Tonight is the first CA Live event, and we’re ready for a deep dive into Charlotte’s identity.
To set the stage, we asked Tom Hanchett, this month’s speaker, his thoughts. Tom is a historian that works with the Levine Museum of the New South. His writing explores urban history, the South and Charlotte’s neighborhoods. We cannot wait to hear him talk.
How would you define Charlotte’s identity?
Charlotte is a New South city — and I’m not saying that just because I work for Levine Museum of the New South.
Charlotte’s history dates back to the 1700s, but it didn’t really start to cook until after the Civil War. Slavery was gone, the economy was a mess, so Southern leaders started talking about reinventing their region as a “New South” that would no longer be dependent on farming and slave labor.
Over the last 150 years we’ve moved from slavery to segregation to Civil Rights, from fields to factories to finance. But the one constant throughout this New South era has been an enthusiasm for re-inventing this place.
Today we are in the midst of another reinvention as newcomers pour in from across the country and around the globe.
Charlotte’s newest identity, I’d say, is as a city of newcomers. That’s rooted in our history; from the Charlotte newcomer who erected the city’s first textile mill in 1881, to the Charlotte transplant who built Bank of America, this city has always been unusually ready to welcome ambitious outsiders.
Today, though, growth has gone into overdrive. The county zoomed from half a million people in 1990 to over a million today. Our metro area leads the nation in Latino population increase — but that’s only a small stream compared to the numbers coming from New York and the Northeast, from Ohio and the Midwest, from California and Korea and Bosnia and Bhutan.
How do we handle all that growth? Some aspects of that question are technical and economic: How do we add highway lanes and/or should we extend rail capacity? But the most important, I think, is how we develop a shared sense of community.
Can we avoid being a city of strangers? Getting to know each other isn’t just a feel-good thing. It’s essential to finding ways to work together on making this a better place.
What will happen here in the next 5-10 years?
Historians are much better at predicting the past than predicting the future. But I’m willing to bet that the expansion we’ve seen recently will continue. Even the 2008 Great Recession did not slow Charlotte’s population rise.
Today we are the second-fastest-growing city in the entire U.S. At the same time, I’ve heard many people point out that Charlotte is still a place where one person can make a difference — a reality you can see in the creation of Charlotte Agenda or in Garrett Tichy’s #WeLoveCLT gatherings.
The key is to reach out.
Get beyond your workplace and your home screen. Seek out people doing interesting things. Volunteer. Check out Leadership Charlotte, Community Building Initiative, Mecklenburg Ministries. Take a chance on some local theater (I love Actors Theater and On-Q Productions), find local music and art (I dig Jazz Arts Initiative and the Wall Poems project), wander a farmers market to connect with the locavore food scene, read more than one local news source regularly.
Frustrated by what you don’t find? Yes! That’s your cue to dig in, to struggle to make changes, to make history. There is much that needs to be done here.
Carol Hardison, the CEO of Crisis Assistance Ministry, was kind enough to share her thoughts with us as well:
How would you define Charlotte’s identity?
Civic pride has recently hit a new high with this past Panthers season. Civic pride has always been a strong part of our identity.
Charlotte is a beautiful, highly desirable place to live, work, study and play.
Yet the ability to reach the full potential our city is impacted by thousands who are living in the shadows of success. For many, it’s a place to graduate, start a career and pursue life’s passion. For others, every day is a struggle to pay the rent, keep the kids safe and get them to a great school. Hard work is not always equally rewarded in society and yet great cities find ways to keep that from impacting their overall success.
What are the factors that you think contribute to that?
Compared to other regions of our size we have a low cost of living, great weather, low crime and good schools.
Yet there are two Charlottes. For many, the low cost of living is too high for their paycheck, the low crime isn’t in their neighborhood and the best schools aren’t within reach. They are Charlotteans too, and frankly, many of them work to make Charlotte great for the rest of us.
We are at a crossroads where the “old guard” that brought us to this point is retiring and stepping back and yet the younger, newer industries and leaders aren’t in charge yet. The old networks won’t work anymore and yet the new networks are not yet focused on creating solutions for disenfranchised citizens.
We need to understand the impact that hyper-segregation of opportunity can have in creating two Charlottes and strive to be a place of peace and prosperity for all.
How do you see the identity of Charlotte changing and growing in the next 5-10 years?
We are poised to continue to be known as a business friendly community, attractive to national and international prospects. And a continued focus on other things that make a city desirable such as greenways and safe bike lanes, good schools and low crime will encourage people to make our city their destination. But we must “take care of our own” while welcoming our new neighbors.
We were ranked 50th out of 50 major cities in a young person’s ability to climb out of poverty and achieve economic mobility here. That’s a problem we can’t keep hidden for long. We need to ensure our spirit to woo new residents, includes a spirit to create access and inclusion for all residents to reach their full potential.
Is there any advice you have for people to help shape the morphing identity of Charlotte?
My friends know I have a goal to hit every new restaurant and brewery that opens. Yes, I’ve been busy! I want our city to have a goal of creating access to healthy and affordable food with every new restaurant opening. I want a city that creates access to transportation as easily as it create access to a new brewery. I don’t want the ZIP code you were born in to limit access to affordable health access or a safe way to exercise.
We must include the voice all of the city’s residents in economic opportunity. They are smart, hardworking, creative and ready but that ZIP code lottery stands in the way. Yes, we are a “can do” city and that’s how we got this far. Let’s remove obstacles and empower our lowest-income neighbors with that trademark “can do” spirit. Let’s commit to the hard work of prioritizing access to opportunity for all neighbors. Or as we say here, let’s Keep Pounding!
The goal of CAlive is to start a conversation and inspire action. Some of you have joined the conversation already. It’s not too late, let us know your thoughts with #CAlive.