A Dreary Day in Charlotte

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Charlotte, NC – A fog hangs over Charlotte. On Sunday in Santa Clara, the Carolina Panthers blew a football game the odds makers believed they would win by over five points. Their vaunted quarterback Cam Newton, who a day earlier had been named Most Valuable Player of the National Football League, was frustrated and stymied at every turn by a suffocating Denver defense. The result could not quite be called a stunner, but as the final seconds ticked away in Denver’s 24-10 win in Super Bowl 50, the unexpected taming of the Panthers certainly seemed to have knocked their supporters into silence. The next day, after my plane touched down in Charlotte, the shiny bank-strewn streets of the Queen City did not betray any sadness. And yet, the city seemed strangely silent.

I walked down Tryon Street expecting to see the usual commotion of a metropolis’s populace heading to work. But although a few people milled about, they appeared outnumbered by the many high-rises dotting the skyline. There was an almost audible quiet, as even the frozen air stood perfectly still. This fact was glaringly obvious from the rows and rows of teal and black Panthers pennants hanging along the sidewalks, resting perfectly in place. There is something vicious about meticulously preparing for a victory that never comes. Sure, I could see the hopefulness about a place that anticipates the best and acts as if there is no alternative. But when that exciting future does not come to pass, will its residents fully acknowledge that reality or will they simply pretend that nothing had happened? The latter option seemed to be the scenario playing out before me. I asked a passerby for directions to my first stop, which he failed to hear as he shuffled steadily by. As a result, I walked into the wrong building, realizing my mistake only after waiting to check in at the security desk. Walking back outside, there was no one else around to ask for help. The city was unmoved by my presence.

Charlotte is a strange hybrid of a city. Behind Atlanta, it is the second city of the new South, replete with big businesses as well as barbeque. Once a gritty textile town, it is now the second largest banking center in the country (behind New York) thanks to the recent growth of Wells Fargo and Bank of America. This means that the region has gone from the pioneering spirit embodied by the railroads that contributed to its rise to the now unfathomably anodyne culture embodied by the replica covered wagon in the impossibly boring Wells Fargo museum. It was for this very reason that I skipped the Charlotte walking tour. You know you’re in trouble when your city’s main attractions are a series of office buildings. With a limited amount of time, who could decide between touring the Wachovia Building, Two Wachovia Place, the First National Bank Building, the Bank of America Corporate Center, the BB&T Building, the NCNB Building, or the aptly named Jefferson Standard Building? I wasn’t about to try.

This is not to say there’s nothing worthwhile about a visit to Charlotte. There is a nice collection of restaurants, theatres, and sports venues, along with a soaring skyline, clustered within a relatively calm and walkable downtown. A short distance from Trade Street, one of the city center’s main arteries, lies a cozy residential area with modest but pleasant houses. Nearby are a quiet collection of churches, parks, and museums. The new minor league ballpark, home to the Charlotte Knights, is a charming little stadium on the edge of the downtown (although like its football counterpart, it is named after a bank). But it does mean that the culture seems to have been washed, dried, and smoothed for popular consumption. This stands in stark contrast to what I’d seen in my previous trips across the South. That region, for good or ill, is usually unapologetic about its bold differences from the rest of the country. Not so here.

Confused but undeterred by the city’s surprising lethargy, I headed to my anticipated highlight of the trip—delicious, golden fried chicken. Legendary Price’s Chicken Coop, a short mile and a half walk from where I was staying, awaited. Price’s is the kind of place that doesn’t have seating and doesn’t take credit (cards or otherwise). Price’s is the kind of place where the food will put you into a coma due to both pleasure and cholesterol. Price’s is the kind of place where you can get a hamburger, a pint of potato salad, a half-gallon of sweet tea, and a whole fried chicken for under $20. But unfortunately for me, Price’s is also the kind of place that’s closed on Mondays.

This was a real shame since Charlotte was otherwise filled with places ready to deliver a quick, corporate box lunch. This is the conquered South; the old, dirty economy replaced with a towering new capitalism of complex financial products and plastic-wrapped turkey and Swiss sandwiches. The streets are clean, the jobs have returned, and construction is booming. Indeed, walking around the city I could not avoid the sight of scaffolding, cranes, and construction crews raising up yet another skyscraper. I suppose this is progress. Certainly a lot occurred down here that deserves to be washed away, and Charlotte seems to be leading the way in a new direction. But of course, once cleaned, the place has lost a little flavor. And so, as I traipsed around town, I failed to find an attraction much different from the last (or the next). I was hoping to find the city’s hidden core and character but ended up instead at the Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery. I wasn’t in the mood, and clearly neither was Charlotte.

As the sun set, I reached the football stadium. Two ferocious-looking stone panthers guarded either side of the front gate, although they somehow seemed less threatening without anyone present to scare away. As I rounded the corner, a faint murmur drifted in from a distance. A small crowd had gathered near the stadium to welcome their players home. Drawing near, I saw a few children playing as their parents waited. Just then, the skies opened. There was rain, but no parade.

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