Across the estuary, I watch the steam trains of my youth. The old locomotives are refurbished in bright green paint and brass fittings, and they puff into the train station hauling their regular loads of day-trippers, disgorging them onto the ferries that bring them across the river. When I was a kid, these ferries were themselves powered by coal, relics of a pre-war age. Now they are faceless diesels, doing dogged service back and forth the broad river countless times a day.
The picturesque port of Dartmouth is a town that missed its place in history, particularly American history, for it's where the Pilgrim fathers first set sail for the colonies across the Atlantic. By rights, Americans would have a "Dartmouth Rock," a "Dartmouth Colony," and be driving "Dartmouth Voyager" family vans. But the Mayflower and Speedwell had sailed only a few miles into the Channel, heading for the Atlantic Ocean, when a storm blew up. The Speedwell, a miserable little tub, sprang a leak and the intrepid pioneers put into the tiny fishing hamlet of Plymouth for repairs.
Plymouth is now a major naval port, but 400 years ago it paled in comparison to its prestigious neighbor, Dartmouth. History, however, records the Mayflower's unplanned solo departure from Plymouth as the epochal event that shaped America, and Dartmouth has slipped into pleasant obscurity, known only for its beauty and its Naval College, the British equivalent of Annapolis.
Refilling my senses with the breathtaking beauty and depth of history that permeates my home, it's hard to believe I'm missing the brash blandness of Charlotte. But I am. I miss my neighborhood while I'm gone.
I miss the tree-lined streets around Latta Park in Dilworth. I miss the trolley on its daily runs between South End and Uptown. I miss the friendly folk at our favorite Queen's Beans coffee shop on Camden Road. I miss the glimpses of our motley set of skyscrapers herded together above suburban trees, or viewed down long vistas into town. Even though the buildings themselves are no great shakes (Cesar Pelli's BofA tower excepted), the skyline forms a comforting symbol of the city's urban energy in a way that no suburban development, pancaked across the landscape, ever can.
The best view in Charlotte that I've carried with me to England this summer is from Jay Criner's Artbar at the junction of South Tryon Street and Camden Road in South End. Sitting on the sidewalk with a glass of wine and a free hotdog on a summer Friday night during gallery crawl, the view up South Tryon is stunning. Uptown office towers fade slowly in the twilight, reflecting the shifting shades of sunset, only to reappear as bejeweled patchworks of light against the darkening indigo sky. The street life on the sidewalk is jolly, with semi-serious patrons of art mingling with seriously cool urban hipsters. Conversation is punctuated by the rumble of the crowded trolley half-a-block away, taking happy conventioneers back Uptown after showing them a small taste of Charlotte's art and soul.
This urban vignette softens Charlotte's image, blurring scruffy edges of the urban scene, where weed-filled lots and barbed wire mingle with fancy new condos and apartments. Transforming an industrial area to an urban village can be untidy. This messiness contrasts sharply with the picturesque neatness of Devonshire towns where I grew up, where tight urbanity meets luscious landscape. Not far from Dartmouth is the magical Dartington Hall, a 14th century manor house and gardens rescued from decay by American money in 1925 when Dorothy Whitney, a railroad heiress, married Leonard Elmhirst, an obscure English adventurer with a social vision for a progressive rural community. Decades later, Dartington Hall is an international center of learning in literature, music, arts and crafts, and has spawned many rural industries and model farming practices.
Every year, I sit on the grassy terraces of Dartington's medieval tilting yard, where knights in armor jousted for the affections of ladies watching from silken tents. This summer, as I gaze into history, I carry with me this unexpected, cherished memory of Charlotte: it's a Friday night at Artbar, and Uptown Charlotte rises like Oz above its fast-mutating urban landscape, presaging a new dawn.