Learning Why Downtown is Uptown at the DNC
In which one writer gets schooled on the history. Also: why newspaper writers should harrumph more
At the Convention Center, where all the traditional media camped for the DNC, the Super Friends cast of Charlotte tourism and economic development agencies (CRVA, Center City Partners, Chamber, Charlotte Regional Partnership) hosted a booth with all kinds of fact sheets and brochures and totes and buttons devoted to the greater glory of the QC. Here, on the convention’s last day, people wore matching polo shirts and bustled amid hastily opened and half-emptied cardboard boxes of promotional bric-a-brac. Moira Quinn bustled among them, more quickly than the rest. The Center City Partners communications director had somewhere to be — Time Warner Cable Arena, an exclusive party spot that night, Studio 44.
She greeted me first, though. We chatted. We both remarked that the city was, on balance, pulling this whole DNC thing off quite nicely, that we probably looked pretty good to the people watching in New York and Sheboygan. “Except, you know, that whole ‘calling it uptown instead of downtown’ thing,” I remarked to Moira, not realizing I was walking into a foot-in-mouth Larry David moment.
“I mean, even Jon Stewart was making fun of it the other night,” I said, digging deeper. (Stewart: “… downtown, which for some reason here is called uptown, which I think we can all agree is stupid.”) “I always thought that was dumb, myself.”
Moira glared. “You’re wrong, dude,” she said. “Walk with me.” We power-walked past C-SPAN. “Gotta go! Gotta go! Got a ticket!” They were in rare supply Thursday. “Thanks for shutting it down for me, Jenna!,” Moira called back over her shoulder. She began unspooling a remarkable tale.
People have been calling the area fanning out from Trade and Tryon “uptown” since the 19th century, she said. The two old Indian trading paths met on a hilltop, so the center of town was elevated — an anomaly especially in those days, when coastal or river cities’ commercial nexuses sprouted from low-lying land on the water, “downtown.” Charlotte was different.
See, I thought some promotional types had cooked up the whole “uptown” thing out of nothing at all in the ‘70s and ‘80s on the premise that “downtown” was depressing — which, you must admit, would be pretty stupid. “Nope,” Moira assured me. She’d spoken with such local historical luminaries as Dan Morrill and Tom Hanchett, and she was solid. They may have stopped calling it uptown for a while, but trust her, the term is historically, logically and topographically correct. “And if you’ve ever ridden on a bike uptown,” Moira said before running off to the arena, “you know it’s up!”
Trust but verify: A few days later, I contacted Hanchett, who emailed me some PDFs of old clips from the Observer and Charlotte News. The clips don’t prove conclusively that Charlotteans called down/uptown “uptown” before the mid-20th century. What they do prove beyond a reasonable doubt is that in the 1970s, a “clothier” and native Charlottean named Jack Wood did more than anyone to get everybody — including, by proclamation, the city government — to start calling it uptown.
“Geographically, it is and always has been ‘Uptown.’ It is situated on a ridge. From all points of Charlotte, residents always looked forward to taking the trolley and going ‘uptown,’” explains a schoolmarmish Observer story from 1974. “Sometime in the ‘50s, Wood says — coinciding with a recession, awareness of deterioration and mounting problems in the central area — the parlance changed from ‘Uptown’ to ‘Downtown.’
Jack Wood was committed to taking back the parlance. He appears to have served as chairman of “the Uptown Committee,” devoted to the uptown cause and seemingly lobbying everyone from the City Council to the City Council to change down to up. An undated but clearly post-’74 article headlined “Jack Wood’s One-Man Fight” —from, I’m guessing, The Charlotte News — harrumphs: “He waged what seemed like a one-man fight to restore the image of some 20 years ago, before someone introduced the sneakily nefarious practice of referring to the Queen City on the hill as ‘downtown’ in flagrant defiance of the facts of geography, custom and the power of positive thinking.” (Newspaper writers don’t harrumph anymore. They should do more of that. Some of that display ad revenue might come back if they started harrumphing again.)
Finally, on Sept. 23, 1974, at the request of the now-defunct Central Charlotte Association via the Honorable Mayor John Belk, the City Council officially designated the central shopping and business area as “Uptown Charlotte.” V-D Day was at hand. Uptown it was, and ever would be thus.
So the story ended, with one postscript before the DNC and the churlish ignorance I shared with Jon Stewart: According to “The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Story” on the Library System’s website, the Observer made its own decision to refer to the Center City in print as uptown instead of downtown “as a way to help civic leaders promote the upbeat, positive attitude of the Queen City.” The Carolinas’ largest newspaper, possibly to dispel the notion that it was merely copycatting the City Council, let some time pass before getting with the uptown program.
Like, twelve-and-a-half years. The Observer, trailblazing as always, officially made the change on Valentine’s Day 1987.