CHARLOTTE, N.C. >> This has always been a place that has prided itself on order, consensus and a can-do corporate mentality that turned a locale with no real geographic reason to exist into one of the hemisphere’s financial dynamos.
It has also gained a reputation for racial amity, from its nationally recognized commitment to busing and integrated schools in the 1970s and ’80s, to the election of Harvey Gantt in 1983 as one of the South’s first prominent black mayors.
But the fatal police shooting on Tuesday of a black resident, Keith Lamont Scott, and the protests that have followed are among numerous bumps and jolts that have shaken Charlotte’s sense of itself recently as it emerged from a successful small city to a more complicated larger one.
After decades in which it willed itself to big-city status, Charlotte in the last decade has had to grapple with a host of big-city problems, including a corruption scandal that brought down a mayor, a recession that shook the banking industry to its foundations, a previous fatal police shooting of a black man in 2013 that sent angry residents into the streets and, this year, a high-profile culture war with the state legislature over an anti-discrimination ordinance.
There has also been a growing realization here of the depths of poverty that have come to coexist alongside the comfortable New South reality enjoyed by the city’s business class.
Charlotte, with an estimated population of 827,000, is a city of golf-club memberships, late-model SUVs in church parking lots and small plates of rabbit gnocchi at the clubby Wooden Vine Wine Bar and Bistro.
But Mecklenburg County, of which Charlotte is the county seat, also ranked 99th among the largest 100 counties in the United States in a 2015 measure of poor children’s economic mobility.
It was one reason that the explosion of frustration this week did not catch everyone off guard.
“I’m not surprised,” said state Rep. Carla Cunningham, an African-American who represents the neighborhood where Scott was slain. “These social ills, at some point we must address them because that is part of the hopelessness that these people are feeling.”
On Wednesday night, Cunningham joined a few dozen people, many of them black, around the growing shrine to Scott in the parking lot of the tidy suburban-style apartment complex where he was shot.
They spoke passionately about the need for police reform, but also about the fact that it was hard for them to get by in Charlotte.
One woman said she was ready for her reparations payments, and for her promised 40 acres of land. “You can keep the mule,” she quipped.
LaWana Mayfield, a black woman who is a member of the City Council, said the week had been “a wake-up call for some people in Charlotte.”
But she quickly added: “For a lot of people in Charlotte, it’s not a wake-up call. It’s a reality that we have already been dealing with.”
Charlotte has long been a city built on business.
Tom Hanchett, a historian here, notes that it was originally situated along a Native American trading path. It began to emerge as a banking powerhouse in the 1980s in part because of the efforts of Hugh L. McColl Jr., a banker and former Marine who, as chief executive of the NCNB Corp., a Charlotte bank, oversaw a series of mergers and acquisitions and creative deals.
The end product was the giant Bank of America corporation, today the state’s sixth-largest private employer. Charlotte attracted even more banks, a number of corporate headquarters, and more and more people whose main interest was commerce.
The newcomers who flocked here for new opportunities encountered a Southern city that had, in the 1950s and 1960s, chosen a relatively moderate, integrationist path, in contrast to places like Birmingham, Ala.
But the city, which produces 30 percent of North Carolina’s gross domestic product, also suffers from serious racial disparities in income.
Gene Nichol, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has been studying poverty in the city, noted in a recent study that the median household income for whites in Mecklenburg County is 86 percent more than the household income for black and Hispanic households.
“Charlotte has something of a structural problem which is not uncommon,” in the United States, Nichol said Thursday. “Charlotte produces a lot of good jobs, a lot of high-income employment, and also a very large number of low-wage jobs that do not provide an adequate living standard.”
Charlotte residents like Samuel Henderson can feel stuck between the promise of the city of commerce and the reality of the city of the grind.
Henderson, 24, an African-American, is a house cleaner at a Charlotte hotel. He has some college education and two young children. He knows there are good jobs here, he said Thursday, “but you’ve got to go to college for them.”
He dreams of a future in which he starts his own business in Charlotte. But when asked if that future will be bright, he equivocated.
“It’s a tough question,” he said.
Though the Great Recession has come and gone here, the bomb that it set off in the banking industry shook the city’s confidence, said David Erdman, a lawyer and former member of the Charlotte City Council.
Particularly distressing, Erdman said, was the 2008 fall of the giant Charlotte-based financial services corporation Wachovia, which was eventually acquired by Wells Fargo. At the time, McColl, in an interview with The Charlotte Observer, called the fall of Wachovia “a body blow to the city.”
Other shudders were felt in the public sector in June 2014, when Patrick D. Cannon, who had stepped down as mayor in March, pleaded guilty to federal charges that he had accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of bribes and perks from business interests while in office.
In less than a year between 2013 and 2014, four different people served as mayor.
It was a surprising stain on a political system that many here had long considered to be efficient and clean. It is also a system that has thrived on consensus and power-sharing within a moderate band of business-friendly political expression.
Voters over the years have backed both Gantt, a Democrat, and Pat McCrory, a Republican, who served as mayor from 1995 to 2009. McCrory is currently the North Carolina governor. The current mayor, Jennifer Roberts, is a Democrat.
But that sense of low-key politics, too, seems to have ebbed with the City Council’s approval, in February, of an ordinance that allowed transgender people to use, while in publicly owned buildings, the restroom that corresponded with their gender identity.
By the end of March, the Republican-controlled General Assembly, backed by McCrory, had passed legislation that overturned Charlotte’s ordinance and restricted bathroom access for transgender people in public buildings across the state. A political, legal and cultural firestorm ensued.
Performers like Bruce Springsteen canceled concerts in the state. The Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA have pulled championship games out of the state. The NBA decided to move the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans. In May, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state over the law, claiming it discriminated against transgender people.
“Doggone, this has caused problems for our city and state,” said Erdman, including a testing of Charlotte’s consensus model.
McCrory, who was popular among many Democrats as well as Republicans during his long tenure as Charlotte mayor, now finds himself in a difficult re-election race against his Democratic challenger and potentially alienated from voters in the state’s largest city.
Tuesday’s police shooting came as no great surprise to Henderson, the hotel worker. He remembers similar protests after a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer shot Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed college student and football player, in 2013. The officer in that case was charged with voluntary manslaughter, but the case ended in a hung jury and a mistrial.
All of this complicated history was going around in Henderson’s head on Thursday as he mopped the floors of the hotel. But as he exchanged pleasantries with a visitor in the lobby, he spoke only of the most unruly protesters, and how they had complicated the cherished narrative of progress here.
“They’re making it worse,” he said, “not making it better.”