What does “urban” mean in 21st-century America? I’ve been having a debate with a local historian over what’s the most “urban” part of Charlotte, the city we share.
Tom Hanchett, historian at Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South, contends the city’s most urban corner is Central Avenue at Rosehaven Drive, along an auto-focused commercial strip of tattered, 1970s-era Americana 5 miles from downtown. By any standard of urban design or city form, it is in no way urban.
But early in May, as Hanchett led 20 people on a “munching tour” of stores and restaurants near his pinpointed corner, I started to understand his version of “urban.” Am I convinced? Read on.
Hanchett is a bespectacled Ph.D. historian whose middle-aged paunch hints at one of his avocations: he’s an avid chowhound who scouts ethnic eateries all over this Sun Belt boomtown of 730,000. I had asked him to lead Charlotte’s first Jane Jacobs Walk as a promotional event for a new website I direct, PlanCharlotte.org. It was one of dozens of similar walks in some 30 U.S. cities to mark the May 4, 1916, birth of famed urban writer Jane Jacobs, all a project of the Utah-based nonprofit Center for the Living City.
I wanted to hear Hanchett try to defend his assertion that this slice of bedraggled suburbia could illustrate Jacobs’ urban theories. In her 1960s books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and The Economy of Cities, Jacobs championed the vigor and regenerative qualities of cities, and mourned the ravages of urban renewal and grandiose projects. Hanchett was convinced Jacobs would recognize the “urban” in our outing.
We all met at Ben Thanh, a popular but by no means luxurious Vietnamese restaurant housed in a 1977 building whose age is not easily disguised, alongside a parking lot cratered by potholes.
Hanchett himself admits the area, built from the 1950s to the 1980s, is a “landscape of unremarkable suburban sprawl.” Maybe I hang out with too many urban designers, because when I see unkempt strip shopping centers with oceanic parking lots, I think “suburban retrofit.” Do we need all those lots? Can we tuck some newer buildings closer to the street? Can housing move closer to stores and fill empty spaces? After all, Jacobs wrote of the need for cities to have many different things close together.
Our tour group didn’t talk urban design. Instead, we ate fresh summer rolls, got to know each other, and listened to Hanchett talk about Jane Jacobs. He read aloud:
“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.”
We moved next door to Cedar Plaza, a downscale strip built in 1988. Hanchett noted a Vietnamese restaurant, a Latino grocery, and a Lebanese store and restaurant. A jumbled bulletin board beside the tienda held notices in Spanish, Vietnamese, and English. We explored the stores then walked about 300 feet — past a Salvadoran restaurant and an Asian grocery — to Jamile’s International Cuisine, in another aging strip center, vintage 1974. I recognized it as having housed, 30 years back, the city’s best deep-dish pizza restaurant. That spot now holds the restaurant and grocery of Somali refugees Jamile Shiekh, her husband, Sadak Dini, and partner Hamsa Hashi.
Hanchett ordered for us a tasty Somali stew called chicken suqaar. (Perhaps thinking the group too squeamish, he did not order the goat meat option.) The food arrived with Jamile’s fresh canjeera flatbread and a banana which, we learned, accompanies most Somali meals.
We shared observations then headed to the Salvadoran restaurant for tres leches cake and flan. Owner Henry Chirinos is Honduran and his wife is Salvadoran; they sell dishes from both countries plus Mexico.
What would Jane Jacobs say about all this? Would she find the area too suburban for a respectable city? Or would she, like Hanchett, see a small but important piece of a city economy? In The Economy of Cities, Jacobs dissects how city wealth grows, how innovation builds on older innovation, and new work builds on existing work. This happens in cities because innovators and entrepreneurs come from all over, and then find each other, learn and do business together. That closeness is one of a city’s most valuable qualities.
Cities, Hanchett pointed out, welcome newcomers, some of whom start businesses. Central and Rosehaven isn’t Greenwich Village, but there is steady foot traffic along busy Central Avenue. You see people from all over the world. And you see entrepreneurial energy.
None of the restaurants we visited were founded with Small Business Administration loans or big bank financing. Cuong Duont of Ben Thanh told me their business used family money to launch. Jamile’s husband, Sadak Dini, said they used their own money, saved over 16 years of working in a Charlotte factory. Chirinos also used his own money to launch his restaurant after nine years at a Long Island country club.
What Hanchett sees is how this unattractive part of an evolving city has adapted to changes and newcomers. “It took me a long time to see the resilience of these neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s important to look at and cherish these landscapes that don’t get much respect.”
Jane Jacobs, I concluded, would have understood. This corner is on the ground floor of a vast city economy. Here, and at other corners like it, our city is absorbing newcomers, creating businesses and blending different cultures into a tasty urban suqaar — available to all who care to look for it.
This article comes to Crosscut by way of Citiwire.net, which examines urban topics.