Walking Charlotte as Labyrinth
A Contemplative Experience in Exploring Past, Present, and Future of the Queen City
One ancient tool for spirituality is the labyrinth, the famed walking path that leads participants on a journey inward and a journey outward. The practice of walking a labyrinth invites seekers to use their whole bodies in a brief experience of conversion. It is a moving meditation, a way of awakening the senses to the world while slowly moving around a centering point. With a labyrinth, the point is not to arrive or to finish. It is not a maze. Instead, the idea is that the walking, the movement, the waking up, is the journey.
Today we are experimenting with using the city street grid as a labyrinth. The path charted for you will ask you to engage with your senses, with some history, and with your imagination, to consider Charlotte as it has been, as it is, and as it could be.
We are going to encounter the city as it is arranged geographically, which means we’ll often zoom forward in history, and then zoom way back in history, and sometimes look forward into the future. A labyrinth has that same suggestion. It collapses time, asking us to be present in each step, all the while reflecting on what our surroundings suggest to us about where we have been and where we might go. We won’t have a neat, straightforward chronological path. But life is like that.
Now on your own, or with your group, proceed to the starting point of the walk, at the intersection of South Tryon Street and Morehead Street. Re-open this page when you arrive, and roughly match the picture below to your view. Below is a button that will take you to a Google Map of the route.
A quick word about the set-up of this page: I'll provide text and visuals to help you get oriented. I'll also include an audio file of me reading the text, so that if seeing your phone's screen is difficult, you will have a narration instead. The visuals will primarily be pictures to help you match your surroundings at each stop. Use them to stay oriented along the way. If you are matching the picture below, you are at the intersection of Morehead and Tryon, facing north into Uptown. If not, go there, and then read or listen below.
South Tryon and Morehead Streets
We begin our journey today at what was long the very southern edge of Charlotte. As we begin, take a moment to orient yourself: to the south is South End, now one of the fastest growing urban sub-markets in the country; to the west you can see a stadium in Third Ward, and the neighborhoods that spill westward from the city center; to the east is another set of neighborhoods, including Dilworth on the right side of East Morehead; and to the north is the ever-rising skyline of the center city.
Before you start moving, take a few minutes to notice. Notice yourself and the way your are breathing in this environment. Notice your level of alertness. Note the colors, the surfaces, the structures, and the sounds.
Look closely at the built environment. What is there? What is missing? If you are with a group, talk for a few moments about what you see and what you do not see. Talk about the patterns you notice.
When you are ready to move, proceed north toward Uptown. You’ll pause at the corner of South Tryon and Stonewall Streets.
South Tryon and Stonewall Streets
As you walk along Tryon Street, you are following a path that has been walked by animals and humans since before recorded history. Long before European settlers arrived here, and long before this place had the name “Charlotte” attached to it, it was land that supported the lives of myriad plants and animals, as well as tribes of humans known as the Catawba and the Waxhaw. For the Catawba people, in their own language, their name meant something like “water people,” owing to their close relationship to the river we now call the Catawba River, about eight miles west of here. The land where the city of Charlotte is they often called “land of the persimmon,” after the native fruit here. They spoke not of the persimmons you find in the grocery store, but of the wild persimmons native to this region. Those thin, smallish trees produce thumb-sized fruits that are intensely bitter until they ripen, typically around the first frost, and turn delightfully sweet. You might imagine this area when it is was forested, with persimmon trees common along the edges of the forest where plenty of light came in.
This ancient path was used for trade and for migration, connecting many tribes and peoples and lands together in order to help them reach one another.
You may have also seen a railroad just a couple of blocks east. Today, the LYNX Blue line runs in that railway. 175 years ago, that railway became one of the single most important projects in the history of the city. It was originally called the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad, and was built by private funds raised by business people in town. The railroad changed the story of Charlotte forever. Prior to its construction, the town was a small crossroads notable only for a branch of the United States Mint, which landed here as a product of the short-lived gold mining industry that sprung up in the 1830s. The difficulty of shipping agricultural products from the region made the area cut off. The nearby Catawba and Yadkin/Pee-Dee Rivers were too rocky for shipping goods. Roads were long and unreliable to carry goods to places like Columbia or Fayetteville, the nearest ports on navigable stretches of river to the coast. The Blue Ridge Mountains made shipping goods west to the Mississippi River difficult and expensive. As a result, Charlotte stayed small and relatively unimportant.
The railroad changed that, turning Charlotte into a town with a growing merchant base, and a spot of regional importance. The population began growing rapidly, and has grown every decade since 1850.
Along the way, you may have noticed two street names, Hill and Stonewall. Both are named for Confederate officers with local ties, Daniel Hill and Stonewall Jackson (who himself did not live here, but his widow did following his death). Another chapter of the Charlotte story is the embrace of the Confederate cause here, even when Unionist sentiment was relatively strong in much of the state.
You also crossed a wide expressway. We’ll discuss that feature of Uptown later, so keep it in your memory.
And now at this corner, you see lots of new construction rising high above you.
Take a few moments with your group to note what you have seen, heard, smelled, and felt so far. Try to imagine yourself into the history - what might it have felt like? When you’ve talked with the people in your group, and paused to take in the scene, continue moving north, noting everything that grabs your senses along the way. We will pause again at the intersection of Tryon and Trade Streets.
Independence Square, Trade and Tryon
Welcome to Independence Square, the central intersection of Charlotte. Just as Tryon Street, which runs roughly north and south, was an ancient trading path, so was Trade Street, which runs east and west. This intersection has been a site where people meet to encounter one another, to exchange goods, to share culture and language and stories, for longer than humans can remember.
Before we dive deeper, pause to think about that in silence. Looking around, you can imagine the continuity: this soil has been been trodden for thousands of years by many peoples and cultures. You can also see the discontinuity between ancient trading paths and the built environment as it exists now. Consider that in your imagination for a moment. Consider your own place in that long story.
You’ll note that at this intersection are four statues. We’re going to spend a few moments pondering some of them, and we’ll return here later for the others. First, let’s get oriented: on the northeast corner is “Future,” on the southwest corner, “Industry,” on the northwest corner is “Commerce,” and on the southeast corner is “Transportation.” These four statues are key to understanding the city,
We’ve already been talking about transportation. We are walking along an ancient road. We are walking parallel to an important railway that caused the city to grow rapidly, a growth that still has not stopped. All around you, you see people on the move, going here and there. Cities, in some way, are built around movement. But transportation networks can work well sometimes, and they can also leave some people out. Think and talk with those who are with you about moving around in Charlotte. What is it like for you? What do you think it is like for people in other neighborhoods?
On the southwest corner is the statue called “Industry.” You cannot see many relics of industry from where you are standing now, but producing goods has been part of Charlotte’s growth from the beginning. At first, nearly everyone was a farmer in some way. Some worked on very small scales, others on larger scales, and a few on a very large scale. What do you know about that kind of work? What do you know about who did that work?
A dominant industry that came up as the city grew was the textile industry. Around the center city in most directions, with the exception of to the southeast, industrialists built mills to produce textiles (and sometimes paper, as in the case of Savona Mill in the west side). Mill owners often built many small houses for their workers, forming the basis for many of today’s close-in neighborhoods. What do you know about mill work? What do you know about who did that work, and what the working conditions were like?
Charlotte still has lots of industrial jobs today, but you cannot see them from here. Where are those jobs? Who works them? How do transportation and industry work together today?
On the northwest corner is the statue for commerce. The world of commerce is built around trading and money. Let’s think for a minute about Charlotte’s relationship with money. You might consider these things:
The first large wave of growth here came from the discovery of gold in the area, first in Cabarrus County, and later about one mile south of here, on the western side of South End, in an area today being marketed as the “Gold District.”
Charlotte today is the second-largest banking center in the country, behind only New York City.
The banking industry in Charlotte grew rapidly with the change of interstate commerce laws and the proliferation of bank mergers. In the 1970s, the city was home to many small local banks, and several larger regional ones. There were no national banks at that time. Through the 1980s and 1990s, local banks began a series of mergers and acquisitions that created national banks, which now comprise a large portion of the industry. Chief among those is Bank of America, whose headquarters building towers 900 feet above us here on this corner.
Money does not flow equally, or well, into every part of this city. What do you know about the movement of money around the city? What reminders have you seen along the way that even in the shadows of the cathedrals of commerce, money can be scarce for some people?
We will return to the fourth statue later. We’ve been making a journey inward, into the heart of the city and its story of transportation, industry, and commerce. We will now journey outward by continuing northward on Tryon Street to Eighth Street. Remember to pay close attention to the sights and sounds you encounter along the way.
North Tryon, between 8th and 9th
Along North Tryon Street, you’ve seen probably noticed several common themes. One of them is the placement of several prominent church buildings. Those you have seen are not the only ones you would have seen 50 years ago. From here back to the square we can recount these: First United Methodist, where we stand now, which was formed in the early 1900s from the merger of Trinity Methodist and Tryon Street Methodist; at the northeast corner of 7th and Tryon was St. Mark’s Lutheran, today on Queens Road near Edgehill Road; on the southwest corner is St. Peter’s Episcopal, the oldest Episcopal congregation in the area; across from that, just one lot south of the corner, is the former site of First Baptist Church, now Spirit Square (and their current plant we’ll see a little later); and on the next corner, at 6th and Tryon, was Second Presbyterian Church, which gave birth to Covenant Presbyterian in Dilworth when they merged with Westminster PC and moved from Uptown.
Religious history is essential in understanding Charlotte. What do you note about the locations, the structures, and the social character of those religious institutions you have seen? What do they look like? Who goes there? What does the movement of congregation away from Uptown imply?
If you’ve been to older cities up north, or in Europe, you’ll often find that governmental and religious buildings occupy the most prominent public spaces. Here, our most prominent public space is Independence Square, which has bank buildings on all four corners. What does this suggest?
As you’ve moved out from the Square, you may have noticed that the people you see nearby may present differently in terms of both race and class. What do you know about this change? How do you experience it in yourself? What might it suggest about the way the city is built or organized?
After you’ve had a little time to talk with the people you are walking with, walk one block further north to 9th Street, and then turn west onto 9th Street. You are entering now into the Fourth Ward neighborhood.
Proceed 3 blocks to Pine Street, then turn south and move through Fourth Ward Park to the corner of 6th and Poplar.
At the fountain at 6th and Poplar, take a few minutes to think about what you have seen in Fourth Ward.
Who was there, visually?
What did the shapes and spaces look like?
How were your senses activated?
How are neighborhoods built differently now than they were when most of Fourth Ward was constructed?
Did you notice the mix of housing availability? Around you were several developments of subsidized housing, both privately and publicly owned, and market-rate apartment, condos, and houses that sell for prices from $250,000 to well over $1 million.
From an historical perspective, Fourth Ward was long a somewhat wealthier neighborhood than the other three wards, but not extravagantly so. Many of the city’s wealthy elite lived in other areas, including First Ward and Third Ward. They lived alongside middle class and poor people, with spaces tending not to be segregated into wide areas of a single race or a single class. Take a minute to talk with those around, or to reflect on your own, on how that history is different than the Charlotte that you experience today, and how it might be consistent with some places in the city today (or in your own hometown, if you live elsewhere).
From this spot, you’ll make a choice: if you have time and energy, you can turn right on 6th and go to Elmwood and Pinewood Cemeteries. This will add 1.5 miles, and approximately 45 minutes to your experience. If not, move southward on Poplar, and mid-block, enter into Settlers’ Cemetery using the stairs on your left. There are a few interpretive signs in the cemetery. Take a few minutes to wonder, then depart the exit at 5th and Church Streets and proceed south one block to the corner of Trade and Church, near the front of First Presbyterian Church.
Trade Street, headed eastward
From the front of First Presbyterian, take a moment to reflect and consider with those around you on the following:
The name “Settlers’ Cemetery” carries in it some loaded language that requires some contemplation. One unavoidable reality of the land where you’ve been walking is that it has been deeply altered by the strategy of settler-colonialism. Colonialism is the establishment of colonies by empires for the purpose of economic extraction and political expansion. In the colonial vision, the empire leaves once the desired extraction or expansion has accomplished the desired goal. In settler-colonialism, though, the colonizers never leave. They stay.
How does what you’ve seen so far suggest to you the legacy of settler-colonialism?
What and who has been left out or not represented in the art, architecture, and planning you have seen?
You are standing in front of a church, specifically First Presbyterian, the mother congregation of the single most important denominational group in the settling of Charlotte. It stands adjacent to Settlers’ Cemetery. Religious history and practice are tied up deeply with settler-colonialism. How have you experienced that? How can you see it in the cityscape? Who do you know that is bringing this legacy to light, and working to establish a different legacy?
Leaving from First Presbyterian, you’ll proceed east on Trade Street, moving through Independence Square again. On the northeast corner, as you pass, you’ll see the statue called “Future.” For the last portion of our experience, we’ll reflect more on this theme.
East Trade and Brevard Street
As you head downhill on Trade Street, you pass underneath the tracks of the LYNX Blue Line light rail. This is the rail line that began as the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad, which transformed the city in the era just prior to the Civil War and set the stage for its rapid growth.
You’ll turn right on Brevard Street, which was formerly one of the primary thoroughfares through the Second Ward neighborhood, into which we are entering. The cityscape here looks a bit different. As you are moving, consider that difference. What do you see? What do you not see? What types of buildings are present? What other physical attributes are here? What might you infer about the story of these blocks from just the physical landscape you see?
Brooklyn and Second Ward
You are entering Second Ward, a neighborhood formerly called Brooklyn. Brevard Street was one of the primary business streets of Brooklyn in its heyday, from the 1920s through the early 1950s. It is hard to find the evidence of that now. On your way down Brevard Street, pause at the corner of 3rd Street to note the markers and the murals at the former Mecklenburg Investment Company and Grace AME Zion buildings.
Second Ward, following the Civil War, grew up as a neighborhood that had a slight majority of Black residents. People around the world tend to cluster together, and Brooklyn would have had some evidence of that. But beginning in 1898, white supremacist rhetoric and violence heated up around the state of North Carolina. The results were horrific - a massacre that overthrew the town government in Wilmington, the threats of violence against Black people at voting booths across the state, and following the election, the rapid establishment of Jim Crow laws in North Carolina. This happened immediately following, and in direct response to, a period in North Carolina politics where Black people and poor white people voted and advocated together, and won elections and legislative victories.
Shortly after that election, Charlotte became quickly segregated. One local historian, Tom Hanchett, calls it “sorting out.” The city became sorted by race, and much of the Black population lived in Brooklyn.
The neighborhood existed over the next 60 years in the tension between the severe repression and oppression of rule by white supremacy, and the extraordinary creativity and resourcefulness of its own residents. Brooklyn became a self-contained city, with its own churches, schools, funeral homes, businesses, insurance companies, banks, and doctors - everything necessary to make life work.
At the same time, neighbors lacked capital, they lacked access to systemic reforms, and they lacked the political power to change their full context of the city. So Brooklyn grew, and it thrived, and it also faced limitations that no neighborhood could overcome because of the organized oppression around them.
And so what happened in Charlotte’s Brooklyn neighborhood also happened in hundreds of other Black neighborhoods around the country, and in some ethnic enclaves and poor white areas as well. Given the neighborhood’s location in a prime area, city aldermen and business leaders began a campaign to access federal Urban Renewal funds to take the neighborhood by eminent domain, to raze all of its structures, and to build a new urban area with space for public institutions alongside lots of new private development.
Beginning in 1961, more than 1,000 families were displaced, more than 200 businesses closed, 12 churches relocated, and untold damage done in remaking the landscape. The destruction was so thorough that it is hard to tell now that anything else was ever here. But there are a few clues. Proceed to the corner of Caldwell Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd and we’ll look for a few of those signs.
Caldwell Street and MLK Blvd
One hint that some big changes have happened here exists with the street itself. Almost all of the Uptown area is built on a grid. The exceptions to that are in places where something happened. The curve here in MLK Blvd (formerly 2nd Street) is one of those clues. The street grid was completely erased, with both 1st and 2nd Streets being moved into a single thoroughfare in between the places where they formerly ran. You may have driven or walked along that curve 100 times. It was always inviting you to notice that some serious disruption had taken place, and there is still evidence of it if you know how to look.
Though Second Ward has seen a fair amount of new construction over the past decade, you’ll note there is still one significant feature here that you don’t find in most other places downtown: surface parking lots. Pause for a moment to reflect on what used to sit where those parking lots used to be - stores, social clubs, houses, apartments, restaurants.
Part of the story of Urban Renewal in Charlotte is that when the razing of Brooklyn occurred, white families and institutions were mostly moving away from town and into the suburbs. When the city’s Redevelopment Authority put the newly vacated lots up for auction in anticipation of new development, they were met with a big surprise - no one wanted them. There were three auctions in the mid-1960s. There were few bids, and two of the winners were car dealerships, which are classic suburban types of uses - large lots for vehicles. The third, which you can see from here, was First Baptist Church. Consider how the presence of that institution in this space functions as a symbol of the story of this place.
The other large use of Urban Renewal lands was for building expressways. Both I-277 and I-77 were built as portions of Urban Renewal projects. Not only did they lead to immense suffering from the Black communities displaced for their construction, but they also did not have their desired effect. Planners want fast travel to make it easier for suburban white families to come downtown and keep the streets busy. In practice, what happened was that the highways and the parking lots made it easy to leave immediately after work and not return. In the case of Brooklyn, 238 acres were taken. White city leaders promised a renewed vision of downtown, one that was appealing to white families and extremely costly to Black ones. In the end, Black residents paid the cost, and 60 years later, many empty or underutilized lots remain.
You can see a few images from Brooklyn’s history embedded in the side of Metro School at the southeast corner of MLK and Davidson.
Leaving the Labyrinth
If you parked at Covenant Presbyterian, you’ll return there by walking down MLK and turning south onto McDowell Street, where you’ll cross under the expressway.
If you parked elsewhere, or arrived by some other method of transport, you’ll head on where you need to from here.
Along the way, talk with those around you about that “Future” statue. As we’ve walked inward and outward in multiple directions around the heart of the city, we’ve discussed lots of history, seen a lot of architecture, and encountered many people. The future invites some reflection - we get to choose how to make it. We can both build on past growth and repair past mistakes. The future can also become a way of avoiding reality. By focusing on what is coming, we deflect the mistakes of the past, and our responsibility to ourselves and our neighbors in correcting those mistakes, whether we were the ones who made them or not.
The exit from a labyrinth emphasizes the return to the world of action. Moments of quiet, embodied contemplation are necessary, but reflection points us to a course of action consistent with our faith practices. One Hebrew prophet characterized faith as “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.” On your way out from this city-as-labyrinth experience, think about these things:
What possibilities have I seen that I can work toward in the life of the city?
What do I need to say “No” to in order to be a better neighbor, especially to those who have suffered from the history of this place?
What gift do I have that I can use in the public life of Charlotte/my hometown?
What do I want to learn more about to help inform my course of action?
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