I have a love-hate relationship with the city of Charlotte. When I moved here I wanted out, immediately. A few years and few solid human connections later, I fell under its spell—in large part because I was building up content for this very site, digging up hidden treasures, meeting inspiring people and telling stories that forced me to look at what the city had to offer, not what it lacked.
But even in all my more recent enthusiasm for Charlotte’s immediate growth and opportunity and all the things we cover here, I’ve struggled to define the city’s enduring identity. Does it even have one?
Lately, this has put me on the fence again, questioning Charlotte and my place in it. We have one year left on our lease and the next most logical life move would be to buy a house. But the thought of tying myself to a big, immovable, expensive anchor is a level of commitment to this city that once again has me holding Charlotte up against other options asking, “Is this the best place in the world?”
It’s a tough question to answer if you can’t even put your finger on exactly what this place is. Is it a budding world-class city? A string of suburban strip malls? A startup hub? A creative hub? A stodgy bankers’ town? Is it diverse enough? Big enough? Exciting enough? Is it everything I’m looking for in a home?
Charlotte, it seems, is all of those things and none of those things depending on who you ask, which means Charlotte, it seems, is in a perpetual state of identity crisis.
That used to really bother me for some reason, like I wanted Charlotte’s reputation to so far precede it that I wouldn’t have to explain it or my place here to anyone. Like I wanted the city I call home to define me more clearly than I could myself. Like I wanted to inherit something instead of earning it myself.
Sometimes I crave a bigger, louder, more assertive city that would chew me up and spit me out a different person. But other times I feel like maybe Charlotte’s fluid, malleable, make-it-what-you-want-it identity is Charlotte’s identity. And that’s ultimately a good thing, for the city and for those of us who call it home.
A city is an inanimate object, a definitive but invisible boundary around an otherwise dead space that only lives, breathes, grows and dies by way of its citizens. If Charlotte is a body, we the people are its beating heart. If Charlotte isn’t what we want it to be, we the people are to blame.
So is Charlotte having an identity crisis or are you?
I’m starting to think that Charlotte actually knows exactly who she is and who she is happens to be as shamelessly vanilla as they come. Whether you think vanilla is classic or boring, what’s true regardless is that a bland, blank space can be filled with whatever you want. Charlotte is that space if you want it to be.
Charlotte is the kind of place that isn’t so loud that your voice isn’t heard. It’s the kind of place where there’s still room to grow—physically and metaphorically. It’s the kind of place that you define, not the kind of place that defines you.
But it’s only that place if you put in the colorful, flavorful work that fills it up. Charlotte is a blank slate city for doers and what we do here defines Charlotte’s identity. That’s important.
I think there are some cities where people go because they’re lost and empty and they can either absorb their surroundings or be swallowed by them. Charlotte, on the contrary, is a city you pour into. It’s a city that soaks us up.
For me, that means it doesn’t matter if Charlotte is quantitatively or qualitatively one of the best places in the world to live. It doesn’t matter if outsiders still need to clarify that it’s “Charlotte in the state of North Carolina” so no one gets confused. It doesn’t matter that the city’s reputation doesn’t precede her.
What matters is whether or not I want to live in a city where I’m really seen and heard, where my presence is felt, where I can’t just float in anonymity, where some of the things I want don’t exist yet, where there’s work to be done and it’s not somebody else’s job.
What matters in Charlotte is whether or not you have the audacity to project your own identity onto a city that, for better or for worse, will reflect it.