The Very Idea
So we want people to like us. Is that so bad?
“All cities are ideas, ultimately. They create themselves, and the rest of the world apprehends them or ignores them as it chooses.”
Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, wrote that. It came early in his first novel, called The Twenty-Seventh City, published in 1988. The book was set in Franzen’s hometown of St. Louis. The title refers to St. Louis’s place, at the time of the book, on the list of America’s most populous cities.
Since I first read them, I’ve loved those two sentences. Any editor of a city magazine would. What is the idea that is Charlotte? We ask ourselves a version of that question weekly, with every story we assign and edit, every issue we produce. Hopefully, with every issue you read, you get a fuller understanding of the idea of this city.
But the fact is, an idea is a fluid thing, if it is even a thing at all. The same idea can be seen differently by different groups of people. That’s why Charlotte’s pursuit of the Democratic National Convention has been, at least to me, such a fascinating exercise.
That Charlotte’s powers that be want this convention is no surprise. The folks leading the effort—our mayor, an energy executive, others—trot out the requisite economic-impact figures, but we all know that it comes down to this: we want people to like us. As we have created the idea of Charlotte, it has always been with that in mind. I think there are a number of reasons for this. For one, we are deep in the New South, which suffers under a collective burden of guilt for our pre-Civil War ways as well as our embarrassing Reconstruction poverty. More recently, Charlotte has become a city of newcomers. People who move here from other places, me included, either come from cities like New York City—with its superiority complex—or places like Buffalo or Ohio or South Carolina, which have, like Charlotte, inferiority complexes. In either case, it’s important to continually justify—at least psychologically—that we made the right choice.
I’m not supposed to say this out loud, but Charlotte will never be one of the world’s elite cities. That lineup is already set. But that doesn’t stop us from trying. And that effort is essential to the idea of Charlotte. I think it’s perfectly OK that some national media outlets still feel like they have to place “N.C.” after our name. But what I love is that we are still trying to get them to stop. That’s what matters; that’s the idea of Charlotte. We all want the world to apprehend that idea or ignore it at its peril.
That’s why I hope we get the convention. Not because of the full hotels or restaurants, although those would be nice, too. You can argue that people don’t really pay attention to political conventions anymore, that it’s a fallacy that the week of media coverage will affect anyone’s opinion of this city. But the fact is, I do want people to like us. The day we stop, as a city, trying to make people like us is the day we stop