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, ├╝ber-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.