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New Blood

 

Spring marks the season of faculty hiring. Anxious new faces appear at UNC Charlotte's College of Architecture -- my home turf -- to be put through a grinding interview process in a ritual that's repeated from coast to coast this time of year. And not just in architecture. Disciplines of all descriptions are filling vacancies. Spring brings an influx of new life to academic departments.

This year the college is hiring replacements for a couple of distinguished faculty who are retiring, plus one ex-colleague who opted to teach in the Middle East(!), and we're trying to fill a new position created by expanding enrollment. There are many good candidates out there. We are pulling in people to interview from Las Vegas, Saskatchewan, Minnesota, Philadelphia and many points in between.

The competition is intense, not so much for candidates scrambling to come to Charlotte, but for the College to recruit top class faculty, trying to convince them to come here. We are in competition for the same elite stratum of professionals with colleges all over the country.

There's plenty to admire about the university; it's a fast-growing, hard-working and thriving institution. Most of my architect colleagues are a talented and collegial bunch, stimulating and easy to work with. The main problem we have to overcome in our intensive recruiting efforts is external to the university: it's the city of Charlotte itself.

Architects are a strange tribe, full of lofty ideas and aesthetic tastes outside the norm. The young turks in the profession form a natural avant-garde in the battle of taste. They're a hip cohort of young urban professionals, fresh from Berkeley and Boston, Los Angeles and London, MIT and Montreal, Princeton and Penn. They're highly productive, and demand an exciting place to work, an urban milieu that has character and style. They subject Charlotte to a detailed critique, and often find it wanting.

A city that sprawls is anathema to them. They're not going to be satisfied with our placeless suburbia. A city that's torn down most of its architectural heritage is likely, they muse, to be inhabited by philistines -- unthinking zealots of progress who've gleefully consigned hundreds of beautiful buildings to the scrap heap in a decades-long orgy of self-destruction. A city of generic, bland modern buildings (and those are the good ones) sends messages of boredom and conformity that make inquiring, lively minds think twice. The less than stellar reputation of Charlotte public schools created by years of contention, and marred by low teacher morale, makes parents of young children ponder the wisdom of relocating here. The permeating aura of fundamentalist religion scares away freethinking intellects.

Against this backdrop of negativity, we have to sell our city, and sell it hard if we want the best new blood. Our college sells itself, abuzz with creative energy and discourse, students designing in studios, arguing in seminar discussions till late in the evening. But a stimulating place to work is only half the equation. Creative minds demand a stimulating place to live. We've lost a number of good faculty over the years; they just couldn't take Charlotte. There is no riverfront, no ocean, no towering peaks, no teeming marketplace, no great parks, no history captured in stone.

I know the feeling; many years ago I spent four years of hard labor in Starkville, Mississippi. Great School of Architecture; dreadful town. I had to leave to save my sanity.

I came to Charlotte 12 years ago desperate for change. My flight from Mississippi had only landed me in Oklahoma, a brown and barren flatland that provided no succor. I interviewed here in the spring, amidst the dogwoods, flowering cherries, forsythia and azaleas; the burgeoning green bowers of Dilworth, Elizabeth and Myers Park seemed like an Arcadian vision of Eden. My first night here I phoned my wife and told her, "It's so green! If they offer me a job, I'll take it on the spot!" I inquired no further, did no research; just trusted to instinct. I knew about Chapel Hill and imagined that Charlotte would offer that civilized environment writ large. My wife was sure her vote would be the one to oust Jesse Helms to complete the picture of paradise.

We stayed, exhausted academic nomads that we were, driving U-Hauls from university town to university town in search of a place to call home. Lucky enough to find a Dilworth condo we could afford, we constructed a satisfyingly small life and kept the suburbs at bay.

My sales technique is simple. I tour faculty candidates around my beloved Dilworth, even though they can't afford to live there now. We drive through Myers Park to the Manor Theatre, and on to Elizabeth, and Plaza-Midwood. Nature is on our side. These Charlotte streets in April are breathtaking.

We dawdle in NoDa and cool our heels on Central Avenue. We swing through SouthEnd and I mention light rail constantly. I don't talk about the outerbelt unless honesty compels me. I do talk about Jesse's retirement and the promise John Edwards holds. I don't bring up the state budget deficit or mention hurricanes. I do say there are non-stop flights to Europe every day. We may go to SouthPark. We don't go to Ballantyne.

We dash round downtown at noon, when it's teeming with life, and have lunch at RiRa's. I talk a mile-a-minute to keep my companion's attention from drifting upwards to the blank facades of the banks. Candidates are usually too polite to mention the architecture. I don't bring it up. If it's a weekend, we go back downtown at night when you can't see the buildings, but you can get a satisfying buzz from the streets. Bright lights nearly make a big city.

With luck and hard work, we'll have four new colleagues come the Fall. New blood to renew us. New talent to teach us. New soldiers in the war we wage against mediocrity, against the bland, self-satisfied smugness that smothers our city.

We'll take casualties; perhaps only one or two will stay the course. Charlotte's a formidable opponent. I've been fighting her for 12 years. I'm looking forward to some new help. *

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