I began visiting Charlotte, North Carolina when I was about four. By the time I was ten it became a staple of my summer break. I loved it. It was so very different from the concrete jungle of Elizabeth, NJ. There were trees! There was the Charlottetown mall, just a short walk from the Main Street in Cherry Community where I’d stay with my extended family. Then there was the Cherry Reunion, where each year I’d have to hear, as if for the first time, that “Jenny” from the Jeffersons grew up there. The “country” (what we called the small towns in Anson County where my ancestors as far back as 1864 originated) was a place of particular magic and mystery with corn, pigs and gaggles of down southness that a city girl like me was not used to. Going to the country was an all day affair. We’d load into my cousin Big Debbie’s Datsun and head off at about 100 mph down Independence Blvd. The music jammed. The ice in my cousins illegal container full of boiler maker jiggled as the car became aerial over the hills and valleys of the road to White Store.
When I visited Charlotte I didn’t feel like the alien I often did at home due to my chubby nerdishness. Here, I could just be me and people seemed okay with it. Call it “southern hospitality” or phoniness, but whatever it was I thoroughly enjoyed it. By the time I was 20, and my mom bought a house in here. I was ready to escape the hardcore north and live in the southern splendor. I was so ready, in fact, that I took it upon myself to load our vehicle and inform my mother and Nana that if they weren’t ready to go on the day after my brother’s wedding, that I’d be leaving them in Elizabeth. We arrived in Charlotte, NC on June 3rd 1996 (the day after my brother’s wedding.) It felt like it was going to be a complete reboot, that life as I’d known it could only go up. It took approximately 6 months for me to wish I was in Elizabeth again. I felt lonely and isolated. Things closed too early, so I was desperately bored after 10pm. The people weren’t the same either. The newness wore off. The southern hospitality disappeared. You name a complaint, I had it. I stayed though, because where the hell else was my immature co-dependent ass going to go?
This past week when the delegates and visitors from around the country and world descended upon our fair city, their excitement made me think about my times here as a kid and my first few months here as an adult. Uptown Charlotte was a mecca for any kind of fuckery imaginable this week. Documentary films, protests, news broadcasts, visual and performing artists, and random celebrity sightings made Charlotte actually feel like the New Southern oasis it often presents itself to be.
There were the skeptical among us (myself included) that smirked at the Welcome to Charlotte video that played at the top of the convention. Watching the visually stunning HD film clip I wondered “Where the hell that place was, and how do I get to live there!”. It was as if they took the rampant crime and drug issues on Beatties Ford Road (just blocks from Uptown), The gutted ghost town of Independence Boulevard, and the armies of homeless folk who call Uptown Charlotte home, swept them under a rug, or stuffed them in a closet and shot this film.
Now, I’m not unrealistic enough to believe that a clip meant to show our face to the world would include our “bad side”, but I do believe Charlotte can on a more honest level be that shiny boom town reflected in the video. The issue is, as a friend of mine puts it, Charlotte doesn’t have a “soul”. It doesn’t have a thing that defines and connects us as citizens … unless you count money which is generally soulless. Charlotte from where I sit is like a wealthy father (or in our case Mother) who throws money at her children instead of engaging them and building a real relationship.
This week, Queen Charlotte dressed her children up to show them off for company, but will most assuredly go back to gentle pats on the head followed by a stern “run along!” She will continue to gentrify communities as rich and meaningful as Cherry Community out of existence. She will continue to turn her attentions toward fiscal advancement for those who need it least, hoard all of the cities attractions to her center denying the benefits of expansion to North, West and Eastern areas of the city. She will continue to create a culture that reduces artists to novelty acts, and rarely compensate them what they’re truly worth.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can challenge the Queen to “do better”. We can challenge ourselves to engage in the city more. Leave our comfort zones. Take in a show we wouldn’t normally see. Venture into an area of town you wouldn’t normally visit and check out what’s going . Invest time and finances in communities that need it. Seeds are already being planted by the non-profit arts and social service organizations in the city. These are the seeds of hope that will continue to grow Charlotte into its own living breathing city with a soul and a heart that beats, with or without company. Who knows, maybe we’ll actually stop being compared to Atlanta!
Truth be told and cynicism aside, I love Charlotte. It’s where I “grew up”. I became a writer, a theatre artist, a mother, and a career health care provider with the education and experiences I’ve had here. I guess this is why I feel so invested in her future. I would like to hope that one day I can give back to her as much as she has given to me. It was terribly exciting to have the DNC here in the “QC”. Hopefully it is the beginning of bright future for her.