Sit at Common Market in Plaza Midwood long enough on a weekend evening and it will inevitably happen. A red, open-aired bus will eventually drive by — a comedic tour guide blasting jokes through the onboard microphone as it drives toward the iconic neighborhood bar, deli and convenience store rolled into one.
Regular patrons at Common Market seem to have little, if any, patience for the Funny Bus. Middle fingers go up. Profanities and slurs are launched.
“F— you,” some will exclaim. “This isn’t your neighborhood,” others scream out.
For some, it’s merely a running joke — a playful back-and-forth between the Funny Bus comedian, his audience and a neighborhood crowd not entirely unaccustomed to a little off-color humor and some obscenities.
But, for others, the bus drives down Commonwealth Ave. as a blatant and physical reminder of all the dramatic change that’s come to the neighborhood. You get the feeling, one Common Market patron once told me, that the “yuppie” comedy bus crowd is taking a tour through the zoo, condescendingly pointing and laughing at the very people and places that made the neighborhood the cool, hip place where everyone now wants to be.
Change can sting, but, of course, is inevitable. It happens every day, in every city, in every community around the globe. For Charlotte, much of this change has been the city’s rapid growth since the 1990s. Our most recent and newest building and business boom post-Great Recession is making waves and transforming the city in unique and interesting ways.
Citywide, nearly 20,000 apartment units have been constructed over the past couple years. Estimates vary, but at least another 10,000 or so more are planned for completion through next year.
The numbers aren’t surprising given the eye-popping rate of Charlotte’s recent growth. Planning officials had once proudly touted that 44 people moved to Charlotte each day. But city planning officials recently made a splash when they adjusted that number. Now, they say, upwards of 60 new people are calling Charlotte home each day.
The new stats reflect other figures — more than 25,000 jobs and nearly 20,000 new residents were added in the city last year alone. Factor in an increasing interest, particularly among millennials, to relocate to the Queen City — studies in both 2016 and 2017 rank Charlotte as a top destination for the generation — and you can begin to wrap your head around the explosion in growth.
Perhaps nowhere has this recent spate of growth been felt as powerfully than in Plaza Midwood, NoDa and other nearby neighborhoods on the eastern and northern rims of Charlotte’s Center City. The kind of growth South End experienced with the opening of the light rail a decade ago is now venturing eastward and northward, as the Blue Line’s extension attracts new development. Just last August, some 1,500 apartment units were under construction in these neighborhoods, with another nearly 2,000 planned. Thousands more are planned along the northern Blue Line, stretching through nearby Optimist Park, NoDa and into University City.
It’s as if, nearly overnight, the population in popular, funky ‘hoods like Plaza Midwood seemed to double. The quick changes have come as both a shock and delight to longtime Plaza Midwood and NoDa residents, depending on whom you ask.
Ann Hooper, who has called Midwood home for 20 years, remembers a much different neighborhood when she moved there in the late 1990s.
“It was a quieter neighborhood,” she says. “There were not many places to eat or go out. We found ourselves going to Lupie’s or Portofino’s down on Eastway, although we had the Dairy Queen — we’ve always had that.”
Hooper says she loves the growth in places like Plaza Midwood’s central business district.
“I think it’s fantastic that on a weekend night you can walk around and go from place to place to eat and see your neighbors,” she says. “It’s a wonderful thing that we didn’t quite have so much of before.”
A history of change
The recent wave of changes in Plaza Midwood isn’t the first time the neighborhood and other close-by ‘hoods have undergone significant transformation.
Born during the era of the streetcar suburb in the early 20th century, Midwood first attracted the “country club” crowd — literally. Charlotte Country Club opened in 1910. Mansions and grand houses for some of the city’s elite followed. More modest, middle-class bungalows would dot different portions of the large neighborhood in the decades to come.
Midwood faced a decline by the 1950s and 1960s, as mostly white middle-class families fled the city to further-out suburbs. As longtime residents moved out, so did many businesses. The popular Plaza neighborhood movie house became a porn theater. A strip club opened, the city’s first. By the 1980s, several adult establishments, including the gay-owned Joy Adult Bookstore, later renamed Independence News, found a home in the neighborhood.
As the upper- and middle-class whites moved out, space was made for lower income young people, LGBTQ people, people of color, artists, families and others. By the 1990s, Plaza Midwood had earned its reputation as a diverse and artistic gay-friendly oasis in this conservative and bland southern banking city. Similar changes made NoDa an attractive neighborhood for artists and the LGBTQ community as well.
That reputation is partly what first attracted Hooper when she moved to Midwood.
“I had a lot of friends who lived in Midwood, and actually it was sort of known as the gay and lesbian neighborhood at that time,” she says.
Central Station, a long-running gay dive operated by The Woodshed’s Greg Brafford, opened up in the late 1990s, joining NoDa’s Chasers which had opened in 1991.
More LGBTQ-owned or friendly businesses and hotspots would follow after the turn of the millennium.
Charlotte’s Lesbian and Gay Community Center opened on Central Ave. in 2003. The city’s LGBTQ bookstore, White Rabbit, relocated right next door.
Dish also opened its doors in 2002, the same year Common Market was born. Later, Petra’s would open as an LGBTQ club and piano bar.
The funky neighborhood vibe could also be felt in the creation of special events and regular parties like DJ Scott Weaver’s Shiprocked! The LGBTQ-themed party took over Snug Harbor every week for a decade beginning in 2007.
Census numbers slowly began to reflect the growing gay-popularity of not just Plaza Midwood, but other close-by neighborhoods as well. The 28205 ZIP code still ranks at the top with the highest number of same-sex couples than any other ZIP code across the state.
Moving into the future
The same history of change that slowly made Plaza Midwood, NoDa and other locales the cool, hip and queer-friendly neighborhoods we’ve come to enjoy has flexed its transformative muscle again.
And it has come fast, resulting in the loss of several gayborhood staples.
Just five years after opening, the Lesbian and Gay Community Center, along with White Rabbit, were practically forced out of their space. The culprit? Rising rents. Gentrification was beginning to take hold. The same space where one-time community town halls and support group meetings were held and where you could walk next door and pick up an LGBTQ magazine, book or movie now holds an interior decorating store and popular barbecue restaurant.
White Rabbit eventually landed on its feet again, a stone’s throw down Central Ave. But after two different moves, first to Uptown, then to NoDa, the community center is now closed.
Central Station is closed now, too. The bar had long retained its gay-centric focus, but slowly increased its straight clientele. Changing ownership several times, the bar ultimately made a complete switch just a few months ago. The new Skylark Social Club’s focus will be on music, providing a much-needed refuge in a city that’s also lost many of its indie concert venues. The owners, like nearly every other business in the neighborhood, say their LGBTQ neighbors will still find a safe space for fun and relaxation inside the new bar.
L4 Lounge, an experiment to offer a women-focused LGBTQ nightlife joint near Plaza Midwood, had a good, short run, but, it, like Central Station, has closed.
While change has meant the closure of some businesses and institutions, others have faced new transformations head-on, turning challenge into opportunity.
Petra’s, rather than fighting the increasingly popular, diverse and eccentric trend in Plaza Midwood, has leaned into it. It survives now as an LGBTQ-friendly and diverse show bar and small concert venue, though one would be hard-pressed to call it a “gay bar” these days.
Transformation has also come to Chasers, though in a different way. It first battled against new city zoning ordinances tightening up on the requirements for adult establishments. The bar ultimately lost their case, after taking it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which declined to hear its appeal. But the bar has survived, shifting its focus from adult entertainment to drag — an increasingly popular entertainment choice even among straight crowds.
All around Chasers, new retail spots are going up and a massive apartment complex opened a few years ago at the corner of 36th and N. Davidson St. With the opening of the Blue Line extension, thousands more apartments are planned for NoDa and its nearby neighborhoods. Immediately, the effects are as clear in NoDa as they were in South End a decade ago. Lower-income housing is being sold, leaving young working singles, artists and low-income families high and dry. Just last year, a small, affordable apartment complex right next to Chasers was bought up to make room for new condos.
The desire for a true “gayborhood” is a strong one for many. I know I’ve often felt the pull myself.
But the reality is that Charlotte probably missed its opportunity to amass a gayborhood akin to San Francisco’s Castro, Atlanta’s Midtown or D.C.’s Dupont Circle decades ago. The likeliest choice then would have been what we now call South End — with its several nearby gay establishments, including O’Leen’s, what is now the Bar at 316, and the long-shuttered gay bathhouse.
The dramatic changes in Plaza Midwood, NoDa and similar neighborhoods might feel all doom and gloom to some. Change can be scary, for sure, but the result is likely to be less a disappearance of a queer place, and more like a new sense of shared space.
With the new in-fill housing and thousands of new residents, amongst the yuppies and young families with baby strollers, you’re still just as likely to find same-sex couples hand-in-hand walking through the neighborhood. It’s possible the LGBTQ population — or at least those visiting on weekend nights — has increased.
Artsy and funky activities, nightlife spots and parties still occur. The BOOM Festival brings queer-inclusive, funky art to the ‘hood each year. DJ Scott Weaver has announced a new bimonthly event at Snug Harbor featuring queer hip hop, vogue, trap and bounce artists. Petra’s continues its ever-popular drag trivia, a tradition begun back when the club was in its definitive “gay bar” days. Hottie’s, an LGBTQ-owned bar and music venue, has opened up between Plaza Midwood and NoDa. Among some of Plaza Midwood’s newest large-scale murals stands the iconic drag legend Brandy Alexander, a joint project of John Kennedy, Nick Napoletano, and BOOM Festival organizer Manoj Kesavan.
Ryan Pitkin, news editor at Creative Loafing, has covered the arts, entertainment and housing trends in Charlotte’s funkiest neighborhoods for several years. He says the new development in Plaza Midwood and NoDa can be a mixed bag of good and bad news.
“It certainly allows for more people to come here,” Pitkin, a NoDa resident since 2010, says. The more housing you have, the more people who can call the neighborhoods home, he explains. But it comes at a cost. “With the rising rents, it changes in terms of the types of crowd who can live here. It’s not so much the struggling artists anymore. It’s people with their banking or other jobs living in the new condos.”
Pitkin holds out hope, especially, for Plaza Midwood. He says it has seemed to hold true to its old artsy flare and culture for longer, with hotspots like Petra’s, Snug Harbor and Common Market keeping things fresh and real. While it’s certainly become more straight, Plaza Midwood hasn’t necessarily become less inclusive, he says.
For NoDa, quickly becoming more affluent, more heteronormative Pitkin fears it might be too late. There are exceptions — NoDa Company Store and the Evening Muse, among others — but NoDa seems to be “turning more vanilla and more like South End all the time,” he says, laying the blame on the light rail extension and its turn over the past decade from less of an arts district to more of a bar district.
Pitkin’s biggest fear — similar to any diehard neighborhood advocate you talk to — is the effect new development has on those most affected by gentrification and rising living costs.
“As [the neighborhoods] expand, I just hope people pay attention to how well affordable housing worked down the street here in the northern end of NoDa,” he says. “We need to give people more of those opportunities so as not to turn us into an entirely rich or above-average income neighborhood.”