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June 28, 2020
If there is one thing that never changes about Charlotte, it is that everything changes. The city is currently experiencing another rapid shift, and neighborhoods close to its downtown core along the light rail line are particularly susceptible to facelifts. One of these desirable communities is located a mile and a half northeast of uptown and has been called many names over the course of its existence: North Charlotte, North Davidson, “NoDa.” It has weathered decades of growth and depression and renewal, and yet somehow it still manages to display the industrial roots of its past alongside its bright potential.
It isn’t hard to tell that the area was once a cotton mill village if you look at the street signs in the neighborhood; Warp and Card Streets come from textile processes, Mercury Street got its name from one of the three major cotton mills nearby, and Holt, Spencer, and Charles Streets harken back to the mill owners and industrialists who were responsible for its growth. Many people worry that it is one of Charlotte’s last eclectic and interesting districts and is vanishing before their eyes, if it hasn’t already. The current explosion of growth in the city is most certainly one of the gravest threats the built environment there has faced, but it is still the most visible reminder of the industry that shaped Charlotte into an economic powerhouse in the first place.
Cotton and the mills were the lifeblood of the community that was called North Charlotte in the early 1900s, as they were in countless other southern towns and communities. The textile industry began to concentrate in North Carolina because the state possessed an excellent climate, several swift streams that could provide waterpower, and deep and rich soil. The number of mills in the area began to grow, and mill building became virtually synonymous with town building. Charlotte was the same size as many other towns in the Piedmont early on, but after a dramatic increase in railways in the 1850s it possessed a distinct advantage over its neighbors. Once a mere rural trading village, the city soon found itself the textile trading and distribution center for much of the region by the eve of the Civil War.
By the 1920s Charlotte’s population had reached almost 83,000, and it was the largest city in the Carolinas. Trade, construction, and commercial activity continued to flourish around the textile factories, and several communities of workers clustered around them as well. The largest and most important mill village was the North Charlotte neighborhood, which was founded mostly on farmland and a tract that had been the site of the County Poorhouse. It was desirable because it bordered the Southern Railway mainline, which had become the major artery of the regional textile network. In 1903 the Highland Park Manufacturing Company purchased 102 acres of land there, and began constructing Highland Park Mill #3, which became the largest textile facility in Charlotte. By 1913 the village had added the Mecklenburg Mill and the Johnston Mill, and a thriving community of homes, businesses, and services grew up around the factories.
The commercial district centered around the corner of present-day 36th and Davidson Streets, where the trolley turned. By 1912 it contained five small grocery stores, two drug stores, a barber shop, cafes, and a dry goods store, and by 1940 it contained a fire station, a jail, a police station, and a movie theater. Businesses like Herrin Brothers had been born from the mills and, although it could be a hard life for workers at the mercy of the ownership, there was a blue-collar community in North Charlotte that prospered and provided for itself. In 1927 the city had finally annexed the “town within a town” against the wishes of the residents, who enjoyed their autonomy.
That prosperity dissipated as quickly as it had emerged, however, and as the economic lifeblood of the community began to die, the area withered along with it. Soon after World War II, mill owners drastically cut costs and reduced labor while installing high speed motors and other advances in technology in their factories. Cotton was an ailing industry, and from the 1930s to the 1960s it declined further as more corporate ownership and consolidation occurred. By the 1980s, the industry was dealing with dramatic increases in imported yarns and fabrics, as almost half the clothing sold in the United States came from outside its borders.
When the mills in North Charlotte closed the commercial district followed suit, and the neighborhood soon became one of the poorest in the city. The streets were full of shuttered buildings, dilapidated millhouses, rusted out water towers, and trash-strewn yards. There was also an influx of low-income transients who moved into rental housing in the cheaply priced neighborhood, and the pride shown by the mill families had vanished. Slowly, however, the area began to heal. In 1989 North Charlotte was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district, and the inexpensive housing and available retail space close to the center city made it attractive to small businesses and Charlotte’s art community. By the mid-1990s many of the neighborhood’s commercial and industrial buildings had been renovated by artists and investors, given new lives as galleries, studios, live music venues, coffeehouses, and restaurants. The millhouses were refurbished and occupied by the same crowd, and the community began to hold regular gallery crawls on the first and third Friday of each month. They gave it a new name as well: “NoDa,” inspired by New York’s trendy “SoHo” arts district.
The first trailblazers were Michigan transplants Paul Sires and Ruth Ava Lyons, who converted a boarded up storefront into the Center of the Earth Gallery in 1983. It proved to be the catalyst that spurred others to follow suit, and soon NoDa was seeing life once again. Former gallery owner Jerry Kirk came to the area in 1991 and became part of the “Friends of Van Gogh” art collective that helped revitalize the neighborhood. He currently operates the “NoDa in the 90’s” Facebook page, which collects old photographs and memories from those who cherish the neighborhood. Kirk remembers Center of the Earth and Rococo Fish being the first two galleries to open on the deserted streets, during a time when Charlotte’s art scene was centered around Uptown and mostly focused on the more upscale “wine and cheese crowd.”
When Kirk got to Charlotte he saw an ad in Creative Loafing placed by an older ex-car salesman named Terry Carano who had become interested in art and wanted to start a co-op of local artists. The result was the “Friends of Van Gogh,” which began to open up spaces in 1991, including the vacant structures surrounding Pat’s Time for One More, a celebrated neighborhood dive bar. The more artist-driven, relaxed vibe of the emerging scene began to draw the crowds from Uptown to NoDa, helped along by a shuttle the artists used to lure the more highbrow crawlers to mix with the rowdier set clustered around Pat’s.
The heyday of the NoDa arts scene was in the mid-to late ‘90s, when the gallery crawls, as well as music venue and bar Fat City, were in full swing. By the early 2000s though, worries began to emerge among those who cherished NoDa’s uniqueness that unchecked development could ruin what made it so eclectic and appealing. Beloved local venues like Fat City were soon razed and gave way to high rise apartments, and the formerly diverse crowds that patronized the shops and galleries became more homogenous. The 2008 recession slowed the growth a bit, but when it was over the area began to explode along with the rest of Charlotte. The Blue Line extension of the light rail system, which opened in 2018, has formally solidified the neighborhood as a destination for commercial and residential development. The rowdier crowd has mostly given way to younger professionals who are seeking nicer bars and restaurant fare, and the artists and shops that helped revive the corridor in the ‘90s can no longer afford the rents.
In many ways though, this neighborhood has retained more of its infrastructure and its feel than surrounding areas like Plaza Midwood. Several of the old millhouses have withstood the changes and are in excellent shape, and two of the massive mill complexes have been renovated as luxury apartments. The old brick guardians still loom over the scene as a reminder of how easily a neighborhood can be born, how quickly it can die, and how much potential exists for rebirth in Charlotte. No one can say for certain where the city’s current growth will take it and how long it will last, but one thing is certain: whatever North Charlotte or North Davidson or NoDa is called, it will still be around.
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In this article
- 23 Studio
- Blue Line
- Center of the Earth
- cotton mills
- fat city
- Friends of Van Gogh
- gallery crawls
- highland mill
- Highland Park Mill
- historic district
- Jerry Kirk
- Mercury Street
- North Charlotte
- Pat’s Time for One More
- Paul Sires
- Rococo Fish
- Ruth Ava Lyons
- Wrightnow Gallery