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Charlotte's No. 1 religion: Boosterism


In his 1996 book Dixie Rising, Peter Applebome of The New York Times wrote that Charlotte was "home to the purest strain of the Southern booster gene." I hope Applebome is paying attention to the hoopla here over the 2012 Democratic convention — because the city is once again proving him right.

If you thought last week's over-the-top self-congratulation and endless, hyperventilating media stories like the Observer's "Can Charlotte live up to its moment on the stage?" were startling, or maybe cheesy, then you must be new around here. If so, fasten your seat belts because no city loses its collective mind over hosting big events, or landing pro sports teams — or, really, anything that brings national publicity — like this one.

Applebome's "booster gene" metaphor is right on the money: Boosterism and boosters (or as H.L. Mencken called them, "wowsers") are in the city's blood. I've not only never lived in, I've never heard of, a city that is as desperate as Charlotte to be admired. The ongoing, bug-eyed perkiness surrounding big events can be puzzling, embarrassing, hilarious, or, let's face it, annoying as hell, especially if you're not used to it. But the truth is that civic promotion is one of Charlotte's top religious denominations, so the wowsers have had lots of practice, beginning more than 100 years ago when "New South" industrialists promoted the region as the perfect place to plop down a cotton mill.

Several times in recent years, the city's boosterism kicked into high gear — times when Charlotte was lucky enough to experience some new Greatest Thing Ever. In 1987, when the NBA granted Charlotte its first major league sports franchise, the Hornets, the city nearly had a collective stroke. Team owner George Shinn was feted with a joyous parade, and was, in effect, given a new coliseum (now demolished) on Tyvola Road — but only after a truckload of opening night speakers riffed on the theme of "this is such a special, special night for our city." At the time, Shinn was so adored, he was even touted as a gubernatorial candidate (an idea that died once his sex crimes trial started, needless to say).

In 1989, an Uptown multi-story mall called CityFair was greeted as a new Messiah, complete with a huge, festive grand opening at which the city's most popular singer belted a special ditty, including lyrics describing CityFair as "Charlotte's every dream come true." It may sound ridiculous, but plenty of people believed it. In any case, although CityFair turned out to be a colossal flop and was (of course) demolished, it did win a national award for Best Grand Opening of an urban retail development, so, you see, all wasn't lost.

The Observer usually provides key symptoms in these bouts of boostermania, turning itself into even more of a Chamber organ than usual, but never more outlandishly than in 1993, when the city was awarded an NFL franchise. The next day, the paper's headline simply read "TOUCHDOWN!" in a type size I had assumed was reserved for World War III. That particular issue was filled with lofty, extravagant gushing about this new Greatest Thing Ever our deserving, wonderful city had been blessed with, along with countless variations on "The world is paying attention to us!" It made last week's effusive giddiness seem mild by comparison.

No one yet knows how far the current Democratic Convention hoopla will go, but it will be hard to match the Uptown craziness that greeted the 1994 NCAA Final Four, when boosters jerry-rigged an entire fake nightclub district in empty buildings on Tryon Street for one weekend, just so tournament goers wouldn't think Charlotte was dull. That week, Creative Loafing published a special issue satirizing the smoke-and-mirrors aspect of the fake entertainment area. In it, we presented a guide to Charlotte landmarks with, um, embellished photos, beginning with a cover shot of the New York skyline under a "Welcome to Charlotte!" headline. Not many Final Four goers saw that issue of CL, however. Uptown boosters were outraged and panic-stricken, so some Chamber employees took every single issue of CL from its Uptown boxes and dumped them. At least that's what Chamber employees told us had happened. Now that is taking your boosterism seriously. As Applebome describes the wowser mindset once it gets going, "There's not much respite from the wonderfulness of it all."

For another take on the 2012 Democratic National Convention, read this week's The N Word.

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