In Charlotte, the Queen City’s crown shows some tarnish

The so-called Queen City, in a quiet, orderly yet determined fashion befitting the bankers that built this town, rose to New South prominence with little of the mayhem and mess that wracked other municipal strivers like Atlanta.

The old power brokers — the McColls, Crutchfields and Belks — decided what building would go where and which elected official would get credit for the city’s climb onto the national stage. The politics were vanilla, with little difference between the Democratic and Republican mayors who worked in lockstep with the business community for the city’s greater good.

The Queen’s crown, though, has been tarnished in recent times, though. This week’s shooting of a black man by a black police officer and the resulting violence on uptown’s streets damaged the city’s sense of itself and the boosterish image it typically projects.

Yet the civic perception actually began fraying a few years earlier when a white cop killed another black man. A former mayor went to jail for corruption. And Charlotte’s embrace of transgender equality earlier this year rattled the state’s social, economic and political firmament and, yet again, put the Queen City front and center in the nation’s consciousness.

By Friday, after a night of relative calm, the streets were swept clean of broken glass and the banks mostly allowed their employees to return to work Uptown (downtown in most cities). Hundreds of protesters marched Thursday through the city’s otherwise empty streets, with fists periodically clenched chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “Whose Streets? Our streets.”

It was hellish a night earlier. A protester was killed — "a civilian-on-civilian shooting," police said. Officers bristling with riot gear fired tear gas and flash-bombs as rioters looted stores and vandalized other businesses.

A midnight to 6 a.m. curfew remains. Illusions, though, no longer do.

Change began, as it typically does in Southern cities, with a surge of Northerners, Latino workers, rural refugees and African-American children. Charlotte, population 827,000, added nearly 100,000 residents (with little annexation) between 2010 and 2015. The black population soared 50 percent the previous decade, while the white population rose only 14 percent.

African-Americans never closed the money gap. Median household income for blacks in Mecklenburg County in 2015: $39,268. For whites: $70,415. (The gap was even wider in Fulton County, where median income for whites was $83,758, vs. $35,407 for blacks.)

“We are a large city and we have to do what large cities do,” said Ella Scarborough, an at-large Mecklenburg County commissioner. “Some areas of the city are doing extremely well. Some are not. There’s too much lopsidedness. We have to address all these ills.”

The head of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce tended to agree.

“There are shooting incidents all across the country and in Charlotte there’s less social trust than what you would find in a lot of other cities,” said Bob Morgan. “And, while the economy seems to work for a large part of the population, it has not been spread equally throughout the African-American community.”

Charlotte seemed to swim against the current of racial animus and economic backlash during the civil rights era. Like Atlanta, leaders realized it was better for business to accept integration and equal rights than to remain desegrated and out of step with the more progressive North.

School busing — which could’ve turned nasty and sullied the city’s reputation — instead proved a national model and Charlotte was widely commended for the manner in which it integrated schools. And, in 1983, Harvey Gantt, a widely respected black politician, became mayor.

Hugh McColl Jr., with friends and fellow business titans, made today’s Charlotte. McColl, who essentially built Bank of America, played kingmaker and civic architect during the 1980s and 1990s. The “gang of five” oversaw the arrival of professional basketball and football, the gilding of uptown with glitzy skyscrapers and a light-rail line.

Their brand of moderate politics pointedly included Democrats, Republicans, whites, blacks, anybody who wouldn’t upset the business-first apple cart. Pat McCrory, a moderate Republican, was the affable mayor who, according to an editorial in the Charlotte Observer you would be “hard-pressed to name one thing he did in 14 years as mayor that was indelibly polarizing.”

Times change and so do cities. Gantt lost a particularly mean-spirited, racially tinged U.S. Senate race to Jesse Helms. The school busing compact fell apart when suburbanites demanded more of the school-funding pie.

McCrory, elected governor in 2012, surprised many in Charlotte with his rightward political turn, including his signing the bill, HB2, that prohibited Charlotte from allowing transgender people to choose which bathroom to use. North Carolina, as a result, has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in business and gained a reputation as an unwelcoming place.

“A lot of what went on with HB2 and other discriminatory voting rules may have built the turmoil here,” said Stephen Smith, a sports radio host who joined demonstrators in the streets. “We lost the NCAA and the ACC championship and a lot of money and jobs. And now a man is shot and killed. People feel they’re not being treated fairly.”

Keith Lamont Scott wasn’t the first African-American killed by Charlotte police. A white cop shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell in 2013.

A year later, ex-Mayor Patrick Cannon pleaded guilty and went to jail for accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes.

Atlanta, of course, isn’t immune to civil unrest or political scandal. Former Mayor Bill Campbell, for example, was convicted in 2006 for failing to pay taxes and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Countless other local politicans have ended up in prison for various illegalities.

Polluted air and water problems sullied Atlanta’s reputation and cost taxpayers billions to fix. Traffic is a national joke. And, until Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the legislation this year, Atlanta stood to lose much from a so-called religious liberty bill which sought to protect gay rights opponents from legal repercussions.

Yet Atlanta was already a major global city during those troubled times, insulated by the world’s busiest airport and the 1996 Olympics.

“Charlotte, at some point in its history, was trying to catch up to Atlanta,” said the chamber’s Morgan. “Now we say size isn’t everything. Yet there are still many lessons to learn from Atlanta — some things to do well and others to avoid. We are less obsessed in matching Atlanta’s size. We are a big league city and have been for some time.”

Maybe, but the mayor has clearly been bruised this week.

“I know that people are disappointed in our community and I know they believe they are being treated unfairly,” Mayor Jennifer Roberts said at Friday’s press conference. “We want to address (that) continuing anger. … We still have a lot of work to do. We’ll roll up our sleeves and do it together.”