Why This Matters: The role of arts and culture in shaping uptown Charlotte is proof that a vibrant, thriving cultural community is essential to a healthy, growing Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
By Bernie Petit
Uptown Charlotte would not be what it is today without arts and culture.
That is not an exaggeration or a boast – although it should be a source of civic pride.
It is simply the truth.
The enormous growth that uptown has experienced over the past several decades – from the skyscrapers that dot our skyline to the businesses, residences and restaurants that keep the city buzzing – is rooted in soil tilled by the cultural community nearly 45 years ago.
Back then, Charlotte’s center was smaller. There were no cultural institutions and little public art. The biggest draws among the aging storefronts were arguably the Belk at 5th and North Tryon streets and the Ivey’s across from it.
Revitalization of central Charlotte was needed to distinguish the city from peers like Atlanta, Louisville, Saint Paul and Winston-Salem.
Fortunately, community leaders understood that arts and culture could make uptown both a cultural and economic destination. The realization led to the 1975 cultural plan, which recommended cultural facilities be placed throughout the city’s urban core.
Start at Trade and Tryon streets – the heart of the Center City – today and walk in any direction and you’ll see how arts and culture define the landscape of uptown Charlotte.
A Vision for Today
The charm of older cities in other parts of the world, according to the cultural plan, lies in the mix – the mixture of shops, theaters, boutiques, restaurant halls, department stores, art galleries and markets.
It was in this spirit that the idea to save the abandoned First Baptist Church on North Tryon Street emerged, reimagining it as Spirit Square – which opened in 1976 as a cultural hub for the arts, theater and education.
The cultural plan also envisioned:
- A center city “Exploratorium” to highlight the role of science in our lives
- An Afro-American Cultural Center
- An uptown Mint Museum
- A performance hall
- An artist colony research and development area
It clearly identified the cultural assets we have today – Discovery Place; the Harvey B. Gantt Center and Mint Museum Uptown at Levine Center for the Arts; Blumenthal Performing Arts; and McColl Center for Art + Innovation.
The Rise of Public Art
Businesses and organizations supplemented the development of cultural facilities by installing public art in their developments and prominent locations:
- North Carolina National Bank (now Bank of America) installed Arnaldo Pomodoro’s “Il Grande Disco” in 1974 at Trade and Tryon streets and gifted it to Mint Museum
- Duke Energy commissioned “Quadrille,” an 80-foot square, multi-layered holographic and computer-controlled neon sculpture by Michael Hayden, for its building in 1996
- The philanthropic group Queens Table installed Raymond Kaskey’s “Sculptures on the Square” in 1995 and gifted the statues to the city
The amount of Center City public artworks exploded as a result of Mecklenburg County and the City of Charlotte adopting ordinances in 2002 and 2003, respectively, appropriating 1 percent of eligible capital improvement project funds for public art.
Construction of the uptown arena, for example, resulted in $1 million of public art in and around what is now Spectrum Arena. More recently, “Spiral Odyssey” by Richard Hunt was installed as the centerpiece artwork for Romare Bearden Park.
Additionally, the arrival of city’s light rail service has brought additional public art to Center City, which demonstrates how arts and culture is responding to the needs of the community in new ways.
When Jack Pentes’ “Wind Sculpture,” the stack of six metal spheres in the shape of a triangle, went up on West Trade Street in 1986, there was no Gateway Center or BB&T Ballpark. At the time, it was considered the edge of uptown.
Today, construction continues to push past such boundaries. As the 1975 plan, and subsequent plans that followed, made clear, arts and culture is the spark necessary to attract development.
Construction of the Levine Center for the Arts, completed in 2010, shifted uptown development towards South Tryon and preceded the multi-million dollars of investment we now see along Stonewall Street.
Harbingers like the temporary Eye on Tryon – the 80-foot-tall Ferris wheel ride at E. 7th and North Tryon streets this past fall – signal development along the North Tryon corridor.
If the corridor seems familiar, it should – it’s where you’ll find Spirit Square, one of the venues that started it all. And that’s the point. Our cultural facilities were intentionally placed where they are so the city could grow around them.
So, if you take anything away from these words, let it be this: Arts and culture shaped the heart of the Queen City because this community believed in the power of arts, science and history to transform uptown into a vibrant, thriving destination for our region and the world.