In late July, I asked your help in answering some questions that have been kicking around in my head since returning to Charlotte last year, after spending the prior 12 years in Washington, D.C.: Who leads Charlotte today — and, speaking more philosophically — what is Charlotte now? And what do we want it to be?
I'd been asking this of a wide cross-section of people here for many months, and solicited your input, promising that I'd let you know what I came up with.
It seems a city that had been very much on the way up appeared to have stumbled — a product, you told me, of the Great Recession, which took a heavy toll on Charlotte's emerging perch at the top of the banking industry. Around that time, the man who was arguably the single most obvious leader, not only of that part of the business world, but of the greater Charlotte community itself — former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl — had retired, leaving something of an open space, if not a real vacuum.
And then, of course, there was the political black hole exemplified by the indictment of Patrick Cannon, though no one ever claimed, to me at least, that any politician merited the title of the real leader of Charlotte, even Cannon, who we thought was just another innocent ladder-climber. So the answer to the question of who leads Charlotte now — the only one truly worth relating to you — is absolutely no one. The consensus is that Charlotte is drifting, essentially leaderless. If there were a relatively brief time when Charlotte had become defined as a banking center, that period is essentially gone, and no clear vision has replaced it yet. We're without a captain, and we don't have a destination.
But is that such a bad thing, to be without as domineering a figure as Hugh McColl? (And let's not be coy, here — there's simply no arguing this point. For about 20 years or so, no one's thoughts, dreams or wishes mattered more than McColl's.) Lots of the people I've talked to are now more than happy to have such a "vacuum," because they see it as a necessary clearing-out, kind of like what happens when a wildfire hits an old forest and burns out the dead wood, making room for new growth.
And that's exactly what's happening. All over town, you can see the shoots of greenery. In the business community, while the bankers aren't making claims of world conquests anymore, there are more firms, covering a wider, more diverse set of services than before. And there's been a steady stream of young professionals, entrepreneurs, and different types of companies moving here from different parts of the country, laying the foundations for a very healthy period.
And that extends to other segments of the community as well: service organizations, religious and cultural groups, arts and entertainment ventures, technology firms, and much more. In short, Charlotte is very much alive, and while there may not be an over-arching mandate or specific vision, there are many younger people here who see this as a vibrant place to make their marks, which, it seems to me, is a lot better than spending another 20 years having an old man in some big building Uptown telling us all what to do.
But politically, things around here are a mess, aside from what Cannon did to us all. Over the past decade, the city became demographically dominated by Democratic Party-voting African Americans, many of whom now feel as though they should, by right, run the political machinery. Recognizing that blacks are, of course, no more "monolithic" in their thinking, dreams and goals than any other grouping, not enough time has yet passed for that dominance to manifest in any real voting block alliances, or for partnerships to have formed around particular candidacies or initiatives, leaving something of a vacuum which has only served to add to the general sense of drifting and an absence of strong leadership in the past few years.
But I think we're OK. Maybe better than OK. We've come through that horrible recession positioned much better than most people think and are ready to bust out soon. And there are a huge number of people here with a ton of energy poised to take us to places almost none of us can envision right now.
Though society is absolutely obsessed with leadership — a quick search last week of leadership-related books on Amazon resulted in 121,062 listings — could it be that we don't need one particular leader?