A quick glance at the Wikipedia page for Charlotte, North Carolina will tell you that between 2005 and 2015, the city had the highest millennial population growth in the United States. This is no coincidence. Affordable rents and homes, a growing arts culture, proximity to the college towns of Durham and Chapel Hill, and a near-central location along the East Coast make Charlotte an attractive place for younger folks to consider calling home.
And Charlotte business owners take that to heart. New thrift and consignment stores and breweries have popped up and old ones have thrived. Flashy new restaurants have taken regional cuisine and turned it on its head with international flair. Neighborhoods like the South End have flipped from abandoned stretches of industrial warehouses to hip food halls and luxury apartments.
New Yorkers like me can’t shake the similarities between Charlotte today and Brooklyn ten years ago. But I have a feeling the bubble won’t burst like Williamsburg’s. There’s room to grow in Charlotte, and as Becca and I drove around the city on the second day of our Great Southern Escapade, we explored just a fraction of its possibilities.
We woke up early on Day 2, but stayed in bed for most of the morning, recovering from the ten-hour drive we’d endured the day before and in preparation for the ten-hour drive we had coming up the next day. Once we decided that we’d spent enough time lounging around, we had a quick breakfast and hit the busy roads of residential Charlotte.
Our first stop at the suggestion of my aunt was the Sleepy Poet Antique Mall, an emporium of treasures located just off South Boulevard in the Starmount neighborhood. The 60,000 square-foot warehouse could trap you for hours with its hundreds of lots filled with furniture, figurines, clothes, vintage kitsch, glassware, silverware, books, records, videos, films, and just about every old thing you can name.
Plenty of major metro areas have a thrift store culture, but few of them boast the space to handle such a behemoth of an establishment as the Sleepy Poet. I feared we’d end up spending the whole day in the place, but Becca and I managed to find a few cute things and check out within a couple of hours.
Looking for lunch, we decided to head up to North Davidson to Optimist Hall, a well-known food hall which doubles as an event space, a communal freelance work area, and a late-night stomping ground for folks looking to grab a bite after hitting the nearby bars. It reminded us of the DeKalb Market in Downtown Brooklyn, which opened at the height of Brooklyn’s renaissance. Young professionals and friend groups filled almost every corner of the hall, and every vendor served up food that looked fit for an Instagram account.
Not every place in Optimist Hall is local, but they all at least have some ties to the region. Boxcar Betty’s, for example, started in Charleston and has three locations in South Carolina, two in Chicago, and only one in North Carolina, coincidentally in Optimist Hall. The restaurant is all about high-end fried chicken, and they did not disappoint. Their Not-A-Waffle sandwich put crispy and juicy fried chicken breast, tomato, pimento cheese, and bacon jam in a soft bun, and the tastes all worked together delightfully. We got an extra box of popcorn chicken for the road, as well as our first basket of fried pickles, which would become a staple food of the trip.
After finishing up at Optimist Hall, we went down to the South End and hit up some more thrift stores, particularly Hidden Treasures, one of the Queen City’s more notable establishments. Unlike Sleepy Poet, Hidden Treasures was more of a standard Goodwill-type thirft store, with a hodge-podge of old things organized loosely throughout the aisles. We also visited Charlotte’s Uptown Cheapskate, a chain thrift store similar to a Buffalo Exchange. The variety of thrift stores around Charlotte shows that the city caters to a wide range of folks, from long-time Charlotteans who called the city home long before its boom to new residents coming from up and down the East Coast.
We decided to visit one of Charlotte’s new breweries, and for that we had Michael – one of Becca’s grad school friends – suggest a place for us to meet. That place was the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, billed as Charlotte’s oldest and largest craft brewery and beer garden. While that might suggest a long life and reputation in the Queen City, the brewery has only existed since 2009. However, the brewery remains popular with locals even in this uncanny pandemic period, as the three of us were just one of many groups filling the brewery’s tables. It boasts a German flair and offers the same kind of fare as other German beer gardens: Sausages, pretzels, sauerkraut, seasoned fries, and so on. And while everything looked good, Becca and I refrained from eating, as we had dinner plans with my cousin and her partner planned for later than evening.
But because we did decide to take a road trip in the middle of what is still a pandemic, despite what the CDC or anyone says, COVID kicked our plans in the face for the first time. It turned out that my cousin and her partner had been exposed earlier that weekend, and they didn’t want to put us or our trip at risk. So instead of meeting them for dinner, we decided to get takeout from the place we’d chosen to meet: Hawkers, an Asian street food inspired restaurant in the South End. Hawkers has many locations, but again it’s a somewhat new addition to Charlotte’s selection of hip restaurants attractive to younger newcomers and locals. The place was packed – a factor that helped us decide to take out – but the flashy signage and decor showed a nice contrast between the area’s industrial origins and its electric future.
As we drove around Charlotte on our way back to the house, we noticed how busy it was for a Monday night, even during the lead-up to the holidays. We couldn’t help but be reminded of home. During the years our parents spent in New York, you couldn’t pay people enough to want to live there, but the city’s culture never faded. But of course, gentrification took hold, and while the culture grew and the blight became glamour, the prices shot up and threatened to choke the rest of the city. Charlotte looks like it’s in that place right before the big fall, but unlike cities with a small footprint like New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, the Queen City has plenty of room to spread its wings. Then again, Los Angeles – a sprawling city just as crowded as New York – exists, so that’s a dark direction in which Charlotte could turn. I sure hope it doesn’t.
We felt like ending our time in Charlotte on a relaxing note, as we had a 4:30 a.m. departure planned for our trip to Mississippi. So we ate and went to bed somewhat early, gearing up for a long drive and the rest of our trip which had only just begun. I’ve visited Charlotte many times, and although it was Becca’s first time in the city, staying with family provided a feeling of familiarity. Clarksdale, MS was terra nova for us both. And that excitement was exactly why we had set out on this trip in the first place.
Stay tuned to travel with us down to the Delta, where we’ll get a solo blues performance, a haunted house all our own, and a true welcome to the South.