This fall I wrote a book. It’s called “Secret Charlotte: A guide to the weird, wonderful, and obscure,” and it’s part of a series of similar books in other cities. The reasons I chose to write this aren’t all that romantic. My publisher from a previous book called and asked if I’d be up for writing it. I said yes because I’m incapable of saying no.
Around October I started hating myself. Books aren’t easy to write in general and this one was especially hard because it required hours (and hours and hours) of research. It’s filled with a mix of old and new quirky stories about Charlotte.
At some point in my writing though something completely unexpected happened: I became obsessed with Charlotte’s past. Charlotte, a town I’ve covered for years, is often accused of destroying its past and covering it up with something shiny. Before, I’d been mildly disturbed by this in the “I wish we hadn’t torn down those old buildings because it’d be nice to have a little more character in that yuppie neighborhood” kind of way.
But when you’ve spent hours reading about the people who shaped a city before you were ever even born, something changes. Now, I drive down streets imagining what they looked like before. When I see old buildings, I wonder who lived there. I notice street names I’ve never considered and wonder who they’re named after—and who named them, and who lived on them, and why they seemingly inexplicably curve at certain points.
I’ve long since turned in the manuscript. But I can’t get enough. This photo was one of my favorites that I dug up. (I think it was from the Observer, but can’t remember.) Every time I look at it, it reminds me of It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s Christmas in 1940, right around when parts of the famed movie took place.
The shot is standing on North Tryon Street at 6th Street looking south into Uptown Charlotte. The Mayfair that’s on the right is now The Dunhill. And Carolina Theater there on the left is now being restored. Learning about the city’s history has made me think about other things when I see this too:
Things like, all those neon signs were so prevalent then that the city thought they were cluttering the streets and declared they needed to be taken down. Ratcliffe’s Flowers was owned by a stubborn war veteran who refused. Today, his former store’s building has been moved up the block, but his sign was declared a historic landmark and still hangs on The Green on South Tryon.
And really even this is just history layered on history. Before the Mayfair Manor (now Dunhill) was built, Tryon Street Methodist Episcopal Church stood on this property. The church though had only had the property since the 1860s. Before that it was owned by a man named Joel Huggins, a slave holder who moved to Texas with two other families around the time he sold the property to the church. (He posted an advertisement in a local newspaper looking for me to help him move his family’s slaves across the country.) Huggins would go on to fight for the Confederacy and survive the war, but die a few years later in 1869.
These are the kinds of rabbit holes I’ve been going down all fall. And now, when I go to dinner at the Dunhill’s Asbury restaurant (named for the original hotel’s architect), I can’t help but think about the hotel’s glory days as the city’s best, and the church there before it, and Huggins before that. (I also can’t help but talk about all this. I’ve become super annoying to hang out with.)
Anyway, I’d write more, but in writing this I’ve become curious about the other two families who moved to Texas with Huggins. So, I’m off to more digging.