In Charlotte, N.C., the New South rules

June 22, 2012

“So, where’s the best barbecue in town?”

It seems like the question to ask. We’re nursing drinks at the bar of the Cosmos Cafe in downtown — oh, sorry, make that uptown — Charlotte, N.C., on a visit to check out the Democratic Party’s choice of presidential convention city. And North Carolina is barbecue country, right?

So I turn to the restaurant employee who’s sort of loitering behind us with nothing to do — it’s about 7 on a Friday night, and what with the street fair up on the main drag of Tryon Street, it’s still kind of quiet down here at the Cosmos — and pose my query.

Details, Charlotte, N.C.


(The Washington Post)

He gives me a “Come again?” look.

“Barbecue?” he repeats at last, in a marked Asian accent, and shrugs. “No idea. I don’t even eat meat.”

Oops. Turns out he’s the restaurant’s sushi chef. He doesn’t know from barbecue, nor care.

Sooo, I guess this is not, as they say, my father’s South.

Well, of course, my father isn’t even Southern. But in some ways, he might be just as at home here as my father-in-law, who is. Pretty, leafy Charlotte, a.k.a. the Queen City, may lie 500 miles south of the Mason-Dixon line, but it’s even farther from the South of my obviously outdated imaginings.

That place, Charlotte has put behind her (well, mostly). The days of a Life magazine cover featuring a summer party with demure young ladies in diaphanous white gowns are so half-century ago. Nowadays, North Carolina’s largest city proudly presents itself as the avatar of the New South.

It’s all buttoned-up business (a banking center, an airline and retail hub), a multicultural melting pot and a farm-to-table haven. It’s all (well, mostly) about growth, progress, diversity. The Future with a capital F. Isn’t that the name of one of the statues that mark the four corners of Independence Square, the historic heart of Uptown? A bare-breasted woman holding an infant in the air, representing the Charlotte of tomorrow. Forward!

Wait. Isn’t that President Obama’s campaign slogan? Yes, it is. Which makes Charlotte the perfect setting for the convention! When they hit town in September, the Dems should fit right in here (well, mostly). The skyscrapers that loom like Druidic sentinels over the streets of Uptown (as locals call downtown, because downtown “has a negative connotation,” says Paul, our bartender; so politically correct) should remind them of New York. The restaurants with locally sourced ingredients should feed their foodie souls. The museums and theaters should warm their artsy hearts.

And if, speaking entirely stereotypically here, of course, they should stumble upon something that you might think is a little more foreign to the tastes of some — a biker bar or a monumental tribute to NASCAR, say — well, that’s a good thing. You know, mind-stretching.

And trust me. Even though Charlotte, as one native we met conceded, “is hardly a natural tourist destination,” any conventioneers who want to sneak a few moments away from the official proceedings should have a fine time.

Just as I did.

The New what?

First, let’s figure out that New South thing. Specifically, at the Levine Museum of the New South.

Opened in 2001, the interactive museum showcases the “spirit of reinvention” that has reigned in Charlotte since the end of the Civil War. So, from a reconstructed one-room tenant farmer’s cabin you move to the textile mills, as North Carolinians moved from the cotton fields to the city. In the mill display, I take up the invitation to try my hand at spinning some cotton thread, but whoops! I’m all thumbs. And me the daughter of the mill towns of Massachusetts.

Oh well. Let’s check out this section on labor organizing — tailor-made for liberal conventioneers! Here’s the sad tale of Ella May Wiggins, a union balladeer — press a button and have a listen to her “Mill Mother’s Lament” — and organizer who was shot to death in 1929 in front of dozens of witnesses. No killer was ever charged.

The Civil Rights exhibit is pretty sober, too, with its sit-in lunch counter like the ones at which 22-year-old J. Charles Jones and 200 of his classmates at Johnson C. Smith University protested throughout Charlotte in February 1960.

And then comes the banking. Amazingly, this is pretty fascinating, conventioneers (even if we don’t really think of Dems and banking as going together). Here comes Charlotte powerhousing into the 21st century, thanks to a loophole in the banking laws that allowed the local bank, NCNB, to purchase Florida’s Sun Trust in 1982 and jump-start the era of interstate banking. (In case you didn’t know, before that all the banks had to stick within their own states.)

This is what has made Charlotte second only to the Big Apple as a banking, if not quite yet a skyscraper, center.

In other words, the New South.

Ghosts of history

Back up on Tryon Street, in front of old St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, what do we come upon but a horse and buggy. What’s this? Carriage tours? Seems more Old South than New. Well, but it’s a lovely day. What could be nicer than a little jaunt around historic Fourth Ward with Winston and Jesse, horse and driver respectively?

The Fourth Ward is to Charlotte as Georgetown is to Washington or Greenwich Village is to New York — an old residential area that’s had its ups and its downs and now its ups again. Just a hop, skip and a trot from the main strip, it’s all trees and pretty Victorian houses painted various shades of the color wheel. If you ignore the towers thrusting into the air behind you, you’d almost think you were in Charleston or someplace.

Winston clop-clops along the shady streets as passersby wave and smile, and a dog strains at its owner’s leash trying to give chase. “My dog’s a little bigger than yours,” Jesse teases the laughing owner.

Jesse’s a 21-year-old native Charlottean who nonetheless hasn’t a trace of a Southern accent. When I remark upon this, he proudly tells us how he trained himself to lose it after getting ribbed on trips up North with his band. “Now I realize how ridiculous I sounded,” he says. Oh, Jesse, Jesse. I bet you sounded just great.

He tells us some tales about the Fourth Ward, which was a slum until the Junior League spurred its revival by buying and restoring one of the houses in 1976. Jesse’s stories are mostly ghost stories: about the ones that appear to residents of the building that once housed a morgue, about the one that’s scared of the dark, so the owners keep an electric candle burning in the upstairs turret of the big old pink Queen Anne.

Every town has its ghosts, doesn’t it?

And Charlotte, it turns out, has more than many. After our carriage tour — thanks, Winston! — we take the Liberty Walk through Revolutionary-era Charlotte. Up and down Tryon Street we go, through the throngs of festival-goers (it’s Taste of Charlotte weekend), and every few paces we stop and gaze at . . . plaques embedded in the sidewalk. Yes, mostly we’re visiting the sites of things that aren’t there anymore. Well, of course, the British aren’t still hanging around at their encampment just north of Third Street. But what about Queens College, the first public college in the South? Nothing left but a plaque at Wells Fargo Plaza.

Charlotte’s Uptown is downright plaque-happy, I’d say. A plaque marks where the old City Hall once stood. There’s a plaque on the site of the original Belk’s department store, torn down for Founders Hall, a massive “event center” connected to the Bank of America headquarters. A plaque commemorates the day Congress declared Charlotte and Mecklenburg County the Cradle of Liberty. (The colonists here were the first to declare themselves independent of the British, on May 20, 1775.)

“Most cities have historic buildings,” observes my discerning spouse as we gaze at yet another gold metal marker among the bricks. “Charlotte has historic plaques.”

Sad but true. No point in dwelling on it, though. Forward!

Cars and Calder

I’m gripping the steering wheel as hard as I can, but no use. I’m spinning wildly, I’m going to crash. Vroooommm-errrrrrrrrrrr, ahhh! Wipeout. Titters from the line of drivers waiting behind me.

“Am I done here?” I ask the attendant at the “qualifying” station in the NASCAR Hall of Fame Food Lion Race Week exhibit. Here’s where you get to test your skills as a potential race-car driver, before you fork over five bucks to take a turn around the track in the nearby simulator cars. I should save my money; obviously, I’m no Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“Hit that red button to reset,” the attendant says. I obey, and my “car” starts up again. This time I manage to stay on the track, sticking to the green dotted line on the video monitor. But after about 10 seconds, the machine times me out.
Hmmph.

I turn my vehicle over to the next would-be Jimmie Johnson and walk out, passing a burly guy in a sleeveless T-shirt who’s cursing with embarrassment as he spins out onto the infield grass. Ha. I feel better now.

I’m not really a NASCAR fan, but of course we had to come to the Hall of Fame. This 2010 addition to the Charlotte landscape was the second-most-visited hall of fame in its first year of operation (Cooperstown, natch, was first). And I’ve gotta say, I like it!

I like looking at the historic cars that line the Sunoco Glory Road; they start out plain, just your ordinary-looking black Oldsmobile, and end up plastered with multicolored advertising — love the ones painted to look like Mountain Dew and Coors Beer cans. The evolution from standard manufacturer’s stock cars to scientifically engineered power machines is sort of fascinating.

And I’m tickled by this factoid about NASCAR’s subversive roots: They go way back to Prohibition days, when Southern moonshiners souped up their cars to escape federal revenue agents. (Oops, I guess that might not exactly appeal to a law-abiding progressive conscience. But isn’t it interesting?) Then all those guys with those juiced-up cars started getting together to entertain the folks with Sunday races. And that’s how a major sport was born.

Now, for a different kind of museum, let’s head over to the theater-museum cluster known as the Levine Center for the Arts and check out the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, which also opened in 2010 and is housed in a fabulous orange terra-cotta building designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta.

Don’t you love that shiny metal sculpture standing guard out front? It’s called “Firebird,” by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle. It’s definitely a crowd favorite — you almost have to pose for a photo between its legs. So naturally I do.

The Bechtler comes to Charlotte courtesy of businessman Andreas Bechtler, scion of a wealthy Swiss art-collecting family who moved to Charlotte in the 1970s and has donated all the works he inherited from his folks to the city. It’s a pretty impressive, if not hugely extensive, collection, including works by Picasso, Alexander Calder, Jean Tinguely and Andy Warhol, among others.

We zip through in just under an hour and see every single piece. My favorite part, I have to admit, are the photos posted beside a number of works, showing them where they hung or stood in the Bechtlers’ Zurich house.

Home as a museum. I like that.

Beyond Uptown

We’re busting out of Uptown at last, driving up North Davidson Street to one of Charlotte’s trendiest new neighborhoods. It’s called — surprise — NoDa. (I told you it was trendy.)

NoDa, I hate to say, is a little. . . no, duh. The center is circa one block of bohemian-feeling shops, bars, galleries and restaurants. It reminds me of a mini-Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley (do they call it TelAv now, I wonder?) and my husband of a (very) mini-SoCo in Austin (both liberal strongholds, of course).

We wander up and down the block, checking out the sights. It’s Sunday, and things are a little sleepy. I’ve missed the yarn shop by about 15 minutes, drat. Cabo Fish Taco’s pretty busy, but there’s only one other customer in Pura Vida, an eclectic boutique selling jewelry, clothing and knickknacks from places like Peru and Tunisia. I’m tempted by a purse made from Heineken beer cans, but nah. I’d probably never use it.

The interesting thing about NoDa — you’ll like this, Dems — is that it’s in a former mill village. There are mill buildings at either end (some have been renovated as apartments; others are still awaiting a new life) and in between are all the little houses and buildings that the millworkers once inhabited and frequented. Especially cute is the little Fire Department Engine No. 7. A few firefighters are lounging on the upstairs balcony when we walk by; 15 minutes later, while we’re having a drink in La Dolce Vita wine bar, the fire alarm sounds. Bye-bye, sleepy Sunday.

And bye-bye, NoDa. We’re off to finally find that elusive barbecue.

That, we’ve eventually been told, means heading to Mac’s Speed Shop in South End (you can take the new LYNX light rail out here, conventioneers). This barbecue joint in a former transmission shop is also renowned as a biker bar, and sure enough, there are motorcycles in the parking lot. But inside, I can’t tell who their owners might be. No leather that I can see.

We order a Big Pig barbecue sandwich for me and a mixed barbecue platter for my husband. And, rather sheepishly, white wine instead of one of the 150 brews available, which would no doubt be a more appropriate accompaniment to our repast.

I’m feeling rather sissy sipping wine with my pig, especially when a big guy clad all in black comes in and takes a seat at the bar. Finally, someone who looks like he might be a biker.

Then the bartender comes over and plops down his drink.

A glass of red wine.

What can I say? It’s the New South.

Details, Charlotte, N.C.

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