find it’s still a good place to work and create art.

The main difference, other than the physical environment, is that now we appear to be the oldest folks around! But in many ways, those of us like Linda and I
who’ve spent decades in and around academia find these new battalions of artistic Millennials and Gen-Z-ers oddly comforting. We are simply used to being surrounded by young, creative minds.

It is getting harder to keep up (and dodge the scooters!) but there’s still a lot of fun in trying.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Bulldozers and the failure – or success – of imagination

   The 1930s Masonic Temple in downtown Scranton, Pa., is now the city's Cultural Center. Apologies that  the photo doesn’t do the building justice (thank you, electric wires).

SCRANTON, Pa. – I’ll get to why I'm in Scranton a bit later. I went for a Saturday morning stroll around downtown Scranton on a cloudy, temps-in-the-’40s day. Headline for those unfamiliar with northeast Pennsylvania: Scranton is not a booming Sun Belt city. One clue among many: There is an Anthracite Heritage Museum here. The city’s population is about 77,000, down from a peak of 143,000 in 1930. The surrounding Lackawanna County has also lost population, from 310,000 in 1930 to about 210,000.

Probably not coincidentally, 1930 was the year the Masonic Temple and Scottish Rite Cathedral was built a couple of blocks from the large courthouse square in downtown Scranton. (More history here. The architect Raymond Hood, was one of the Rockefeller Center architects.) I spotted it as I walked past and was struck by the different fates of Scranton’s Masonic Temple versus Charlotte’s. Today, Scranton's Masonic Temple is a well-used Cultural Center.


Charlottes Masonic Temple was built in 1913 – designed by architect  C.C. Hook, whose works, while nowhere near as famous as Rockefeller Center, were well known and admired locally, including the old City Hall on East Trade Street and the Duke Mansion in the heart of Myers Park. But even though it was a local historic landmark, the temple was not preserved and turned into a valuable community space.


Charlotte's Masonic Temple met the fate of so many of the older buildings filled with memory and character in uptown Charlotte. It was demolished for a development project. To be specific, the bank known then as First Union (subsequently known as Wachovia and now Wells Fargo) and its real estate division decided it needed a fancy plaza in front of a vast, shopping mall-esque atrium on South Tryon Street. So they tore down the Masonic Temple and built a green metal kiosk in its place. For a time it held a sort of Chick-Fil-A outpost. It's an appropriate metaphor for the imagination skills of a bank partnering with an office tower developer in the 1980s: thinking a national franchise fast-food joint is a better use of uptown space than a building that could have another century or so of useful community life. For instance, a cultural center. Or maybe, as the town of Shelby did with its Masonic Temple, renovate the building to become residences overlooking their uptown square.


Of course the demolition proposal drew protests from many, but local protests are no match when millions of dollars in development profit are on the table. In hindsight, the loss of that preservation battle pretty much told office tower developers they had carte blanche to demolish any old building in the way of mega-developments. So they did. The columns were hauled off to the neaaarby small city of Rock Hill to become welcoming totems to the city. (Not my faavorite idea but still a bit of aa thumb in the eye to its larger neighbor to the north.


Like the temple, the Chick-Fil-A is gone and now you see just a sort of small, useless green structure. To the right is a postcard photo of the old temple, courtesy of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s website. Below is a Google Street View image (2018) of what replaced it. The larger lesson – to my observation barely half-learned (and that’s generous estimate) by Charlotte’s development and regulatory powers – is that when haste to build whatever is the architect-planner-developer fad of the moment means demolishing of older buildings, opportunities are lost. 


A kiosk, typically unused, sits on the site of the Masonic Temple.

Observe how the local economy’s entrepreneurship scene is strengthened by the new enterprises that flock to the spaces in Optimist Hall and Camp North End, both of them restored former industrial sites. Observe the brewery scene in South End, made possible by the unused old industrial buildings that once languished there. Observe the fledgling artsy area north of NoDa – itself possibly the most lauded example of how old buildings nurture both the arts and new businesses – as old buildings become home to new projects. 

Scranton Cultural Center

* * *

 So ... why Scranton? I’m here for a festival to celebrate the city where urbanist thinker and writer Jane Jacobs grew up and learned her keen powers of observation. It was her intellect and ability to notice that led her to recognize the chasm between the theories and proposals from architects, planners, developers and traffic engineers and how their projects worked in the real world: what was lost, what if anything was gained, and what cities and city economies really need to thrive.


The festival, Observe Scranton, was organized by a nonprofit whose board I chair, the Center for the Living City, and whose executive director, Maria MacDonald, grew up and still lives in Scranton. It’s been several days of events, starting with the book launch on May 4 (the late Jane Jacobs’s birthday) of Jane Jacobss First City: Learning From Scranton, Pennsylvania by Glenna Lang. The idea is to encourage residents to look at their own city, observe what's working, see its possibilities, and get engaged. Next up is to help other cities that might want their own Observe event.


Monday, March 22, 2021

I guess we’e reimagining uptown Charlotte again

Image from draft of the 2040 Center City Vision Plan, of what might (in some distant future) be a large park where the Norfolk Southern rail yard is today, on North Tryon Street

A few thoughts follow, after I listened this morning as Michael Smith of Charlotte Center City Partners briefed the City Council’s Transportation, Planning and Environment Committee on the 2040 uptown plan, known as the All In 2040: Center City Vision Plan. (Watch the meeting here.) That plan will be part of the massive Charlotte Future: 2040 Comprehensive Plan. (See draft here.) The Center City plan is still being drafted with a final draft due in May.


I love the idea of a new Second Ward High School, as this plan proposes. This keeps being proposed by the city, and hasnt happened. Maybe the city council and the staffs from the city planning department and the Charlotte Department of Transportation should burrow into why. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has its own elected school board; do they favor this idea? If yes, maybe the problem is that the school board doesnt raise its own tax revenue; the board of county commissioners must fund school building construction.


The idea for a high school uptown is not new. I recall at one point – maybe 15 years ago? – the concept arose, paired with the proposal that the new high school be a magnet school with curriculum focusing on the arts, and banking/finance. It always made me chuckle to think about the students whod go there. I imagined a Venn diagram of that student body with no overlap whatsoever.


Another proposal Smith talked about, saying the idea was afloat in the community: a big park on the site of the Norfolk Southern rail yard on North Tryon Street. That would be awesome indeed. Heres a story I wrote about it in 2018 when some UNC Charlotte urban design students proposed it. But I didnt just chuckle. I guffawed at the idea that Norfolk

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Weedy obstruction gets whacked

Weeds that blocked the sidewalk have been removed. Now, anyone want to report that campaign sign illegally posted in the right-of-way? Photo: Mary Newsom
Here’s a quick update to “A good walk spoiled," about the problem of vegetation, leaves and mud obstructing sidewalks. (Headline: Report it to the city via 311, via the “CLT+” smartphone app, or online here – it’s considered a nuisance report).

After reporting it to 311 on Aug. 11, I got a call Monday, Aug. 17, from a city code enforcement inspector. He needed a specific address for the perennial problem on the Runnymede Lane sidewalk – he had to know which inspector’s territory it was in. Google Maps provided addresses for several houses that back onto Runnymede, whose owners may well not know they’re responsible for cleaning the sidewalk on the other side of a large stockade fence at the rear of their lots. It’s a spot where leaves, mud and other debris have stacked up for years.

So, hopeful sign!

Then I asked about the weeds invading the sidewalk on Providence Road where it crosses Briar Creek. The inspector told me that Duke Energy owns the property. He indicated that sometimes Duke is not speedy in getting things like this taken care of.

So I decided to appeal to the City Council member for that district - Tariq Bokhari. I emailed him about it, and got a nice reply from a staffer, who said she had reported it to Duke.

It was cleared out on Wednesday.

I can’t say for sure that getting an email from a City Council member lit a fire under the power company or whether they’d have gotten to it anyway.

But … good for Duke for clearing that sidewalk. The sidewalk is now passable, if not pretty, and you can even see the creek. (Its water this morning was reasonably clear.)

And in the future, let’s hope the city can make that sidewalk language in the city code less troublesome.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

A good walk spoiled

At least there’s a sidewalk. But shouldn’t walking be more comfortable than getting slapped in the face with overgrown weeds? Photo: Mary Newsom
It was a morning walk along pandemic-cleared Providence Road. That means the street was seeing dramatically fewer vehicles than the 32,000-some it normally carries. And for once the pandemic was helpful, because the sidewalk was so obstructed in several spots that a couple of times I had to walk in the right lane of Providence Road. During rush hour. I was briefly – only very briefly – thankful for Covid-19.

That morning walk in late July spotlighted an under-reported but notable flaw in the City of Charlotte’s management of pedestrian life. Yes, the city to its credit has more than 1,900 miles of sidewalks. And yes, the city long ago stopped charging property owners for sidewalk repairs.

But what about keeping sidewalks passable? That’s iffier territory. My experience along Providence shows why, too often, walking is uncomfortable. That’s one reason people with options will opt to drive. It matters. Unless we want to live with ever-growing traffic and ever-worsening climate change from burning fossil fuels, we should be encouraging more people to walk, not drive.

Providence is a major artery (it’s a state highway, N.C. 16), but for about 6 miles through the city it acts like a neighborhood street (not a “road.) It’s flanked by front lawns, homes, churches, stores, a park, etc., many of which

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Sun Belt cities are driving much of our urban growth. Let’s study them

Charlotte shares many urban problems with other boomimg Sun Belt cities. Photo: Daniel Weiss/Unsplash
This article has also been published by my former employer, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Read more of the institute’s offerings.

The U.S. population, like that in Charlotte, is growing, and much of the growth is in the cities of the Sun Belt. A new report from a Houston university research center says the country should be paying more attention to Sun Belt cities like Charlotte – treating them as a specific genre that needs its own body of research.

“Unfortunately, much of American urban policy is crafted – and, indeed, much urban policy research is conducted – with traditional Northeastern and Midwestern cities in mind,” says the report from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

Released June 11, “The Urban Sun Belt: An Overview,” (download it here) lays out reasons why Sun Belt cities differ in key ways from other regions’ cities and deserve more attention – including the cities’ dramatic growth in recent decades.

Here’s one small example of why Sun Belt cities may need their own research: The term “Sun Belt” itself has no official definition. It was coined in 1969 by political analyst Kevin Phillips. So demographers and others must craft their own. For this report, the Kinder Institute defined the Sun Belt as spanning the continent from Los Angeles to Miami, below the 36’30º parallel. That takes in metro areas in North Carolina, Tennessee and Oklahoma but leaves out, for instance, California cities north of the Los Angeles metro area and Nevada cities north of Las Vegas. The report focuses on metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) of 1 million people or more.

And it concludes with an ominous analysis: Sun Belt cities may be particularly hamstrung, compared with older cities, in dealing with urban problems.

Chart: Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research

Why should the rest of the nation care? For one thing, more and more of the nation now lives in those Sun Belt cities. The report offers some astounding facts:

Between 2000 and 2016, the 22 Sun Belt metro areas with more than 1 million people accounted for