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Banking and culture are hot as Charlotte strives to be cool

Email|Print| Text size + By Christopher Percy Collier
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2005

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Along a side street, up some stairs, into a new, second-story lounge known as Madison's -- the cool kind of spot that makes you wonder if it was once somebody's loft apartment -- I find women in black spaghetti-strap dresses and men in blazers and shiny shoes slouching on couches and grooving to the sounds of some cats in the corner plucking on bass strings and blowing on the sax. Others are gazing at cigar boxes in a glass case that looks like a china cabinet, picking over a fat spread of crackers and cheese at the bar, shooting pool beneath crystal chandeliers while sipping brown booze in swanky rocks glasses they set on bar tables beside tiny, chic lamps -- the kind found at Pottery Barn -- that offer little more luminescence than one might expect from a night-light.

Down the block, around the corner, past windows adorned with candles in blue glass votives, I pony up to the bar at a place called Blue with an extravagant Art Deco-styled, marble-floored lobby of an office building at my back, a $10 martini before me, and a late-night, Mediterranean-inspired menu in hand: Moroccan pastry, fava bean puree, and white truffle oil are among the highlighted ingredients.

Across Tryon Street, the city's main thoroughfare, opposite the gray stone façade of a two-story art museum, I push my way through a crowd upscale enough to make me feel underdressed in a fleece vest and Nikes at the newly opened, red-walled, wood-paneled Zink American Kitchen to slurp down a dozen oysters, feast on the tuna petals of a sashimi flower, and gorge on a plate of boar sausage.

I had not yet made it to the 27th floor of a nearby building to try foie gras and tiger prawns while surrounded by glass skyscrapers at sunset, home to another new restaurant, Bentley's on 27 (Oriental rugs at the entry, blown-glass sculptures along the hallway to the dining room, walls of glass looking out on the city), once a private club frequented by the town's heavy hitters. Nor had I infiltrated the three-story nightclub a golf swing away named Menage that had a VIP room I read was once popular with the late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt.

Still, I had been in town long enough to gather that Charlotte, a city with neither a river running through it, mountains all around, nor the sea nearby was developing a culinary identity -- and seemingly much more -- all its own.

Before arriving in Charlotte, a city with a population over 600,000 located in the southern Piedmont region of North Carolina, I had imagined something on the order of Chattanooga, Tenn., or Hartford or maybe Manchester, N.H. I envisioned three or four small skyscrapers in a dicey section of downtown that you would have no reason to visit unless you were doing business with whatever singular, probably obscure corporation held sway in this tiny metropolis. I saw Charlotte as an airport hub, not much more.

Then I saw the bright lights on my way into town and realized my error was, indeed, glaring.

According to figures from the Chamber of Commerce, Charlotte has grown into the second-largest banking center in the country behind New York. It controls more than $1.2 trillion in assets. There are presently nine Fortune 500 companies headquartered here. A cruise through downtown yields skyscrapers galore: Bank of America Corporate Center (60 floors), Hearst Tower (47 floors), One Wachovia Center (42 floors), One Bank of America Plaza (40 floors), Interstate Tower (32 floors).

Over the last decade or so, Charlotte has experienced a cultural explosion. A new trolley system now rolls through town. Roaring crowds fill a new stadium for the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League. Charlotte's roots are examined at the recently renovated Levine Museum of the New South at an exhibit titled ''From Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers," where an old cotton gin is on display just a few rooms over from one of the first automatic teller machines. The Mint Museum of Craft + Design, which opened in 1999, showcases works from some of the best potters and glass artists in the world. Johnson & Wales University, known for its acclaimed culinary arts program, opened a campus here last fall. More than 1,000 new students have since infiltrated the city, many of them strolling about in white chef uniforms.

All this, it seems, is just the beginning.

Soon, a new light rail service will allow people to navigate more of the city without a car. A new basketball arena for the National Basketball Association Charlotte Bobcats is to open next season. ImaginOn, a family-themed ''library theater" that offers ''a new approach to learning," is scheduled to open this fall, spanning an entire city block. A 270,000-square-foot entertainment district is being created in the historic Fourth Ward that will include restaurants, nightclubs, and art galleries. And the largest white-water park in the world -- a wholly man-made facility that will enable just about anyone to embark on a one-hour guided raft trip on a circular course that operates with the use of powerful water pumps -- is to open next spring. It's hard to imagine what might be next.

''Everything is so new," says a massage therapist over a pint at Ri~Ra, a popular bar in downtown. ''Anything goes."

''Five years ago, this was a Podunk town," says a server at Zink who just moved from Los Angeles. ''Now, it's almost rare to find a native while downtown."

''Thirty years ago, it was unheard of to consider living downtown," says Alex Coffin, a longtime resident and former newspaper reporter who tells of a new 50-story residential condominium that will be built downtown. ''Unheard of!"

Charlotte, it appears, is having an existential moment. It's going through a process of self-actualization. Residents are asking the hard questions. What does Charlotte really have to offer? How is Charlotte truly perceived by outsiders? What could make Charlotte a world-class city? The City Group, a group of young professionals, has hired a marketing firm, Next Generation Consulting, to assess the city's ''coolness," which seems to have gotten the ball rolling. Books about urban renewal and changing workforce demographics are being read around town. Newspaper columnists are pondering whether Charlotte is cool; some wonder what that even means.

Terminology is being bandied about: the ''knowledge worker" (professionals who make a living intellectually), the ''social capital index" (an evaluation of the strength of a community's inter-connectedness), ''third spaces" (places to go between work and home).

Statistics on national trends are being cited: According to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, beginning in 2006, two workers will be leaving the workforce for every one entering; by 2008, there will be a labor shortage in the workforce of 10 million; 75 percent of people under 28 years of age choose where they want to live over where they work.

The goal: Make sure Charlotte doesn't get left in the dust. Those who care about the city, and who believe the hype, are trying to ensure that when the baby boomers retire, those left in Charlotte are not looking around wondering what happened to all the leaders, all the ''cool" creative types.

What this means for those visiting Charlotte now, however, is new museums, new sporting facilities, new ways to explore the city, even a new culinary flair.

Not 30 years ago, controversy ensued in Charlotte over whether serving liquor by the drink in a downtown restaurant was a good idea. The state didn't allow liquor by the drink until 1978, and the first legal drink was poured in Charlotte that year. Now it's hard to find a place that doesn't serve a martini, and signs of a thriving food culture abound.

I wander into Reid's, a gourmet market downtown well stocked with wine and coffee beans and a deli case to die for, to find a cooking instructor teaching a class in the middle of the store, expounding on the virtues of cooking trout. I sit down for brunch at the Pewter Rose Bistro, and the waitress keeps showing up with warm caramel scones as I await my sausage frittata.

My dining experience at Bentley's on 27, on the 27th floor of a Charlotte office building at sunset, seems like what one might expect in Chicago or Atlanta.

Charlotte has its lulls, like any city. On Saturday morning, city streets seem full with people scurrying about, headed into museums, and shopping, while 5 o'clock reveals a ghost town, traffic reduced to an occasional car whizzing by. I duck into a pub to pass the time, trying to figure my next move. Do I stay another night?

The bartender pours me a nitrogen beer. A conversation is struck with a twentysomething couple at a nearby table. She is from Argentina. He is wearing a knit cap. Both live in town, and like it. Still, the hip mountain town of Asheville (about two hours west) may eventually win them over. Time will tell if the new cultural amenities will keep them.

I leave the pub after sundown, and the city is alive again. Streets are bustling; open-air cafes are filling with people. Cars are lined up at stoplights on Tryon Street, the main drag. Charlotte detains me for another night, a city in search of its ''cool" self -- and, in places, finding it.

Christopher Percy Collier is a freelance writer in Georgia.

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