A Trifling Place
10:01 am
Mon January 14, 2013

Episode 2: Uptown Vs. Downtown

President George Washington called Charlotte a "Trifling Place." That’s how our first president described the city during a visit in 1791.

But it’s certainly changed since then. Welcome to "A Trifling Place," a podcast dedicated to exploring the ins-and-outs of Charlotte.  


So in our first episode, we talked about Charlotte as a city of newcomers. And with newcomers like me, it's inevitable that there's some confusion. We'll occasionally butcher a few names that we didn't even know we were butchering.

Exhibit A: Uptown versus downtown.

People were quick to correct me. No, no, no other cities have downtowns. Here, in Charlotte, it's UPtown. But there are natives who call it downtown too.  

Something about fighting over the term feels like a Charlotte thing to do. Angela Haigler moved from Ames, Iowa to Charlotte more than 17 years ago.   

Credit Tasnim Shamma

She says that when she first moved to Charlotte, people had the same question she had:

"Uptown? What’s an uptown?"  

And she predicts it's not a question that's going away. I asked a few people in uptown what they called it.

Celeste Wilson is a student at Johnson C. Smith University. She's from Hendersonsville in Western North Carolina. She says downtown sounds better than uptown.

Most people say they've adapted, out of necessity. Shonda Alcy recently moved to Charlotte from Raleigh with her family.

"When we first moved here, a lot of people corrected us that it’s not downtown," Alcy says. "Since there’s a downtown in Raleigh. But once we figured out that it was called uptown, we’ve just always referred to it as that." 

Leaning against his bright yellow taxi, in uptown, I found Mamadou Fall. He drives through the streets of uptown every day. He moved from New York City 10 years ago. I asked him what he calls it.

"Umm … It’s confusing because some people call it uptown, some people call it downtown," Fall says. "It depends. Sometimes I call it downtown, sometimes I call it uptown."

Charlotteans just made me more confused, so I visited someone who would know what it's really called. 

Tom Hanchett is the staff historian at Levine Museum of the New South in downtown Charlotte or Uptown Charlotte. Turns out he says both. Great. That wasn't going to help. But where did the term uptown come from in the first place?

"In colonial days, when the city was founded, people ran roads along the ridgetops because it was swampy down in the bottomland," Hanchett says. "And probably, the American Indians, who first built the roads here, the trading paths, ran what became Tryon Street along the ridgeline. Trade Street another Indian trading path goes up the hill to cross it. And so when you go to the center of Charlotte, you do literally go "up-town".

So, it's about topography?  Well, mostly.  In the 1950's and 60's, Hanchett says, Charlotte started a "downtown renewal corporation". But a businessman named Jack Wood protested and asked, "What do you mean downtown? It's uptown. It's always been uptown." So Wood, "pitched a hue and cry and finally on September 23, 1974, by official proclamation uptown became the official name of Charlotte's heart." 

I asked him what the point of calling it uptown was. 

"The historical value is really important," Hanchett says. "This is a city that has not held on to old buildings. So the old names are very important to people. You can see street signs that talks about  [Eastway Road which turns into Wendover Road], which turns into Runnymeade Road, which turns into Woodlawn Road, which turns into Billy Graham Parkway. Those were all separate suburban streets once upon a day and then as Charlotte grew and they became glued together into a major highway system, no one wanted to give up the old names. And so that attachment to a little bit of what's old, I think it's kind of cool about Charlotte."

Some people choose to stay out of the debate. 

"Since I am now an official Charlottean, I go with uptown, because that is – that’s the language," Haigler says.