UNC Charlotte, NoDa, Brooklyn, Uptown Walking Tour
The town was in the middle of the deep South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few. Nearly always the sky was a glassy, brilliant azure and the sun burned down riotously bright. Then the light, chill rains of November would come, and perhaps later there would be frost and some short months of cold. The winters were changeable, but the summers always were burning hot. The town was a fairly large one. On the main street there were several blocks of two- and three-story shops and business offices. But the largest buildings in the town were the factories, which employed a large percentage of the population. These cotton mills were big and flourishing and most of the workers in the town were very poor. Often in the faces along the streets there was the desperate look of hunger and of loneliness.
—From The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940), 5.
This description of a fledgling southern city is Charlotte in the 1930s. In September 1937, Georgia-born Carson McCullers moved here as a newlywed with her husband, Reeves, who had landed a job in Charlotte’s financial sector. Carson, only 20 years old, spent that fall and winter in a local boardinghouse drafting the novel she initially titled The Mute. The book, her first, turned out to be a classic. Like Asheville, Charlotte has been a magnet to more than a few literary giants, including Erskine Caldwell, W.J. Cash, William Styron (briefly) and Edgar Lee Masters.
The city has also produced an enormous crop of its own writers — many, curiously enough, in the genre of the murder mystery. Charlotte’s Novello Festival of Reading is a nationally recognized literary gathering that until 2010 took place every fall, and the Novello Festival Press held the distinction of being the nation’s only public library-sponsored literary publisher. While both are on hold because of budget cuts, Novello has made an important contribution to literary N.C.
Charlotte’s public library had published a number of volumes important to the city’s literary history. Notable among these books is The Imaginative Spirit: Literary Heritage of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Poet and historian Mary Kratt put together this 1988 compendium of more than 90 writers’ profiles.
According to Kratt, Charlotte’s literary narrative goes back to the 1700s, when a local blacksmith, Adam Brevard, wrote a satirical poem to express his outrage at the behavior of town leaders. By his tone and choice of medium, Brevard apparently started a trend: poetry has always been a popular genre in Charlotte, and a satirical approach to local controversy is still a perennial pastime among city writers.
Indeed, N.C.’s largest city is known as the “Queen City” (after Queen Charlotte, wife of England’s King George III) and the “Hornets’ Nest” (so called by the occupying British Army in 1780 because of the relentless stinging opposition to the Brits mustered by the fierce Scots-Irish settlers). These two monikers have also seemed to shape some long-standing Charlotte traits. Dramatic divisions along class lines dating from the textile era and the penchant for rancorous public debate have provided ample fodder for generations of local authors writing fiction and nonfiction.
Today, Charlotte is also N.C.’s Queen of Arts. Corporate leaders have made enormous investments in the city’s cultural infrastructure, and both classical and edgy manifestations of creativity are everywhere. Additionally, Charlotte is a city of many churches. It is the birthplace of the world’s most famous evangelist, Billy Graham (a favorite son), and was the headquarters of the now-defunct PTL Club, run by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. As early as the 1930s, Charlotte novelist Marian Sims (a friend of Carson McCullers) was quick to point out the curious contradictions created by Charlotte’s big-city ambitions and its thick religious roots:
A church on every corner and more murders than Chicago; prohibition and more speakeasies, I imagine, than New York ever had. The best roads and the worst slums in America. Ministers carting voters to the polls in bootleggers’ cars to uphold the dry law. . . . Sunday golf at the country clubs and no golf for the poor devil who has to play on a public course in the city limits.
—From Call It Freedom, by Marian Sims (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1937), 39.
Fast forward to 1994. Novelist Tony Earley gives us another look at Charlotte’s contradictions in the midst of its fast paced growth. Earley writes about members of his own generation, whose parents worked in the textile mills but who, upon coming of age, were forced to seek new means of livelihood in the postindustrial South. In the short story Charlotte, Earley’s dispirited narrator describes his life in the city where big-time sports have replaced the staged dramas of brute conquest and defeat on the southern wrestling circuit of his parents’ era:
Now Charlotte has the NBA, and we tell ourselves we are a big deal. We dress in teal and purple and sit in traffic jams on the Billy Graham Park so that we can yell in the new coliseum… In the old days in Charlotte we did not take ourselves so seriously. Our heroes had platinum-blond hair and twenty-seven-inch biceps, but you knew who was good and who was evil, who was changing over to the other side and who was changing back. You knew that sooner or later the referee would look away just long enough for Bob Noxious to hit Lord Poetry with a folding chair. . . . In the old days our heroes were as superficial as we were—but we knew that— and their struggles were exaggerated versions of our own. . . . Now when we march disappointed out of the new coliseum to sit unmoving on the parkway, in cars we can’t afford, we have to think about the things that are true: everyone in Charlotte is from somewhere else. Everyone in Charlotte tries to be someone they are not.
—From Here We Are in Paradise, by Tony Earley (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994), 34–35.
Charlotte’s skyline is known for new and interesting skyscrapers. With these shining towers coming into view, this tour begins on the northeast side of Charlotte.
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Uptown Walking Tour