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Signs of Life in Gastonia 

A vibrant cultural scene is taking shape in Charlotte's misunderstood neighbor. No, seriously.

OK, I'll cop to it. I live in Gas Town (aka Gastonia).

Little did I know when I moved here a little more than three years ago that Gastonia is to Charlotte what Yonkers is to New York City: the punch line to an endless string of bad jokes, not all of which are unearned.

Like the proverbial redheaded stepchild, Gastonia has the reputation for being home to a backward population of illiterate rednecks, murderers, thieves and bail bondsmen, no-account vagrants, NASCAR junkies, and even the odd purveyor of crystal meth. For many, the use of the words "Gastonia" and "culture" in the same sentence is an oxymoron -- with an emphasis on moron. But as is often the case, the difference between truth and perception can be worlds apart.

That's not to say there isn't some validity to Gastonia's somewhat earthy reputation. Are there rednecks in Gastonia? Sure. Two Wal-Marts within city limits? Amen. Pickup trucks plastered with bumper stickers proclaiming "Git 'er Done!" and "If You New York, Take I-95 North"? Boy, howdy!

Anyone seeking a heady dip into good ol' boy culture need only hop on Highway 321 to Dallas any weekend and head for the I-85 Flea Market, where -- spread over a large, hardscrabble field -- merchants hawk everything from produce, antiques, farmyard livestock, gewgaws and knickknacks to pit bulls, rifles, ammo, laptop computers, hunting knives, ladies' lingerie, bluegrass CDs and old beat-up guitars. In some ways, the flea market is a microcosm of the old Dixie: Attitudes that have elsewhere either died out or been subverted underground, are here extolled. No need for the South to rise again, for on these few acres, it has never fallen.

Ironically, however, while the ambience is decidedly redneck, the market increasingly pulls in visitors and merchants of every ethnicity and creed. Frequented by Gaston county's growing Latino population as well as African-Americans, Asians and all of us damn Yankee transplants, there seems to be a tacit agreement that renders what would otherwise be offensive, both invisible and inaudible. Sons and daughters of rebels and carpetbaggers, slaves and immigrants mingle without incident (or at least none that I have witnessed). And in many ways, this paradigm typifies life in Southern towns, where grand old neighborhoods lay themselves to rest curled up in the arms of crushing poverty and decay, sung to sleep by a rhythmic lullaby of impending urban sprawl -- none of which is endemic to Gastonia.

The Cop Shop

As the county seat, there's no denying that the requisite courthouse, social service agencies and homeless facilities attract an element of the population that taxpaying citizens prefer to ignore or abhor. But the truth, according to police statistics, is that downtown Gastonia has one of the lowest crime rates in the area. So how bad are drugs and crime in G-Town in general? With a population hovering at 70,000, Gastonia qualifies as the second largest city in the region and, as such, suffers the same incidence of drugs, gang activity, prostitution, and gun violence as comparable towns of its size and demographics. While there are pockets of high-crime saturation, the overall crime rate in the city -- according to Captain Steve Duncan, Central Division commander of the Gastonia Police -- has dropped dramatically. Duncan says the drop occurred after a recent restructuring of the local force spearheaded by Chief Terry Sult divided the city into three districts.

Another innovation since Sult's 2004 appointment is an unprecedented open-door policy between the Gastonia Police, members of the community and the press. "Five years ago," Duncan tells me from across the desk in his office, "you and I wouldn't be having this conversation. You would have been talking to our public information specialist, who would have been under strict constraints as to what could and could not be said."

When asked directly to describe Gastonia's current criminal landscape, Duncan, a 23-year veteran of the force, is direct: "We have our share of big city problems, just like everybody else. We don't try to hide the problems that we have. If I try to step around the truth and don't give you all the details, you're going to find it. And when you find it and find out that I didn't tell you about it, how does that look? It makes it look worse than it is, but if I lay it on the table, what can you do with it?"

This open-communications policy has led to a much greater interaction with the public and also new programs that may help citizens to better police themselves. "Often, we tell members of the community that something is not a police problem, it is a community problem. We say, 'We'll give you the tools and we'll help you, but you and your community leaders need to get together and take care of it.'" The most visible example of this is a pilot program called Project Safe Neighborhood, designed to get repeat offenders off the street permanently. "We call criminals in and say, 'This is what your record looks like,'" says Duncan. "We tell them it's their last chance. If they create another problem in the community, we are going to put them away for as long as we can. We say, 'We're watching you.' It's a very direct approach that most departments don't take because it's not politically correct to point the finger at someone, but this is exactly what this does. Then we offer them an alternative. We bring in people from Gaston College, people in job fields, medical fields, clergy, family services, and say, 'Here's your opportunity. We'll help you get a job or a GED. We will do whatever we can to help you turn your life around, but if you make a mistake one more time, you're done.'" Duncan reports that of the first 10 called in, two have re-offended and will be in lock-up for the duration. "We've partnered with the federal government on this," he notes, "so if you do the crime, you're going to do the time."

Up the Downtown

There's no arguing that Gastonia's economy, hard-hit from the loss of the textile mills that long succored it, has faced an often daunting recovery, but even the coldest winter must eventually concede the spring. Longtime residents and even newcomers to the town (myself included) are possessed of a certain pride of place here, and those feelings are not unfounded. Shhh, don't tell anyone ... but Gastonia is actually pretty cool. Although when we first arrived, if tumbleweed had rolled across downtown Main Street (which for some reason is Main Avenue) at high noon, I wouldn't have found it surprising, but that, too, is changing.

Melissa Turney, promotions coordinator for the nonprofit Gastonia Downtown Development Corporation and a native Gastonian, remembers a time when the downtown, with two movie theaters, music shops and an ice-cream parlor, was the place to be. "There was plenty to do here on a Saturday night," she recalls. "Parents used to drop their teenagers off early in the evening and pick us up after a night at the movies or out with our friends."

But for Gastonia, like many communities in the South and across the country, the rise of the mall resulted in the demise of the mom-and-pop culture that fueled small-town economy. When Belk Department Store, the pillar that had historically anchored Gastonia's downtown commerce, pulled stakes and moved quarters to the Eastridge Mall, it was the beginning of the end. As other retail establishments and businesses fled or failed, buildings and even blocks that once thrived were left empty and lifeless. When an ill-starred enhancement project in the 1980s resulted in long construction delays and torn-up sidewalks that rendered access to the remaining businesses un-navigable, it was the final nail in the coffin.

With the downtown for all intents and purposes dead, a handful of individual investors swooped in like buzzards to scoop up the derelict properties and began warehousing them. The legacy of neglect and decay their years of stewardship engendered is still evident in the caved in roofs and vacant storefronts that pepper the downtown landscape. But to find hope, one only need turn the corner.

At the intersection of Main and Marietta, those who care to look can see the beginning of a renaissance. The once high-Victorian structure, replete with soaring cupolas and ornate casements, an until-recently unremarkable (and frankly, ugly) building, is undergoing a facelift. From beneath a thick layer of obstinate stucco, a forgotten façade -- it's original signage and much of the detail intact -- is being revealed. On the floor opposite Melissa Turney's desk in the GDDC office (located in an already restored portion of the landmark Standard building on South Street opposite City Hall), a turn-of-the-century black-and-white photo reveals what once was, and what may someday be. Although it's doubtful that the grand lady can be restored to her full former glory -- cupolas such as those are hard to come by -- there's little doubt that she can be made beautiful once again.

The completed lofts at the Standard, a mixed-use retail and residential project, are already fully tenanted. And the additional housing units, scheduled for completion in the coming months, won't likely languish long on the market. While housing and retail prices in Charlotte's more desirable neighborhoods continue to skyrocket beyond the reach of many homebuyers and would-be business owners, in Gastonia, you can still get a lot of bang for your real estate buck. Logic holds that with a 30-minute commute to Center City, economics are eventually going to speak louder than any perception or misconception that "Gas Town" is a throwback to the days of Ma and Pa Kettle.

That doesn't mean the city doesn't still have a long way to go. Says Brian Borne, the GDDC's executive director, restoring the downtown is a project that's being tackled "one building and one business at a time." Borne, who signed on with the GDDC six years ago, has a passion for bringing the model of small-town life that once flourished back to the fore, and he's put his money where his mouth is. The home he shares with his wife and son is located in the York Chester Historic District, which is adjacent to the downtown, just the other side of Franklin Boulevard.

The National Trust Main Street Program out of Washington, D.C., currently being implemented, has been successfully applied in over 1,500 downtown communities across the country and even abroad. Says Borne, "It's both incremental and comprehensive in nature. The hardest part is changing attitudes and perceptions that have been around for 30 years. The downtown didn't decline overnight. It didn't just all of a sudden curl up and die. It took years. It was a slow process. The revitalization and rebirth is going to take the same gradual effort. A lot of the work is laying good foundation, you're looking at changing ordinances, changing codes, tweaking uses. You're doing a lot of things that aren't visible to get developing incentives. You're having events that get people to come downtown and experience it in a fun, safe environment."

For further proof that Gastonia has lots to offer, read on for a compendium, by no means complete, of some of G-Town's hippest locales and most notable citizens. (If you have any more suggestions, meet me at the IHOP on Cox, for a cup of coffee, and we can talk.)

Gas Town Online: Anthony Michaels, CharlotteGastonia.com

Whether they know it or not, almost everyone in Charlotte is familiar with Anthony Michaels. Serving as on-air foil and producer for Cooper Lawrence and Pam Stone on WLNK (107.9), Michaels has voiced countless radio and TV commercials, both locally and nationally. Michaels is also the brain behind CharlotteGastonia.com, a Web site purposed with building the bridge between Charlotte and Gastonia through business.

CharlotteGastonia.com was launched in 2005 and has grown from a small site to what Michaels describes as "a major one," featuring up-to-date traffic, weather, and news for both Charlotte and Gastonia. Michaels says the site currently receives around 150,000 hits a month, from all over the world. Michaels also owns BelmontMountHolly.com, an extension of CharlotteGastonia.com that focuses on Belmont and Mount Holly, GastoniaNews.com, providing updated local and national news and weather every minute, and Gastonia.name, a complete business directory to local business in the Gastonia area on the Net.

Michaels says that the only drawback he foresees to progress for the area are the people who fear change. "They want Gastonia to stay the same as it's always been. They're afraid of growth," he says, "but with 485 so close now, it's going to be hard to stop that growth. What I'm trying to do with CharlotteGastonia.com and my other sites is to give business in Gastonia an outlet that everyone can see, and to show the world that Gaston County is a great place to live, raise a family, and shop." (All of which, Michaels does.)

Renaissance Redneck: Elmo

This gifted artist (no relation to "that stupid Muppet") hails from Iron Station, N.C., which she describes as a "town in the middle of nowhere with maybe one traffic light." Even as a young girl, Elmo says that she felt like a stranger in a strange land. With few friends, she submersed herself in art and fantasy. Elmo took up art classes in the sixth grade and says she has yet to sate her appetite for all things creative. Her figurative paintings and collage work, which she describes as fantasy/surrealist, are perennial faves at Charlotte's Purgatory affair. She also counts among her clientele Ann Rice and the rock and roll band L.A. Guns.

Elmo has a degree in graphic design and fine arts from the Art Institute in Charlotte, but it took a mid-life crisis to launch her on her current career path. "I had a corporate job," she laughs. "Suits and pantyhose." But after a dire medical forecast (fortunately a misdiagnosis), she simply walked away. "I thought, 'I'm going to die. I'm not going back to work,'" she says. "I called the company and said, 'Clean my desk out, mail me my check.'" At the time, Elmo's best friend was a tattoo artist, who taught her the trade. "I would never go back to a 'real job,'" she says.

In addition to a full-time job tattooing (for Ink Link on Independence Boulevard in Charlotte), Elmo is working on a series of vampire books and is also a stand-up comedian. "I auditioned for Funniest Mom in America, but had a hard time staying PG-13," she admits. "I don't curse a lot, but in my act, I'm a 'bad tattoo bitch.' I'm clean, but I skirt the edge. It's probably too raw for Nickelodeon."

Enlightened esquire: Arcangela Mazzariello

Attorney Arcangela Mazzariello (Arc to her friends) has worn many hats over the years. Prior to earning her law degree and taking the bar, she held down jobs at New York's Silvercup Studios (the folks who brought you Sex in the City and When Harry Met Sally), taught arts and crafts to the disabled, and was a legal secretary for a dozen years. Heck, she even sold aluminum siding, but a girl has to get by, right?

An accomplished gourmet chef, Mazzariello is also a master gardener who has transformed the backyard of her Broad Street office/home into a veritable Eden that features winding, vine-covered walkways and a secluded Koi pond. As if that weren't enough, the formidable litigator is a talented painter, an aspiring stand-up comic, and an avid animal activist who shares quarters with her cats Doppo, Harriet, Snip, Pook, Cheetah, Dolce, Johnny, Frankie, and Nose, as well as Marie (a Hyacinth Macaw), Eddie (an Amazon Double-Yellow-Headed parrot), Betta (a Yellow-Crested Cockatoo), and of course, Harry, aka the dog -- all rescues.

So how did a nice Italian girl straight out of Brooklyn wind up in Gastonia? "I met a man on the Internet," she says with a laugh. "We got married. It didn't take." The marriage may have fizzled, but Mazzariello decided to put down roots. More than a decade later, she is still blooming. "My first case here, my client was accused of being a horse thief," she says. "Of course, we maintained that he was merely repossessing it. Need I say more?" If you're ever in need of a legal eagle -- or the best homemade stuffed artichokes this side of Little Italy -- Arc is your go-to gal.

Feeding Hungry Ears & Hearty Appetites: Rodi

245 West Garrison Blvd. Suite H

Gastonia, N.C. 28052

704-864-7634

I was so pleasantly surprised to find such an oasis of affable downtown ambience the first time I set foot in Rodi, you could have smacked my ass and called me Sally. The venue features live music on the weekends (David Childers and Robin Rogers are regulars) a damn fine menu, and a bar that serves a raft of trendy signature drinks along with an impressive list of beers and wines. It's the kind of place where, if you put in an appearance or two, everybody knows your name, and according to Sales & Events Coordinator Tony Galliher and Manager Lynn Parton, that's just how they like it.

Parton and Galliher both began their Rodi careers as servers who have worked their way up to management. "It just sucks you in," Galliher jokes, but both are serious when they credit the close-knit crew who function like a family as the key to Rodi's success. Everything from music to menu decisions gets a thumb's up or down from the staff. "Everyone has an opinion and we listen to it," says Parton.

Rodi's menu features salads, burgers, seafood, salads, pizza, salmon and a wide variety of vegetarian options, plus an array of homemade desserts. "Everything is fresh except for things that can't be found fresh in bulk," says Parton, "and every dish is cooked to order."

In addition to the restaurant/bar, Rodi also boasts an event/performance area that serves as setting for the for-pay concerts, weddings and other functions that support the free live music that happens most Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Galliher says that Rodi features both local favorites and regional bands that come from as far away as California and Ireland. Weekend hours will soon see a new twist, with music running from 9 p.m.-11 p.m. "It's a big step for us. We always closed at 10 p.m., but we think that if we keep the music going a little longer, everyone is going to be happier," says Galliher, who adds, "We're not your typical chain restaurant. You never know what you're going to walk into when you come here, other than a good meal and a great time."

Queen of Correspondence: Ring Torrence Stafford, owner, Torrence Stationery & Gifts

245 West Garrison Blvd. Suite B

Gastonia, N.C. 28052

704-866-7760

Housed in the same building as Rodi, Stafford's fun, funky shop has a long tradition and a true Gastonia pedigree (as evidenced by the Torrence name on several impressive structures, including the Marguerite Ring Torrence Girl Scout Center). Although Stafford's family is "old Gastonia," she moved to New York City and traveled the world after graduating college but eventually came home to stay.

As a teen, Stafford worked at the family stationery concern that her aunt, Jeanne Marie Torrence, launched from her home in 1955. Upon her return, unsure of her next move, Stafford fell back in the fold. While she hadn't planned to make a career out of the gift and stationery biz, it wasn't long before she realized she'd found her niche. As the business expanded, it eventually outgrew its home-based quarters. In 1996, Torrence Stationery & Gifts moved into its current location. "It's a wonderful re-use of an old high school gymnasium," notes Stafford, who says what is now the store was the once the team locker room, complete with concrete floors and drains for the showers.

Offering an eclectic selection of cards, gifts, jewelry and writing instruments, the shop is one of the few places that still puts an emphasis on old-fashioned customer service above anything else. While she could have set up in one of the many high-traffic malls, Stafford instead chose a location that would offer generous parking and an atmosphere that allows for a genteel and pleasurable shopping experience. Although her merchandise is cutting edge and unique, Stafford has made a conscious decision to keep the concern from becoming overly commercial. "We are a boutique shop, not a chain," she says. "We offer personal service and knowledge of product. True customer service is a rare commodity, and it's what sets us apart from the average retailer." Another point of pride for Stafford is that the business is woman-owned and women-run. "It's coming down through the female side of the family," she says, "from my aunt to me. My sister works here, and both of my nieces have worked here. Katie Clark has been my right-hand woman for over 10 years. Marie Alexander just started as a clerk, and her older sister, Julie, also worked here."

In Like Skin: Jeff Mauney, owner/artist, Ink Link Tattoos & Piercings

914 E. Franklin Blvd.

Gastonia, N.C. 28052

704-869-9264

Jeff Mauney has been tattooing for a quarter of a century. He owns nine shops in the Gaston/Charlotte area, and boasts a stable of between 70 to 80 different artists who work for him. Ink Link Tattoos, Tattoo Warehouse and Tattooing-U, are open seven days a week, Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., and Sundays from noon to 11 p.m.

Mauney says he was fascinated by tattoos from the time he was a child and always knew that the art of skin would someday become his career. "It started when I was about 8," he says "I don't know if it was the actual pictures or the feeling of mystery. When I was a kid, there wasn't a lot out there about tattoos. I got any information that I could from every source that was available."

The shop has been open in this location since January 1999. In addition to tattoos, Ink Link also offers body piercing and cosmetic work, such as permanent makeup and nipple reconstruction. "We have several dermatologists and plastic surgeons who send us those referrals," Mauney says. One of his proudest accomplishments is his apprentice program. "We've trained 90 percent of the artists who work for us," he says, "about 140 people over the last 15 years. Some stay with us, some move on to open their own shops."

When Mauney first opened his doors in Gastonia, he met with some disapproval. "We were right next to a church," he admits. "There was some protest. People would try to tell me what God would have to say about tattoos, and yet they were standing there with their pierced ears smoking their cigarettes. It wasn't a big deal." But times have changed. "Twenty or 30 years ago, tattooing was much less socially acceptable," he says, "but now folks bring their kids along. We have a mix of people from every lifestyle here. I think some people are surprised to see that it's not a rough, tough type of environment at all. Most are surprised by how relaxing it is. Coming here blows away a lot of preconceived ideas."

Good Eats: Richard Hall, chef/owner of Main Street Bistro

173 W. Main Ave.

Gastonia, N.C. 28052

704-853-3335

For great New South cooking -- and one of the few places you can get a decent Rueben anywhere in the area -- stop in for lunch at the Main Street Bistro, where Chef Rich Hall will tempt you with culinary delights that can stand toe-to-to with any high-end restaurant in Charlotte, New York -- or anywhere where good cuisine is king.

Hall, a Tampa native, says he is mostly "self-taught," although he is a graduate of Sodexho Marriott's culinary program at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "I really learned to cook in my grandmother's kitchen," he says. "I've been lucky enough to work with some talented people. I think that's the basis of what makes a really good chef." Hall apprenticed with Ralph Love at a restaurant in Cocoa Beach called The Mango Tree. "That's where I grew from being a line cook from to being a chef," he explains. "When I took over as executive chef, we were rated one of the '30 Best Places to Eat in America' by American Express. It was just a little bungalow on [Florida state road] A1A, but it was amazing."

Hall has a large, dedicated following of corporate clientele for whom he caters, so he has scaled back the hours of operation. As more businesses move into downtown, he says he may revisit opening the place for dinner service, but for now, those who wish to sample his mouthwatering menu must content themselves with lunch. Hall's recipe for great fare is simple, focused dishes that start with only the finest ingredients. The Cuban sandwich, Philly cheese steak and Apple Walnut Chicken Salad are all excellent, and his seafood bisque is like a party in your mouth.

Natural Wonders: Ann Tippitt Ph.d, executive director and Mary Alice Rogers, marketing director of The Schiele Museum

1500 E. Garrison Blvd.

Gastonia, N.C. 28054

704-866-6900

Without question, the jewel in the crown of Gastonia culture is the Schiele Museum. Neither as vast or daunting as the American Museum of Natural History in New York or Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, the Schiele functions almost like a boutique museum. It's collections are both user-friendly and hands-on, and while extensive and varied, are not exhausting.

Executive Director Ann Tippit started her career at the museum as the curator of collections in 1988. Her husband, Alan May, was already on staff as curator of archeology. "Museums talk about owning collections," says Tippitt, "but what we really do is hold them in trust for the public." In 2005, Tippitt became interim director and was subsequently appointed executive director. "It's not my job anymore to make sure that all the objects have their numbers on them and are inventoried or stored properly," Tippitt laughs, adding in her current role, she does everything in her power to promote the advancement of the museum and its mission. "The museum is here to collect and preserve objects and then to use those objects to share an appreciation of nature and science with the public," she says.

The Schiele boasts more than 150,000 specimens and objects. "Specimens that are bugs and spiders, rocks and minerals, but we also have ethnographic objects that have been made by people," Tippitt explains. "Natural history also encompasses the human animal and their products." While the collection of Native American artifacts is inspiring, and the two live baby buffalo are adorable, arguably the most impressive exhibit in the museum is Lucy -- a cast of the Ethiopian australopithecine discovered by the Leakeys. The original bones are making a controversial tour and are now appearing at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. One of only five such casts made, short of a trip to President Bush country or the Smithsonian, the Schiele is the only place you're likely to get a chance to see one of man's earliest ancestors who first walked upright.

Now approaching its 50th anniversary, Tippitt notes that the Schiele itself has been changing and evolving over the course of years to accommodate the 80 to 85,000 regular admission visitors, plus 40,000-plus Gaston County students the museum touches each year. In addition to an expanded, more accessible lobby, Tippitt says that the Schiele will soon offer limited food service and additional seating, to enhance the museum-going experience.

Marketing Director Mary Alice Rogers, adds, "People are very surprised to find that there's a real museum here. It's 60,000 square feet in the building. On top of that, we have a half-mile nature trail, and an experiential archeology site that traces 10,000 years of human technology and development. (It shows how they went about building Stonehenge; using levers and rollers and trees to move rocks just like they did 10,000 years ago.) There's also the Catawba Indian village that traces 400 years of history, and an 18th-Century back-country farm that gives you a picture of what life was like on the frontier. When you add the planetarium -- and Lucy -- you have nothing else like this in the area."

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