I’ve lived in Charlotte so long I remember when what we called “ethnic dining” was at the all-night Athens Restaurant, and when Thompson’s Bootery and Bloomery (it sold both Buster Brown children’s shoes and soft-porn-ish lingerie) greeted motorists on the curve where Independence Boulevard crossed Pecan Avenue.
But the city holds secrets even for Charlotte natives (I’m not one.) Did you know:
(1) Westside Charlotte is the site of a lost amusement park built around a lake.
(2) A former Model T factory in Charlotte became a missile factory during the Cold War. The building lives on.
(3) One of the many surface parking lots in Uptown is the spot where the first arrest of the Civil Rights Era Freedom Riders took place, in 1961. (It wasn’t a parking lot at the time.)
(4) Famous landscape architect John Nolen designed another Charlotte neighborhood, after he designed Myers Park. (Hint: You won’t find the other one on the list of the city’s wealthiest ZIP codes.)
(5) Baklava three-ways: from almonds, from walnuts or from pistachios. What bakery? (Hint: it’s near a deli/restaurant with “chicken” in three languages in neon in its window.)
Want to learn some great Charlotte lore? I learned most of those things during a series of neighborhood walks I’ve been on – and helped organize – each May starting in 2012. This year more than 20 walks are planned for all over the city in areas you may know well (NoDa, Uptown, Dilworth) and in some you may not know at all unless you live there (Enderly Park, Revolution Park, Brightwalk).
They’re called Charlotte City Walks. The idea is to help people connect with one another – neighbor-to-neighbor and across all those other boundaries that we let separate us: income, age, ethnicity, where we live or work.
The publication I manage for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, PlanCharlotte.org, started sponsoring the walks in 2012. They’re part of a global phenomenon: people on six continents have organized neighborhood walks each May to honor the ideas of the late Jane Jacobs, a writer and neighborhood activist whose observations about cities ended up changing the whole planning profession – after she raked them over the coals in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This May 4 is the 100th anniversary of her birth, 2016.
About those secrets:
(5) I learned about the baklava from Tom Hanchett, chowhound extraordinaire and recently retired historian for the Levine Museum of the New South. He’s helped us pull together about a half-dozen of this year’s walks. He’ll lead two “munching tours” in east Charlotte. Sorry, they’re already full. What you’ll miss, unless you signed up early: Hanchett will talk about the value of old buildings – not fancy houses where rich people lived, but plain ordinary run-down buildings. They’re important because they provide cheap space for local entrepreneurs. And east Charlotte is full of entrepreneurs, including immigrants who have launched restaurants or stores.
One is Golden Bakery (3145 N. Sharon Amity Road), where you can get that amazing baklava. Yes, I tried them all. No, I can’t decide which is better. Guess I’ll have to keep sampling … (Nearby is La Shish Kebob, where the neon signs proclaim Chicken, Pollo and Shawarma, which here is roasted chicken.)
(4) After John Nolen designed the gorgeous Myers Park in 1911 or so, he also designed a west Charlotte neighborhood called Enderly Park, named for Enderly, a plantation owned by some of the city’s ubiquitous Alexanders. When sisters Julia and Violet Alexander decided to develop their old farmland, they hired Nolen in 1925. Julia, by the way, was the second N.C. woman and the first from Mecklenburg County elected to the N.C. legislature. (Kudos to Observer writer Dannye Romine Powell and Jane Johnson of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room for surfacing that long-lost story.)
Does this stone gateway remind you of Myers Park? It’s at Effingham and Tuckaseegee roads.
(3) The Art Moderne-style Union Bus Station that sat at 418 West Trade Street was demolished in 2004 by Johnson & Wales University. But on May 8, 1961, as an integrated group of civil rights activists rode from Washington to Mississippi, they stopped in Charlotte. Joseph Perkins, a black rider, was arrested for refusing to leave a shoeshine stand at a whites-only barbershop. (He was found not guilty the next day.) The old bus station is – wait for it, see if you can guess – a parking lot.
On Saturday, May 28, at 1 p.m., Retro Charlotte blogger and Charlotte Observer librarian Maria David will lead a tour of then-and-now spots along West Trade Street uptown, including the now-lost spot of civil rights history.
(2) Yes, they made missiles here. And before that they made Ford Model Ts, here in Charlotte. Today, you can get a glimpse of the old factory, along Statesville Avenue just beyond Oaklawn Avenue, at the intersection with Woodward Avenue. In the Depression, the auto market cratered, and the site was sold to the U.S. Army in 1941. It was used as a Quarter Master Depot, then in the 1950s was converted to a guided-missile factory, opening in 1956. The Defense Department closed it in 1965. Today’s it’s warehouses and manufacturing space, and you’ll see it if you go on the 1 p.m. May 8 walking tour of Brightwalk and the Hebrew Cemetery, which is across the street from what’s now the Hercules Industrial Park.
(1) Ever heard of Lakewood Amusement Park? I had heard of this one, but on the Enderly Park walk last year I got to see the site. In 1910 the Southern Power Co. – which evolved into Duke Energy – dammed a tributary of Stewart Creek between Tuckaseegee and Rozzelles Ferry roads and made a lake to cool power transformers. But a large amusement park was built around the lake, and the city’s streetcar system served the park. It had a roller coaster and a large carousel, a casino and a dance hall where you could hear the Lakewood Italian Band. The petting zoo offered ostriches named Ruth and Boaz.
The Depression cut into attendance, and a tornado hit the area in April 1936. Heavy rains washed out the dam, and the park closed. Today it’s a kudzu-filled ravine.
Cover image courtesy of Nancy Pierce.