My Endless Charlotte

The following paragraphs appear in an essay titled "My Endless New York" that was published recently in The New York Times:

Today I drop my cleaning off with Joseph the tailor and we exchange Yiddishisms and reminiscences (his) of Jewish Russia. Two blocks south I lunch at a place whose Florentine owner disdains credit cards and prepares the best Tuscan food in New York. In a hurry, I can opt instead for a falafel from the Israelis on the next block; I might do even better with the sizzling lamb from the Arab at the corner.

Fifty yards away are my barbers: Giuseppe, Franco and Salvatore, all from Sicily — their “English” echoing Chico Marx. They have been in Greenwich Village forever but never really settled: how should they? They shout at one another all day in Sicilian dialect, drowning out their main source of entertainment and information: a 24-hour Italian-language radio station. On my way home, I enjoy a mille-feuille from a surly Breton pâtissier who has put his daughter through the London School of Economics, one exquisite éclair at a time.

All this within two square blocks of my apartment — and I am neglecting the Sikh newsstand, the Hungarian bakery and the Greek diner (actually Albanian but we pretend otherwise). Three streets east and I have Little Hapsburgia: Ukrainian restaurant, Uniate church, Polish grocery and, of course, the long-established Jewish deli serving Eastern European staples under kosher labels. All that is missing is a Viennese cafe — for this, symptomatically, you must go uptown to the wealthy quarters of the city.

It strikes me that similar paragraphs could not be written about Charlotte. That’s ok, of course. There are lots of paragraphs that could be written about New York City that no way no how would we (and by "we" I mean "me." Or "I.") want written about Charlotte. The lines appear in an odd little piece by the late Tony Judt. The piece was adapted from a collection of his essays that is soon to be published. He worked at NYU. It was an interesting, loving meditation on New York City’s place in the modern world (Judt was born in England but adopted NYC as his own).

So I guess the question I have is this: If someone were to write an interesting, loving meditation on Charlotte’s place in the world, what would it look like? I don’t know. New York seems to be filled with people who are either hopelessly stuck there or chose to be there above anyplace else, and I get the feeling that folks from either of those camps wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. (And the ones that want out, well, they have already moved to Charlotte. Welcome!) Plus, you know, it’s New York.

Charlotte, too, is filled with people who chose it over anyplace else. But there also seem to be a lot of people here who just never got around to leaving, or couldn’t quite find the courage or the gumption or that one great reason to seek their fortune elsewhere. And there are still more people who have moved here, set up camp in some distant neighborhood, and go about their day and their week pretending they still live someplace else, or wishing they did.

I think the combination makes for an odd, fascinating, challenging city. It’s not a city that lends itself to being romanticized, like New York. And now Charlotte finds itself in a position of defining itself, after years of being defined, thrillingly, as "the nation’s second largest banking city."

In their prime they were arrogant and self-assured. In decline, their minor virtues come into focus: people spend less time telling you how fortunate you are to be there.

Judt wrote those words about the four major world cities he had lived in, claiming that he had lived in each in their "twilight." While the earlier quoted lines could not be written about Charlotte, those two sentences could be. Verbatim. Does that mean Charlotte is in its twilight? Naaah. That would mean that Charlotte has peaked, which I choose not to believe. But if Charlotte is going to become the kind of city that can inspire a piece like "My Endless New York," we have some work to do.

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