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Time Traveler 

Looking back at Charlotte's early years

Transplants to our fair city won't remember the winding traffic of a pre-megalith Independence, nor the quaint and stylish houses that lined the boulevard until it became a massive highway wonder.

I barely remember it myself, but credit it to my youth as opposed to memory. The banks of wildflowers along the smog-choked highway are a testament to our city's growth, but at a cost. I have always heard stories of the way Charlotte "was," before the corporate takeover of downtown and the demolishing of the architectural wonders of the old buildings. If Charlotte leaders had kept the older buildings, our city might have had some of the charm of Asheville or historic tourism of Wilmington. Alas, Charlotte is forced to forge her own identity in the face of cold, steel bank towers.

But I like those skyscrapers. I do. I love the way the Bank of America building is lit up in blue to support the Panthers. As I drive home from work, I risk a traffic accident to gaze up the height of the building and admire the subtle purple and blue lights reflecting against the setting sun. I like watching the hordes of uptown workers loosen their ties, slip off their heels and swing their briefcases as the day ends. I love eating lunch downtown, among the bike messengers with their sweaty brows, and the ethnic diversity of the diners gabbing in their language of choice. A hundred years from now, these are the images that will be Charlotte's history. Love or hate the city, it is ours, and we become a part of the city's history in each step we take on the uneven bricks of downtown's sidewalks, or each mile we clock on the speedometer as Charlotte grows outward every year. And for our fair little city that could, we should take a moment to know where we have been, to better understand what we are becoming.

Charlotte's Historic Neighborhoods (Arcadia Publishing, 128 pages, $9.99), by Amy and John Rogers, is a photographic journey through Charlotte's early years as an economically and racially diverse crossroads, growing out of the red earth of North Carolina to become a grand city. The Rogers first wrote an edition of this book in the 1990s under the title Images of America -- Charlotte: Historic Neighborhoods, a larger volume (also published by Arcadia) that captured the spirit of cities across the country.

"John was a historian and I was a freelance writer, so it was only natural that we would write a book about Charlotte history," explains Amy. "Charlotte is our adoptive home."

The postcard-sized book has been altered from the original, but still holds the meticulous research and style one could expect from John, the Administrator of Charlotte's Historic District Commission, and Amy, now the Executive Editor of Novello Festival Press. The collection offers postcards and photographs taken as early as the 1890s.

Despite the title, the book is not broken down into neighborhoods. Instead, it reflects on Charlotte as a whole; one community facing the changes of a century together. A photo from the early days of Johnson C. Smith University (known then as the Biddle Institute) shows a group of well-dressed theology students from 1892. And for an idea of what Independence used to be, check out the aerial photo of Charlotte's Brooklyn neighborhood, seen here bustling with activity.

The book notes that many older residents miss the days when "everything was within walking distance and friends could talk to each other over their porch rails."

The mix of mill houses and mansions gives an idea of Charlotte's early economical situation, and the photos displaying the contrasting lives of mill workers and the elite are interspersed with inclusive community shots that allow us to be connected to the unique city captured for a brief moment in time on film.

While most of the homes and businesses that played prominent roles in the early years of Charlotte history were torn down for urban renewal projects, some of the locations are still standing today. The Alexander house on Clement Avenue continues to look identical to the grainy photo seen in the book.

Amidst the photos of trolleys and historic districts are group photos of police officers, school children and debutantes. Indeed, it's the group shots like these that really draw readers into this book; there are also photographs capturing solemn, uniformed soldiers in training for World War I, or smiling basketball players circa 1925, squinting in the sun. It's the people who make Charlotte what it was, and what it is today.

"The thing about this book is that it's a nice sampler of the vibrant life in a city that has such a rich history," says Amy. "Charlotte is not a place you think would have such a deep and wonderful history."

Charlotte's Historic Neighborhoods, part of the new series Scenes of America, is available at area bookstores, by calling 888-313-2665, or online at

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