“Standin’ at the crossroad
I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me
everybody pass me by”
I went to Charlotte in search of the New South and found it in a museum, the Levine Museum of the New South on 7th Street in Uptown Charlotte. Like most historical museums, the Levine tells a familiar story: The New South is a narrative of “reinvention,” and Charlotte epitomizes the New South in toto. Six hands-on “environments” illustrate the phases in Charlotte’s long quest for distinction, beginning with the transformation of the Carolina Piedmont by the textiles industry in the 1890’s. The War itself is mentioned merely as the catastrophic backdrop to this first defining moment of reinvention. The heroes in this narrative are not the defenders of Southern sovereignty but those who rose up out of the defeat to adopt the sharp practices of the conqueror—the crossroads merchants and the builders of the mill towns which established Charlotte and the greater Piedmont as a dominant player in the empire of cotton. Upon this foundation, Charlotte prospered to become first a regional, then a national, and finally a transnational crossroads. Obstacles there were aplenty: rural poverty, ignorance, racism, nostalgia for the old ways of blood and soil, and religious intolerance. But the unbounded optimism of the Piedmont people happily overcame all of these, reinventing Charlotte anew with each generation, until she became, in the 21st century, a shining global city on a small hill, her mills replaced by soaring glass towers, her rutted dirt roads by ten-lane expressways.
Of course, it would be boorish to expect an historical museum to present a nuanced account of the past. The casual visitor hardly expects to have his face rubbed in tragedy and ambiguity; he is seeking a smidgen of history, a little moral uplift, and a healthy dollop of entertainment—nothing more. He is reassured that Charlotte’s capacity to reinvent herself does not preclude a healthy respect for what is valuable about the past. Thus contemporary Charlotte is upheld as a finely tuned balance of political progress, savvy business sense, and graceful Southern tradition.
Yet as I later ambled down Tryon Street on a sunny day in May, I saw little evidence of Southern tradition. Every trace of the past, aside from a handful of memorial plaques, seems to have been erased. In fact, erasure of the past has been the barely concealed theme of New South rhetoric (and practice) since its origins in the late 19th century. In an 1886 promotional speech, Henry Grady, the godfather of the New South, implores his well-heeled Northern audience to admire what the South has accomplished since 1865, to honor the returning Southern soldiers who, faced with the complete demolition of their economic system, built out of the bitter ashes a “brave and beautiful” city (Atlanta). Southerners of the rising generation, he avers, are all about business, first and last:
We have learned that one Northern immigrant is worth fifty foreigners, and have smoothed the path to southward, wiped out the place where Mason and Dixon’s line used to be, and hung our latch-string out to you and yours.
In short, the aim of the New South is to expunge any historical distinction between North and South, while reinventing the South in the image of the North. This is a bit like Stockholm syndrome, in which captives begin to identify with their captors.
Tryon Street eventually brings me to State Street and Independence Square, the original Queen City crossroads. In every direction banking towers thrust themselves skyward, hypermodern ziggurats where the strange gods of global capital are placated. Perhaps the most photographed location in the city, Independence Square’s four corners feature monumental bronze sculptures, allegorical figures representing Industry, Transportation, Commerce, and The Future. The latter depicts a female figure gazing at an upraised child, perhaps inspired by mythological goddesses of childbirth and destiny. The child himself is an image of the New South perpetually reborn and reimagined, and in truth the urban South these days is no longer so much a place as it is an idea of smiling, infantile futurity. Less jejune is the representation of Commerce, which depicts a late-18th-century gold prospector emptying his pan upon a head near his feet, said to be the head of Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve. This may be apocryphal, but if not the touch is a sly one, for the latest incarnation of Charlotte as a center of global finance owes much to the era of deregulation spawned by that New York banker and his cronies. Today, Charlotte is the nation’s second-largest banking center, and there is little doubt that financial behemoths such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo dominate not only the Uptown cityscape but, for the foreseeable future, virtually every aspect of the city’s economic and political destiny. How the banking industry achieved this position is a complex story, but origins are telling. After the collapse of Southern banks in the aftermath of the War, thousands of poor yeoman farmers were unable to obtain credit. Unsupportable property taxes, foreclosures, and falling crop prices forced many into tenancy or sharecropping, almost 93,000 by the turn of the century. The “crossroads” merchants stepped into the credit breech, offering not only foodstuffs and agricultural supplies but credit as well. Many of these merchant-creditors were local, but many were also Northern opportunists. Passage of the notorious crop-lien laws gave the merchant bankers new powers to control how the farmers disposed of their yields; they were virtual monopolists in their realm, and interest rates were usurious—40 percent or higher in most cases. Given this level of indebtedness and the increasing reliance on cash crops (especially cotton), farmers were faced with higher levels of economic risk. Little wonder that many abandoned the land to seek greater security in the rising mill towns.
I had arranged to join a local “meetup” group for a baseball matchup between the Charlotte Knights and the Durham Bulls at the BB&T (Branch Banking and Trust) stadium. My group consisted of roughly a dozen people, ranging in age from early 20’s to late 50’s. We met at a watering hole not far from the stadium, then made a well-lubricated stroll to the ballpark. The Knights won that evening, but I can’t say that I watched much of the game. We sat, or rather stood, in an area called the Home Run Porch, mobbed with chattering 20-somethings imbibing pricey craft beer. My companions proved to be a pleasant bunch, quite willing to speak to me about their experience of living and working in Charlotte. Most had lived in the city for a number of years; only one was a native. A number of them were employed in the banking industry or in one of the other Uptown corporate concerns. First impressions are often untrustworthy, but with one exception the group struck me as fairly typical of today’s corporate “knowledge” class—affluent, secular, rootless, and well versed in the urban arts of consumption. Most were drawn to Charlotte from Northeastern cities by job opportunities, and stayed because they preferred the milder winters, the slower pace of life, and the hospitality. Jillian and Daniel (not their real names), an older Jewish couple, were especially forthcoming on this subject. When I inquired whether they thought Charlotte was still a “Southern” city, Daniel seemed dubious. I asked how often he met native Southerners. “Rarely,” he said, “aside from the evangelicals I work with at the office.”
Detecting a hint of disapproval in his tone, I took the bait. “So, does Southern religiosity bother you?”
“It bothers me,” he replied, “when they take it for granted that I need to be saved and invite me to church on Sunday. I’m Jewish!” Jillian agreed. I gathered it was a subject they had discussed between themselves before, and she implied that there was something insulting about evangelical proselytizing, though, she admitted, these approaches were generally polite. I didn’t ask whether either of them ever attended their local synagogue.
Standing there in the Home Run Porch during the seventh-inning stretch, gazing up past the field lights at the condominium towers of the city’s Fourth Ward, thinking of the thousands of knowledge workers who must inhabit those towers, I reflected on the curious resemblance between this new more affluent proletariat and those who left their farms to live in the mill villages of the 1890’s. Guiding lights such as D.A. Thompkins, who designed some of the earliest mill villages, were advocates of what historian Philip Wood has called “mill village paternalism.” While Thompkins wrote glowingly of the benefits accruing to mill workers, it is clear that the villages were systems of social control intended to maximize profit. They were typically set apart from the “corrupting” influence of urban centers. Virtually all of the needs of the “operatives” (as Thompkins called them) were provided for—housing, medical attention, village stores, schools, sanitation, leisure activities, moral and religious instruction. From the beginning, whole families rather than individuals were employed whenever possible, since married adults and their dependents were more pliable, and child labor, beginning at age 12, was cheap. Drawn to the villages out of dire need, workers learned to accommodate radically new rhythms of work which transformed them into extensions of looms and spindles.
While there are some obvious differences, contemporary Charlotte is not unlike a giant mill village. The city is frequently upheld as a model of urban planning, at least since the late 1990’s. Certainly, its compact Uptown approaches the New Urbanist ideal in some respects. Increasingly, the corporate towers are augmented by residential high-rises; excellent restaurants, coffee shops, museums, and galleries abound. Amusements are not in short supply. The nightlife is lively. The sports stadia and arenas are all within easy walking distance of many of the residential clusters. Moreover, the impressive light-rail system, still expanding, has created a number of smaller urban villages connected to the hub that enable residents to escape the traffic nightmares experienced by suburban dwellers. And yet all this, too, is a system of social control, more subtle perhaps than the old mill villages, but all the more effective. Historians report that in the mill villages, workers were often well aware of the coercive nature of their captivity, and just as often found ways to resist—for example, by refusing to participate in village clubs or planned activities, or resisting with their bodies the production pace their overseers demanded of them. Today’s corporate hirelings, by contrast, are hardly aware of the net that is drawn ever more tightly around them. They craft their makeshift identities out of consumer choices, or out of loyalty to corporate-sponsored teams like the Carolina Panthers, while clinging to a depthless political liberalism that is little more than a reflex affinity for what is approved and promoted by corporate media propagandists. When I asked my meetup group about North Carolina’s recent ban on any local “nondiscrimination” ordinances that would allow individuals to patronize public bathrooms corresponding to their “gender preference” (a move which, in this case, was a direct response to an ordinance passed by the Charlotte City Council), the unvarying response was one of embarrassment mingled with a vaguely articulated assumption that “gender” is just one among other identity choices. Of course, in the new urban village that logic is impeccable, and accords well with the new regime: The ends of social control are best served by pandering to the illusion of self-fashioning, which seems to empower the self while drawing it more surely into slavery.
I drove out of Charlotte on the following morning with a powerful yen for Dixie, for that part of the South which the flood tide of globalization has, as yet, left high and dry—or, at least, that part where Battle Flags still fly defiantly over satellite dishes. Abandoning the interstate, I made my way through the piney woods of the Olde English country, out of the foothills and into the South Carolina midlands, past cotton fields and paper mills, over the Wateree and into the Santee basin where the Lowcountry begins. In these rural parts, the New South never gained much traction, since it was and is an urban ideal. Of course, rural populations have dwindled substantially in recent decades, but millions still cling to their little patches of soil, often handed down over generations. The menfolk hunt and fish and barter for tools on Trade Day. Race isn’t a big issue anymore. Like their Caucasian counterparts, black men drive pickups and often listen to country music. The womenfolk marry early, raise babies, and keep backyard gardens. Many of them shoot as well as their men. On Sundays their churches are still full. Until recently none of these folks were very political, but that may be changing. I saw Trump posters prominently displayed in convenience stores and bait shops. Ask these people what they think of Sen. Lindsey Graham, and you might not get a polite answer. They have become increasing aware that the powers that be (in Washington, or in the state capitals, for that matter) are hostile to their way of life. They may not be plotting revolution, but they are keeping their gunpowder dry. Pleasant thoughts such as these buoyed my spirits as I made my way into Charleston, my home for some 20 years now. I have more than once been critical of the Holy City and the tourist industry that has been its lifeblood for decades. Nevertheless, after my sojourn in Charlotte I am more grateful than ever that here, in the cradle of the Old South, the past is still a palpable presence. Overlooking the street that bears his name, John C. Calhoun still broods atop his 80-foot pedestal. No one has as yet seriously suggested its erasure. Virtually everything in Charleston is a monument to something objectionable. To satisfy the vandals, the city itself would have to be erased and then rebuilt—a job for Charlotte’s city planners, perhaps.