My home state’s largest metropolitan area (1.7 million and counting) has long been saddled with a reputation as the Wonder Bread, vanilla-flavored center of North Carolina. To wit, last year someone launched a Facebook page called “Keep Charlotte Boring,” a play on the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan. And just as Austin has become more mainstream, Charlotte has livened things up.
I made this delightful discovery during two recent visits to the so-called Queen City, whose metropolis appears in the midst of a transformation. From morning to night, downtown — or rather uptown, as it’s officially called — hums with energy. Innovative art museums anchor a city block, lively neighborhoods ring the center, and dining and drinking options abound. A bicycle-sharing system, that now-familiar creative-class lure, even launched earlier this month.
These changes, along with the county’s rocketing population growth, and North Carolina’s status as a swing state (President Obama squeaked through in 2008) informed the Democratic Party’s decision to tag Charlotte to host its convention, Sept. 3-6.
Whether you’re among the expected 35,000 convention attendees or you’re planning an independent trip, you won’t lack for action. The Dems will gather uptown at the Charlotte Convention Center, these days a draw unto itself, at least among teenage girls. The complex was used in the filming of “The Hunger Games,” specifically the tributes’ chariot rides, where Katniss made her blazing entrance as “The Girl on Fire.” (The first frame of the movie was filmed a block away at the John S. and James L. Knight Theater, scene of the tribute interviews.)
And maybe this isn’t saying much, but the latest “Bachelorette,” hometown gal Emily Maynard, not only insisted the show be filmed in Charlotte, her winning fiance, entrepreneur Jef Holm, is relocating from Salt Lake City.
Not that Charlotte is a stretch for a businessperson. The area remains the country’s largest financial center behind New York and houses seven Fortune 500 headquarters, including Family Dollar and Bank of America. Charlotte’s status as a financial hub is one of the reasons Northeastern University chose it as the site of its first regional campus last year.
Charlotte’s solidly Southern days, when the dominant population was Caucasian and conservative, are no more. Thanks to an influx of newcomers, you’ll be hard-pressed to detect a drawl. Last year, an African-American woman became the city’s first openly gay City Council member and this year Mecklenburg County was among a small minority voting against the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. As for the state dish — North Carolina barbecue — the one downtown joint, the new Queen City Q, decorates its interior with Texas emblems and scrambles regional styles.
The best place to acquaint yourself with the Queen City (so called because it was named for Charlotte Sophia, the wife of George III, and from the German principality of Mecklenburg-Strelitz) is at the nearby Levine Museum of the New South. Its permanent exhibit, “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers,” offers a fascinating and candid examination of the region’s transition from agriculture to textile manufacturing to banking.
I agreed with the woman I overheard telling her friends, “I love that they don’t gloss over the hard stuff” as we shuffled through exhibits on slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and integration. (The 11-year-old museum’s boldest show to date opens Sept. 29 — “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.”) Other rooms, filled with lively displays, celebrate the area’s art and innovation, sometimes at the expense of New England, they point out. (“By 1920, North Carolina had surpassed New England as the textile center of the country.”)
The area’s push to become a banking powerhouse started in 1982, when North Carolina banking laws allowed branches to cross state lines. With that industry now on the skids, it’s no surprise I encountered “reformed bankers” running all sorts of creative enterprises.
On the way to my next cultural stop, the Levine Center for the Arts, I stopped at Amelie’s French Bakery for a taste of pop culture. I’d heard that sweets from the bakery, best known for its Parisian shabby-chic main location north of uptown, show up in “The Hunger Games.” I asked the woman at the counter to point them out.
“I think it was this strawberry gateau,” she said, pulling a miniature chiffon layer cake out of the case.
“You mean you don’t have a sign that says, ‘As seen in the ‘Hunger Games’?’’
“That’s not the owner’s style,” she said with a knowing smile.
Later I learned their almond tea cakes were also part of the spread, and that Woody Harrelson, who played besotted coach Haymitch Abernathy, “loved the lemon raspberry tart.”
The arts center comprises a cluster of separate institutions, all opened in the past three years: Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, Mint Museum Uptown, and the Knight Theater.
Visually anchoring the foursome is “Firebird,” a mirrored 17-foot-tall birdlike creature by the late French artist (and onetime Cambridge, Mass., resident) Niki de Saint Phalle. The shimmering sculpture’s arch has served as a frame for countless photos since it was installed in front of the Bechtler. That compact building, designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, is one of Charlotte’s most visually arresting, with a terra cotta exterior and soaring interior. Inside are pieces by Picasso, Warhol, and especially Giacometti, all donated by local businessman Andreas Bechtler, who inherited the art from his Swiss family.
Across the street at the Mint, Boston’s Machado and Silvetti Associates designed an eye-catching contemporary building with a multilevel atrium to house the museum’s world-class collection of craft, including glass, pottery, and fiber art. Politicos will appreciate the exhibit “Read My Pins: the Madeleine Albright Collection” (up through Sept. 23), an assortment of costume jewelry the former ambassador to the United Nations and US secretary of state wore to reflect her diplomatic mood.
The current exhibit at the Gantt Center, named for the first black mayor of Charlotte and a community leader, starts on a more somber note with its “Doors of No Return,” thick wooden doors used in Ghana to barricade captive slaves. They are among 200 artifacts in “America I Am,” created by broadcaster Tavis Smiley chronicling African-Americans’ struggles and achievements (through Jan. 1).
I left most traces of black history behind when I arrived five minutes later at the
NASCAR Hall of Fame, honoring a national obsession followed mostly by older white men (though the late Wendell Scott, NASCAR’s first African-American champion, is a nominee for induction into the 2013 Hall of Fame). I was curious to learn about the sport, which started organically, with Appalachian moonshiners souping up their cars to outrun the law and then later racing among themselves. Many of today’s team shops and drivers are based in and around Charlotte.
Knowing a thing or five about NASCAR will double the fun here, even from the get-go, when you receive a plastic “hard card” with admission.
“Does this mean something in the racing world?“ I whispered to the ticket taker.
“Yes, but I’m not really sure what,” she whispered back. (Turns out it’s the annual credential issued to NASCAR officials, drivers, media, and team personnel.)
It’s no secret the NASCAR of today is as much about science and engineering as it is driving prowess. My head spun with fascinating factoids about tire pressure, shocks, cross-weight and wedge adjustments. I scored high on some interactive games (lucky guesses), but I didn’t have time to wait in line to test my skills in a simulated race ($5 extra).
After hitting five museums in a day, it was time for a beer, not NASCAR’s official Coors Light but heartier fare from recently opened NoDa Brewing Co., two miles up the road. I arrived as Brian Mister, “director of community optimism,” was rounding up several dozen folks, many costumed, for one of the pub’s weekly fun runs. It being 97 degrees, I went straight for the reward — a cold brew, namely a refreshing Ghost Hop.
A mile north sits official “NoDa” (for North Davidson Street), which sprouted in the mid ’90s as an indie arts district and has most recently, with the closing of several galleries, morphed into an eating and drinking spot (Cabo Fish Taco, Revolution, the Sanctuary), with a few funky shops thrown in (Ruby’s Gift, Pura Vida).
Other neighborhoods worth venturing into for their retail and restaurants include Dilworth, Plaza Midwood, and South End — the closest to downtown and easily reachable by light rail. There, at Lark and Key, an outstanding craft gallery, I asked employee, artist, longtime Charlottean, and former banker Jane McBride about the arts scene.
“For a city this big, we really should be more advanced than we are,” she said. “But I’m very encouraged by the new museums. It gives me great pride to take people there. I think the financial crisis has given Charlotte an opportunity to reinvent itself.”
Of course, some things don’t need reinventing. Walk around the corner and you’ll reach a spot that for half a century has held its own — Price’s Chicken Coop. Four bucks got me a thigh, breast, and hush puppies in a paper bag. Before the grease had a chance to spread, I sat on a bench and dug in, glad to find some golden oldies left in new-fangled Charlotte.