In Response to Mark Peres’ Article: When Did Charlotte Become So Negative?!

davitaI couldn’t just let this slide. Nothing within me would allow it. Please see my COMMENTS BELOW in response to Mark Peres’ article, ‘In Response to #discussCLT: When Did Charlotte Become SO Negative?

The narrative of our city is changing. What we say about ourselves as citizens, how we describe the place we live in, the story we tell about our character and our prospects, is shifting. And not for the better. In recent conversations about our city, I have heard a change in content and tone that is very different from the spirit and tenor that characterized the civic discourse that greeted me when I first arrived in Charlotte 17 years ago.  We need to take care that the language we are using to talk about ourselves does not undermine the very qualities that have made this city so attractive and allows us to get positive things done. Without a doubt our city is changing and, with that, its narrative will also transform to reflect its current state. Today, the place in which you and I reside is not the same ‘Queen City’ you happened upon 17 years ago. With time on your side, as is the case with all things, you expect growth and progression over stagnancy and demise. However, for many, the latter is their walk and experience in Charlotte. And, the language they use to convey such is being shared, finally.

I came to Charlotte to start a business. I arrived in the summer of 1999 with my wife, daughter, and two dogs and two cats. We drove in with all our possessions on a truck having never been to Charlotte. We came based on the strength of Charlotte’s reputation as a progressive and aspirational city we could make our forever home.  We were immediately struck by the clean and modern skyline (far from filled-in but bursting with plans), the decency of its people, the respect for law and order, values of family, faith and prosperity, and raw ambition. Charlotte wanted to make more of itself, and it welcomed newcomers to roll up their sleeves. Besides sounding like the textbook definition of a ‘perfect’ family, your narrative isn’t commonplace–particularly, in the community in which the discussion was meant to impact–artists, creatives, etc. More, your words paint a ‘faulty’ picture of Charlotte. Sure, it sounds great but is lacking truth, depth and is nothing short of one experience-yours. It appears as if you know nothing of the artist’s narrative, sir. As a matter of fact, when you arrived in Charlotte, you came to start a business, which already suggests that you had some sort of stability. Unfortunately, for the artist in Charlotte, that is a term that’s hit or miss. And, with the current pulse, it’s almost always a miss. To be frank, along the outskirts of uptown/downtown, as well as other ‘labeled’ neighborhoods, the questions have been the same for years. What has changed, however, is that our voices are finally reaching Center City. Whether you (or those like you) choose to listen or not, we continue to ask: Where is the support? Does Charlotte appreciate its artists? And, not just the scholars or those in residence but all artists–regardless of their craft or skill? And, if you can answer such with a positive reply, I then pose the following, as an example, and welcome your response. More, I wish this was the query during #discussCLT: How Can Charlotte Sustain a Creative and Artistic Community When the Places in Which We Commune are Being Demolished?

The narrative of the city that attracted me and hundreds of thousands of others over the years reinforced positive engagement.  We heard about ‘The Charlotte Way’—the code of the city that got things done. Think big, unite public and private interests, invest and do. Many of my peers who sought access to decision-makers griped at institutions, at concentrations of power (I did and still do), but we also genuinely honored those across the table and invited them into our home (I did and still do).  We were adversaries, allies and friends, building a city together. Without holding my tongue, you display qualities and resemble those decision makers and power players at the institutions you speak of and once ‘griped at.’ More, this ‘table’ you mention, isn’t accessible for everyone. Honestly, I can’t help but chuckle at your hint of a level playing ground. You, sir, can arrive at this ‘table’ and stare into the eyes of others who look like you. Take, for example, someone like me: Not only is the ‘table’ out of the question but ‘they’ won’t even answer my call to answer my questions to get to the ‘table.’ You speak of a privilege I know nothing about! You speak of a privilege many are unfamiliar with! To be succinct, you speak of this thing called ‘white privilege.’ And, the fact that you’re a male only adds injury to your hurled insults. More, you mentioned the ability to honor those across the ‘table.’ May I ask if that still applies? If so, what’s the harm in having our say? In expressing our concerns? And, why does it have to be viewed as negative instead of a palpable reality? 

The business I first started in Charlotte failed.  We moved uptown.  I took odd jobs. I reinvented myself.  I started a nonprofit magazine about city life and culture. I became active in leadership organizations and public initiatives. I mentored young talent, and now teach at Johnson & Wales University. My wife works at a nonprofit and my daughter graduated from CMS. We have given to Charlotte and Charlotte has given back. Good for you! Congratulations! I, on the other hand, know of plenty, plenty artists who give, literally, all they have to a city that does nothing but take, neglect and overlook. You, with your uptown viewpoint, wouldn’t understand.

The other night at a discussion hosted by Charlotte magazine about the state of art and creativity in the city, I just about lost it as I sat in the audience.  Critical comments from the panel and audience about what might be lacking in the Charlotte art scene did not bother me, but the accusatory and defeatist tone did. The complaints mounted: The city does not support artists, rents are too high, money is given mostly to large art institutions, galleries do not showcase local artists. As if artists are entitled to anything other than the freedom to make art. Only one person on the panel, Amy Bagwell of Goodyear Arts, presented her story with appreciation for the city as a wide-open canvas of space, time, money, and community. Though I was certain this could never happen, you and I agree on one thing, surprisingly. I, too, grew increasingly conflicted and frustrated as I sat in the audience during #discussCLT. As a matter of fact, my response to that entire evening follows:

#DiscussCLT was just that–a discussion. the way my mind works, i need an action plan and/or a take home and was left without. the agenda: how should charlotte cultivate a creative and artistic community? what say you because i am even more overwhelmed having sat through such an event? more, the real question (at least for me): how do we maintain a creative community when the creative places in which we commune are being demolished? (i’ll wait). art is my lifeline and it’s threatened on a daily basis. with a home in the ‘arts district,’ you would think our platform is safe but, in reality, it’s far from it. however, it’s not just about us at dupp&swat–more importantly, it’s the folks we serve and how we’re forced to be everything to them because their options are few. by ‘everything to them’ i mean, a retailer, a salon, a gallery, a venue, a (fill in the blank). please know that we do so willingly but question what will happen if we’re forced out. noda is changing and ‘expression’ spaces are being flattened for the erection of condos. who’s moving into them? hell, i don’t know! and, frankly, it’s not just noda. however, i speak of noda because that is my experience. but, apparently, the city has all the answers and expects an influx of citizens tomoro. believe me when i say, it’s overwhelmingly frustrating that we pay $2200/mo to do what we love and to provide what you need knowing that we aren’t safe, knowing that if forced out, we’re just OUT as rates in noda are soaring and will continue to do so. where is our lifeline? where are the investors? where are the institutions who allow businesses such as Goodyear Arts to have a building, rent-free? i’m just saying…perhaps i’m in the wrong circles or more, perhaps i’m the wrong color…

While you downplay a reality you know nothing about, we’re living it!

In more and more circles, ‘The Charlotte Way’ is less a point of pride and more a phrase of derision. I have heard people say that civic leaders ‘at the table’ do not care about them. They complain about not having access.  The way to sit at the table in Charlotte is to have an idea and to do the work.  Talent and work ethic are recognized in this city.  Count on it. However, if you want to remain the perpetual outsider, if you want to point fingers and cast blame, if you want to keep kicking at the table, well then, your welcome may wear thin. To not be redundant, please see previous replies. However, on another note, Peres, if you’re really vested in the creative community, you’ll be pleased to know that we’ve launched an initiative to create our own. By ‘our own,’ we mean a fully sustainable site where working spaces and ‘artsy-entrepreneurs’ can flourish without the impending sense of being unwanted and/or forced to close. As a matter of fact, our nonprofit, CrownKeepers, would love to have your support! Please visit our website to do so. This, sir, isn’t about pointing fingers and casting blame, it’s simply ‘picking the locks and coming through the doors blasting’ because ‘we’ve asked nicely for years.’ Feel free to research Tupac to understand that reference. Seeing as though you are a Leadership professor, we’re certain you can appreciate our display of doing just that.

There are many reasons why the narrative in Charlotte is changing: We had a devastating recession in which thousands of people lost jobs and the recovery has been uneven; we have increasing economic disparities; we have an underclass that is losing hope; community organizing has given voice to long-suppressed grievances; the rise of social media has everyone constantly expressing opinions (liking and disliking in increasingly hot echo chambers); the national discourse is dumbed down (‘post-factual’ is a nice way of saying it) and borderline dystopian. The message is that everything is awful, the system is rigged, and learned helplessness follows. You had me until the ‘learned helplessness’ comment. Nothing that I’ve shared echoes that and as such, I’m calling it ‘null and void.’

We have real challenges in Charlotte: economic and racial segregation, low social mobility, flight from public education (each related to the other), but the truth is nearly all American cities would love to have the assets we have to address the problems we have. Get out of town and travel. It becomes very clear why so many people are moving here. Yes, many people are moving here. They are doing so to try and contribute to this ‘blank space’ that is Charlotte. Other than the Queen City being known for banking, Charlotte hasn’t any identity. And, Peres, you failed to mention that there are just as many people migrating from Charlotte because there aren’t many extracurricular options, cultural happenings and/or entertainment venues.

Our concern should not be that we have challenges.  We do.  Our concern should be how we each own our own lives and create dimensions of wellness for all to thrive.

What we believe about ourselves matters. If we believe we are divided, we are. If we believe we are ‘too polite,’ then being rude becomes acceptable. If we think the bankers should go away, they will. And we will be a third-rate town.  On the other hand, if we believe that Charlotte is open with possibility, that there are seats at the table, that we can each lead with creativity and love, then that reality will be ours. Lofty, indeed. However, reality is we are divided. And, in order to edit that, we must admit that this is a fact and then create action plans to bring about change. Again, our voices, the voices heard during #discussCLT, as well as the voices echoed by many of my peers reflect a real divide. 

Tag you’re it, I’ll wait for your response…

MarkPeres-58fe83a1Mark Peres

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