The first thing Americans, and especially the national media, need to know about the location of the Democratic National Convention is that it is being held in Charlotte, N.C., not Charleston, S.C. In historic and genteel Charleston, as Fritz Hollings said, there are two kinds of people: The ones who don't wear shoes, and the ones who look at you like you don't wear shoes. Nor are Monticello and the University of Virginia located in Charlotte. Those are in and near Charlottesville. Such is the confusion that has long maddened local chamber of commerce bots. Charlotte is banks and NASCAR and churches. Lots and lots of churches. Billy Graham was born here. It's not in the mountains, like Asheville, or near the ocean, like Wilmington, but on the flat, boring Piedmont in between.
I come by my Charlotte knowledge having served as executive business editor of the Charlotte Observer, from 1996 through 2000, in its Knight-Ridder glory days, and have visited many times since. When I reluctantly left big-city Cincinnati for the job in Charlotte, I thought I had landed in Hooterville with a skyline, specifically one gigantic tower, the NationsBank Corporate Center, and a tiny little office core beside it. In the years since, downtown Charlotte has grown substantially and can boast an impressive, if totally modernistic, skyline.
The main reason is the banks, and specifically two bankers. But more about them later.
Unlike Charleston, Charlotte is not a hinge upon which so much American history turned. It was named after Charlotte of Mecklenburg, the simian-faced queen-consort to George III (and the county is Mecklenburg, hideously shortened to "Meck" in local headlines). All the Charlotte propaganda about being "the Queen City" is endearing nonsense — Cincinnati was the Queen City of the West, Denver the Queen City of the Plains before she went Mile High, Seattle the Queen City before she went Emerald, on and on. Charlotte was no city at all for most of its history. The "Meck Dec" was signed here in 1775, claimed as the first declaration of independence in the thirteen colonies, but a source of endless debate among historians. Lord Cornwallis dubbed the little village a "hornet's nest of rebellion" (hence the wonderful name for the city's first NBA team, which it shouldn't have allowed owner George Shinn to take to New Orleans). After the Civil War, Charlotte embraced the industrialization of the so-called New South, becoming a textile center.
Otherwise, Charlotte had no more history of any other middling Southern town. It has tried very hard to become a Sun Belt, rather than a Southern, place. The Southern stuff is relegated to large and somewhat successful, at first, school desegregation and peaceful integration of restaurants. No heroic Greensboro lunch-counter sit-in for Charlotte. White Charlotte businessmen took their counterparts from the black business community to lunch, and the color barrier was smashed (but not, note, the class differences). The color that matters most in Charlotte is green.
Otherwise, some of its most interesting history is frustratingly buried. Old timers speak of "Blue Heaven," the old red-light district that sat on a creek near today's downtown, warmed by smoky stoves. The black business "main street" from segregation days is gone. Only on a long walk through the old cemetery near my apartment did I find a well-kept Confederate graveyard (a settlers cemetery is nicely preserved in the heart of town). Stonewall Jackson's widow lived out her days here and a street was named after her husband, but no doubt many locals would love to change the name.
Several factors vaulted Charlotte to become the premier city of the Carolinas. Winston-Salem and Greensboro, powerhouses in the 1920s, stagnated. Raleigh stuck with government and higher education, becoming part of the sprawling Research Triangle which took decades of heavy state investment to become a real tech center. South Carolina was too small-town and relatively poor. But Charlotte had banks. State law and interstate compacts allowed them to grow. They didn't get in trouble and sell out, as did Phoenix's Valley National. Instead, they began a march that culminated in the nation-wide merger spree of the late 1990s. In the end, Charlotte (?!) was the headquarters of two money center banks, Bank of America (NationsBank bought the iconic San Francisco institution), and First Union, which went on to buy Wachovia in Winston-Salem and take its name (who wants to be known by the initials FUC?).
It wasn't just banks that ensured Charlotte's primacy. It expanded its airport first for a Piedmont Airlines hub and later for US Airways. Duke Energy is headquartered here, and, again, stayed and bought others rather than being bought. The city annexed most of the little county, giving it plenty of room to grow and take in tax revenues. A raft of regional offices came, success building success. Being a major headquarters city had its benefits: High-paying jobs, attraction of capital and talent, being the center of decision-making and the place the CEOs lived. The older generation of Charlotte businessmen placed a premium on civic good, as they saw it. Led by men like Duke's Bill Lee and Rolfe Neill, powerful publisher of the Observer, this was a city on the make. They dictated policy. The mayor and council saluted and did as they were told. But first and foremost, Charlotte is a bank town, still the nation's second-largest banking center after New York.
The two bankers and their rivalry benefited Charlotte. Ed Crutchfield of First Union thought himself Theodore Roosevelt's "man in the arena," and would pontificate about how "we were decapitalized in 1865" and now it was time to rebalance the scales. Crutchfield gloried in playing the slow-talking but quick-thinking Southerner, outwitting the patronizing Yankees again and again. NCNB/NationsBank's Hugh McColl Jr., who made his dream come true by bringing Bank of America to Charlotte, was much the more consequential. Colorful with his hand grenade collection (he even had a crystal one), shrewd and ruthless in his deal-making, McColl didn't care much for mortgage lending and mistrusted investment bankers. Even so, he was right there with Sandy Weill, bringing down the Glass-Steagall wall and supporting the politicians who made it happen, especially Bill Clinton.
More important from a city perspective, McColl traveled to Europe and became an urbanist. He grew determined to give Charlotte a great downtown (or "uptown" as boosters insist on calling it — gag) beyond the tower competition between himself and Crutchfield. The bank had been instrumental in saving and rebuilding the quaint Fourth Ward neighborhood where I lived, with a dense, walkable combination of Victorians, apartments and condos built around a park and the old cemetery.
From the late 1990s until the bust, downtown really took off. One could see the difference it made having so much capital flow through the city's banks (we couldn't see the ruined communities that lost their headquarters banks and engaged "city officers" because of the mergers). McColl was instrumental in leveraging a federal Hope VI grant to turn formerly bleak First Ward into a model city neighborhood. Unlike Crutchfield, McColl insisted that BofA's operations center be downtown instead of in a suburban office "park." The result was the transformation of blighted land into Gateway Village, with 1.5 million square feet of mixed-use projects.
McColl was desperate to "finish" downtown — and link it to a South End revitalized from textile supply and machine shops to a chic destination with light rail — before the sprawl-enabling I-485 beltway was completed. (Unlike Phoenix, Charlotte also has Amtrak service, multiple trains a day, both long-distance and state-aided). First Union joined the urban quality competition, building condos, pocket parks and museum space in its "half" of downtown. New hotels and condo towers came up. Light rail attracted some $300 million in mostly private-sector investment along with line. A new NBA arena was built downtown, replacing the car-dependent mistake that had been placed in an area near the airport. The football stadium is also downtown, and there's hope for a minor-league ballpark. Charlotte let its downtown retail go to the malls, and never got it back. It allowed massive tear-downs of some fine old buildings, so downtown suffers from a certain architectural monotony and has little in the way of homegrown shops. Still, the transformation from 1996 is astounding. When I left in 2000, I could hang out late enough that the bankers left their offices and the crossdressers showed up at the bars.
Another benefit for the center city is nearby leafy residential neighborhoods with beautiful housing stock, ranging from tony Eastover and Myers Park to lovely, walkable Dilworth and the somewhat arty Elizabeth and Plaza-Midwood. This was a huge advantage in saving the center city and attracting reinvestment that Phoenix never enjoyed. CEOs lived in Myers Park, not the Charlotte equivalent of the East Valley (the ghastly Ballentyne). And, yes, many of the old churches are attractive and carefully maintained, for churches at least used to be part of the business fabric. If you wanted to get ahead, you were a member of Myers Park Presbyterian, Myers Park United Methodist or Covenant Presbyterian. People would ask me if I had found a "church home." No, but I chose a "bar home" (Alexander Michael's in Fourth Ward).
Downtown, the nearby real neighborhoods and light rail give Charlotte a livable built environment in a place that would otherwise be just another car-mad, sprawled-out, big-box, disconnected Sun Belt city. Like Tampa. Still, most Charlotteans don't have urban values (no, they're not called Charlottans, although some of the bank executives may be). Don't expect the cultural assets of an older city, although that front has improved substantially, too, and is focused on downtown. The black ghettos — single-family houses, apartments and a few projects, not tenements — are carefully tucked away, as are the homeless. Golf and "racin' " are flaunted. If you want edge, Charlotte is not your city. Still, among the moneyed and even middle-class whites, Charlotte has the most beautiful people I have ever seen. Not Scottsdale-plastic, but truly exquisite beauty. This is the exclusive end of the DNA pool.
Charlotte has suffered bad years since the crash that its banks helped cause. Wachovia was sold to Wells Fargo, a critical loss of a major headquarters and money center bank. Bank of America (McColl retired in 2001) is besieged by its bad decisions, including buying subprime death star Countrywide, lawsuits and its sheer size. Its chief executive doesn't even live in Charlotte. Unemployment is 10 percent for the metro area, higher for the state. If Duke hadn't moved into Wachovia's just-completing trophy headquarters, the city would have been left with a 786-foot-tall white elephant. Now Duke is facing trouble over a merger. A 51-story condo tower, built wildly, obscenely out of scale in Fourth Ward, was sold at auction and may be the last residential tower, or skyscraper of any kind, for a long, long time. I-485 is almost done.
Here, the Democrats have chosen to renominate President Obama. The national security state has assumed such dimensions that major and violent disruptions are unlikely. If they succeed, the Occupy and anarchist morons will merely help bring on a Romney presidency (and no, this will not hasten the revolution). It will be, no matter what, a hot time. And a soggy one. The Carolina Piedmont in August is where the humidity feels as if it is matching the high temperature.
Although a somewhat Democratic-leaning city, Charlotte is in a state full of wingnuts, the Legislature attempting to outlaw using science to track rise of sea-level and other assorted mad statecraft. Carrying North Carolina's electors would be quite a feat this time. In any event, here we go. After the greatest crash since the Great Depression, where the banksters got away with it thanks to his attorney general and Justice Department, Mr. Obama will give his acceptance speech at Bank of America Stadium. Forward.
Epilogue: Rain brought the president's speech inside, which, given its cautious nature, was probably for the best. It was by far the better of the two conventions. Charlotte did a great job and should feel proud.