You Are Here, 2021 Edition: A Year of Moments Captured Around Charlotte
Each month, we throw a dart at a map and write about where it lands. Here are 12 short stories from this year, from January to December
Each month, writer Cristina Bolling throws a dart at a map and writes about where it lands. The result is Charlotte magazine’s backpage column, “You Are Here.” From January to December, here are 12 short stories Bolling found this year. (Read 2020’s edition here.)
JANUARY 2021: The Squirrels’ Playground
It’s a year of bounty for the giddy rodents at this bucolic University City greenway
Clark’s Creek Greenway, 9729 Mallard Creek Rd.
For Charlotte’s oak trees, this is a “mast year,” when the trees synchronize and overproduce nuts. It happens every two to five years, and here, you can’t miss it. Acorns carpet the ground on either side of the paved trail, ensuring a months-long feast for the squirrels.
“Whoa, mama!” yells a preschooler walking with his mom as an acorn drops from the tree canopy and lands on his shoulder. They hear a rustle overhead and look up. Did a squirrel drop it, or did it simply fall?
New housing developments and businesses constantly sprout from the ground in University City, as in so many areas of Charlotte. This greenway begins at Mallard Creek Elementary School, which as of early November had come alive again on weekdays with kids back in classrooms.
But on this serene, winding trail, with a babbling brook as a soundtrack, it’s fun to forget all that’s out there and think of yourself as just another creature on the squirrels’ playground.
FEBRUARY 2021: With Love, For Mama
Willie Walters’ food truck serves the low country fare he grew up on
3321 Freedom Dr.
Chef Willie Walters cooked his first meal at the tender age of 8, standing on a lard bucket to reach the stove. The oldest of three kids (11, eventually), he began cooking out of necessity in his native Loris, S.C., a low country town about 30 miles inland from Myrtle Beach.
“Mom started training me because she had to go to work in the fields,” Walters says. “I wanted to please her and let her know I could do it, so one day she came home for 12 o’clock lunch, and I had rice, sweet peas, and fried chicken ready for her. The one thing I did wrong was, I cooked the chicken too fast. It was real pretty, but when you bit on the inside, she wasn’t quite ready.”
His mom, Sandra Lee Walters, wasn’t bothered one bit. “She was so in awe. Very proud that I wanted to help her like that. That’s what inspired me to be a chef.”
Today, Walters, 48, serves customers at his food truck, Sandra Lee’s Country Kitchen, in the parking lot of a Boost Mobile store on Freedom Drive, where he sets up every Tuesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. On this lunch hour, a steady stream of customers orders wings, shrimp, and chicken bog, a distinctly low country dish of slow-cooked smoked chicken and beef sausage blended with yellow rice.
Sandra Lee Walters died in 2018 at 63, and when Walters moved from his catering business into the food truck last fall, it just seemed right to name it after his mom. He had her photo painted on the truck, with a slogan that honors her memory: “Love in every bite.”
MARCH 2021: Bem-vindo!
The stretch of Monroe Road where you can find little pieces of Brazil
11100 Monroe Rd., Matthews
The sweet and savory smells of Brazilian specialties like pão de queijo (cheese bread) and coxinha (fried chicken croquettes) waft from the open door of Tropical Bakery & Café. Next door, shoppers pop into the Supermercado Brazileiro for Guaraná fruit soda, big bags of Brazilian rice, pressure cookers, herbal teas, and shampoo and lotion that offer the comforts of home. A Brazilian Assemblies of God church, Asemblea de Deus, sits on the corner. Beside it, Buy Brazil Jeans & Fashion sells dozens of styles of leather shoes, jewelry, and form-fitting jeans and shorts, tops, bikinis, and dresses in eye-popping colors.
Brazilian-born Alaide Ramos and her husband, Randy Sturm, moved the clothing shop from Stallings to the Monroe Road shopping center about five years ago to be near other Brazilian-owned businesses and their customers—although they sell briskly to people from elsewhere who have found them online.
More than 7,300 Brazilians live in Mecklenburg County, according to 2018 Census data, and this stretch of Monroe Road is their gateway to products from home. Another market, A Taste of Brazil, is right across Monroe from the strip mall, which is just a few miles west of a Brazilian bakery and restaurant.
As I visit on a weekday afternoon in December, Ramos steams a customer’s floor-length floral dress. COVID-19 forced the store to close for several weeks in the spring, and people are spending less than they used to—many come in seeking one item for $20 to $40 instead of multiple pieces or outfits.
But she and Sturm hope business will rebound when the virus eventually fades away and people travel and party—live—like they used to. “The Brazilian population is growing,” Sturm says, “just like the rest of Charlotte.”
APRIL 2021: Uptown’s Portal to the Arts
This double door, at least, remains
168 N. College St.
You could play kickball in the middle of the 100 block of North College Street on this cloudy weekday afternoon uptown. That’s how little traffic passes a nondescript, metal-ringed, glass double door behind the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. But for theatre lovers, this is sacred ground—this door has seen the comings and goings of some of the biggest names in theatre and music.
Stage doors are big deals in cities like London and New York, where on any night (barring a pandemic), audience members dash outside and around to wait for the chance at an autograph and a selfie. You seldom bump into big-name entertainers in Charlotte. But as the city has grown, so has the roster of A-list performers who’ve traveled here to take the stage.
Broadway stars Audra McDonald and Kristin Chenoweth have crossed this threshold to greet fans after shows—McDonald after singing with the Charlotte Symphony in 2008, Chenoweth after a solo show in 2016. Classical music luminaries Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma have strolled through it. The casts of national touring shows like Hamilton and Aladdin have spilled out after their curtain calls to find a bite to eat and head back to their hotels.
Performers become mortals at stage doors. They’re where we can catch a glimpse of their handbags and scruffy sneakers, where we can see who takes off their stage makeup in the theater and who wears it out onto the street. If we’re fast and lucky enough, we score an autograph, a quick conversation, and a lasting memory.
MAY 2021: Scarred Ground
A tranquil forest obscures what remains of the deadliest plane crash in Charlotte history
7400 S. Tryon St.
The forest behind Rod of God Ministries, on South Tryon Street in the Olde Whitehall neighborhood, is peaceful, thick with pine trees, and pocked with hoofprints. Every few minutes, the deafening rumble of an airplane drowns out the bird chirps and serves as a reminder of something horrific that happened here nearly 47 years ago.
Just after 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, 1974, the pilots of an Eastern Airlines flight from Charleston were distracted by conversation, hit patchy fog, and missed the runway at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. They crashed into a cornfield in what’s now this forest.
Sixty-nine of the 82 aboard died at the scene. Three more died in the days that followed. It remains the deadliest aviation accident in Charlotte history. Three of the victims were the father and two brothers of comedian Stephen Colbert, host of CBS’ The Late Show. Colbert was 10 at the time, and he has said his deep grief at such an early age led him to a career in comedy.
A decade after the crash, the Rev. Larry and Bonnie Allen, co-pastors of Rod of God Ministries, bought a big piece of land that included the overgrown cornfield and forest where the Eastern plane went down. On a recent, warm afternoon, Bonnie Allen gazes into the woods from the parking lot. “There’s nothing left back there,” she says. Still, people still come by periodically to tromp through the overgrown brush and weave through trees to see if they can spot the wreckage, she says. A few times, family members of those who died in the crash have come through. Last year, a group of pilots showed up.
Bonnie Allen turns her head toward the traffic whizzing by on four-lane South Tryon Street, which was just a small country road surrounded by fields and farmland in 1974. “Can you just imagine the mayhem that took place when that happened?” she asks. “The fire trucks? The police? Can you imagine the dirt that just sucked up blood? That was right here.”
JUNE 2021: Property Value
Realtor discovered her own rough gem among the old houses-turned-offices on Monroe Road
5101 Monroe Road
The namesake oaks in the Oakhurst neighborhood are just starting to bud on a spring morning. Cars zip to and from a long string of businesses on Monroe Road in southeast Charlotte, where tax preparers, hairstylists, counselors, and tattoo artists work.
This is a commercial corridor. But unlike so many other business districts in a city obsessed with the shiny and new, these businesses occupy single-family homes that date back to the 1920s and ’30s.
Their break rooms are family-style kitchens—some renovated, some not. Office bathrooms are still outfitted with tubs.
Holly Kimsey Evans and her wife considered South End and uptown three years ago when they hunted for a new headquarters for Evans’ real estate business. But a corporate setting just didn’t feel right.
They pulled up to a 1928 Georgian fixer-upper at 5101 Monroe, at Eaton Road. The pair looked past the wood rot, overgrown hedges, and half-buried swimming pool and instantly saw the possibilities.
Now, it’s the stately, gleaming-white headquarters of the Kimsey Evans Team, with refinished hardwoods, a second-floor training room that holds 20 in non-COVID times, and a parking lot in the backyard where the swimming pool used to be. Evans says buyers and sellers are more relaxed during closings at her office than in a commercial office building.
“When people walk into a commercial space, it just seems so serious. … You feel like you have to whisper,” she says. “Here, they usually walk in and they’re like, ‘This is so beautiful!’ And they talk and enjoy the moment.”
JULY 2021: Paradise and a Parking Lot
A retaining wall is all that divides a highway from a slice of natural bliss
9813 South Blvd.
“Tranquility” and “transportation” are rarely uttered in the same sentence. But both apply to this spot, where the Little Sugar Creek Greenway kisses the Carolina Pavilion shopping center and winds past two of Charlotte’s most-traveled thoroughfares: South Boulevard and Interstate 485.
Bird chirps compete with the whoosh of cars and trucks that pass at 70 mph. Walkers, bikers, and joggers leave their cars in the massive suburban parking lot and set out toward a red metal bridge that connects to the greenway. A towering highway retaining wall drowns out the sound of traffic.
Once over the bridge, a riot of yellow wildflowers blooms along the creek in brilliant juxtaposition to the chaos on the asphalt. This is the southern terminus of the 2.2-mile greenway section that runs from Huntingtowne Farms Park to 485, so all the action is headed in one direction: north.
A biker pulls over to examine a sign that shows the next phase under construction—an extension of the greenway to the south, toward the President James K. Polk Historic Site in Pineville. He turns his bike around as a truck driver blows his horn on the other side of the highway wall. Two dogs bark as their owners walk past each other. Each gives the other (and the dogs) space.
A blind man with a walking stick strolls silently alongside his partner. What sounds does he focus on in this moment, in a space whose dimensions and diversions he can’t see?
AUGUST 2021: Meat You at Jerry’s
Mahmoud and A.G. sling oxtails and hog’s head cheese at this Statesville Road mainstay
4227 Statesville Road
Mahmoud Al-Wardat bags penny candy in Jerry’s Market on a Monday morning. A customer named Patty approaches from the butcher counter. She carries delicacies that distinguish this neighborhood grocery store and butcher shop, a staple on Statesville Road for nearly a half-century: garlic-flavored Genoa bologna that Patty says she can find only at Jerry’s and a special treat for her daughter, who’s visiting—souse meat, or “hog’s head cheese,” a gelatinous spread made from pig scraps. Al-Wardat walks around to the register to tend to her.
Al-Wardat, 33, is a Jordan-born engineer who grew up around his family’s butcher shop in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He jumped at the chance to buy Jerry’s last year, but it seemed right to keep the name the market’s had since the late Jerry Wike opened it with his wife, Patricia, in the mid-1960s. A wallet-sized photograph of Jerry and Patricia is tacked to a post near the register.
His head butcher—a friendly man named Aaron Gaddy, whom customers call “A.G.”—worked for Harris Teeter for 35 years before Jerry’s hired him four years ago. A.G. slices up favorites like oxtails and beef neckbones and wraps up short ribs and chicken straight from local farms. Up front, Al-Wardat stocks throwback candy like sugar cigarettes, Sugar Daddy lollipops, and old-fashioned coconut slices.
Soon after he bought Jerry’s in September 2020, Al-Wardat had an artist paint meat-themed murals on the exterior. But inside, it hasn’t changed much over the decades. “If I want to make it look shiny and have nice floors, the place will lose its flavor. It’ll be just like any shopping center,” he says. “I won’t let that happen. I want to keep it as old-school as possible.”
SEPTEMBER 2021: Songs and Celebrations
The Brown family got back to the garden on this Huntersville property—and turned it into a music festival site
15300 Black Farms Road, Huntersville
The Brown family of Davidson was out for a Sunday drive in 2000 when they passed a piece of pastoral property off Black Farms Road in sleepy Huntersville. It was 3.95 acres with an old barn in the middle, which the Browns assumed had been used for boat storage or repair.
Over the years, as the three Brown kids grew from tykes to teenagers, the land was the family’s release valve for activities that were hard to pull off in their downtown Davidson home’s modest yard—Thanksgiving Day flag football games, family bonfires, four-wheeling in the winter snow.
They created a baseball field there for local rec leagues, and when Julia, the youngest of the Brown children, started getting serious about volleyball, they put in a sand volleyball court. It was the site for Christmas parade float assembly, weddings, and graduation parties. “We have so many memories there,” Julia says.
Her older brothers, Daniel and Miles, were students at the Cannon School in Concord in 2009 when they used the property for a music fundraiser, where bands from local schools played and ticket proceeds went to charity. The idea grew into an annual event, “Barnstock,” which eventually expanded to five stages and bands that traveled from other Southern cities. After a two-year hiatus, last year because of COVID, Barnstock returned in July with a four-band, one-day event to benefit the local digital-inclusion nonprofit E2D.
Today, the land isn’t as out-in-the-country as it was. It’s less than 6 miles from Birkdale Village, and a new Publix is going up less than a mile away on Sam Furr Road. But you can’t tell from farther down Black Farms Road, where a big sign announces the music festival and, on the Brown family land, the old boat barn has “Barnstock” painted on the roof.
OCTOBER 2021: Around and Around, Around the Clock
Marc Fuller’s slice of multicultural Charlotte is open whenever you need it
3100 Central Ave.
The first thing you notice when you step into 24 Hour Laundry on Central Avenue is the colorful mural of a clothesline with shirts that proclaim “welcome” in more than a dozen languages—Arabic and Somali, Thai and Vietnamese. The mural encircles the room. Owner Marc Fuller commissioned a local artist to paint it after he bought the laundry in 2016. It seemed right for the laundromat to reflect one of Charlotte’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods, Commonwealth Park.
“This is often a first stop for people who come to this country—and you feel that excited energy,” Fuller says, gesticulating with both hands to make his point. The dryers spin, and oscillating fans attempt to take the edge off the oppressive afternoon heat.
Fuller owned three laundromats in Charlotte, but he sold the other two on South Boulevard just before COVID, after development scattered the neighbors who had been his customers. This laundry, the only 24-hour laundromat in Charlotte, was always his favorite. Before the virus, Fuller hosted English classes here and distributed donated school supplies. When the pandemic hit, he passed out kits with hand sanitizer, vitamin C, and face masks.
Fuller is a lifelong traveler who’s visited about 90 countries, and he always choosing to eats and stays where the locals do. So it’s natural for him to want to know the cultures of the people who live in his city—and to respect that many of them can find time to wash clothes only at night.
“That’s one thing I want to contribute to the city—a place you can go to get your laundry done at any time of the day. The way that Charlotte is growing, that kind of service is needed,” Fuller says.
“Who are we to tell someone when they can and cannot do their laundry?”
NOVEMBER 2021: Quest Love
Mecklenburg County’s new science education center lets visitors apply hands on nature
6345 Sample Road, Huntersville
Two toddlers giggle as they dip their hands in the water-cycle table at Quest, the new environmental education center at Latta Nature Preserve in Huntersville. They zoom across the room to check out the gar that swooshes through a tank that takes up an entire wall. Then their dad coaxes them with something else to see: feathers under a microscope.
The 13,000-square-foot center opened in July as a kind of doorway into the natural world. Later today, kids ages 8 to 14 will take a class here on how to build a fire outdoors. Tomorrow, the staff will lead a nature scavenger hunt.
Quest educates children inside the walls, but the real fun happens just outside. Some 16 miles of walking trails weave through the nature preserve, and those who want to see aquatic wildlife in its natural habitat can take in 6 miles of Mountain Island Lake shoreline.
Starting as soon as next year, they’ll be able to hear even more birdsong. The Carolina Raptor Center, a beloved feature at Latta since 1984, moves ahead with plans to build a replacement behind Quest as part of a partnership between the nonprofit and county Park and Recreation, which owns and oversees the property. The new raptor center is at least a year away, but signs already show where the peregrine falcons, barred owls, and even bald eagles will one day call home.
DECEMBER 2021: Charm for Years
From the Saturday farmers market to bags of Kritter Korn, downtown Matthews brings the quaint
188 N. Trade St., Matthews
There’s the Carolina Beer Temple, which operates out of a former post office, built in 1939 on North Trade Street. There’s the locally famous 121-year-old Renfrow Hardware across the street, where you can get live chicks or bags of dried “Kritter Korn” to feed the squirrels and chipmunks.
On the bustling corner of North Trade and John streets, you can check for bargains at the ZABS Place thrift store, staffed by young people with special needs. If you cross the intersection and browse baseball cards at AAA Collectibles, two guys named Jim will help you.
Matthews’ downtown has that walkable urban vibe that people crave these days and a mix of shops and restaurants—some of which have been around for decades, others that bring a brand-new buzz. It floods with produce buyers who come every Saturday to the Matthews Farmers Market.
A 1988 Charlotte Observer headline posed a question that, 33 years later, seems laughable: “Can Matthews keep its charm?” It reads, in part: “Other Matthews town leaders and merchants also have become concerned, enough so that the town council is considering spending $29,500 to study ways to preserve the downtown’s historic flavor.”
Archives don’t reveal whether the council greenlit the study. If it did, it was money well spent. If they didn’t, perhaps Matthews’ charm could not be stopped.