Discoveries of a ‘munching
What's Urban in Charlotte? Mary Newsom and Tom Hanchett define what is urban in Charlotte in an essay,the two visit the 4800 block of Central Boulevard. Robert Lahser - firstname.lastname@example.org
By Mary Newsom
May 26, 2012
Tom Hanchett and I have been having this discussion – you might call it a debate – over what’s the most “urban” part of Charlotte.
Hanchett, historian at Levine Museum of the New South, contends the city’s most urban corner is Central Avenue at Rosehaven Drive. For weeks I respectfully disagreed, because by any standard of city form or urban design, little at that corner is urban.
But as Hanchett one Saturday led me and 20 other Charlotteans on a “munching tour” though a handful of stores and restaurants within a stone’s throw of that corner, his thesis began to sink in. Am I convinced?
Hanchett, who is both a Ph.D. historian and an avid chowhound, was leading Charlotte’s first Jane Jacobs Walk. It was one of dozens of similar walks in 31 U.S. cities marking the May 4, 1916, birth of Jacobs, a writer and thinker who by the 1960s was upending conventional thinking about U.S. cities. The Charlotte walk was sponsored by the Levine museum and PlanCharlotte.org, the website project I direct at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.
Our idea was to see how Jacobs’ thinking about cities applies in that small slice of Charlotte.
“Walk, observe, connect,” is the slogan for all the Jane Jacobs Walks. Hanchett was convinced that Jacobs, if she could have accompanied us, would have quickly seen “urban” where we were walking.
Maybe I hang out with too many urban designers and planners, though, because when I see that area I see tattered strip shopping centers and aging buildings afloat in asphalt parking lots.
Jacobs wrote about how important it is for a city to have many different things close together. She described the essential role city sidewalks play, not just as places to walk but as social connecting points where an all-but-invisible network of merchants, neighbors, street vendors, kids and grownups all act together, if unconsciously. She called it a sidewalk ballet, but it’s also a pattern that builds public safety, teaches community values and lubricates commerce.
Our tour met at Ben Thanh on Central Avenue, one of the city’s best Vietnamese restaurants. It occupies a 1977 building that has seen businesses come and go. The parking lot is potholed and cracked. Inside, décor can’t disguise the building’s age.
Hanchett himself has called this whole area a “landscape of unremarkable suburban sprawl.” Built mostly from the 1950s through ’70s, it’s a part of the city that would inspire most urban designers to sketch plans for suburban retrofits. They’d propose adding new, urban-style buildings close to the street with stores on the ground floor, housing above. They’d favor parking decks instead of surface lots and would aim to bring some order to the jumble of dilapidated strip centers.
Instead, our tour group ate fresh summer rolls, introduced ourselves and talked a bit about Jacobs’ writings. Hanchett read aloud one of my favorite passages:
“Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation – although these make fine ingredients – but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.”
Enterprises that can afford to be in new buildings, Jacobs wrote, must either be high-profit or heavily subsidized. “New ideas must use old buildings.”
We moved next door to Cedar Plaza, a concrete-block strip built in 1988. Hanchett showed us the Vietnamese restaurant at one end, Lebanese grocery and restaurant, Cedarland, at the other, and in between a Latino grocery. He pointed to a jumbled bulletin board beside the tienda, its notices in Spanish, Vietnamese, English and the Viet version of Spanglish.
It’s a community center, he pointed out.
The group split up to explore the Latino and Lebanese stores. At Cedarland I could not resist the baklava, and found some No. 1 bulgur for making tabbouleh.
Time for lunch. We passed by El Pulgarcito to pour into Jamile’s International Cuisine, about 300 feet away. I recognized the building (built in 1974) as having housed, 30 years back, La Strada, once the city’s best source for deep-dish pizza. Now it’s the start-up business of Somali refugees Jamile Shiekh, her husband, Sadak Dini, and partner Hamsa Hashi.
Read the complete story at Charlotte Observer