Will the epic battle between Northerners and Southerners ever cease?
In my early twenties I decided to go to Boston for graduate school. I'd lived in North Carolina my entire life. By the time I was packing my U-Haul to head north I had been given specific instructions to not "marry a Yankee" and to absolutely "never stop saying ‘y'all.' " After my parents helped move me into my tiny apartment, they both gave me quick hugs and drove south as fast as they could. I received a call from my father several hours later alerting me that they had crossed into Virginia and were "out of enemy territory." To say that I'm familiar with the tension between the North and South is an understatement.
When I was given the assignment to write about those tensions in Charlotte, though, I had no idea where to start. After all, there are the obvious and often stereotypical differences, but we've all heard them before: Northerners love pizza and bagels; Southerners love fried chicken and sweet tea. Northerners drive too fast; Southerners too slow. Northerners are aloof; Southerners will stab you in the back. But Charlotte is a sophisticated New South city with thousands of Northern transplants who have just as large a part in creating the culture of the area as natives whose ancestors' names sound suspiciously like they're out of Gone with the Wind. And in my time here I've met more than a few fast-driving Southerners, and Northerners who love sweet tea.
To kick off my research, I e-mail several friends and co-workers, asking for their thoughts on living in a city with such a unique mix of Northerners and Southerners. I receive one response. The entire body of the reply, from a Southerner, reads, "Go home Yankees."
Well, it's a start.
Before I can proceed with my research, I need to determine exactly who qualifies as Northerner or Southerner. In the 1760s the Mason-Dixon line was established along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border as the boundary between North and South. A century later the Civil War set Virginia as being the northernmost Southern state. So one would think that this means that anything above Virginia would be considered the North, right? Well, that's where you'd be wrong, at least if you were talking to people from Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, or Maryland, who consider themselves Mid-Atlantic and therefore not Northerners.
I ask Christina Langrall, a Wachovia employee who's originally from Washington, D.C., about this. "We do not consider ourselves Northerners," she says. "That title is for people from Boston, Philly, New York, etc. People with accents."
As I ask around, though, I discover that to many native Charlotteans the boundaries set 150 years ago are the ones they mark today; if you're from the Potomac up, you're a Northerner. Period. So that's what I go with.
At a staff meeting I ask for thoughts about the mix of Northerners and Southerners in Charlotte. Within moments tensions have risen. By the end of the meeting our senior editor, from Philadelphia, is barely speaking to our associate art director, from Virginia. Our art director, from Georgia, mutters something about Yankees, which results in a glare from the Philly native. I sit back and watch, taking notes on the turmoil. Most of the conflict stems from both sides feeling defensive, and thinking they are considered either less intelligent or simply less nice by the other. I scribble that communication seems to be the biggest problem between these two groups—at least here in the office.
Traffic and driving are two of the issues that come up first in most of my discussions about differences between Northerners and Southerners in Charlotte. Nick Langrall, a Charlotte Merrill Lynch employee, is originally from Maryland and takes issue with both the slowness of Southern drivers and their methods. "Recent advances in automotive technology have produced the ‘turn signal,' a standard device often used to indicate the driver's intention to move within traffic and alert others of their intention to do so," jokes Langrall. "Most Southerners use this feature sparingly."
Mary Newsom, associate editor at the Charlotte Observer and author of The Naked City blog, knows what he is talking about. The comments section of her blog, which focuses on Charlotte's growth, neighborhoods, and urban design, has been a virtual battlefield between Northerners and Southerners on many occasions.
"One topic that tends to set people off is growth -- and specifically traffic," says Newsom, who grew up in the North and South, but has been living in the South since college. "There is this mentality of ‘You have clogged our streets and that all of these houses being built for newcomers from up north have ruined our Southern city.' "
But there are deeper issues than traffic and driving at stake on Newsom's blog. In August, Newsom wrote about discovering a Confederate memorial on the grounds of Charlotte's old City Hall. The memorial was built in 1977.
"Does it strike anyone else as a bit late in the 20th century to be erecting memorials to a cause that—for all the talk about states' rights and honor—saw nothing wrong with enslaving thousands of human beings?" she wrote. The entry received 127 comments, most of them very heated and from both sides of the argument. They ranged from "Finding this monument in a modern American city is like taking a tour of Auschwitz and finding a memorial to the ‘brave Nazi soldier who kept the persecuted prisoners from escaping' " to "This article is simply a broadside against local heritage, plain and simple. There is NO WAY to justify the removal of war memorials, regardless of your political opinions about the participants."
"It launched the whole ‘South shall rise again' debate," says Newsom. "There was a lot of passionate back and forth about the nature of the Civil War."
Pamela Grundy, historian, author, and the curator for the new exhibit Changing Places: From Black and White to Technicolor at Levine Museum of the New South, suggests that some of the problems between Southerners and Northerners in Charlotte may date to the civil rights movement rather than all the way to the Civil War. "If there is a resentment from Southerners to Northerners it stems from this sense of Northerners thinking of themselves as better than Southerners and coming down here and telling us what to do," says Grundy, who is from Texas. "This ties back to the civil rights movement, when the South was vilified, albeit justifiably, for their race issues even though the North had huge racial problems as well."
Southerners thinking that Northerners believe they know better or what is best for them might account for the numerous times I have heard the phrase "Go home, Yankees" throughout my research.
Jonathan Wells, associate professor of history at UNCC and author of Entering the Fray: Gender, Culture, and Politics in the New South, notes that Southerners are resisting that feeling of infringement by trying to preserve their heritage and traditions. "A lot of sociologists have projected that the South will cease to exist because of things like the Internet and technology," says Wells. "It will lose its distinctive identity that it had in the past."
Wells points to the debate in Charlotte last December between those from the South who preferred to decorate their homes and yards with white Christmas lights and Northern transplants who preferred more colorful lights. "The South is trying to preserve what they see as tradition, but often the idea of that tradition is actually based on perception rather than reality," he says.
As soon as the Charlotteans I interview have stopped talking about driving differences -- and trust me, everyone wants to talk about those -- they bring up the difference in communication styles. While both sides try to put things diplomatically, most agree that people from the different regions communicate in very different ways. Almost everyone I speak with wants to go off the record at some point to say something about the other side that they think will be taken poorly. However, these comments usually aren't particularly negative. It strikes me that perhaps their words have been misinterpreted in the past.
Newsom says that Southerners have an indirect way of speaking that tends to drive Northerners crazy until they figure it out. "It's the ‘Sounds like I'm being nice, but I'm really not' thing," she says. "Northerners take things at face value."
Grundy also points to the different communication styles. "Communication isn't just about language," she says. "You may be saying something in a way that only someone from the same culture could understand the actual meaning of it."
Katie Mills, an event planner at the uptown Marriott hotel, works with visitors and residents from both sides of the cultural divide. "When I first moved to the South, people pointed out that I tend to interrupt in conversations a lot," says Mills, who is from Pittsburgh. "What I realized though was that while here it is perceived as rude to interrupt, back at home it was my way of showing I was interested, and most of my friends do that as well. So, while Southerners think it's something rude that Northerners do, Northerners can perceive not commenting as not being interested."
Mills acknowledges though that many of the stereotypes about Southerners being more relaxed become evident in the event-planning process. "Northerners want everything five minutes ago," she says.
Grundy also brings up this difference. She gives the example of someone from the North going to the grocery store specifically to buy their groceries and then leaving, while someone from the South may end up chatting with the cashier and taking more time. "There's something embedded in the Southern culture where you're very aware of people and community around you," she says.
With 14 percent of Mecklenburg County residents having resettled from the Northeast, it's no small surprise that people here frequently notice the everyday differences like the grocery store scenario between the two cultures—differences that don't cause conflict, but rather are just part of living in a growing Southern city with a large number of Northern transplants.
Effie Loukas, who owns Lotus and Civilian boutiques in Charlotte, points out that there are even differences in the fashion sense between Southerners and Northerners. "The Northern girls are more open about trying new trends and are riskier with fashion," she says. "Southern girls stick to traditional. They tend to be more conservative and to like brighter colors.
"There are other differences, too," Loukas continues. "I think Southern women take care of themselves -- they get manicures and get dressed up even if they're going to the grocery store or a football game."
Along those lines, hairstylist Amy Swaney at Shine Salon in Plaza Midwood and a Charlotte native has even seen differences in hair trends between the two sides. "Northern girls are more willing to take risks and try something new with their hair," she says. "Southern girls tend to want to look like other Southern girls, and of course blond is huge in the South."
However, there are plenty of ways in Charlotte that Southerners and Northerners are mixing well together -- even places where you wouldn't expect it. As I interviewed people from both the North and South, the general sentiment was one of appreciation for the other side. Southerners are happy for the diversity those from the North bring to the city's culture, while Northerners are grateful for that notorious Southern hospitality.
Picasso's Sports Café on East Boulevard is a prime example of this kind of happy mix. While it seems like there could be clashing between fans from different regions (Panthers versus Patriots, anyone?), general manager Tim Arnette, who is often behind the bar, says that's just not the case. "Fans are the same all over," says Arnette, who is originally from North Carolina. "People just like watching their team."
"Is there a difference between what Northerners and Southerners drink?" I ask, imagining Southern gentlemen sipping mint juleps at the bar while New Englanders pound Sam Adams.
"Nope," he says. "At the end of the day, everybody from everywhere likes Bud Light and Miller Lite."
At Villa Francesca, the uptown pizza joint whose owner, Luciano "Louie" Suppa, is a Brooklyn native, it's the same story. I can barely finish my question before he is telling me that while he grew up surrounded by cement, here he loves "seeing the beautiful farms and the fields and all of the neighborhoods with their big trees."
"Do a lot of people from the North come here claiming that it's hard to find real New York pizza anywhere else?" I ask.
"Oh yeah," he says in his thick Brooklyn accent as he pushes up his Yankees cap. "We get people who have heard about us who come from as far as Weddington and Mint Hill. They love to come in and talk about growing up on Long Island or in Brooklyn. But there's a lot of Southerners who come in too and didn't have the taste for New York-style pizza before, but they love it."
While most native Charlotteans appreciate the new additions to their culture (right down to the pizza), there's no doubt there are still underlying tensions between those who prefer their tea sweet and those who don't -- just read the comments section of Newsom's blog if you don't believe me. But as the city continues to draw more Northern newcomers, Charlotte, as with the rest of the South, may just end up debating the nuances of the different cultures.
"I think in the future, Southerners' attempts to retain their identity will be reduced to minor battles," says Wells. "Bigger issues like race or politics are national issues now, too, so the South is left with these smaller things."
Of course, those small things draw plenty of attention, and to many they're not so small at all. After all, we all have turn signals.