“You have to love the 20th century.”
That was it.
For hours I’d been struggling to articulate what exactly it was that was so endearing about Charlotte, North Carolina. Sure, it was green, it was livable, it was determined to be seen as progressive. And it has great food. But it wasn’t the typical East Coast experience, and certainly not the typical Southern city: it has no centuries-old storefronts, no crumbling mansions shedding light on a bygone era. Heck, it lacks almost any historic neighborhoods at all!
Instead, as local historian Tom Hanchett so ably distilled into that one sentence, Charlotte is a city that has been racing to turn its 20th-century successes into something that lasts—which, as somebody who finds urbanism endlessly fascinating, I found totally charming.
I was in Charlotte for the most unglamorous of reasons—it’s on the way. I love road trips and one of my favorite directions from my home base of Washington, D.C., is going down South: Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, St. Augustine, Miami, Atlanta, Asheville, etc. But the part I never looked forward to (don’t shoot me!) was central North Carolina—not I-95, not I-85, none of it. Unless you need to stock up on fireworks or Stuckey's pecan logs, that was just territory to get through as fast as possible.
But in the back of every travel writer’s mind is the haunting fear that, hey, maybe I’m missing something. So, as I was planning a road trip to and from Miami for the holidays, I took the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority up on its offer to show me what the city has to offer. And I am glad I did.
My visit to the Queen City left me sufficiently enchanted to make Charlotte the second selection for our new series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.
The appeal of Charlotte, outside of summertime when the city’s proximity to a plethora of outdoors activities ups its allure, comes down mainly to three areas: urbanism, history, and food.
On my first night, we stayed at The Ivey’s Hotel, cleverly situated inside an apartment building done up in what I would call a “southern luxury” aesthetic. Right in the center of the city, it was located near one of Charlotte NC Tours offices, and therefore convenient, since our first day began with a whirlwind bike tour around the city to get a sense of what this rapidly growing metropolis has going on.
As the cityscape is relatively flat, a bike is probably the best way to navigate it. Zooming around with tour guide Mikal Massey and his indefatigable boss, Dianna Ward, what becomes rapidly clear is that Charlotte is at the center of the debates raging about the future of American cities.
Bike paths crisscross the city, and development is springing up along its above-ground metro rail. Like that of most cities facing rapid growth and gentrification, some of it is more memorable than others. It has new urban parks playing off of its skyline (my favorite vantage point for taking in the cityscape was Romare Bearden Park, which also has a magnificent sculpture by Richard Hunt). Another highlight for those looking for their historic-home fix is in the older Fourth Ward, where over the years a number of venerable homes have been moved to preserve them—creating, along the way, a New Urbanist oasis in the center of the city.
As we biked here and there, person after person of different races, genders, sexual orientations, and ages stopped us to chat with Dianna Ward, and while it was definitely by happenstance, it seemed the city writ-large was conspiring to drill home the idea that Charlotte is a place focused on welcoming all.
With the exception of the historic Fourth Ward, a few old neighborhoods like upper-middle-class Myers Park, and various former textile mills being repurposed for multi-use projects, most of the city’s architecture dates from the latter half of the 20th century, especially after the banking boom of Bank of America and Wachovia.
“Nobody wants to save 30-year-old buildings,” explains Hanchett, when I ask why there aren’t significant numbers of historic buildings like you’d expect to see across the South. In 1900, Charlotte had roughly 20,000 people. By 1940, 100,000. Today the city’s core has roughly 860,000 and 2.5 million in the urban region. And with that kind of rapid growth came destruction and construction, and because existing buildings weren’t exactly old, there wasn’t a push to preserve them.
I’m sitting with Hanchett (anyone serious about exploring historical Charlotte should check out his website) at Haberdish. Located just a couple blocks from one of the new metro stations, the restaurant, which focuses on regional fare (including livermush), is one of a number of restaurants around the city that have made it a more appealing destination. Two more I’d recommend are Good Food on Montford (a super popular restaurant located along a strip famous for food and night-time fun) and Haymaker, a chic spot just off Romare Bearden Park.
Describing the culinary revolution underway in the city, Dianna Ward says emphatically, “If you’re just average, you’re on the way out.”
Of course, the big question that has long faced Charlotte is, can it become more than just a city to which people have to move for work? Can it be a city where people want to live—or even just visit? It’s an irony, because, for much of western history, culture has followed or at least swum alongside money (Florence, the Netherlands, New York, etc.). Charlotte has been a center of the financial world for decades, and it’s made a concerted effort to have a robust cultural footprint. Yet despite a growing number of museums (such as NASCAR, Bechtler, the Mint Museum, the Billy Graham Library), being seen as a center of culture has often eluded it.
One museum alone, however, makes a stop in Charlotte worthwhile: the Levine Museum of the New South. Located in the city core, the museum takes visitors on an in-depth, unflinching walk through the region from the end of the Civil War to the present day. Along the way, it tackles everything from the hope of Reconstruction to the rise of Jim Crow and segregation, the region’s industrial explosion as a textile manufacturing center, and the dire poverty of many of its citizens working in its agricultural sector. It examines how Charlotte’s business-first attitude softened the drama of desegregation (essentially business leaders didn’t want the chaos in other Southern cities, so they made sure Charlotte integrated, albeit on a surface level), which has echoes of its role in LGBT issues today in the state.
As somebody originally from New England with only a superficial knowledge of the American Piedmont and its development post-World War II, I have to say that this was one of the best museums I’ve visited in years.
One of the central figures in the city’s business history that the museum talks about is the tobacco tycoon James Buchanan Duke, best known to people from my hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, as the father of Doris Duke. Duke was one of the turn-of-the-century’s more successful businessmen, at one point controlling roughly 90 percent of the U.S. cigarette market and also creating what became Duke Energy. While his daughter’s properties of Rough Point and Shangri La have become iconic, Charlotte has a little Duke gem of its own: the H-shaped James Buchanan Duke House, a beautiful Colonial Revival mansion built for the tycoon in the tony old Myers Park neighborhood. Today, it’s a historic hotel. My final night in Charlotte was spent there and it was an absolute delight, as its leafy confines ensure you forget you’re just minutes from the center of a bustling city.
It was the perfect, hospitable end to my stay, because now I know I need not fear a central North Carolina stop on my Southern road trip route.
UPDATE: The article mistakenly referred to a sculpture in Romare Bearden Park as being by Bearden. It was by Richard Hunt.