From mill village to crime-ridden and blighted to avant-garde arts district to ... what? As NoDa, full of new bars but precious few art galleries, enters its next phase, is it still an arts district? To the people of NoDa, the answer is ... “Yes”
Will Puckett painted this mural of NoDa characters with the help of his wife Lauren. They did it for free, on their own time. “We wanted to do something to get the spirit back,” Lauren says.
Photographs by Logan Cyrus
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In 2007, Jeff Tonidandel and his wife Jamie Brown quit their corporate jobs to spend a year backpacking around the world. Along the way, the two Davidson College alums hoped to figure out what they would do next. Tonidandel knew he no longer wanted to wear a suit to work. But the self-described foodie never considered opening a restaurant until they spent time in Europe.
“We were grabbing street food because we were trying to eat within a budget,” Tonidandel recalls. “We liked a lot of the different street foods, but a crepe hit the sweet spot of being a good, cheap meal. We knew a restaurant with street food would be a big hit but we settled on the crepes because no one else was doing it in Charlotte.”
He decided to open Crepe Cellar in NoDa. He already hung out at the neighborhood’s restaurants and music venues, and it was just a quick jaunt from uptown. NoDa also had the vibe he wanted. “We needed to go to a more accepting community that would embrace something a little different and eclectic,” he says.
In November 2008, he and his business partner, Paul Manley, signed a lease for the space near the corner of 35th and North Davidson streets. The economy was in free fall. Two months later, Niche MKT, the clothing and pop art store next door, closed. Vacancy rates along the two blocks that make up the heart of NoDa were at 40 percent. But the Crepe Cellar was a hit.
People poured in from all around the city. Waits for one of the 11 tables sometimes stretched up to three hours. Tonidandel’s biggest nights were the twice-monthly Friday night gallery crawls, long a NoDa staple. “Even if we were having a slow week,” he says, “we knew that Friday night would get us through the weekend and help pay the bills.”
Fast-forward two years. The worst of the recession was over, and a new NoDa was emerging. The neighborhood pulsed with new restaurants, bars, and music venues, but the artist spaces were flailing and failing. The crepe business was so good, Tonidandel and Manley opened a gastropub, Growlers Pourhouse, in the space that had housed Niche MKT—one more bar, one fewer art-driven space. By the beginning of this year, there were almost as many breweries in NoDa (three) as art galleries (maybe twice that).
“On [the Crepe Cellar’s] opening day, April 16, 2009, there were 13 galleries within three blocks,” Tonidandel says. “Now there are only a handful. There are still a ton of people out, but there’s no bump-up from the gallery crawl.”
Can an arts district still be an arts district without traditional art spaces?
It would be easy to say that NoDa is at a crossroads. The truth is, the community is seemingly always at a crossroads. That’s part of what gives the place its NoDa-ness. This is just the latest identity crisis. Still, whether it’s the new high-rent apartments or the tattoo parlors and bars where galleries used to be, there’s no denying that NoDa is a different place than it was a decade ago. But worries that NoDa will lose its edgy coolness or its distinction as the arts district seem limited to people who don’t live or do business there.
“There have been so many aesthetic changes here, but NoDa is still the most laid-back community in Charlotte,” says real estate agent and long-time resident Dana Burleson.
“That vibe has never changed,” she says, referring to the past couple of decades, “and I don’t think it ever will.”
But can an area with more places to wine and dine than to see or create art really call itself the city’s arts district? Is it fair to say that NoDa has become NoEpi, a more authentic and less pricey version of the EpiCentre, two miles north?
Longtime NoDa Neighborhood Association president Hollis Nixon hears those questions all the time. She clearly finds them annoying. “When some of the galleries closed, we got a lot of media attention saying, ‘Oh my God! You’re not an arts district anymore,’” she says with a heavy sigh. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to expand their vision of art beyond oil on a canvas. This has always been an entertainment district, but it is still Charlotte’s arts district.”
Tonidandel agrees. “Even though we don’t have the overt studio spaces showing up, much of the energy of the art scene still comes from here.”
NoDa’s art scene, Tonidandel believes, isn’t confined to old-fashioned art galleries. It’s something else altogether.
“The people are here.”