The South’s post-Civil War revival and growth saw the rise of several cities as industry became more important and wealth moved from a plantation-based economy to an urban one and no city is a better example of this than Charlotte, the largest metropolitan area in North Carolina and one of the largest in the South with only Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and Jacksonville composing larger population centers. And if we speak of population within a city’s formal city limits, Charlotte’s is actually larger than Atlanta’s and ranks as the seventeenth-largest in the entire nation, ranking ahead of Seattle, Denver, and Washington, DC, yet Charlotte is too often overlooked.
While Charlotte’s stratospheric growth may be rather recent in contrast to some cities, it has a lot of history, having been founded as a town in 1755 and grown with the rest of its region as an important center of government and trade, becoming in time one of the South’s primary centers of finance and banking. Today it’s a center for many types of business as well as for the arts and sports, offering a diversity of attractions for the visitor. Besides that, it’s also one of the most dynamic and attractive cities for young professionals in the South and has handled its growth with a grace other cities would do well to learn from.
Charlotte’s geographic and economic position make it a natural for prosperity. Just across North Carolina’s state line from South Carolina, it’s in a place where a regional center is needed. It picked up the banking growth that first sprung up in Winston-Salem due to the furniture and tobacco industries there but which has proved North Carolina to be a viable seat of finance in general. With interstate highways and one of the largest airports in the South, Charlotte’s transport connections are also some of the best in the Carolinas.
As finance, manufacturing, and transport all spurred growth in Charlotte, the city expectedly grew in the arts and sports as well. Now Charlotte has some of the most interesting and unique museums in the entire South and is also the spiritual home of NASCAR and has both an NBA team (the Hornets) and an NFL team (the Panthers) plus professional baseball, soccer, and lacrosse teams and a rich college sports tradition. The official museum and hall of fame of NASCAR racing is in Charlotte, and its round design forms something of a literal hub for the downtown arts and business district, radiating outwards towards the booming South End district, where many young professions have made their homes, and a renaissance of sorts has risen in culture. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is also very much worth seeing even if you’re not a huge NASCAR fan.
The South End/Wilmore area deserves a close look: in a time when many communities in the South are searching for viable ways to bring forth a revival in their old industrial or neglected business districts, South End showcases a grand success of doing just that. South End was once industrial, but, located near downtown proper and having access to Charlotte’s light-rail system (which followed the path of much older tracks for freight trains that once served its factories and foundries), it has the geographic position of place and great transit connections necessary for diverse growth. What is more, South End has always been a pathfinder: it was the site of Charlotte’s first railroad in 1852 and, in 1892, the region’s first industrial park.
In fact, in 1891 no other than Thomas Edison came to Charlotte to test a new concept for gold processing (which was not effective) and, while in town, was inspired to help the city design its first electric streetcar system. The types of innovations one associates with northern industrial cities like Philadelphia and Boston were happening aplenty in the South, in Charlotte, and to be precise, in South End. Throughout the 1880’s and into the 1920’s, it seems that every couple of years provided some innovation or important contribution to engineering, planning, or architecture from this humble—albeit inspired—neighborhood.
Wilmore, to the south of South End, was the residential neighborhood matching South End’s can-do sense of industry with a very genteel and classic variant of middle-class Southern community. This area now is going through something of a revitalization, and its early-twentieth-century homes are quite appealing to young families. Food here ranges from high-end to a number of pubs and casual, inexpensive, restaurants like Crispy Crêpe and Phat Burrito that have become beloved for serving the community with both quality and whimsy.
The arts are another powerful force in South End and perhaps not surprisingly, given that the neighborhood has longstanding cultural roots—some rather unexpected. While her best known geography is her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, and years living in New York City, the great Southern writer Carson McCullers actually lived in South End in her early twenties when she began writing her now-classic novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. In 1964 the Charlotte Art League was formed, providing a community and sense of direction for Charlotte’s growing visual arts scene. Today, the area has multiple galleries and shops dedicated to art and also the Charlotte Trolley Powerhouse Museum, dedicated to the early days of the streetcar system in the city.
Back downtown, there is no less of a march forward. Often, when combined-use facilities are built in major US cities, they suffer from losing their sense of style—both in terms of architecture and the businesses on offer—a decade or so after their opening. Not so with Charlotte’s massive Epicenter, which is close to the Charlotte Hornets’ home stadium, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and many major office buildings. It contains a wealth of diverse restaurants, including the stylish and sleek Greek restaurant Ios, and pragmatic businesses such as drug stores, making it not just a lark of a trendy shopping center but something that actually caters to the people who work in the area every day.
Part of Epicenter’s success has been that, without it, the businesses contained within would be stretched out over a number of city blocks. As the density of downtown Charlotte isn’t that of Manhattan or San Francisco’s financial district and is younger than those neighborhoods in terms of its business-oriented growth, the cornershops and traditional retail trappings of a business district are not as evolved. To compensate for this, an actual “center” is a great approach.
Connecting all this—downtown to South End and beyond—is Charlotte’s Lynx light rail system, the scion of the trolley legacy and a great example of effective public transport. Riding the train on a busy weekday I nonetheless found it prompt and well-maintained, getting me where I wanted to go with no real loss of time. It’s the type of transportation that makes life in a large city a lot easier. And Charlotte is a large city—a modern, advanced example of exactly what a large city in the South is all about.
See Twice as Many Mike Walker Photos of Charlotte, North Carolina, Here