Mending the rips in our rural-suburban-urban fabric

Rubble pile marks the remains of a now-demolished Cannon Mills textile plant that once dominated downtown Kannapolis. In the background are buildings of the N.C. Research Campus, which today occupies the mill site. Photo: Mary Newsom

There’s always something about major election years, when both the U.S. presidency and the North Carolina governorship are up for grabs, that signals major and subtle societal shifts, when both the disappointments and aspirations of the electorate can be discerned by looking at the results. However, the 2016 election somehow felt different even by those standards. Beyond who won and lost, it revealed a nation and state divided more than ever – not only politically, but economically and culturally – by where we live.

Others have written extensively about the urban-rural (and I would add “suburban”) divide, and how those divisions are frustrating serious efforts at both intra- and inter-regional collaboration to address policy issues. If there’s one thing that has distinguished the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute over our 50-year history, it’s a commitment to regionalism. So this growing divide – real or perceived – is something we take seriously. 

The institute was founded with a regional mission – to bring together the intellectual resources of UNC Charlotte to address the economic, environmental and social challenges facing the greater Charlotte region. It was a mission grounded in the public service ethic of America’s great land grant universities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reimagined in the 1960s and 1970s for a host of new, urban-based universities like UNC Charlotte, Cleveland State and Portland State. While centrally located, in their region’s major city, these universities saw their reach extending well into suburban and rural communities whose interdependencies with the core were understood by academics and policy makers alike.

Growth is strong in some parts of the Charlotte region, but some communities are being left behind. Photo: Nancy Pierce 

Early leaders of the institute and UNC Charlotte were enthusiastic champions of regionalism, and it’s not surprising that many were economic geographers. One was the late Al Stuart, co-author of the Metrolina Atlas (1972) and the North Carolina Atlas: Portrait of a Changing Southern State (1975).  As former institute director Bill McCoy wrote last year upon Stuart’s death, “Al was keenly interested in the forces of the marketplace and viewed them as regional in scope. Throughout his career he espoused looking regionally at issues that confront us.”  (See Geographer Stuart helped put ‘region’ in Charlotte regionalism.)

Are we even still a region in the same way that we understood it in 1975? And does it really matter?

Even before this year’s election exposed the fault lines underlying the relationships between urban, suburban and rural communities, here at the institute we were already giving the issue considerable thought, asking ourselves such questions as: Why does that confident sense of regionalism from four decades ago now seem naively optimistic? Why did it seem more relevant then than now? Are we even still a region in the same way that we understood it in 1975? And does it really matter?

For Al Stuart and his fellow economic geographers, regions were defined less by their shared physical traits and close proximity and more by their economic linkages. In the Charlotte region they found a textbook example – a medium-sized city closely aligned with smaller manufacturing towns extending in a 45-mile radius from Charlotte’s center.

For more than a hundred years, close economic ties had formed strong cultural connections that transcended many urban and rural differences. Mill workers in one town had relatives in another, and company-sponsored baseball teams traveled throughout the Piedmont, playing to large crowds and adding another layer of shared identity. Bus service let a mill worker in Albemarle travel to Charlotte to shop along Tryon Street, while the region’s more affluent residents, if not connected through commerce, had friendships throughout the region that were often forged at local colleges and state universities. 

Trade and Tryon streets remain the heart of Charlotte. Across Trade Street from this plaza is the site of the one-time Belk department store uptown. Photo: Nancy Pierce

In the 1880s, a family of retailers established a store in Monroe, which expanded to other towns where manufacturing had generated more discretionary income. Twenty years later, Belk would move its headquarters and flagship store to the Charlotte corner of Trade and Tryon (site of today’s Bank of America Corporate Center), where the company and the family that founded it would become embedded for more than a century in the city’s economic, cultural and political fabric.

By the mid-20th century, textile executives had made their homes in Myers Park and Eastover as well as the small towns of Belmont and Concord. A friend of mine recently restored an elegant Tudor in the heart of Eastover, built in the 1930s by a textile baron, a monument to the industry’s new-found wealth. In the heart of one of Charlotte’s most exclusive neighborhoods, the carved ceiling molding in the foyer is a repetition of the word “sox,” the vernacular spelling of his company’s products and a symbolic reminder of the close ties between Charlotte and the surrounding region.

Today, those economic ties are largely gone. For the most part, the textile industry (and manufacturing in general) has been lost to automation and global competition, leaving many communities more distant from Charlotte struggling economically. Meanwhile, Charlotte and a close-in ring of towns in the city’s commuting zone have created a globally competitive economy for the 21st century, built (with the help of a major international airport) on the foundation of manufacturing’s legacy sectors – Charlotte’s financial institutions, its retail conglomerates and distribution networks, and an energy sector originally established to power the Piedmont’s mills.

The former Loray textile mill in west Gastonia, shown during renovations in 2013, is now "industrial chic" apartments. Photo: Nancy Pierce

For the region’s economic winners, the changes have been positive – a robust and more diversified economy, a less paternalistic and parochial leadership, and an increasingly diverse and educated population. But for the communities being left behind, the consequences of limited opportunity extend beyond civic pride and include concerns about individual economic security, health care and a disorienting loss of cultural identity for residents whose families have lived there for generations. 

One casualty of this great divergence is perhaps the one thing that could offer a solution for struggling communities in our region.

Anyone who has closely observed this regional trend of diverging economic paths probably wasn’t surprised at the geographic divisions revealed in the November election. Ironically, one casualty of this great divergence is perhaps the one thing that could offer a solution for struggling communities in the Charlotte region. Re-embracing regionalism and the notion of a shared destiny has the potential to build new economic linkages between Charlotte’s urban core and surrounding communities. But the trust and familiarity that once defined the region will need to be rebuilt, and will need to be reconstituted in the absence of a dominant and common economic denominator like manufacturing. 

While we do not pretend to have all the answers, true to our heritage as a regionally focused institute, we’re committed to the task of helping re-establish that trust and a shared vision for regional prosperity.  It begins with better understanding the trends and dynamics affecting the region (as researchers we know we have something to contribute there). But long-term, it will take all of us working together to replace what one hundred years of manufacturing had established, and only a few decades of economic restructuring tore apart.

Jeff Michael is director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and a Stanly County native.

Crossroads in agricultural eastern Union County in 2010. Photo: Nancy Pierce