So? Did They Like Us?
Pre-DNC, much ado was made of the predicted 15,000 journalists who would descend upon Charlotte. Post-DNC, one question is on everyone’s minds: What did they think?
“I will never forget Charlotte: the myrtle trees damp after a morning shower, the air redolent with the scent of lavender and magnolia. You know, Jon, the Southern people are bigger-hearted and kinder than I had any right to expect, and frankly, Jon, I cannot wait to get on a plane and get the f@%# out of here. Out. OUT.” —John Oliver, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Sept. 7, 2012
Put that quote on the wall at the Chamber, why don’t you? Thank goodness The Daily Show is fake news. If Wolf Blitzer or Brian Williams or Tom Brokaw said something a quarter as dismissive of Charlotte and meant it, the local tourism industry would require sedation and weeks of intensive treatment. We might even have to get that streetcar line finished. Thankfully, Mr. Oliver revealed his rationale—Charlotte is too nice; he missed the “asphalt marinated in other people’s urine” aroma of New York City—and we could all breathe easy once we finished laughing.
But there’s a larger point here. Has an American city’s sense of self-worth ever rested more on a national political convention? I doubt it, and to the extent that there’s any competition, it would come from Charlotte’s fellow Southerners: Miami (RNC in 1968), Dallas (RNC in 1984), maybe Atlanta (DNC in 1988; the Rob Lowe keynote!). The Chicagos, Philadelphias, Bostons, and Los Angeleses of the nation can absorb an NC, R or D, with the inevitable traffic and logistical disruption but no sense that OMG THE CITY’S FUTURE MAY HINGE ON THIS #THEBIGONE #DNC2012. So you could, during the steamy DNC week, practically taste the anxious eagerness to please in the air uptown. Charlotte had to nail this. The rent-a-cops and port-a-potties were trucked in, the streetscapes spruced up, the EpiCentre rendered truly Epi. And for the most part—North Korean–border tight security checkpoints aside—it seemed the Queen City handled things as well as anyone at the Chamber or Center City Partners could have hoped.
Yet one group of people held the power to ruin all the prep work, blow one misstep into national scandal, bitch about streets and food and cops and spotty cell phone service until they turned Charlotte into a laughingstock, or worse, a dismissingstock. Back to obscurity for you, Charlotte, and we’ll continue to add “N.C.” to the dateline.
The national and international media. What’d they think?
They thought Charlotte was “nice.”
They thought Charlotte displayed “real Southern hospitality.”
They thought we did better than Tampa but went overboard with the security but had some surprisingly good restaurants but too many of our hotels sucked.
Bless our hearts. This is not exactly what we were hoping to hear.
It ended up being a mix, of course, a case of mostly good streaked with some bad, an RBI double combined with a tweaked hamstring, when the city was hoping for a grand slam and home run trot.
Everyone I talked to got an accurate and reasonably positive sense of Charlotte: nice, clean, still sort of dull in spots but overall quite a pleasant place, beginning to grow into its potential. Convention logistics meant that visitors were restricted to uptown and their hotels, wherever they might be. And you know that the folks at the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority and Center City Partners wanted to hear adjectives more retweetable than “nice.”
“I think it’s a beautiful, really nice city,” Sarah Ampolsk tells me one afternoon. She’s a Washington, D.C.–based correspondent for Kyodo News, a nonprofit news agency in Japan. “I’m surprised, because I guess I had heard there were a lot of businesses in Charlotte, but I didn’t know the extent that you guys are such a green city, and you’ve got these really nice recycling bins everywhere. It’s clean.
“I really wanted to take a ride on your train, go to one stop and come back to see how it worked, but I didn’t get the chance. But from what I’ve seen, it looks so nice and efficient. I’m really kind of surprised that we have such an efficient city in America, because I always wish we could do more in having better infrastructure, better transportation, and invest more in getting our cities to be greener.”
Ampolsk is twenty-seven. She grew up in Philadelphia and used to take summer vacations to the Outer Banks with her family. She said she ran across some “racist, non-PC paraphernalia” for sale in some of the stores on the coast, which made her think North Carolina wasn’t exactly a progressive haven. Then she spent some time in Raleigh and Durham, which were more her speed. She didn’t know what to expect from Charlotte.
But she saw, and she liked. She trotted down College Street to a restaurant for lunch one day, and a reporter from Albania was there too, and the service was nice, everyone was nice. “You just felt like it wasn’t an act, that it was really genuine,” she says. “Just real, true-blue Southern hospitality.”
Ampolsk surely doesn’t realize it, but those are bordering on left-handed compliments around here. This is the New South, progressive, innovative, casting off the chains of its tarnished past, etc. “Nice” and “hospitable” carry a few too many “fishin’ holes, tobacco farms, and Amendment One” overtones for the city to swallow without at least making a face.
Leave it to the big shots to kvetch.
“Here’s my gripe,” says Mark Z. Barabak, national political writer for the Los Angeles Times, the guy who broke the story about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s out-of-wedlock child and a veteran of fifteen national conventions. “Charlotte is a very nice city, very pretty city, very friendly city—but I work out every day. I’m staying in Mooreville, which is a suburb …”
“Mooresville,” I say, noting the “s.” “We’re familiar with it.”
“I go for a run every day, walk every day. It’s like, have you folks ever heard about sidewalks? It would be really nice not to have to go for my run and having cars whizzing by on either side, people swerving and not moving over, and obviously I’m still here, but it’s like, where are the sidewalks?”
Barabak is eating a catered meal of chicken and vegetables at the Times’s Convention Center enclosure, accompanied by Robin Abcarian, a fellow national correspondent. He’s grousing, but you can tell he’s overplaying his annoyance for the benefit of his audience, including his colleague; the two have this needling, work-marriage dynamic going on, and Abcarian feels compelled to jump to the host city’s defense.
“I and one of my colleagues have been running daily on a fantastic path that goes along the riverbed at Kings and Third,” she says with exaggerated passion. She’s talking about the stretch of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway that runs by the Metropolitan in midtown. “Because I love contradicting Mark, I would just love to say that it’s a fantastic run. It’s safe, lovely, bucolic, paved …” Bucolic and paved, a marriage long ago dissolved in L.A.
They mention other things. Abcarian enjoyed a presentation by Tom Hanchett at Levine Museum of the New South. Barabak enjoyed the food at Queen City Q, which he ate one night for dinner. Both heard about the horrors of the Blake Hotel, host to the California delegation, where roaches, bad food, malfunctioning elevators, and a crumbling exterior inspired state Attorney General Kamala Harris to refer to the Blake as the Hotel California (“You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”). During the convention, the Blake came to represent the general failure of the city’s hospitality industry to offer its guests an unsullied experience: some reporters and delegates found themselves in questionable lodging in less-than-glittering neighborhoods; the Host Committee appears to have measured capacity but not necessarily quality.
Still, Abcarian has lucked out. She’s staying at a Marriott on Arrowood Road, which colors Charlotte more favorably. “I like it here,” she says. “I like small, compact cities that are walkable, devoted to good architecture—that’s always the first thing I notice about a place. The buildings here are really very interesting and beautiful. And I always appreciate that about a town, because it says to me that somebody’s really paying attention to the quality-of-life issues, unlike the sprawl in Los Angeles, which has absolutely no architectural cohesion at all. Here, you really feel like somebody is paying attention to how the city looks. I love that.”
Barabak might, eventually. “Just put some damn sidewalks in Mooresville,” he says. “That’s all.”
The guy from the edgy website with the catchy name—the one with the shaved head, bushy Vandyke, tat-covered arms, and multiple skull rings—will be the one to zero in on Charlotte’s awkward baby-fat lameness. John Stanton, the Washington bureau chief for BuzzFeed, goes straight for the wedgie.
“There’s a part of Charlotte that strikes me as fairly antiseptic,” Stanton says, though not unkindly. “It’s almost like somebody opened a box and there was the EpiCentre, with all these chain restaurants in it.” Ouch.
But he’s not done. “The peculiar thing about it is that if you walk away from that for a couple of blocks, you find some good restaurants and interesting bars and interesting people. It’s weird that way. Like there’s two parts to it, you know? There’s parts of it that are like being in the suburbs of D.C., but it’s in downtown. Then you walk away from that, and there’s—what was that place we ate at, something Harvest?”
Harvest Moon Grille on Tryon, at the Dunhill Hotel, sure. “Local products, sustainable, fantastic food. We went out to … Max’s?” (Mac’s Speed Shop.) “That was really good. Charlotte strikes me as being a little like Atlanta [OK, that one stings], where people don’t have a lot of accent, at least some of them don’t. It seems like there are a lot of transplants that have moved here, which is sort of similar to D.C. … and when you get away from that, the South is still there. You just have to look for it a little bit.”
That’s surely true, although it seems that few people in town for the DNC had the time or inclination to do it. One of the folks who did went to look for it and found… the Bronx.
Seriously. His name is Kevin D. Williamson, and he’s a “roving correspondent” for the National Review. In a piece titled “The Bronx, North Carolina,” which ran on National Review Online on September 6, Williamson relates his experiences talking to Common Market owner Chuck Barger at his South End location about the failure of either political party to address the needs of the poor. (I tried but failed to reach Williamson or Mother Jones’s David Corn, who compared the DNC’s and Charlotte’s diversity to the RNC’s and Tampa’s; trying to get in touch with Corn two weeks after the DNC was the ultimate hopeless cause, since he was only the most sought-after journalist on Earth after his Mitt Romney “47 percent” video scoop.)
Williamson rolled down Freedom Drive, west Charlotte, the part of town where Anthony Foxx grew up and where no one suggested out-of-town reporters dare tread:
Head the wrong way down Freedom Drive and you get into the sort of exurban wasteland where businesses erect chain-link fences around their properties. A mile or two past that and there’s barbed wire atop those fences, and soon enough there’s barbed wire around private houses. On that side of Charlotte, you can see the remains of what once clearly were solidly respectable neighborhoods, neat little brick houses now enclosed by antiburglar bars. If South End is Brooklyn, this is the Bronx. (In truth, it’s somewhat worse than the Bronx: In four years of living in the South Bronx, I never saw a prostitute on the street with the exception of the very specialized trade in transsexuals that characterizes the Third Avenue Bridge. I never saw a drug deal happen on the street.)
His conclusion is that neither party has much to say to or about the poor in their conventions (insightful) and that “there is a real need for free-marketers to get out of the think tanks and into the streets,” presumably to transform all that barbed wire and hooking into thriving pods of Panera Breads and Jiffy Lubes.
But give the man credit for trying, for seeking out the true nature of Charlotte, the emerging city, even if his depiction of a Southern-fried Fort Apache is about as accurate as anyone else’s view of the Queen City as the city where Southern hospitality lives on. National Review, William F. Buckley’s middle-aged child, has a vested stake in portraying the DNC’s host city as a crack den with a skyline (“little vials crackle underfoot in hotel parking lots here”), but there’s a lesson to draw even from this: You can’t worry too much about outsiders’ Rorschach-test impressions of your home. Charlotte’s a real city after all, with nice people and lame EpiCentres and good restaurants and little vials crackling underfoot. It’s beautiful with barbed wire. It’s all of that. It’s what people see, and what they decide they want to see.
Greg Lacour is a former reporter for The Charlotte Observer and contributor to this magazine. He covered the Democratic National Convention for charlottemagazine.com.