When Charlotte roared

Plus: Unexplained rise in local deaths; DaBaby cleared of zoning violations in Troutman; Scouring med school announcement for Atrium clues; Is Duke U. a 'trademark bully'?

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In 1919, the flu pandemic was winding down. But Charlotte was just getting started.

North Tryon Street in the 1920s. (Photos courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

by Tony Mecia

The last time Charlotte went through a pandemic, a little more than a century ago, the effects were profound: Hundreds here died. People quarantined and felt isolated. Schools and businesses endured waves of shutdowns.

The Spanish flu of 1918-19 hit at a different time, but a lot of those effects that our Charlotte predecessors experienced sound familiar. 

Now, as we seem on the verge of putting our latest respiratory virus behind us, does history offer lessons about what happens next?

In the decade after the last pandemic, Charlotte grew like gangbusters. In the 1920s, Charlotte became the largest city in the Carolinas. Its signature industry became the biggest in the country. New businesses started to flourish. And home construction spilled outward from downtown to create what today are historic neighborhoods.

It was a time of expanding wealth and prosperity — though not for everyone, and probably not to the degree of richer Northern cities.

Ready for rebound: The economy today seems on the cusp of a huge rebound, economists say. In the last year, with parts of society shut down, many consumers have saved money. Now, with vaccines rolling out quickly and Covid numbers in decline, people are starting to spend that money on many of the luxuries they had to forgo: travel, dining out, gyms, spas and much more. Charlotte’s real estate market remains red-hot, too, as people from other parts of the country continue to move here.

Nationally, economists foresee some of the strongest economic growth in decades: A survey by The Wall Street Journal this month found that on average, economists are forecasting economic growth of nearly 6% this year. That would be the highest yearly rate in nearly 40 years.

“You’re looking at the biggest surge in economic growth that most people who are working today have ever experienced in their working lives,” Wells Fargo Securities economist Tim Quinlan told The Journal. The upcoming economic growth is “going to take people’s breaths away,” he said.

The number of jobs in the Charlotte region is still about 53,000 below where it was a year ago. But hiring is expected to increase, too. Charlotte often outperforms national averages.

Charlotte a century ago: The last time Charlotte put a pandemic behind it, in 1919, the city was a very different place. Soldiers were returning from World War I. Housing outside of the city center had just started to be built. Textiles were king, with mills humming on the outskirts of town in modern-day South End and NoDa, and Charlotte’s downtown was becoming a bustling center of commerce. Political and business leaders were almost entirely white men. And Charlotte was far smaller, with 46,000 residents, or about 1/20th the size of today.

It seems odd today, but at the time, the flu pandemic attracted relatively little attention, despite being deadlier than Covid. People might not have fully understood the effect of the disease, and there was plenty else going on in 1919-1920: The Great War and the beginning of Prohibition and women’s suffrage. Discussion of the pandemic all but disappeared.

“After the war ended, it really fell off in the media. You just didn’t see it,” said Lauren Austin, who wrote a UNC Charlotte dissertation on the flu pandemic in North Carolina. “That might have been the mindset back then: People had to just move on. It was just a different way of living. They dealt with things and then moved forward.”

As it always has, Charlotte, too, moved forward. People were flocking to cities from rural farms in search of consistent work. The city’s population ballooned to nearly 83,000, a 78% increase during the 1920s — a growth percentage it hasn’t equaled since. By the end of the decade, the growth had propelled Charlotte past Winston-Salem to become the largest city in the Carolinas.

And it was moving outward, filling out some of the neighborhoods — such as Myers Park, Dilworth, Wesley Heights, Wilmore and what’s now known as Plaza-Midwood — that had been planned in earlier decades.

Charlotte’s textile industry continued to expand, too, and within a few years, the region had surpassed New England as the biggest textile-producing hub in the country.

“For the little old Charlotte area to overtake New England, that was a big deal,” says local historian Tom Hanchett.

But the economy was diversifying, too. In 1924, Ford opened its largest factory in the South at the current site of Camp North End. The Charlotte Observer at the time called it “by far the most important addition to the industrial life of this part of the South” and boasted that “the Charlotte plant led the United States in sales of cars and trucks.” Lance Packing Co., founded in 1913, moved its operations to South Boulevard in the 1920s and expanded its empire built on peanut butter sandwich cookies.

Around the same time, Charlotte’s downtown was becoming a commercial center, with a burgeoning banking industry, new office towers and big retail shops like Belk and Ivey’s.

The new department stores gave residents more things to do. Movie theaters started opening in the 1920s in Charlotte — like the Carolina Theater on North Tryon Street, which opened in 1927. “For sheer splendor and luxury, it is a creation that will provoke admiration throughout the theatrical world,” the Observer gushed at the time, adding that the opening “places Charlotte among the foremost cities of the country as an amusement center.” In that era, Charlotte had separate theaters for whites and blacks.

With shopping and things to do, Charlotte was quickly becoming a destination for people outside the city. “Saturday would have been the big day,” says Mary Kratt, author of “Charlotte, North Carolina: A Brief History” and several other local history books. “The streets would have been clogged with people bringing wagons and selling fruit, people dressed up, people with money for the week.”

But there were growing numbers of things to do in those expanding suburbs, too. Country clubs continued to grow, serving a growing upper class. Charlotte Country Club was founded in 1910 in Plaza-Midwood; Myers Park Country Club moved to its current location in 1921, after starting a few years earlier at a site that’s now Myers Park Baptist Church.

Upper-crust events: And just what took place at the country clubs? The Charlotte Observer’s “Women’s Activities” page in 1929 listed the top scorer in bridge at a Charlotte Country Club luncheon. At Myers Park, a Queens College sorority held a breakfast followed later by an around-the-world-themed progressive dinner party in various houses in the neighborhood. Enthusiasts also started a polo club in 1923; at its founding, the Observer reported that “interest here in the ‘sport of kings’ is growing from day to day.”

Popular culture depicts the 1920s as a time of lavish parties, flapper dresses and speakeasies. It’s unclear how much of that filtered down to Charlotte, though there were regal estates such as the Duke mansion in Myers Park, built in 1915, which changed hands several times between 1919-1929.

Kids those days: Older people did worry about the moral sensibilities of youth in the 1920s in Charlotte. Newspapers of the day noted with concern the popularity of what were called “petting parties,” in which groups of young people gathered in cars or homes to make out. A 1925 Observer article noted that the “Rock Hill city council signed a declaration of war upon petting parties.” The plan involved installing “high power electric lights at advantageous points.”

And there were definitely speakeasies in Charlotte. A 1929 newspaper article describes how Charlotte police raided a “house of vice” near 6th and North Tryon streets and charged 5 women and 2 men with “immoral conduct.” A related raid shut down an East Trade Street speakeasy, when police spotted a patron entering “after being scrutinized through a sliding panel of the door.” Police arrested the owner but found little whiskey, as the place was known as a “one-drink joint,” the paper said.

All in all, after the last pandemic, Charlotte put the virus quickly behind it, and the 1920s were marked by growth and expansion.

What’s in store for Charlotte’s next decade?

Today’s supporting sponsors are T.R. Lawing Realty

… and Sinclair Public Affairs:

Covid mystery: Why so many unexplained Mecklenburg deaths?

The number of people who died in Mecklenburg County during the first 7 months of the pandemic surged compared with earlier years — even when you subtract the deaths attributed to Covid.

According to an analysis of death numbers last week by WFAE’s Steve Harrison, the number of county residents who died is about 200-300 greater than would otherwise be expected. That suggests that either Covid deaths have been significantly undercounted, or deaths from other causes are way up — or, most likely, both.

Harrison writes:

The county had 3,581 deaths between March-September 2019. Based on previous years and population growth, the county would have expected to have anywhere from 3,625 to 3,725 deaths in [those months in] 2020, assuming there was no pandemic.

During the pandemic, 4,283 people died.

But the official Mecklenburg COVID-19 death toll [through] September is 361. That still leaves between 200 and 300 excess deaths.

Oddly, statewide numbers show a far lower percentage of excess deaths not attributed to Covid. Local experts were at a loss to explain why the extra unexplained deaths appear to be a Mecklenburg phenomenon. They said the additional deaths could come from reluctance to go to the hospital during the early weeks of the pandemic, or that some could have been Covid deaths that were ruled to be from other causes. —TM

Related Ledger article:

Code enforcement OK’s DaBaby’s new backyard stadium lights

The town of Troutman has closed an investigation into whether stadium lights recently installed at DaBaby’s compound violate zoning ordinances.

The Ledger reported in October that neighbors of the international rap star in Troutman, a town of 2,800 that’s 35 miles north of Charlotte, had complained about the installation of guard towers and stadium lighting. At the time, the town said the guard towers were legal but was still investigating the lighting, which apparently was erected to illuminate a basketball court or football field on the Grammy-nominated musician’s 9-acre estate.

On Friday, Troutman’s part-time code administrator, John Ganus, told The Ledger that after he took a light meter to the property line recently, he determined that there’s nothing improper about the lights, either: “We checked with the light meter, and it didn’t meet the threshold, so it’s not a violation. … It’s probably irritating from a neighbor’s standpoint. It does light up a lot of area. But it’s not a violation, so there’s not much I can do.” —TM

Related Ledger article:

Let’s go to the tape: Development clues hidden in med center announcement video?

One of the big news stories last week was Atrium Health’s announcement of the site and look of the Wake Forest School of Medicine Charlotte campus. It’s a big deal because it will help further diversify Charlotte’s economy, make the city into a healthcare leader — and attract biotech and pharmaceutical companies and brainy, high-paying things like that.

Last week’s press conference was short on a lot of details, including the precise layout of the med school campus and what parcels in particular will be part of it. A rezoning application to the city, which could come any day from what we’re hearing, could shed some light on Atrium’s exact plans.

Or you could look closely at the slick rendering video that Atrium released last week. We examined it frame-by-frame, like the Zapruder film. And we noted a couple interesting items:

➡️ New Carolinas Medical Center building: In addition to the med school, Atrium is redoing its CMC campus, and the rendering video shows a building adjacent to the main entrance that looks as though it is the tallest in the area. The structure, called the “Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center Campus,” is marked for completion in 2027:

➡️ New connector road to Morehead Street: On the med school campus up the street, there appears to be a road connection to Morehead Street from Baxter Street, across from Covenant Presbyterian Church. Right now, that’s an office building:

Maybe there are other features in the video that we’re missing that would provide additional clues about future development in the Morehead Street corridor — which seems primed to be an area with a bunch more development headed its way in the next few years.

Or maybe we should take it all with a grain of salt, since renderings are notoriously imprecise. This one, for instance, shows nearby 2-lane Dilworth Road as a 4-lane road … on which cars drive backwards on the wrong side of the street:

If you want to analyze the video for yourself, CSI-style, it’s available on YouTube. (Let us know what else you see that’s noteworthy.) —TM

American ramps up — and prepares to re-impose change fees on cheapest tickets

American Airlines had its best week of revenue last week since the start of the pandemic, its seats are 80% full and it is recalling all of its grounded planes from storage by May, according to an internal memo from a company executive.

“These are stats we haven’t seen in a year. … It feels like there’s this incredible pent-up demand to GO SOMEWHERE!” American’s chief information office wrote, according to One Mile at a Time.

American is doing so well, apparently, that it’s ratcheting back some of the consumer protections it put in place a year or so ago. Throughout most of the pandemic, you could change any ticket without paying a fee.

Starting Thursday (April 1), though, if you buy a “Basic Economy” ticket — the lowest-priced ones, with no assigned seats or baggage allowance — you’re stuck if you want to change your flight. That’s the way it was before Covid.

➡️ Pro tip: If you’re thinking about booking a flight, you might want to do that before Thursday so you can change it for free if you book Basic Economy. Last year, American said to great fanfare that it was waiving change fees for good, but that doesn’t apply to Basic Economy. —TM

In brief:

  • County, city managers have made up: County Manager Dena Diorio said her relationship with Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones is “fine” following a public spat last month about the closing of Tent City, in which Diorio said the city reneged on a commitment to provide transportation for the homeless to go to hotels. “I was very frustrated because I think that everybody bailed,” Diorio told the Charlotte Business Journal. “So, we were left to do it on our own. And if people want to bail, that’s fine, but from my perspective, you’re not always going to get a free pass when you do that.” (Biz Journal, subscriber-only)

  • Sandwich lunch for cancer research? Jersey Mike’s is donating 100% of its sales this Wednesday from 43 Charlotte-area locations to the Isabella Santos Foundation for pediatric cancer research. In-store and delivery orders count. Details here.

  • Some proms are on: Union County Public Schools says it plans to hold proms this year, even as other districts including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have canceled them. Union’s proms will be outside and students will be expected to wear masks and be socially distanced. The district’s superintendent said on Twitter: “PROM. IS. ON! …  Our kids deserve this and we can do so following all guidelines!” (WSOC)

  • Slow in passing lane: South Carolina’s Senate unanimously passed a bill outlawing driving in the left-hand lane on highways “except when overtaking and passing another vehicle.” (WBTV/AP)

  • Duke #1 in fighting trademarks: Duke University is a “trademark bully” that opposed more proposed trademarks than any other university between 2015 and 2018, according to a study by two Duke law professors. The oppositions typically relate to businesses trying to use the terms “Duke,” “Devil,” “Blue” or the letter “D.” The university has attempted to block businesses from trademarking words or slogans including “The Dude Diet,” “Little D,” “devils advocate,” “Goluke,” “Bluefood” and even “DBag.” One professor joked: “UNC fans everywhere are going to say ‘Duke is such a d-bag that it thinks it owns the word ‘DBag.’” (Duke Chronicle)

Taking stock

Unless you are a day trader, checking your stocks daily is unhealthy. So how about weekly? How local stocks of note fared last week (through Friday’s close), and year to date:

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Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory; Reporting intern: David Griffith