In the late 1970s, NoDa didn’t exist as the neighborhood it is today. It was just called North Charlotte back then — a strip of vacant and mostly dilapidated mills, along with some low income housing. The future that lay before it looked dim at best.
Then came 1983, when Paul Sires and Ruth Ava Lyons began building the foundation for what would come to be known as Charlotte’s “Arts District.” They bought a building on North Davidson Street with a collapsing roof and four boarded-up store fronts and turned it into multiple art studios and their own “Center of the Earth Gallery.” The future for NoDa started to look a little brighter as artists moved in, bringing not just paintings and sculptures but live music, comedy, theater and a unique community vibe along with them.
But things have changed in the 35 years since. NoDa’s streets are no longer lined with art galleries, but with bars and restaurants. The neighborhood’s largest live music venue has been torn down and replaced by a 344-unit apartment building. A new light rail station arrived at 36th Street as part of the LYNX Blue Line Extension. With all of these changes coming to the neighborhood, we have to ask: Is NoDa going through an identity crisis?
What was once the “Arts District” is transforming. But at the heart of it all, is NoDa still the neighborhood it’s always been? And will it change for better or worse in the coming years?
We spoke to longtime members of the NoDa community to get their take on the matter.
What did NoDa used to be?
Throughout all of our interviews, the NoDa of the 1990s was the one people most often referenced — and romanticized.
“You’ll hear about the gallery crawls,” said Scott Lindsley, native Charlottean and owner of NoDa Company Store along with his partner Joey Hewell. “How there would be 300 people in the street on gallery crawl night, with a drum circle outside of Jack Beagle’s and all of that.”
But if you owned a business here, Lindsley said, every other night of the month was slow.
“People remember a handful of nights that were just incredible,” he added. “But they don’t think about all the other nights when they sat in their business and said, ‘I wish someone would come in here and spend even one dollar tonight.'”
Beyond the financial woes of local businesses, there was also the crime.
“No one walked down 36th Street, because if you parked down there, your car got broken into,” Lindsley said. “Or you got robbed. Or someone tried to sell you drugs. Or there were prostitutes on the street. People didn’t go back in the neighborhood off the main strip, because that stuff happened all the time.”
Nonetheless, people continue to have a rosy recollection of the NoDa that once was. Joe Kuhlmann, owner of The Evening Muse and active member of the NoDa Neighborhood and Business Association, compared it to feeling nostalgic about your favorite genre of music.
“You’re a teenager falling in love for the first time, and that’s the music you hear, and that’s the music that sticks with you for the rest of your life,” said Kuhlmann. “It’s the same thing with a neighborhood. You remember the good… and the bad parts just sort of fade out of your memories.”
How has NoDa’s demographic shifted?
As the neighborhood has grown, so have the prices for apartments and homes, causing many of those original residents to move from NoDa proper and settle in the surrounding areas of Villa Heights and Plaza-Shamrock.
Travis Bickford, owner of The Dog Bar and a NoDa resident of nine years, likened them to “refugees from NoDa’s housing crisis,” moving to where they can afford.
“But as Charlotte continues to explode, Villa Heights is just the next NoDa,” said Bickford. “Then you’ll see people having to move even a little farther out, then farther out.”
As for who’s replacing them, it’s a more affluent demographic. Which begs the question: As NoDa’s population booms, should we expect to see NoDa’s residents become less eclectic and grungy, and more, well, South-End-esque? Will NoDa’s future residents trade purple hair and piercings for Vineyard Vines and lululemon?
“The thing is, if you’re going to be an inclusive neighborhood, you have to be inclusive of everyone,” said Kuhlmann. “I don’t want to treat anyone as though they’re a ‘tourist’ in the neighborhood, or like they’re not ‘cool’ enough to be here. That shouldn’t ever be the case.”
Where did all the art galleries go?
One of the first things people bring up when talking about how much NoDa has changed is the loss of art galleries.
“When we first moved here, there was a gallery on every corner,” recalled Bickford. “Then the recession happened. And a lot of the former gallery businesses turned into the one thing that’s not affected by an economic downturn: vice.”
Bickford went on to point out how many gallery spaces were transformed into bars and restaurants, citing, “People may not always be in the market to buy art, especially when times are tough. But people will always drink.”
Lindsley agreed. “The best way to find out why an art gallery isn’t here is to ask an artist why they don’t own a gallery here. And they’ll tell you they can’t make enough money only selling art,” he said. “Brokering someone else’s art through a gallery is a difficult business. If you want that to succeed, a lot of people need to purchase your art.“
But just because the NoDa streets aren’t lined with galleries anymore doesn’t mean the neighborhood is devoid of local art for purchase. Places like NoDa Company Store and even Benny Pennello’s are doing some gallery work and featuring local artists. The corner of 36th and North Davidson streets is known to host artists selling their pieces nearly every weekend.
In addition to the artists’ work that is still displayed in local businesses for purchase, you can find art throughout the neighborhood in less traditional formats.
“There’s a lot of creativity and originality here, and there’s a lot of entertainment here,” Kuhlmann said. “Who’s to say that entertainment isn’t art? Sure, it’s not traditional art in the sense of paintings on the walls. But the art is in the food, the beer, the coffee, the music, the dance, the poetry, and everything else going on around here.”
Why can’t we let go of the “Arts District” designation?
When we asked whether NoDa was going through an identity crisis, Lindsley aptly pointed out part of the problem might be that people are unwilling to admit what NoDa’s real identity actually is.
And in his opinion, NoDa is no longer an arts district. It’s an entertainment district.
“You give these people a preconceived notion that they’re going to come into an ‘arts district,’ and then they’re disappointed that there aren’t galleries. But that’s history,” said Hewell in agreement. “That’s what it was then. This is what it is now.”
Kuhlmann agreed that “arts district” isn’t the right nomenclature for the neighborhood to move forward with either — he’s pushing for a switch from “arts” to “humanities” instead. He thinks that humanity, the friendly conversations going on between neighbors and strangers, is one of the major things that sets NoDa apart from other neighborhoods in Charlotte.
“The truth is that people need live interaction,” Kuhlmann said. “Being in [The Evening Muse] with 100 people, who are all there for the same thing? There’s a sense of belonging and awareness to that. It’s a big part of humanity, and a big part of NoDa.”
How can we help guide neighborhood development?
When you look at what’s changed about the neighborhood, one of the most glaring differences came with development.
“What is now Mercury used to be a funeral home,” Bickford said. “What is now Novel NoDa used to be the Chop Shop. What is now the Neighborhood Theater used to be a very different kind of theater.
NoDa has seen an explosion in construction both from a multi-family and a single-family perspective, Bickford said. “What you’re seeing on the side streets of NoDa now is single-family homes being replaced with new construction, oftentimes taking up multiple lots for a single home.”
The NoDa Neighborhood and Business Association is adamant about being involved in conversations with developers before construction actually begins. In that way, the community is still able to help guide the way the neighborhood grows.
“The one thing that’s constant is change,” Bickford said. “You’re not going to be able to stop change from happening. The important part is having a voice in that change.
“As long as there are people who are active and letting their voices be heard through city council, the neighborhood association, etc. and saying, ‘There are certain things that we will not accept, but there are other things we can give on,’ then we’ll be fine.”
In addition to conversation about these specific requests, the NoDa NBA also works hard to continually remind developers why they are so keen to build in this neighborhood in the first place.
“They want to build here because of this community… That funkiness, that unique quality that isn’t happening around the rest of Charlotte, is the main reason why everyone wants to have these multi-family buildings here in this neighborhood,” said Kuhlmann. “All the apartments coming in, we’re here explaining to them, ‘Keep it quirky. Keep it unique. Keep it fun.’ All of that helps keep NoDa, NoDa.”
What lies ahead for this neighborhood?
Though everyone we spoke to has their own thoughts on where the neighborhood might be heading, there’s one thing they all agree on: NoDa’s going to see dramatic growth over the next few years.
Bickford says he expects the area to see significant growth in residents and commercial real estate over the next five years. He anticipates more tear-downs and rebuilds, but also more retrofitting. Many of the warehouses on Davidson Street are perfectly fine spaces ripe for renovation, Bickford says.
Despite the expected population increase, residents hope that the local vibe will remain the same.
“I try to be optimistic,” Hewell said. “Do I want to see NoDa not be what it is today? Absolutely not. I want it to stay eclectic and inclusive. I just hope NoDa always stays diverse. But to think that somehow it’s going to remain the same is wishful thinking.”
What about the areas that lead into the neighborhood — like “pre-NoDa” near Heist Brewery, or “post-NoDa” near Crown Station?
Bickford speculates that we’ll see an increase in development in that “post-NoDa” region, from East Craigshead Road to East Sugar Creek Road.
“You’ve got a lot of space up there that’s not really being utilized as much as it could be,” Bickford said. “Especially as the neighborhood develops and changes, you’re going to find a lot better uses for those spaces, like Bold Missy, Divine Barrel and Crown Station have already found.”
Compared to other parts of the city, Lindsley thinks we can expect to see changes in NoDa happen much more quickly.
“If you were to take all of Charlotte, take every neighborhood, you’ll see NoDa’s changing much more — and faster,” said Lindsley. “But every neighborhood in Charlotte is changing. Everything changes. To expect any neighborhood anywhere at all not to change is not realistic.”
How can we keep NoDa, NoDa?
While some NoDa residents might feel powerless against the wave of change, those we spoke to were more optimistic. They all agreed that it comes down to getting out and supporting the businesses and organizations that you want to stick around.
“If those businesses are vibrant and if those businesses are successful, you’re going to keep that core group of people who have been here, here,” said Bickford. “Those are the people who, by definition, are going to be more active and be able to steer development as much as they can toward maintaining NoDa’s charm.”
Another way to help the neighborhood maintain its charm? Put your money where your mouth is.
“If you want things to happen, do it,” said Hewell simply. “When we decided to do a farmers market here, it was because there wasn’t one in the neighborhood yet… With things like art galleries or farmers markets, it’s like the idea of it is awesome to people, and they think it’s cool to have them here — but if you want them to stay there, you have to go and support them. I always say instead of sitting back and complaining, make an effort.”
But regardless of what you do, you can’t expect NoDa to stay exactly as it once was, or even as it is now.
“You can’t fight the city growing,” Kuhlmann said. “Charlotte is putting her big girl pants on. We’re in a really unique time right now. You can either fight it and lose — cause you’re gonna — or you can figure out ways to live with it and still be unique and awesome and do your thing. And encourage others to do the same.”
Photos: CharlotteFive Archives