My story on Charlotte ran in the Boston Globe on Aug. 19, 2012, and I’ve reprinted it below. Read how the Queen City surprised me — in a good way! And here’s my list of where to stay and eat, along with museum details.
By Diane Daniel
My home state’s largest metropolitan area (1.7 million and counting), Charlotte, has long been saddled with a reputation as the Wonder Bread, vanilla-flavored center of North Carolina. To wit, last year someone launched a Facebook page called “Keep Charlotte Boring,” a play on the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan. And just as Austin has become more mainstream, Charlotte has livened things up.
I made this delightful discovery during two recent visits to the so-called Queen City, whose metropolis appears in the midst of a transformation. From morning to night, downtown — or rather uptown, as it’s officially called — hums with energy. Innovative art museums anchor a city block, lively neighborhoods ring the center, and dining and drinking options abound. A bicycle-sharing system, that now-familiar creative-class lure, even launched earlier this month.
These changes, along with the county’s rocketing population growth, and North Carolina’s status as a swing state (President Obama squeaked through in 2008) informed the Democratic Party’s decision to tag Charlotte to host its convention, Sept. 3-6.
Whether you’re among the expected 35,000 convention attendees or you’re planning an independent trip, you won’t lack for action. The Dems will gather uptown at the Charlotte Convention Center, these days a draw unto itself, at least among teenage girls. The complex was used in the filming of “The Hunger Games,” specifically the tributes’ chariot rides, where Katniss made her blazing entrance as “The Girl on Fire.” (The first frame of the movie was filmed a block away at the John S. and James L. Knight Theater, scene of the tribute interviews.)
And maybe this isn’t saying much, but the latest “Bachelorette,” hometown gal Emily Maynard, not only insisted the show be filmed in Charlotte, her winning fiance, entrepreneur Jef Holm, is relocating from Salt Lake City.
Not that Charlotte is a stretch for a businessperson. The area remains the country’s largest financial center behind New York and houses seven Fortune 500 headquarters, including Family Dollar and Bank of America. Charlotte’s status as a financial hub is one of the reasons Northeastern University chose it as the site of its first regional campus last year.
Charlotte’s solidly Southern days, when the dominant population was Caucasian and conservative, are no more. Thanks to an influx of newcomers, you’ll be hard-pressed to detect a drawl. Last year, an African-American woman became the city’s first openly gay City Council member and this year Mecklenburg County was among a small minority voting against the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. As for the state dish — North Carolina barbecue — the one downtown joint, the new Queen City Q, decorates its interior with Texas emblems and scrambles regional styles.
The best place to acquaint yourself with the Queen City (so called because it was named for Charlotte Sophia, the wife of George III, and from the German principality of Mecklenburg-Strelitz) is at the nearby Levine Museum of the New South. Its permanent exhibit, “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers,” offers a fascinating and candid examination of the region’s transition from agriculture to textile manufacturing to banking.