Charlotte vs. Indy

My husband and I have been wanting to visit Charlotte for some time. During our annual trip to South Carolina, we always read the Charlotte Observer, which (unlike the Indianapolis Star) is still a real newspaper–perhaps not as excellent as it once was, but one of the few remaining examples of actual journalism. The Observer piqued our interest well before the DNC chose the city for its convention, and since Charlotte is about the same size as Indianapolis, we were curious to see how the two cities compare.

We are staying downtown, in a historic Hotel, the Dunhill. Very nice. There are a lot of hotels in the center city–including a pretty posh Four Seasons. There are also a lot of corporate headquarters, mostly but not exclusively bank headquarters. (Being a banking center right now is probably not an asset.) Lots of restaurants, too–although, like in Indy, most are chains.

What I have seen that I like/envy: the scale of the downtown is wonderful. It is dense. The  streets aren’t too wide. The sidewalks–paved with very attractive concrete brick pavers–are immaculate (the hotel concierge tells me they are swept daily–something we used to do when Hudnut was Mayor, but not since). There are lots of trees and plantings, and the streets are lined with benches that invite you to sit a while. There are kiosks where vendors sell flowers and produce. While few buildings are architectural gems–most are “corporate inoffensive”–some are very nice, and the scale and trees combine to make strolling downtown Charlotte a very pleasant experience.

The transit has me green with envy. There is a free trolley that circulates downtown every few minutes. There are real buses that appear to be frequent too. But the star is the train. We rode it to the end and back; it was clean and quick and the stations were well-designed and attractive. The train and bus systems are integrated, with bus service “feeding” the train in what appears to be a very efficient transportation system. My only quibble was the automated machine from which we bought our tickets–it wasn’t intuitive to people like us who hadn’t used it before, and in the bright sunlight, the screen with instructions was hard to read.

That ticket dispenser reminded me of the confusing parking meter system we have just installed in Indianapolis. Charlotte has a similar system, but it is much, much more user friendly–and it dispenses a receipt. A real, genuine paper receipt, unlike ours. Their version sits on streets lined not just with the benches I’ve mentioned, but lots of nicely-designed bike racks. In addition, like NYC, Charlotte is in the process of introducing a bike-sharing program; rows of sparkling new bikes were being set out at various busy intersections as we walked around. Most impressive of all–there were free “quickie” charging stations for electric and hybrid vehicles. (In fact, there were many signs that Charlotte is trying hard to be green.)

There is abundant downtown housing. I walked through a historic district a couple of blocks from our hotel, where lots of multi-family housing–both original and infill–was intermingled with the same sorts of charming old houses, virtually all restored, that we have in the Old Northside neighborhood. Once again, the scale of the neighborhood compensated for some fairly pedestrian architecture. There were “pocket parks” everywhere–delightful little oases that appear to be well-maintained. Downtown also has multiple high-rise apartment buildings, condo and rental. I would guess that even with Indianapolis’ surge lately, Charlotte has a considerably greater range of downtown housing choices. I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that Charlotte has one consolidated, county-wide school system and excellent public transit (including 8 Amtrak trains a day to destinations like New York and New Orleans).

In short, this is a place where people appear to care about their city.

All is not perfect in Charlotte, of course, and there are some gaps that ought to worry the city fathers and mothers.

There is virtually no retail in the center city. No shopping streets. There’s a library, a “Discovery Center,” several very nice museums (I can’t speak to the collections, since I didn’t go in–only so much you can do in a day.) But no street had shops to browse. I didn’t even see grocers–especially surprising given the amount of housing. (Turns out I missed a food market, but the absence of other shopping was confirmed in a conversation with our lunch waitress.)

There is also no obvious arts community. I asked the hotel concierge, and he admitted that Charlotte had nothing like Asheville’s vibrant arts community. He hastened to say that there is a lot of corporate support for “the arts”–but it was clear he was referring to museums, concerts and the like, not to the sort of robust arts scene we have in Indianapolis.

So there’s my snapshot, after one hot and muggy day. There’s a lot to like here, and some important missing elements.

I’d kill for their transit….