News & Views » David Walters

Reality Strolling

Forget silly districts, just do it


The concept of "stroll districts" disturbs me. You may remember the term surfaced recently in Charlotte's debate about attracting the "creative class," young entrepreneurs whose wealth-producing proclivities promise increased economic development for our city in coming decades. Among the "cool" attributes of places that attract these young, energetic professionals are urban neighborhoods with streets lined with bars, clubs, art and music venues, workplaces and apartments - in short, a traditional city where uses mix together and life flows across the rigid boundaries we erect in suburbia. I discussed this concept, and how Charlotte measures up to these ambitions, in a column a couple weeks ago, but the awful phrase "stroll districts" deserves a further critique lest the Queen City, in its race to be cool, mistakes a simulation of urbanity for the real thing.

Enticing people into streets where they can enjoy urban life in public space is a key objective for urban designers like myself. But having a specially designated district where you "stroll" before moving on to a different programmed activity merely creates a sequence of contrived events where citizens are reduced to mere consumers; pedestrian experience becomes just one more fragment of our increasingly fractured lifestyle, separated in time and space. At its best, city life is an interwoven tapestry of overlapping threads and incidents, some planned, others serendipitous, and dividing the urban experience into separate strands by artificial "districts" unravels the rich weave and texture of authentic urbanity.

The great urban spaces of history — streets, boulevards, squares and parks — are "hollowed out" of the city, creating "urban rooms" where residents, workers and visitors can mingle for the mutual pleasures of work, rest and play. Parts of Charlotte's uptown are beginning to regain this important urban dimension, and contemporary Charlotteans can aspire to become 21st century flaneurs, updating the famous urban lifestyle from the boulevards of 19th century Paris, immortalized by the French poet Charles Baudelaire.

In his essay "The Painter of Modern Life," first printed in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro in 1863, Baudelaire described the flaneur as someone who lived his life in the public world, strolling the boulevards, frequenting the cafés, bars and public buildings of Paris. He was anonymous in the urban crowds but drew energy from the teeming life all around him. (We should note that this was a male role; women — apart from prostitutes — were not allowed this luxury of unaccompanied movement in the 19th century city).

Baudelaire's urban wanderer was not simply a passive spectator. The French poet stressed that his bourgeois pedestrian searched the city with a lofty aim. He was looking for "modernity" in the metropolis, and in his search the flaneur did not merely consume urban culture; he created it by his "passionate" activity. Multiply this individual by a population of thousands in uptown, and against all the odds, the possibility of an authentic public life in Charlotte is tantalizingly within reach.

To our delight, my wife and I contribute to the renaissance of city life as we leave the Charlotte Symphony in the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center on a Saturday night to emerge into the pounding beat of Tryon Street, with gridlocked cars "cruisin' the strip" and rock & roll music tumbling out of bars like Phil's and RiRa. We weave our way between elderly members of the symphony audience climbing back on their buses parked at the curb, and posses of young adults, men and women, roaming the sidewalks, seeking the action only a city can provide. Lights glow in the Ivey's apartments, and a lonely Hopper-esque figure looks down from the fluorescent glare of an illuminated office in one of the towers.

At its best, city life is an interwoven tapestry of overlapping threads and incidents, some planned, others serendipitous.

Drinking wine in one of Tryon Street's many bars, we watch the urban life stream by our window, delighting in the contrasts of the crowds, young and middle-aged, black and white, residents and visitors, some with convention badges still dangling. While many people drive in for this slice of life, it's real, not manufactured, due largely to the thousands of uptown residents, who can create this scene with their passionate activity and then stroll back home, not through an artificial "district," but in a real, active, functioning piece of the city. Compare this urban vitality to the pathetic "Street of Champions" Potemkin Village of temporary bars and fake façades Charlotte erected on South Tryon Street 10 years ago for basketball's Final Four fans!

When new development connects the six-block core — between College and Church and from Trade to Seventh — with nearby Gateway Village, and this combines with more crowds and energy pumped into the city streets by the unfairly maligned arena and development around light uptown light rail stations we won't need a silly "stroll district." We'll have a real city.

I love it. It's just like being home in Europe! But this time, it's all American.

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