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

Thursday, June 11, 2020

After Covid-19, what happens to cities? What we know – or think we know

Uptown Charlotte’s Brevard Court, before Covid-19 shut down bars. Photo courtesy of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute
 After Covid-19, cities will change forever. Here’s a sampling of predictions I’m seeing:

People will avoid close physical encounters. Or maybe not. Maybe they’ll flock to crowded bars and restaurants after weeks of lockdown.

Stores, bludgeoned by pandemic closings and high rents, will close. So will smaller, non-chain restaurants. Cities will become blander and more homogenized.

Or maybe this: For a while small businesses will die and renters will flee. But that will reduce demand, so landlords will lower rents. Newly cheap spaces will lure innovators and entrepreneurs, artists, restaurants and shops to formerly homogenous, high-dollar areas. Their return will reinvigorate neighborhoods once dominated by national chains and luxury homes.

People will move to small towns, smaller cities or suburbs because they’re afraid – even more than before – of urban density and urban protests. Or, maybe, they’ll move after enduring years of extreme housing costs.

At the same time, more workers will telecommute – willingly or not – and office real estate will go begging. That, too, will change property values in cities, and hurt stores and restaurants catering to office workers.

As more workers telecommute, rush-hour congestion will melt away. Or maybe, rush-hour congestion will spike as people who once commuted on transit will opt to drive to work. And as more people move to suburbs, traffic there will get worse.

Or maybe none of those things happen.

We who write about cities are quick to make predictions. Some will prove prescient. Some won’t. But nobody really knows. Cities aren’t all alike. New York’s texture, way of life and pandemic experience are not Charlotte’s, or

Friday, May 8, 2020

Anti-vaxxers. Boosterism beating science. Sound familiar?


Charlotte's first zoning map from 1947 shows development patterns that continue today almost 75 years later. Hanchett's book, with a new preface, describes how government actions like zoning shaped today's racial and economic segregation. Today's wealthiest area of south and southeast Charlotte appears here in green at the lower right corner, because the map is not oriented north-south.
“Today’s decisions, consciously or unconsciously, rest on the platform of the past.” 
–– Tom Hanchett, Sorting out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975, second edition

People who find history boring and irrelevant must have scars from repeatedly touching hot stoves. The past has lessons, if we’ll listen. This is about a couple of century-old events in my city, Charlotte.

My original plan here was to write about the second edition of historian Tom Hanchett’s Sorting out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975. It’s a stunning book, one I regularly recommend when people ask what to read to learn about Charlotte. When I first read it in 1998, it was like having a light flick on in a darkened room; you see things you previously sensed only in shadowy outlines.

The meticulously researched look into how Charlotte’s neighborhoods went from racially diverse after the Civil War to strictly segregated told a story new to many of us – not the fact of segregation but how it happened across decades. He described how government – local, state and federal – was a key actor in creating and enforcing racial segregation. (To learn more about government’s role in U.S. housing segregation, see Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.)

Hanchett, the retired historian for the Levine Museum of the New South, today is historian-in-residence at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. His powerful new preface brings his work up to date and makes the point that since current inequities of wealth, well-being and education resulted from deliberate government action, then government action can help reverse them.

But … pandemic. Most Americans are now stuck at home, trying to stay 6 feet from anyone outside, many having lost jobs. We’re all viewing the world through a coronavirus lens and living through a history-making pandemic, the most serious since the 1918-19 flu, estimated to have killed at least 40 million people globally.

These days some politicians urge reopening stores and businesses, and not a few Americans agree, saying the cost to the

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

When North Charlotte turned into NoDa

The corner in NoDa where a scruffy deli-live music venue called Fat City once lived. Where the dumpster sits in this photo is where, 20 years ago, you would find bongo circles on Friday nights. Photo: Google Street View
Through a roundabout way, someone emailed me something I wrote in 2002 for The Charlotte Observer about the NoDa neighborhood. It seems, today, oddly prescient.

Almost two decades later, I can look at the neighborhood, which retains some of its original spirit, and at the column I wrote and see a description of organic, urban change, the kind where small investments create a diversity of uses, and where over time you see what Jane Jacobs called “the self-destruction of diversity,” or “the tendency for outstanding success in cities to destroy itself – purely as a result of being successful.”

I tried to add a link to the piece in the The Observer’s archives but a Google search didn’t turn up anything. So instead of helping my friends there with a few clicks, Ill make a pitch for daily metro newspapers, which are essential to understanding the place where you live and holding your government (which is, in reality, all of us) accountable. Heres how to subscribe. Better yet, buy an ad.

Feb . 22, 2002: Loving NoDa to death?

The first time I saw the NoDa arts district, it wasn’t NoDa and it wasnt artsy. It was the early 1980s, and I was looking for a bakery up on 36th Street that someone had recommended.

I found the bakery, just off North Davidson Street, in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood of emptied-out storefronts. Next door was an aging theater, which I think housed a church, though my memory on that point has dimmed.

The neighborhood was a memorable remnant of another time and an older Charlotte. It was obviously a mill neighborhood, with a nucleus of half-century-old store buildings and, lurking a block or so away, the hulks of a couple of brick mills. Surrounding it clustered small, almost identical wood-frame mill houses.

By the ’80s a ghost-town air was seeping into the mortar. Its businesses were fading; their location far from booming south Charlotte meant the aging buildings werent even being demolished but were settling into a twilight of abandonment.

As it happened, I knew that the little mill neighborhood had a name: North Charlotte. North Charlotte is singled out in The Observer’s stylebook, the official reference we use for capitalization, punctuation, spelling and other usage. North Charlotte merited its own entry because of its capital-N North, which recognized it as a distinct neighborhood, not just anything in the general northern part of town, which would be lower-case-n north Charlotte.

The cake I bought at the bakery wasnt all that great. But having discovered North Charlotte, I kept an eye on it over the years. I thought it had potential. It seems I was right.

Around 1985 an artist couple bought a dilapidated block of buildings on North Davidson and in 1990 opened the Center of the Earth Gallery. Other arts types followed, including former used-car salesman Terry Carano, who opened a populist gallery in a scruffy building across Davidson.

People in this buttoned-down, money-hungry banking city flooded North Charlotte for gallery crawls, concerts, coffee houses and off-the-wall theater. The place was unique in Charlotte: It was scruffy – the opposite of upscale – and it had a sense of place. You could find weird art, people playing bongos, vegetarian food and other deviant urban pursuits. People loved it.

After a few years, people started calling it NoDa, as in North Davidson. I guess they thought it would be hip, like SoHo in New York. Looking back, that might have been the clearest sign that North Charlotte’s authenticity was at risk.

NoDa is booming. Real estate signs uptown hype NoDa lofts. New restaurants and bars are open.

Last week came news of a development proposal. The scruffy building housing the un-slick Pat’s Time For One More bar and two weirdly populist galleries is to be demolished. In their place would go a well-designed three-story building with stores and condos.

As urban buildings go, this one will be better than about 98 percent of everything getting built in Charlotte. Yes, it will bring investment to the neighborhood. Yes, cities evolve, and this evolution is a sight better than what is evolving out on the outerbelt. And yes, amazingly, über-suburban developer Crosland will do this little urban infill.

But. But.

Can you tear down the blue-collar bar and the most avant-garde and wacko gallery and still hold on to what attracted the young, alternative thinkers to start with? The cheap gallery space and the bar serving truckers, punks and artists are an essential part – though not the only part – of the formula that turned North Charlotte into NoDa.

Can NoDa survive the loss? Maybe. I hope so.

But of course, that’s NoDa. I think North Charlotte may be gone for good.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Open Streets, funding culture and arts, densifying single-family zoning, etc.

This photo shows the event known as Manhattanhenge, when the setting sun aligns with the east-west street grid in New York City. I took it July 12, 2018, at Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan. It has nothing to do with this blogpost. I just like the picture. And I like the idea of Manhattanhenge, named after England’s Stonehenge. And I like a good street grid.
I haven’t posted for weeks, due to a variety of life events including travel, the flu and a death in the family.

So to give Naked City Blog readers something to read that is not Trump news, here’s some of my writing from recent months published in The Charlotte Observer and Charlotte Five, which some non-Charlotte readers may not have seen:

How should Charlotte pay for the arts?

Does Charlotte really need an environment committee?

This festival is just the start of opening up Charlotte’s streets

The racist roots of single-family zoning

Saturday, June 8, 2019

‘Charlotte doesn’t have a brand’? Here’s an idea


The famed Excelsior Club, possibly to be demolished, in keeping with local tradition. Photo courtesy Dan Morrill
Even in the chest-pumping venues of deep-booster Charlotte, an inkling of the problem sometimes creeps in. Janet LaBar, the new CEO of the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance even said it out loud in an interview with the Charlotte Observer. “I think Charlotte doesn’t have a brand,” she told reporter Deon Roberts.

The comment came up today at a regular weekly rump session over eggs, biscuits, livermush and bacon with a group of mostly long-time Charlotte residents, several of them Charlotte natives. I recalled the one-time civic discussion of a possible monument at The Square, the symbolic heart of the city at Trade and Tryon uptown. There was a time when folks were trying to figure out what could be an image that would capture the city’s essence. The late Doug Marlette, then the Observer’s editorial cartoonist, proposed an Eternal Barbecue Pit. Of course, other N.C. barbecue fans noted that Charlotte was famed, not for barbecue, but for being a place without authentic N.C. barbecue joints. Whatever.

What got put up at The Square was four didactic, symbolic statues representing Commerce, Industry, Transportation, and The Future. Visiting poet Andrei Codrescu once described them on NPR as Socialist-Realist and noted that the gold nuggets pouring on a symbolic banker’s head looked like turds.

And there’s a nice old-fashioned-looking clock in a small park on one corner. That park is modeled on the terrain of the Pacific Northwest, or maybe it was the Appalachian mountains – neither of them exactly representative of Charlotte’s terrain. It was built after the city used eminent domain to take and demolish the only antebellum store buildings uptown, which were offering not a heavily symbolic statue but actual Commerce.

Which leads me to the idea our rump session this morning devised. Because when asked, what iconic image does “Charlotte” bring to mind, people said: There isn’t one because Charlotte tears everything down.

After discussion digressed for a short time into various houses folks had owned and raised kids in only to see new owners tear them down for bigger houses, the idea emerged organically. The iconic image of Charlotte is of buildings being torn down.

Hence this modest proposal: Create a monument to Charlotte that is a building. It might be a small model of a historic building that should have been preserved. Maybe the Hotel Charlotte. Maybe the Independence Building. Maybe the Masonic Temple. I hope the Excelsior Club does not join this list.

Then every year on the city’s birthday, the model building is demolished. A new one goes in its place. It will last one year, and then, with pomp and ritual, it too is demolished. And so on. Erasing the past, year after year after year.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Greening the greenway

 Trees about to be planted beside Briar Creek Greenway. Photo: Mary Newsom

I was walking a short new segment of greenway beside Briar Creek on a sunny day and, about a mile south of the Mint Museum Randolph, I spotted a mass of young trees in plastic pots.

Of course I had to inspect them. Each plant had a TreesCharlotte tag identifying the species. I had stumbled on a large planting project destined for later in the week for that section of the greenway.

This was a cheerful discovery. The greenway, built by the Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department, runs generally beside a stretch of Briar Creek, from the Mint Museum Randolph and its park downstream to Meadowbrook Road. That creek segment has just been re-engineered in a project by Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Storm Water Services. The project aims to improve water quality and mitigate flooding. But it left the creek banks bare.

Looking upstream along toward the Mint Museum Randolph, with the Eastover neighborhood at left. The Storm Water Services creek project left the Briar Creek banks bare. Photo: Mary Newsom
The planting is a partnership among TreesCharlotte, the Catawba Lands Conservancy,  which protects several dozen acres of wetlands woods through which the greenway runs, and Piedmont Natural Gas, which paid for the trees and which will help with tree stewardship.
TreesCharlotte’s goal is to protect and expand Charlotte’s tree canopy, which is diminishing because of development as well as the aging out of trees planted a century ago.

It was good to note that the more than 200 trees planted were almost all native species. Here’s a partial list, based on labels on the trees I saw:

Witch hazel blossoms in late winter.
Paw paw (Asimina triloba)
Little Gem magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
Fringe tree, and spring fleecing fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus)
Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)
White oak (Quercus alba)
Burgundy hearts redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Oklahoma redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Overcup oak (Quercus lyrata)
Cherokee princess dogwood (Cornus florida)
Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)
Arnold promise witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis).

Of that list only the witch hazel (pictured at right) is a non-native. This particular variety is a cross between a Japanese and Chinese witch hazel. Other species to be planted include tulip poplar and black gum.

Why does it matter that they’re native species? Invasive plant species are a huge and growing threat to our environment and its biodiversity. They crowd out native species – think kudzu or wisteria – which alters food sources for wildlife, including insects. Among the major problem plants are privet, English ivy, Japanese stiltgrass and honeysuckle. (Learn more here and here.)

Piedmont Natural Gas’ participation is part of a required mitigation for environmental disruptions elsewhere.

Magnolia trees awaiting planting. Photo: Mary Newsom