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In search of the soul of charlotte

It’s everywhere, you just have to look for it

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Almost 15 years ago, Spin magazine sent music reporters across the United States, from Miami to Tulsa to Anchorage, to try to find "the soul of rock & roll." It was 1991, just months before a little trio from Aberdeen, WA, would bring the passion that had been lurking in the wrinkles of popular culture back into the mainstream pop consciousness. Before Nirvana shook America out of its doldrums, rock & roll seemed nearly dead, having been held hostage for too many years by cheesy hair metal and frothy pop.

It was Spin's idea that if you looked beyond the materialism and insatiable greed of the post-Reagan yuppie era, you might still be able to find the kind of soul that inspired Ray Charles to wail like a gospel singer and Elvis to wriggle like a holy roller. Behind the proliferating strip malls and fast-food joints, there might be many more Kurt Cobains out there screaming their way through the fake plastic trees.

So what does this have to do with Charlotte in 2005? Here's what: When my sister entered UNCC in 1973, I was 13 and Charlotte looked very different from what it's become today. On the one hand, there wasn't nearly as much art or theater, much less an active downtown. On the other hand, there was fire and brimstone -- in this city and all across the region. From the passion of the protests that brought integration to the schools to the stately old-money mansions that today are obscured by gaudy suburban McMansions, the soul of this city and region has gotten lost in the dust of unending development -- not to mention a strange need among some city boosters for Charlotte to be known as a "world class city." But souls don't die, they just float back into the woodwork. Like the soul of rock & roll, the heart of this city still has a pulse. You just have to listen a little harder to hear it.

So in the spirit of that old Spin story, Creative Loafing's writers and photographers set out to find Charlotte's heart and soul. What they brought back is nothing short of inspirational. And it only scratches the surface of what's lurking in the cracks between those ugly mega-churches and monster SUVs.

-- Mark Kemp, editor

Price's Chicken Coop (top). Whether you are an aficionado of Southern country cooking or Southern Haute to trot, Price's Chicken Coop is a uniter of all taste buds. This takeout-only place is the epicenter of Charlotte's food scene. Besides being the most recommended eatery to out-of-towners, Charlotteans -- new ones, lifers, even cardiologists -- think of eating Price's fried chicken as a requirement to living here. (Tricia Childress)

The 4900 Block of Central Avenue. This one block is the absolute soul of Charlotte's thriving immigrant population. Folks in the restaurants and shops usually speak English, but not as a first language. The restaurants serve up platters of amazing comfort food -- from yellow pancakes to curry, falafels to pupusa, oxtail stew to pho, Salvadorian pastries to baklava. You couldn't get any farther away from SouthPark Mall. (Tricia Childress)

The Performing Arts Center (above). By the time we've entered the next Ice Age, replaced Pat McCrory and perhaps even buried Jesse Helms, Charlotte's vaunted Cultural District will have evolved so far that it resembles New York's Broadway and Times Square -- a sea of lights, billboards, bustle, tourists and commerce. Meanwhile, the marquee on Fifth Street outside Belk Theater is the solid evidence that Charlotte truly does possess a cultural pulse. Perpetually, the lights of the PAC marquee tell you what's shaking in Charlotte's performing arts scene. (Perry Tannenbaum)

The Gray Family (above). The Grays -- George, Sandra and daughter Hallie -- have made invaluable contributions to Charlotte's arts scene in almost every way. At numerous theaters around town, they've acted, directed, designed and built sets, designed and sewn costumes, and handled lighting. Galleries have hung Sandra's paintings and Children's Theatre has staged George's musical. Even when George was still a teen, before he migrated here from Gastonia, he would say Charlotte was a city without a soul. As long as the Gray family remains in Dilworth, you can't say the city is without principle, talent, wit, selfless dedication. And that's soul. (Perry Tannenbaum)

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Dennis Darrell. The president of Southern Tip Films is so in tune with the spirit of the city that one of the regular film series he organizes is even called Reel Soul. "As it relates to film, soul spells 'independent,'" opines Darrell. "Although not totally untouched by the filters and biases of Hollywood, these movies at least attempt to tell real stories and impart real ideas with 'outside the box' sensibilities. As for Charlotte's soul, it's not worn on its collar as a source of pride; you've gotta dig a little. There are haunts old and new where there exists a feeling unmistakably soulful: Groove Merchant Records, the Jazz Cafe and the Coffee Cup all possess a feeling that's unmistakably soulful." (Matt Brunson)

Dorne Pentes And Wendy Fishman. Charlotte's first couple of cinema, writer-director Pentes and his wife, producer Fishman (also director of film/video at the Light Factory), have contributed much to this city's film heritage, never more so than in their 1996 Charlotte-set epic The Closest Thing to Heaven. As Pentes explains, "Cinema contributes to the soul of a city only when it creates mood that embodies what the residents of that city feel about it -- when that filmmaker takes places that may be normal to most folks and imbues them with characters and feelings that create an almost spiritual reverence for the place itself." Fishman agrees that a city's soulfulness and its cinema should be intertwined: "A city's ability to support quality, non-mainstream cinema, whether by viewership or actual creation of, enhances the quality of dialogue and participation amongst its citizens. Soul in Charlotte is all the stuff that is not average." Among the local venues they cite as soulful are the Milestone, the Double Door Inn and the Dairy Queen on Central Avenue. (Matt Brunson)

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