Along the Way: Two Roads to Charlotte

A family moves South

MY BROTHER AND I were touring a Charlotte apartment complex a few months ago when, sometime after we saw the fitness room and the Starbucks machine but before we saw the pool, I thought back to a summer when we were teenagers.

This would’ve been the summer of 1994, when I was 15 and he was 13—the summer our parents rented a home for a few months in a neighborhood with actual cable television. This was a big deal for us. Our family’s first home was about a mile back on a dirt road, and as soon as that place sold, Mom and Dad finished plans to build another one only slightly closer to civilization. That left a small gap when we needed a place to stay. This rental house was on a street with other houses, with other kids our age, and a little park with a big pier that went out into a big creek that fed the Potomac River, which feeds the Chesapeake Bay, which feeds the ocean. Sure, the roof leaked and the power shut off at the mere mention of a hair dryer, but this was a house of possibilities. We watched MTV and ESPN and every acronym we’d only heard about in school. We even watched the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase here!

Kenny was in middle school then, and I was in high school, and at the time that space seemed insurmountable. On some mornings, I’d sneak out of the house and head up the street to hang out with my friends before he could ask where I was going. As a middle schooler, all he wanted to do was play and fish. As high schoolers, my friends and I wanted to take part in adult activities such as calling girls we liked and hanging up if they answered. 

Often, as I went up the street, I’d look back and see Kenny trailing me on his bike, trying to catch up.

Skip ahead 20-some years, and Kenny’s my closest friend other than my wife Laura. We’ve been through countless medical emergencies with our father together, called each other after breakups and job searches, and managed to squeeze in a few rounds of golf. But it’s been almost two decades since we lived in the same state. He’s spent most of that time in a brick row house in Baltimore, while I’ve been in North Carolina. One day last fall, he called to say he was coming down for a job interview. A few weeks later he got that job, and over the holidays, he was here looking for a place to live. 

After touring a few complexes—honestly, most of them are the same—he signed a one-year lease in South End. He bought new furniture and a new TV and even a new car. Watching him settle in, I’m a little wistful for my first few months exploring Charlotte. 

I thought I’d stay only a few years before taking a job at a magazine in New York or Washington. In my first weeks here, though, Rick Thurmond, the former editor and publisher of this magazine, told me, “Charlotte has a way of grabbing people and keeping them.” As those opportunities to leave presented themselves, Rick’s words proved true every time. Charlotte’s granted me friendships with people of all ages and backgrounds, from journalists to city leaders to civil rights icons, and it introduced me to the woman whose laugh I decided I couldn’t live without. Now, as I type these words, Laura and I are just days away from closing on our first home. 

The day after we went under contract, another home popped up for sale, this one on Oaklawn Avenue in McCrorey Heights. I’d just driven past the house a few weeks earlier with historian Tom Hanchett while working on the story about the neighborhood that appears in this issue. Turns out this home was built in the late 1930s for Dr. Edson Blackman, one of the state’s prominent black physicians at the time. In 1943, Blackman’s son, Edson Jr., became one of the first four African-Americans to achieve the rank of sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. Of course, none of this appeared in the real estate listing.

Much is made of the 50 people a day who are moving to Charlotte, and what new things we need to build to accommodate them. But what’s missing from the apartment tours and home searches and welcome guides is perspective. 

Kenny’s a project manager for a major concrete construction contractor, which means he’s in charge of a few of those cranes you see around town. It’s been my job to learn the stories from Charlotte’s past; he’s literally building its future.

I’ve been chirping stories at him about the areas where he’s building—what was here and what was there. If he pours concrete in SouthPark, for instance, I let him know that the area was all farmland just 50 years ago, and that it’s not far from another former tract of farmland where Billy Graham was born a century ago, and that’s not far from where Kenny lives now, and that’s across the road from Dilworth, which used to be considered a suburb, and since we’re already there, that’s not far from where they used to have gold mines, and …

Who’s the annoying one now?

Categories: In Print, The Buzz