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The Surprising Story Of Charlotte's South End

Some of the hottest restaurants and hippest gatherings in Charlotte are just beyond Uptown, in the neighborhood known as South End.  Developers have taken note: enough apartments are under construction to double South End's population by 2015. 

City leaders say it's a shining example of what transit can do. But there's so much more to the story.

These days, South End is crawling with newcomers who work Uptown and want to rent for a bit before settling down in another part of town.

"You know the main reason is the light rail," explains Chris Hagen, who just landed in South End from Chicago. "But the night life and the restaurants and everything are really good around here, too, so I think it's got a lot to offer."

Take the food trucks that gather in an empty lot every Friday night. Hundreds of people line up for burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, cupcakes and then sprawl on blankets in the dirt like it's Central Park.

Neighborhood with a checkered past

There's barely any visible vestige of the vacant, barbed-wire wasteland South End used to be. When the first train arrived in Charlotte in 1852, it came here. Up sprang cotton mills and then neighborhoods called Dilworth and Wilmore sprouted on either side of the rail corridor to house millworkers. South End was the city's first industrial park.

But eventually the mills moved to cheaper land – or overseas. And by the early 1980s, South End was deserted, decrepit and dangerous. 

Credit Julie Rose
Gaines Brown moved his design business to South End in the 1980's, and set to work improving the 'vibe' of the industrial wasteland.

That's when Gaines Brown moved his exhibit design shop to South End.

Part hippie, part party-planner, Brown bought a cluster of properties in the heart of South End and started renting cheap space to artists, filmmakers, mom and pop shops. They held street parties.  

"My primary objective was to have people come visit and feel safe enough to come back," says Brown. 

Come back for what? you  ask.

"For whatever – more of it," says Brown. "I'm working on the vibe."

But Brown – and a few others including real estate developer Tony Pressley – knew they needed more than bohemian subculture to bring South End to life. Pressley went to work turning the district's old mill warehouses into a hub of furniture and design showrooms.

Clang-clang went the trolley

Brown thought a historic trolley was the ticket. So, in the mid-1990s, a group of volunteers got one of the city's original trolley cars from the 1930's running down South End's virtually-abandoned train tracks.

People came.

"South End became the zipper between Dilworth and Wilmore," says Brown. "At one time it was the barrier – like, the other side of the tracks. And then all of a sudden it became the magnet. It doesn't get much better than that.  You know?"

Except they had a problem: South End didn't have a name. It had always just been "that place down on South Boulevard," which simply would not do for Charlotte's next hip enclave. So, a branding and design firm called Shook Kelley – which had also moved into the neighborhood – came up with the grand-sounding "Historic South End."

Credit Shook Kelley
Design firm Shook Kelley christened the district Historic South End in the mid-1990's. It was a 'tongue-in-cheek' nod to the district's lack of historic buildings.

Terry Shook chuckles at the recollection: "That was tongue-in-cheek, because the truth is about Charlotte in general and South End in particular, there's very little that's historic."

A new name catches on

Let's face it: the city's earned a reputation for bulldozing historic buildings and reinventing itself as a "New South City."

"Charlotte's always been about boosterism – about inflating reality - so we thought it was a tongue-in-cheek nod to that history of Charlotte," says Shook.

But the name didn't stick until Shook's firm convinced a California businessman to open a beer and barbecue place at Atherton Mill, call it Southend Brewery and paint "Southend" on the smokestack.

"No one knew, really, what South End was as a district, but if this cool restaurant came out of it well people would know it then, right?" says Shook. "That's when the trolley just ran – almost like, instead of a merry-go-round, it was a merry-go-straight. It just went back and forth. School kids came by the busloads. I mean in the early days it was a riot, really."

People were coming to check out Atherton Mill, but the rest of South End was still pretty hit-or-miss.

Summit Properties – now part of Camden Property Trust – was the first to take a chance on putting apartments in South End. This was the late '90s and Camden's Holly Casper says it didn't have much to do with the "vibe" of the place.

"The reason we built there was because there was not a lot of residential in the Uptown area at that time and they felt this is a great location because we were very easily accessed to I-77, walkability to Uptown, close to the hospital," says Casper.

Proximity to Uptown and plentiful parking also made South End attractive to Charlotte Magazine when it signed on as one of the first tenants of the Design Center. 

"Also as a city magazine, we liked the idea of being kind of in the action as a district that was up and coming, that felt important to us," says Charlotte Magazine editor Rick Thurmond.

A grassroots revitalization

"Many things in Charlotte are top down, but South End was bottom up," says Terry Shook.  "Volunteers like ourselves and Gaines and Tony Pressley and Kevin Kelley, my partner, and others that just said, 'You know what? We can make this thing happen.'"

But by the late 90s, that same group did something quintessentially Charlotte: they agreed to an extra tax on property in the South End – about 6 cents per $100 of assessed value – and used the money to promote district.

Over time, the tax has grown steadily – from $185,000 collected that first year in 2000 to nearly $800,000 last year. To the chagrin of some South Enders – the management of those tax revenues has since been turned over to the ultimate booster group – Charlotte Center City Partners – which was created to promote Uptown. The money pays for banners and park benches and slick brochures and neighborhood events. 

But nothing compared to what the light rail would do for South End.

Light rail speeds development

Credit Julie Rose
South End property values doubled with the arrival of the light rail in 2007.

When the Lynx Blue Line arrived in 2007, running down South End's spine, it muscled the historic trolley off the tracks and brought a wave of new development. Property values doubled– and then tumbled as the recession hit. Bull-dozed lots lay fallow, until suddenly - in just the last six months - there's so much new construction in South End that it's hard to tell where one project ends and the next begins.  

The development is wonderful – and worrisome – to Terry Shook.

"My fear is that if everyone rushes in here and does large, mediocre projects, the attractiveness and the gritty allure of South End that was here from the beginning, will be lost," says Shook.

The South End pioneers, who coaxed this place from a nameless industrial wasteland into a thriving neighborhood, are now pushing the city to develop zoning rules for builders that will prevent South End from becoming a different kind of wasteland:  A place where short-time renters live in fortress-like complexes, and the only action on the streets of South End is the whistle of the light rail whisking people away.