Without shying away from the fact that I'm no longer a young man, I can tell you that I grew up in a very sleepy, small-town Charlotte, where my parents moved me from Philadelphia in the mid-1950s (yes, that long ago), when any aspirations toward being a major metropolitan area were, to be truthful, laughable. I remember, vividly, the segregated water fountains, bathrooms, lunch counters and schools. The day the first black child showed up in my classroom was shocking, to say the least. But, as a Northern-born Jew growing up here at that time, I experienced my own personal share of bigoted hatred — and those experiences left an indelible mark on me, which is still part of my makeup.
But I took some small measure of pride from the perception that Charlotte itself wasn't quite as bad in that regard as the surrounding rural areas. By the mid-'60s, Charlotte was seen as more progressive, more tolerant of diversity, and, I think, deservedly so. By then, city leaders, such as Mayor Stan Brookshire, had set us on a path toward becoming that true metropolitan area.
That image served us well and the region prospered. By the late '80s, we could truly claim to be an up-and-comer or "the next Atlanta," with milestones like major-league sports putting us on the map, along with relatively good leaders both in the business community and among our governing bodies. It was no small feat to have elected an African American, Harvey Gantt, as our mayor. By the time I left for Washington in 2001, Charlotte had become, surprisingly, a major player, definitely on the upswing, led by the banking industry, which dominated everything.
Which brings me to the point of this column. I have something of an interesting perspective on all this, having come home early last year when I thought I was about to die from cancer. When that changed last fall, and as I've recovered, I've had the opportunity to meet with an incredible cross-section of this community's leaders from every sector — politicians, businessmen and women, artists, members of the faith community, educators, social advocates, helping agencies, and, of course, a lot of health-care providers. Suffice it to say that while I'm not interested in name-dropping, you'd know a high percentage of the people I've been talking to. And that's where it gets really interesting — and where I need your help.
I've been making one central observation: Something major happened while I was gone. The Charlotte I left was run — to be blunt — not by the politicians, per se, but by the bankers, particularly former CEOs Hugh McColl of Bank of America and Ed Crutchfield of First Union. When they wanted something to happen, well, it happened. And if they didn't want it, it didn't. Period. (Suffice it to say that nothing you see in the modern Uptown area, even its very design and layout, happened without their OK.) But then the Great Recession hit, and with it came a major re-alignment in the banking industry, which, obviously, hit Charlotte very hard and resulted in that designation as a "top dog" in the world's banking circles being greatly diminished.
In short, that identity for Charlotte is gone — and with it a lot of jobs, tax revenue, charitable contributions and just plain energy. But the main thing that's been lost, it seems to me, is a sense of leadership and direction. Like it or not, Hugh and Ed led, along with a lot of other business leaders, and, to be sure, elected officials as a whole who were smart enough to go with the flow.
So here's the question I've been asking of those with whom I've been having breakfasts, lunches and dinners: "Who runs Charlotte now?" Stop — don't do it — I know how you're reacting, because I've already seen it dozens of times. You're snickering. Your nose is scrunched up. You've got a quizzical look on your face.
What's the answer? I've got some ideas, but I want to know what you think. I'm going to be writing a major piece for CL about this soon, giving you an assessment from everyone I've talked to, and many more who are on my calendar coming up shortly — and I want your input now. What — or maybe better said, who — am I missing?
It's that simple, and that obvious of a question, one that I know is lurking at the back of just about everyone's mind who has made Charlotte home. What is Charlotte today? Who really leads it? And what do we most want to be?
You tell me. Send me your thoughts. firstname.lastname@example.org