NORTH CAROLINA — Here in Charlotte, the longtime second fiddle of the New South, the idea of conflict is a little foreign. Local self-narratives cherish the ideal of a cooperative, civil society. So as the city prepares for its star turn as the host of the Democratic National Convention this September, there’s excitement—but also awkwardness at being thrust in to the center of national political debate.
On Thursday, one of those turns in the national spotlight occurred, courtesy of an article at The Huffington Post. At lunchtime, the story was splashed across the homepage under the headline, “Party Like It’s 1929” and accompanied a historical image of a labor rally. The story, by Jason Cherkis and local journalist Rhi Fionn, opened with a recitation of the city’s booster themes before quickly moving on to the conflict:
Whatever the considerations in the choice, a lot about Charlotte goes unmentioned: double-digit unemployment, overflowing homeless shelters and North Carolina’s notorious restrictions on labor unions.
What followed was an odd hodgepodge of some potential trouble spots for the site of the Democratic convention: North Carolina’s status as a “right-to-work” state; a rehash of Charlotte’s status as Banktown (the football stadium where President Obama will speak is branded by Bank of America), an account of one person’s struggle with homelessness and some narrative about the growing problem, plus mentions of food deserts and the logistical control of uptown Charlotte by convention organizers.
The reality? Charlotte sits somewhere between the Huffington Post’s grim presentation, accented by an old black-and-white photo, and the official persona of a united, rebounding, shining, and green New South city. It’s a bank town that is finally digging out of the Great Recession, with rising home sales and falling (though still high) unemployment. The city, also home to Duke Energy and recently, Chiquita, has institutions with legacies of working together on social issues like school integration. The bust years have frayed the edges of the self-image of a can-do city at times, compounded perhaps by a lack of public honesty about some problems, like that persistent unemployment. Now, city leaders are waking up to the idea that growth and vibrancy don’t just flow from large corporations and are encouraging small businesses and tech startups. It’s a work in progress.
And a few journalists out of the national glare present that truer story, every day, through consistent, on-the-ground reporting, writing, and analysis. Their work appears in local media outlets that have beefed up for the convention as well as national outlets seeking local flavor. I’m not talking here about the journalists at the major McClatchy papers in Raleigh and Charlotte, who professionally document the big political stories of visiting national candidates while juggling bread-and-butter stories about state and local races. For the moment, I’m focusing on other voices that flesh out the political story and add to the region’s sense of itself.
Here are four of those voices:
Mary Curtis: While HuffPost was portraying Charlotte as a city in conflict, Curtis published a column at The Washington Post’s “She the People” site that reflected the long-standing work that Charlotte leaders do to build bridges. She participated in, and wrote about, a community meeting at Little Rock AME Zion Church that was convened to discuss the Trayvon Martin case. Her columns regularly give voice to those who show up at events to discuss directly, and with civility, tough issues. The freelancer has written about topics as diverse as Muslims in Charlotte and a local lecture from Anita Hill. Curtis also appears on Fox News Rising and is a contributor to The Root, NPR, Creative Loafing in Charlotte, and the Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, The Charlotte Observer, and Politics Daily. She’s on Twitter as @mcurtisnc3.