Friday, December 24, 2010

Messages turn tree into a beacon

Four dozen ornaments, hanging from a dogwood tree on a Myers Park front lawn.

Stars and snowflakes and colored balls.

On them, handwritten in marker, are messages.

Hope you have an awesome Christmas

We love you guys

They started appearing eight days before Christmas - first a few dangling from branches, then a few more. The owners of the tree were delighted to discover their front yard display. Then they went out for a closer look.

Peace, love and health to you

I love you so much and have been praying for your family

Last month, difficult news came to the house. A husband and father of two had advanced cancer.

Their friends and church family at Myers Park United Methodist have done what friends and family do, planning visits and organizing meals. A couple of those friends, during a walk in the neighborhood, wondered if they could do more. One remembered a family receiving a Christmas tree with paper hearts one holiday.

Why not decorate their real tree, in the front yard, with messages and Scripture?

"We thought this was a way people could reach out and lift them up throughout this journey," said one, Sarah McKinney.

They sent out an e-mail.

For with God, nothing will be impossible

The ornaments have come, two or three a day, with a small flurry of them on Christmas Eve. Sometimes they appear overnight. Sometimes they're being hung just as someone is going out for the mail.

The illness is still new and still raw, so family members don't want their names revealed now. But one, standing next to the tree Friday morning, wanted to say how much the ornaments have meant, how much hope their words have carried, and how beautiful they are to see. "They twinkle at night," she says.

May you know the peace that passes all understanding

Peace. It's the message of the season, a promise delivered by angels to shepherds long ago. But on this day and many days, we wonder how on Earth we can find this peace. We're battered by wars and staggered by suffering, and even in our homes, the joy of the holiday can instead be hollowed by financial strain, a fractured family, a diagnosis.

But the promise we've received is not the promise of peace, but the opportunity to find it, if we choose. And if we choose, it's out there in small and powerful ways. A moment of quiet beauty. The kindness of strangers and friends. Four dozen ornaments on a dogwood tree.

Embrace hope with all your heart

Not enough to erase sadness, but to discover, at its edge, some joy.

Let all those rejoice who put their trust in you

And peace.

Merry Christmas

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Mayor's choice: Private school, public scorn?

Would you feel better this morning if you knew Charlotte’s mayor sent his child to public schools?

Anthony Foxx’s oldest child goes to Charlotte Country Day this year, and he’s not talking about why. But lots of others have been, including the man who used to have his job.

Earlier this month, former Mayor Pat McCrory blew on the public- vs. private-school embers a bit during a taping of the WCNC-TV news show “Flashpoint.” In a conversation about budget cuts at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, McCrory called for leaders to “step up and lead by example.”

“(They) are actually sending their kids to private schools...,” he said. “That’s why we have a difference in the economic status. That’s why we often have a difference in the racial status is because a lot of the leaders are not sticking with public schools.”

McCrory was careful to include business and community leaders in his poke, but the only people he identified were Foxx and Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, who has two children at Charlotte Christian.

Let’s get something out of the way here: McCrory is childless. He’s never signed a report card or sweated a parent-teacher conference. So yes, the bolts are a bit loose on his parenting soapbox. But he’s not disqualified from speaking about how the current mayor’s choices are perceived.

McCrory, a Republican, spent seven terms cultivating what people think about Charlotte, and he’s right about CMS. The schools are facing a public crisis of confidence, and much of that crisis comes from a tangle of race and socioeconomics. The people who can help our schools are often the people who are fleeing from them – taking their children from public classrooms to private, leaving CMS as a majority minority district.

Foxx, a Democrat, knows this, too. He’s a West Charlotte High grad, and he’s spoken passionately about the importance of our public schools. What statement could be more powerful, McCrory and others wonder, than if he expressed confidence in those schools with his child’s presence?

McCrory hasn’t said, however, which public choice would be the right one for Foxx.

Would it be OK, symbolism-wise, if the mayor moved his family to a different school zone – perhaps farther south in Charlotte, as many parents have – so that his children could have an academically stronger or more stable public school path?

How about one of CMS’s magnets – or does that send a poor message about neighborhood schools?

Those aren’t the considerations parents ponder when we’re sitting at our kitchen tables with our spouses, looking at school profiles and statistics, trying to find the best fit for our son or daughter.

Maybe we want a school where teachers push a gifted child harder – or one with a nurturing environment for a child who struggles. Maybe it’s one that can nourish an artistic-minded boy or girl – or a school with a spiritual grounding that complements our household’s.

It’s difficult enough figuring out what’s best for our own family – let alone someone else’s – but surely we understand this: You don’t play politics with your children’s future.

Anthony Foxx has chosen not to. He’s also decided not to speak publicly on the topic, so we don’t know what considerations he’s needed to ponder at his kitchen table.

But he knows, as do we, that while symbolism can be powerful, it also has its limitations. Would you feel better about public schools if our mayor sent his child to one tomorrow morning? Probably not.

Because symbolism, sometimes, is the gap between what we wish and what we know, and Foxx’s choice is an acknowledgment of what the rest of us know about most private vs. public schools here. He’s just fortunate enough to do something about it.

That’s his duty as a parent, and we shouldn’t expect different from anyone, even if he happens to be mayor.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A forgotten star's time to shine, finally

On Thursday morning, at Charlotte’s oldest country club, Paul Grier swapped his work jacket and corduroys for slacks and a pullover shirt. He walked past the stately clubhouse columns to the main ballroom. Handshakes and backslaps were waiting for him.

Grier has worked at Charlotte Country Club since 1972, when a friend recommended him for a job on the maintenance crew. He’s done some caddying through the years, and he’s done some landscaping on the side for members. On this morning, about 50 of them were hosting a luncheon in his honor – not because he was retiring, but because they wanted to tell him what they thought of him.

And if you think 38 years is a long time to wait to do something like that, well, a lot of us have been overdue with Paul Grier.

He is, some think, the best basketball player Charlotte ever raised, which is what the Observer noted when it featured Grier in 1987 – 31 years after he graduated from West Charlotte High. We waited almost another quarter-century before writing about him again – this time on Thanksgiving 2010, as the lead story in a package about black basketball players in the era of segregation.

We called the package the Forgotten All-Stars, and the stories chronicled ballplayers across North Carolina who were ignored by local media and shunned by the state’s major college basketball programs. Fifty years later, we could give them recognition, at least.

And so, at 74, Paul Grier is getting his moment, finally – in the paper, on the radio and, on Thursday morning, at the Charlotte Country Club, where he shared a room with people he called “Mister,” and they lunched on chicken and barbecue near a framed copy of his newspaper story.

In basketball terms, it’s a “make-up” call. Grier has been gracious through it all – and more than happy to talk about his playing days. But when the topic of missed opportunities comes up, he falls quiet. “I never thought about it much, then or now,” he told me for our story. Not long after, when WFAE’s Mike Collins and his radio show guests explored those injustices, Grier shook his head. “No,” he said politely. “I really don’t want to join in.”

Maybe he realized the conversation wasn’t so much about Paul Grier being recognized, but about those doing the recognizing.

When we tell these stories and relive that era, it’s not only about acknowledging our errors (or making ourselves feel better by doing so.) It’s about reminding ourselves that this isn’t ancient history, that every day we sit among people like Grier, who felt the blunt of discrimination. Those experiences, and those scars, still shape the discussions we have about things more important than basketball.

But sometimes, it’s good just to talk about the games.

That’s what Grier likes best, and it’s what he got to do Thursday. When lunch was finished, club members raised their hands to share a story about Grier. Some knew he was a Charlotte playground legend. Some had heard about his high school accomplishments, quite possibly from Grier himself.

“My one regret is that I never got see Paul play ball,” said one.

“It was something to see,” Grier replied, and everyone in the room laughed hard.

They talked more, however, about the Paul they knew. The one who made people smile. The one everyone wanted for a caddie – not only because he knew golf about as well as he knew basketball, but because of his infectious laugh, his good spirit.

Grier, flanked by his daughter Paula and grown grandson DeMario, nodded proudly and laughed some more and, finally, stood to accept an envelope from the members. And when they all rose to applaud and shake his hand once more, he bowed his head and covered his eyes with long fingers. This time, it was their turn to wait, and they did so gladly – not for the basketball player who had been forgotten, but for the good man they know.

•  Forgotten All-Stars: Read the full series

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A picture. A gift. A chance to see progress.

A picture.
Mike is almost ready for his.
He has a collared, pinstripe shirt and a nice pair of pants and an appropriately somber expression. Or maybe a smile would be better. He’s not sure.
It’s been a decade since a camera was pointed his way – in high school, before he lost himself to drinking and drugs, before he realized, as he says: “I don’t know how to live life on life’s terms.”
Now he lives at Hope Haven, a center that gives the homeless and addicted a place to live and relearn how to live. Mike has been here 60 days, and already he has improved, and on this Sunday afternoon in November, he’s about to get tangible evidence of that progress.
A picture.
Three years ago, Kathy Pickard’s church, Covenant Presbyterian, put together a day in which members fanned out across Charlotte to perform service projects. A church staffer suggested that Pickard, a professional photographer, might use her gifts for the event. Who among us might need a picture the most?
Now, one Sunday each year, Pickard sets up an impromptu studio at Hope Haven’s activities center, and residents line up for a professional portrait, free of charge. They wear sweatsuits and dresses, jeans and ties. Some are new residents, just beginning the climb out of their abyss. Some are on the back end of their two-year stay, ready to apply their counseling and life training.
For each, the pictures are a marker. “It lets them see themselves,” says Pickard, “and see what they’ve become.”
But, she knows, the portraits represent something else, too. Pictures are what you have done when you’re a regular person, with a regular life.
“Almost 20 years,” says Cindy, now 47, when asked how long it’s been since she had a picture taken. It was with her daughter, who was just a baby, and the man who was then her husband.
“I’m not really sure,” says Edward, now 43, when asked the same question. But he knows he’s had just one, and he remembers what it was for. “My prison ID,” he says.
“Never,” says George, who is 60. Never had a photo done? “No,” he says. “It just never was something I got to do.”
But now he is in a blue suit and tie, as sharply dressed as anyone on this day. “You’re looking good,” Pickard tells him, then motions: Chin down. Hands on legs. “There you go,” she says, and George smiles through the click.
A picture.
There will be 80 taken on this day, so many that Pickard doesn’t have much time to hear the stories behind the faces she choreographs. Instead, those stories come in small glimpses, quick as a shutter. One man tells her his picture will be a reminder that he’s still here – as in still alive.
Others ask if they can peek at their photo on the back of her camera. “I like that,” says one, surprised. “That’s right,” says another, nodding.
Some will hang these portraits in their apartments as a reminder of how far they’ve come since their lives washed up to Hope Haven’s doors. Most will order extra photos for family.
“I’ll give them to my sisters,” says George, of the picture that will be his first. “They knew me at the lowest.”
“My sister in Virginia,” says Edward, of his first picture since prison. “She’s going to be like, ‘Whoa, look at my brother.’”
“My little girl,” says Mike, who decides on a cautious smile to go with his collared, pinstripe shirt. Mike says he’ll also send copies to his family, some of whom last saw him more than two months ago, when he came to Hope Haven. “I looked like death,” he says.
What will they see now?
Improvement, he says.
And: “That I’m really trying.”
The camera clicks behind him. Another picture, against a simple brown backdrop on a Sunday afternoon. The gift of progress – and the opportunity to see it.
Mike glances over, then back at the question.
They’ll see, he says, “a better me.”

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Through French eyes, a different view of Charlotte

Back in April, a group of Charlotte boys’ and girls’ high school basketball players traveled to Limoges, France, to play in a tournament of teams from Limoges’ sister cities. The Charlotte teams did us and James Naismith proud – affirming our basketball heritage by soundly beating each opponent on the way to both tournament titles.

The group also spent time touring Limoges, a city in west-central France with rich architecture that includes centuries-old chapels and ruins from the first century, when Limoges was a Roman settlement. This past week, we did our part in this cultural exchange, hosting a team of high school boys who spent seven days playing basketball and touring the area.

We know what some of you are thinking.

A week in France. A week in Charlotte.

Someone is clearly getting a better exchange rate here.

Alina MacNichol hears that sort of thing all the time. She’s executive director of Charlotte International Cabinet, a non-profit that promotes Charlotte as an international city. Her responsibilities include overseeing the visits of groups from sister cities, including Limoges.

Do people here sometimes smirk at her task of showing international visitors our culture? “Yes,” she said, before the question is finished.

So what does a professional try to show others about us?

That depends. If it’s a business group, they get a thorough walk around Uuptown and a drive to the University City area to the innovative Ben Craig Center for entrepreneurs. If it’s a cultural group, they head to the Charlotte Museum of History Charlotte History Museum and the Levine Museum of the New South.

As for teenage basketball players, well, that’s easy. Charlotte is helped by its abundant shopping and sports offerings, as well as the fact that teenagers universally think any place on Earth is more exciting than the place they live.

So instead of the Mint and Bechtler, it was Concord Mills and Carolina Place for the young men from Limoges. The group also got some history from the Levine Museum and civics from the Government Center. And yes, there was a spin around Charlotte Motor Speedway, as well as a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Limoges may have ruins, but we have wrecks.

The team was most excited, however, at getting to see a Charlotte Bobcats practice, where Michael Jordan was in attendance, watching from a balcony. The young men also got to shoot around before Saturday’s game at Time Warner Cable Arena Arena, thanks to Charlotte International Cabinet official Jerry Helms, who happened to be roommates 50 years ago at UNC Chapel Hill with Bobcats coach Larry Brown.

On Friday, before a day at Rocky River High School in Mint Hill, team members spoke about their week, about the glory of cheeseburgers, and cheerleaders, and about how Charlotte was not what they expected. “Everything is bigger,” said Enzo Chaume.

MacNichol hears a lot of that, too. Business groups, she says, are surprised at Charlotte’s diversified economy and hundreds of foreign-owned firms. Others marvel at the city’s liveability and how friendly the people are here.

“They’re surprised at the fact that we have so much that’s at a high level,” she said.

So maybe you think that’s exactly what MacNichol is supposed to say. But it’s what a lot of us heard and said about Charlotte, until the economy took the shine off the Uuptown towers. Now we have a high jobless rate, and we’re fighting over our schools, and the usual escape from all that, our NFL team, is delivering a new dose of grim each week.

But spend some time with a group of French teenage basketball players, and maybe you get a new look at the bigness they see – the buildings and opportunities, the distinct culture of wanting to be better. Despite all the things we aren’t, this is still a place that celebrates that culture, a place that for decades has been – and likely will be – capable of not only surprising others, but ourselves.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Our schools: Sharing the pain, or dismissing it?

A friend told me a story a few years back about a mother, whose child previously attended a Charlotte private school, getting a tour of Eastover Elementary.

It happened in the teeth of the recession, and the school change probably was the product of bigger changes. The mother quietly but politely listened to the tour guide talk about one of Charlotte’s finest public elementary schools, until finally she broke down.

She couldn’t believe, she explained, that her child had to go to Eastover.

It’s a story that’s prompted some combo of eye roll and smirk each time I’ve told it. It seems even more appalling if you saw much of Tuesday’s CMS school board meeting, at which the CMS board closed 10 Charlotte schools, most underfilled or underperforming, in one painful night.

If you did watch, you saw dozens of parents, angry and despairing, asking the school board to reconsider its decision. You saw students who should be worrying about grades and sports and dates, instead learning that the place they walked into that morning would be gone within a year.

It was sacrifice – 10 times over, a painful price of a budget crisis. It’s a story we’ve seen a lot the past three years, in schools and in so many places, and we’re still struggling with what it brings out in all of us.

We’ve become accustomed to a trajectory in our lives – or at least the expectation that our quality of life will improve if we do what we should be doing. It’s as American as anything else about us. We see it, too, in our schools, which have features and offerings that they didn’t have decades ago.

Cutting back on schools has been – and will be – a hard swallow. Any step backward is.

We’ve seen that play out two ways in Charlotte. In the past few months, parents of struggling, low-income schools have lashed out because those schools might close just as they were getting better. The response: To question why the pain is all theirs – and why it isn’t shared with more affluent suburban schools.

In the past few years, we’ve seen those affluent and suburban parents grow weary at overstuffed campuses yet reluctant to reopening talks about school zones. The response, from many: Find alternatives such as private schools and charter schools – or find their way into neighborhoods that are more insulated from change.

That clash of perspectives, of course, is decades old in cities like ours, and now there are more budget cuts coming. We’ll probably see the same approach CMS has used to this point, which is to give struggling schools as many resources as possible to improve, without hitting parents in other schools with enough pain to make them flee.

And for those who wonder what pain they’ve had, an example: At Myers Park High School, 175 classes this year have more than 35 students. At Ardrey Kell High in South Charlotte, it’s 137. At Harding High, it’s two. At West Charlotte, zero.

Tempting as it might be, the school board hasn’t trumpeted numbers like these, and that’s smart. Nobody wins when you start counting and comparing burdens, because inevitably, you start minimizing everyone else’s.

But there’s been a lot of that going around. It’s wrong to dismiss Tuesday’s anger by reasoning that the school closings were prudent, even if true, or that most of the affected students will likely end up in stronger schools.

It’s also wrong to assume that the richer you are, the less you feel the pain.

I thought Tuesday night about the mom on the Eastover tour, not because her sacrifice paled to those last week, but because she didn’t deserve my smirks or anyone else’s. She was, like any of us, a parent who wanted the best she could give her child, and she had constructed a life that offered just that, and now it was being changed.

We’ll be facing a lot of that change in the months to come. There are significant budget cuts on the way. Sacrifices. It would be nice if we could suffer them together.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A question about what government should be

After a week in which voters sent a message about what government shouldn’t be, here’s a story – and a question – about what government can do.

It begins with Anthony Shaheen, who is 23 years old and a Charlotte native. Last year, the Appalachian State grad took a job as an environmental educator for the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department. Last fall, he helped start an outdoor club at McClintock Middle School.

McClintock is a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Title 1 school, with at least three-quarters of its population qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. Each of the 25 boys and girls who joined Shaheen’s club were considered “at-risk” by the school system.

The idea behind the outdoor club was simple: Give the kids an appreciation of nature. In the first year, club members built and tended a school garden with plants native to North Carolina. They went on four field trips to the McDowell Nature Center, where Shaheen works.

On their first hike, a middle-schooler reached down for an acorn, then held it up. “What is this?” he asked.

“They were unaware,” Shaheen says. “I figured in Charlotte, there’s a lot of green space and they’d get a chance to stumble on those things. But they hadn’t had that opportunity.”

So the kids learned. Eagerly. They picked up salamanders and identified trees and fished. They felt wonder in their hands, breathed awe in the cool air of a campsite. And the more they learned, the more they wanted to.

Shaheen also saw bigger changes, measurable changes. Members of his club had a 5 percent decrease in documented misbehavior at McClintock. They had 40 percent fewer unexcused absences.

In part, the improvement came from kids knowing if they messed up, they’d lose participation in the club. But the behavior ran deeper than that. Shaheen remembers that at the beginning of the year, it took club members about 15 minutes to start losing focus. “By the end, you could put a fishing pole in their hand, and they would spend an entire hour content to cast,” he says.

The changes have been so transformative that Shaheen and his colleagues want to expand the club’s concept. Their idea: Take the land at Copperhead Island on Lake Wylie and turn it into a camp for at-risk kids. The county leases the property for $1 a year from Duke Energy. The park department would need, however, to build cabins and a mess hall; the cost could be about $200,000.

And this is the point where some of you say: Whoa.

Is it government’s role to build a camp for disadvantaged children, no matter how worthy the effort might be?

It’s the kind of debate we’ll be having often now, as lawmakers from Washington to Mecklenburg not only confront dire budget shortfalls, but quake at the thought of angering the already angry voter.

Make no mistake: The wave we saw on election night was not merely a tea party phenomenon. It was sustained by moderate voters who reacted to policies that felt less like short-term solutions to crisis than philosophical shifts on the role of government. A lot of Americans felt rightly squeamish about that. And so, we had Tuesday.

But the danger following any election is the pendulum swings too far. The Wild West recklessness of the Bush years resulted in the regulatory overreaching of the Obama administration. Now, it’s fashionable to want to go on a crash government diet.

In that climate, Shaheen and his colleagues have done a smart thing. With budgets getting slashed, they’ve solicited grants from the private sector to help fund programs, including the second year of McClintock’s outdoor club. Shaheen also has asked foundations and others about helping develop the Copperhead Island camp.

It would be a fine way to build a fine program – and not at all unprecedented. Our city and county are full of such public-private partnerships.

But, yes, they do include government. The reality is that sometimes, government has the best resources and willingness to serve us. The challenge, however, is not to lazily assume that’s always so.

Anthony Shaheen doesn’t really think in those terms. He was much more interested this week in talking about kids, not budgets. He defines his work by the impact it has and the successes he sees, not whom he works for.

When we look at his program, and others in this new era, we should judge them the same way.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

CMS and race: Cutting through the noise

On Thursday night, in an auditorium at West Mecklenburg High, Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board Chair Eric Davis introduced himself to a crowd of parents and teachers whose schools he might close. TV cameras pointed his way, as did reporters’ notebooks, ready for drama to break out.

Davis seemed ready, too. As he has at previous forums, he explained briefly why financial strains have caused CMS to consider closing eight schools and changing dozens of others, most in minority-heavy communities. When he finished explaining, he noted that everything he had just said was the logical, rational side to this discussion.

“But,” he said, “there’s another side to it.”

Oh, yes. Davis has, in the past month, been called racist and segregationist, along with his fellow school board members and CMS officials. They likely will be called this all over again Tuesday, when the school board meets to discuss final proposals.

Protests are planned at that meeting, led in part by the local NAACP president, the Rev. Kojo Nantambu, who said this month that CMS had “a diabolical plan, a national plan to close all the inner-city schools.”

It’s been difficult for decades to have a discussion about CMS without including race – and rightly so. In any large metro school system, you have a jumble of parents and communities, each wanting what’s best for their children. You can’t avoid conflicting needs. You can’t avoid past inequities. And you shouldn’t avoid talking about them.

But, for a moment, let’s try.

CMS faces a significant deficit next year – likely somewhere from $30 million to $90 million in state money alone. Add in about $47 million in federal money that won’t be back next year, and CMS officials will have to find at least $75 million in savings from a $1 billion budget.

That number will come from a number of places, including teacher cuts next summer. But CMS has proposed a solution that would lessen those layoffs: close schools that have some combination of poor performance, unfilled classrooms and aging buildings.

Those schools are concentrated mostly in neighborhoods in and near Charlotte’s core. Most of the students who walk through the doors of those schools are black.

And so, we’re back to race. And protests. Nantambu, who was arrested at a forum two weeks ago, has vowed to be loud at Tuesday’s school board meeting. Meanwhile, he declined to attend any more public forums, which he called shams.

So what were we left with Thursday night?

In classrooms and the main auditorium, parents and teachers explained to CMS officials their worries about a plan to send students from closed middle schools to new preK-8 schools. Those schools have had some success in other cities, but they also puts eighth-graders on buses with kindergartners, parents said. And what, they asked thoughtfully, would this mean to their neighborhoods, where schools are a dynamic part of the larger community.

Was race a part of the discussion? Certainly. One questioner wondered why, if the preK-8 plan was so good for their westside schools, that CMS didn’t also try it on schools not filled with minorities. (The answer: Unlike the underfilled schools, there’s no room in suburban schools to combine those grades.)

But drama? There was little. Instead, parents and school advocates spoke about how CMS had brought star principals and teachers to their schools, and how that was working. At Wilson, scores have been improving at a rate greater than any middle school, they said, and Spaugh also was on an upward trajectory. “Can’t we see it through?” one asked, and the crowd heartily applauded.

It not only was a plea, but perhaps an acknowledgement that CMS officials, men and women, whites and blacks, are trying to help their children. In many cases, with staffing and per-student funding and class size restrictions, they have.

Now, those same men and women face difficult choices about the costs that come with trying to saving money. If you’re a cynic, you probably believe school board members already have made their decisions, and the only chance to change their minds is to get loud enough to shame them into it.

Or maybe you can believe that Thursday night was the way to go – that logic and rational thinking can come from all sides and, just maybe, cut through the noise that hijacks too many meaningful discussions in our lives. Because even with questions about schools and race, sometimes the answers aren’t black and white.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Was rainbow light show a statement? Welllll....

If you were within eyeshot of Uptown this week, you might have noticed a twist to the nightly light show at the new Duke Energy Center: A rainbow theme, running atop and down the corners of the 48-story building.

That happened Monday, which also happened to be National Coming Out Day, a nationwide gay and lesbian celebration that included events in Charlotte.

Was it a coincidence? Or was it an uncommonly bold corporate statement – an enthusiastic arm around the shoulder of the gay community as it reels from a brutal attack in New York and teen suicides across the country?

We called Alexandra Ball, the smart and helpful spokeswoman at Wells Fargo Charlotte, which owns the building on South Tryon and operates the light show.

Was the rainbow intentional?

“Yes, it was,” said Alex.

There you go. Bold and enthusiastic. Has anyone complained?

“Um,” she said, sounding a little caught off guard. “No.”

Whose idea was it?

Rustling of papers. More rustling of papers.

“Is this something I can get back to you on?”

Uh-oh. Maybe “enthusiastic” isn’t necessarily the word here.

Let’s set this one up for you: A San Francisco-based bank has its Eastern headquarters in a Southern city. Someone in the bank decides it’s a good idea to light the Southern city’s evening sky with a 48-story stamp of approval for a gay and lesbian event.

Odds are, the person who made this call was a mid-level manager type, because bold statements like this have a tendency to start gasping and wheezing the farther they work their way up the corporate stairwell.

But we weren’t sure what happened. Two hours passed, and no phone call. Clearly, a thoughtful response was under construction.

This is precisely what Wells Fargo had hoped to avoid with its new toy. In an interview this summer about the impending light show launch, Wells Fargo exec Curt Radkin had said the displays would commemorate national holidays, sports successes and significant community events. They would, however, steer clear of religious holidays and controversial events.

Makes sense – you don’t want to loudly take sides on issues that divide your customers. But now that someone apparently had, Wells faced a choice: It could embrace its show of corporate heart. Or it could delicately back away, as in “We welcome one of our employees enthusiastic support for the event, but we are evaluating how these decisions are made company-wide…”

But sooner would be better, Alan Freitag told me, while I was waiting. Alan is an associate professor of public relations at UNC Charlotte. “Someone needs to just say, ‘Yeah, we did it. We thought it was the right thing to do. What’s the problem?’ And it’s over.”

Not only that, it shows us something – a willingness to stand by a conviction. We get those opportunities regularly in our lives, in big ways and small, corporately and personally. Sometimes, they come with a price.

And no, the test of owning up to a rainbow light display isn’t exactly on the level of the cock crowing twice. But it’s a statement to this city, and to a community in this city, at a time when such statements are important.

Which is exactly what Wells Fargo decided to do.

Alex called back four hours later, apologizing for the delay. The light show explanation: A Wells Fargo workplace group here was participating in a local National Coming Out Day event, and someone from the group asked if the light display could be lit to commemorate the day and event. The company made a decision to support that.

“Wells Fargo supports many community events in Charlotte,” Alex said.

Bold? Maybe not. But enthusiastic enough.

And this week, its community is a little better because of it.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

What do we do when giving becomes complicated?

What do we do about the Lockharts?

They are 17 and 19 and 20 and 21, and they live together but alone in a small house in University City. They have mattresses on the floor and no decorations on the walls – but one picture, on a dining room table, of their mother.

The Observer told you in April about Tonya Lockhart, how two of her children, Brittany and Brandon, were about to graduate from North Mecklenburg High. Tonya, who was dying of cervical cancer, wasn’t sure she’d make it to graduation day, so her doctor and the high school arranged a ceremony on a Monday morning at Presbyterian Hospital.

Tonya hugged her children, in caps and gowns. Two days later, she died.

What did we do?

Readers wrote checks to pay for Tonya’s funeral. We donated more money to help the children with the next steps of their lives. A Charlotte church collected it all – more than $44,000 – and arranged for a non-profit for homeless families, the W.I.S.H. Program, to put together a team of volunteers to help guide Tonya’s children.

One woman, from Blowing Rock, offered to pay for the Lockharts’ college education.
It was an extraordinary outpouring – and wonderfully unsurprising. This can be a fine, generous place to live, with kindness that again and again provides happier endings to hard stories.

Except, as we know, that most endings aren’t really endings.

Neither Brittany nor Brandon had the credits to graduate from North Meck in June – and neither has yet graduated, although Brandon is back at school. None of the four is working, and none at this point has enrolled in college.

Also, there is tension between the W.I.S.H. program and the children, who believe the donated money should have gone directly to them instead of having the program make judgments on needs vs. wants. Brittany, in protest, has yet to attend a meeting with the W.I.S.H. team volunteers.

It has been bumpy, even ugly at times. It may be disheartening, too, for those of you who donated money and are reading this now. It certainly has been for the volunteers who raised their hands to work with the family.

“They say, ‘I didn’t know it was going to be this hard,' ” says W.I.S.H. official Lisa Howell.

It usually is. When we decide to give our money and our time, we often confront a gap between our lives and those lives caught in generations of poverty. It’s a gulf that involves not only money, but different expectations and definitions of success, different emphasis on the tools needed to get there – and a shortage of models who can show how it’s done.

Our good intentions can’t overcome that, not in six months. Our assumption that donations would quickly go toward the next, logical step of college?

“That may not be a realistic expectation,” says W.I.S.H. executive director Darren Ash.

So what do we do about the Lockharts?

They are 17 and 19 and 20 and 21 – still kids, really – and they sat in their dining room recently and talked about their lives and struggles.

And yes, they say, they are struggling. They appreciate the donations people made this spring, but they don’t like that strangers are telling them how to spend money that other strangers gave them. “That’s about the whole issue we have,” says Brittany.

They are adjusting, perhaps, to that reality. The brothers have attended meetings with the W.I.S.H. volunteers, and Brian, the oldest, has worked to get his driver’s license and is planning to enroll at Central Piedmont Community College in January. Brittany says she’d like to go to cosmetology school then.

She says, too, that she will attend the next family meeting with the team.

For now, they are learning to pay bills, to budget, to be self sufficient. That, says Ash, is what success will look like, if the kids choose it. Because ultimately, the Lockharts will have to do for themselves.

That’s what Tonya Lockhart wanted for her children. She was a single mother who moved her family to Section 8 housing in a middle-class University City neighborhood. She got a job and stayed in that job and leaned on her kids to go to class so they could do the same.

She saw for them a simple but difficult thing – a break from the cycle of poverty that so few in her family had broken from. It was happening, before she died, and it’s why the W.I.S.H. team is persevering with her children.

So this is what we do for the Lockharts – or for anyone.

We give not expecting results, but to improve their possibility. We give not to be the solution, but to offer someone a better chance to find theirs.

We do it knowing we may be disappointed.

And if we are?

We give some more.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Penguin battle: A story of change

Five months ago, Brian Rowe sat at the counter of The Diamond in Plaza Midwood, an awkward witness to a Charlotte restaurant owner’s farewell.

Jerry Pistiolis was retiring after 28 years of running the cozy diner, and the Charlotte legal crowd that came each day had come once more for a sad but warm celebration. It was an Old Charlotte moment, but also a Plaza Midwood moment.

Pistiolis was selling the joint to three other guys in the neighborhood, including two who had revived another old restaurant around the corner, The Penguin. Rowe and Jimmy King seemed out of place that day, tattooed and T-shirted amid the suits and khakis. But they were gracious to Pistiolis, and they said all the right words about how things at the Diamond wouldn’t change that much.

But now, everything else has.

On Wednesday afternoon, Rowe was again at the Diamond’s counter, texting, making phone calls, agitated. About a decade after buying the rights to operate the Penguin and turning it into one of Charlotte’s few funky treasures, he and King were out. The pair had planned on running the Diamond and Penguin as sister restaurants, but the Ballentine family, which owns The Penguin’s building and name, had decided not to renew their lease.

“We got the shaft,” Rowe said, but he didn’t want to say so publicly, because he worried that a fight might fracture Plaza Midwood’s close-knit community, which already was taking sides. By Thursday, however, Rowe and King had decided that the high road is the place you get run over. “We will do whatever is necessary to deal with this situation and be treated fairly,” they said in a news release.

In other words, the lawyers are now on the menu. Welcome, Plaza Midwood, to the other side of success.

The fight has set off a buzz both fretful and angry in Charlotte, a testament to how hungry we still are here for authenticity. The Penguin is a simple restaurant, a blue-collar joint with fine, cheap food and a let-it-ride attitude. To Charlotteans, it’s not only one of our few truly hip places, but the place we most often pointed at to show others we were capable of hipness.

And now? The Ballentines promise the new Penguin will be the same, with one small exception: The place that proudly flipped the spatula at the chain restaurant culture will be pursuing franchise opportunities.

In Plaza Midwood, the reaction has been more personal. The Penguin sparked a business renaissance there, showing others that you could be true to this rugged neighborhood – and still be successful. It spawned similar places – restaurants and shops that have developed into a dynamic, organic community, supportive of each others’ successes, different.

The businesses and customers celebrated that difference, occasionally with a sneer at Charlotte’s banking culture and Starbucks sippers. But what’s made Plaza Midwood thrive is what’s made much of Charlotte a place we want to be – entrepreneurship, big and small, a sense of wanting more, wanting better. Lulu and Zada Jane’s and Soul? They came to the neighborhood because of the lower rent and committed clientele – the opportunity to make a dollar. You can put a tattoo on it, but it’s still business.

And so comes the byproduct of that culture. A fully lawyered dispute. A family that will move on without the guys who brought its old restaurant to prominence. And now, two guys trying to get what’s theirs – most likely a bigger buyout, but at the risk of dividing a community.

Brian Rowe struggled with that this past week, at his new counter in his new restaurant.

“There’s good change,” he said, “and there’s bad change.”

And, maybe for Plaza Midwood, there’s change that’s inevitable.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Could Charlotte fall out of love with the Panthers?

Once upon a time, Charlotte loved its pro basketball team. We threw it a parade after a last-place inaugural season. We quivered with pride at its first playoff series win. It was a prominent symbol of our new prominence as a city. We couldn’t imagine that changing.

It did, of course, and when we look back a decade to the end of the Charlotte Hornets, we usually point to owner George Shinn’s lurid sexual assault trial and his arrogant expectation of a publicly funded arena. But before all of that, something already had changed. Shinn, who began mumbling early about a better arena, had decided to let popular but expensive players go, including Alonzo Mourning. A merely good team seemed good enough for him.

It was then that we realized our pro franchise cared a little more about money than we wanted. By the time the Hornets came looking in earnest for that arena, well, Charlotte wasn’t so much in love anymore.

Today, the Carolina Panthers open their home schedule with the wrong kind of vibe. The team has spent the offseason jettisoning popular players and stashing the savings from those departures. Jerry Richardson, once the owner Charlotte could count on to not raise our eyebrows, has shoved his sons out the door and left his respected head coach a lame duck.

On the field, most experts pick the Panthers to be adequate at best, which leaves us right about where we left them, with one winning season since 2005. Except that you’ll pay more to watch, thanks to an increase in ticket prices.

Richardson has been characteristically quiet about it all, other than an interview with the team-owned Roar magazine. In that May chat, he defended the ticket increase by explaining that the Panthers’ revenues are in the bottom half of the NFL, which is a lot like complaining about living in one of the smaller houses on Queens Road West.

It could be that the team is being prudent with free agents and big contracts in the face of NFL labor uncertainty. But fan bases want their teams to be smart with money, not just thrifty – and other teams are spending, many of them smartly, to win.

The Panthers? They have the feel of a franchise that’s calculating how much it has to spend to keep its fans happy enough. The early answer from those fans: More. The team avoided a TV blackout this week by selling out hours before Thursday’s deadline – a troubling sign for a home opener.

Could Charlotte fall out of love with its pro football team? It happens. Sports industry guru Marc Ganis regularly sees complacency develop between cities and their pro franchises, even in the NFL. Often, he says, it’s because management and marketing get stale. Almost always, it’s because of this: “Expectations for success on the field aren’t met.”

All of which is standard sports page stuff – until teams start wanting some help with a stadium.

Last month, the Observer reported that Panthers President Danny Morrison had two meetings with City Manager Curt Walton. Of interest to the team is a 20-ish-acre tract of vacant land near the stadium on West Morehead Street. Could be a spot for a new stadium. Could be a place for a profitable team-owned parking lot, which the Panthers have pined for in the past.

The asking price for the land was $40 million a couple years back. It’s probably less now, and it’s available with a phone call to a commercial Realtor. So why the need to chat up the city manager? A hint: The current stadium was built with about $50 million of land and early development contributions from the city and county.

That was a good deal for Charlotte then, and it perhaps could be again when the team inevitably asks for new help. It’s difficult to imagine Charlotte losing its affection for the Panthers and Richardson, who has historically made so many right moves.

“I just don’t see the Panthers becoming complacent,” says Ganis, who is a Richardson fan.

But it happens. It happens in cities with richer sports histories and deeper-rooted fan bases. It happens because teams assume fans will always come, and that cities will always stay in love.

What happens then? Says Ganis: “Teams get rude awakenings.”

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dear CMS: Thanks for sharing. We think.

To: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials and the Board of Education

The parents of CMS students would like to express our gratitude for the candor and insight you’ve provided us this year regarding the important job you’re doing deciding the future of our schools.

We have asked for years to better understand how you arrive at these important decisions, and you’ve responded this summer and fall by communicating in detail not only your deliberations on schools and student assignment, but all the reports, calculations and steps leading to those deliberations. Thank you.

Now please, make it stop.

Last week, you released “The Case for Continuous Improvement: A Comprehensive Review of CMS,” a report that contained a list of 32 schools that could be targeted for closing, or consolidation, or maybe expansion. On Thursday, the list grew by five schools. It could get even bigger. Or smaller. You aren’t sure.

The report was released at the latest in a series of public meetings at which the school board has developed “guiding principles” for student assignment, then discussed those principles, then revised them and discussed them again, just so we could know exactly what you were thinking.

We appreciate that. We asked for it. But, well, you know how you go to a party and ask someone how work is going, and he tells you he’s glad you asked because it’s not going well and his boss never listens to him and he might be thinking about getting a new job but he’s worried about a gap in health insurance coverage because he really needs to get rid of this cyst right here?

What we’re trying to say is: CMS has a bad case of TMI.

That’s “Too Much Information,” and it seems as if you agree. At that Tuesday session, board member Trent Merchant said fretfully of the list of 32: “We need to do a lot of homework before we throw it out for public discussion.” In an e-mail to staffers, superintendent Peter Gorman said: “Whenever lists are made, anxieties rise.”

He was right. Parents at schools on the list freaked out. Because while transparency is a fine goal, transparency without enough context can scare people.

Now, we all know there’s a crisis of confidence in CMS. The public sees it as an unresponsive, unpredictable monolith, and parents are tired of being unsure which school their children will be in next year, in three years, in 10. It’s why the board wisely has stressed stability this year – not only as its top “guiding principle,” but right down to the civil tone in which board members disagree.

That new tone is very intentional. A flammable debate gives the impression of uncertainty – that whoever shouts loudest wins the next battle. A civil, informed discussion has the best chance of bringing everyone together.

And boy, are we getting informed.

Really, we appreciate it. We had no idea until reading “The Case for Continuing Improvement” this week that there were statistics called FCI (Facility Condition Index) and PCI (Performance Cost Indicator). But, well, you know how sometimes you have a high schooler who is buried in math homework, and you lean over to help but see words like “theoretical and real standard deviation,” so you decide instead to say, “hang in there”?

Hang in there.

Let us know when you have something a little firmer to share.

And if it involves messing with our school? Then you’ll have some explaining to do.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A choice to keep the wonder in motion

Jimmy Brown’s daughter was 10 when she told him she wanted a model train to chug around the family Christmas tree. Jimmy had wanted trains, too, when he was young boy, but his family couldn’t afford them. This time, he bought his daughter three.

On Christmas morning 20 years ago, they set up the two-rail track and built Lego houses and watched the H0-scale trains shoosh-shoosh past them. By the time Jennifer’s birthday arrived two months later, Jimmy had more trains in mind. And when the daughter’s interest inevitably waned, the father’s interest didn’t. Jimmy loved his trains. His wife, Carole, wasn’t quite as smitten.

She called them his “big-boy toys,” and she smiled when he went a little wild buying them, and again when the trains needed a new home – the second floor of the family’s music store on Main Street in Albemarle. He tore up the room and built tables to crawl around and under, and when the trains outgrew that space, he did the same one floor up.

Soon those tables also were lined with tracks, and Carole decided something was missing. She built houses and churches for the trains to roll past, and they added model gas stations and businesses. Eventually, they had two wide, homemade tables, each more than 30 feet long, with multiple levels and multiple landscapes. Jimmy had almost a dozen boxes to control the power and the trains. Two rows of small monitors followed their progress.

Word got around. One day, their pastor’s wife called to tell them she wanted to bring a kindergarten class over to see Jimmy’s trains. Other classes followed, and at Christmas, when Albemarle held a downtown celebration, Jimmy invited folks in. Hundreds climbed the stairs to be wowed.

About a decade ago, Jimmy decided that each Friday and Saturday, he would open the third floor for free to anyone who walked in the door. People came from Albemarle, from Stanly County, from Charlotte and beyond. Jimmy told the adults his story of a trainless boyhood, and he built a small table so the kids could have trains to touch.

“He really loved to see those kids,” Carole said Friday morning, near that table on the third floor of the Albemarle Music Store. Two months ago, on July 3, Jimmy died. He had battled several ailments in recent years. He was 76.

In the days after Jimmy’s death, it occurred to his wife that she knew very little about operating his trains. She could flip the main power switch, but the control boxes and maintenance and repairs? She was clueless. Maybe it would be best to dismantle the tracks and close the museum so she could concentrate on the music store below.

“I thought about it,” she said, as an engineer’s car powered by. Instead, she made another choice. Each Friday, Jimmy’s friend, J.W., walks up the steps to check the trains and switches and get them ready for the weekend. Last week, Carole said, a large group of kids showed up from Charlotte to see the display.

“His big-boy toys,” she said again, loud enough to be heard over the accumulation of wheels on tracks. It can get noisy in this room, with two dozen trains running at a time. Every now and then, she comes upstairs, where she can walk around and listen to the sound that filled the spaces of their lives, so long and so steady, she said, “that after a while, you don’t even hear it.”



Here's a look at - and a listen to - Jimmy Brown's trains, taken Friday:

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Let's get started with a story...

Before we talk about your stories, let me tell you one of mine.

It happened about 15 years ago, in a small city in Connecticut where I was a newspaper columnist. I was out to dinner at a restaurant, one that I remember had that day’s newspaper above the urinals in the men’s room, so you know it was a classy place.

At one of those wall units, a gentleman was reading the front of the sports section. The page had one of my columns on it. The man glanced over at me, then looked up at my column mug. Then he did a double-take straight out of a B movie.

“It’s you!” he said, turning my way. Except he hadn’t finished what he’d come into the room to do. I had recognition dribbling down my pant leg.

You might think that, other than the dry cleaning bill, this kind of enthusiasm was a good thing. But journalists, especially newspaper journalists, are largely a shy breed. Most of us got into this business to write some stories and right some wrongs, not to have the lens turned toward us.

That’s difficult now in a digital world. Reporters no longer hide behind their bylines. We blog. We answer emails. We get comments on our stories. Boy, do we get comments.

That exposure is especially true for columnists, a role I’m beginning for the Observer today. Used to be that column writing was a one-way thing - we’d fling open our window, shout what we wanted to shout, then slam it shut until the next time. But now, we’re relearning the value of a good conversation.

Some newspapers, including the Observer, have staffers called “reader engagement editors” whose job is to get you and us talking. The idea is to help us learn what’s happening, what people are thinking, what we’re missing. It also helps push us - and you - beyond what we think we know about each other.

So what do you need to know about me? I’m 45, a husband, a dad. I’m about to become the third smartest person in my house, behind my wife who was ahead of me all along – and my 9-year-old son who is gaining fast. I attend church each week. I like sports. I write beer reviews. I grill.

I’ll be writing a column for this page on Sundays. I’m not replacing Tommy Tomlinson, who made this space sing for 13 years. Tommy will still be writing for the Observer in exciting new ways in print and online.

As for me, I’ve been writing news and features and sports for almost 20 years, long enough to understand that you rarely peg folks based on first impressions, or even third impressions.

Here’s an example: If I tell you I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, which I did, some of you will get to work taping up that ideological box we like to put people in. But what if I tell you I voted for George Bush in 2000? And that I’m not entirely comfortable with the way either decided to spend my tax dollars?

This is what happens with conversations. If you’re willing to listen to people’s stories, you’ll find your notions challenged. Not that you’ll necessarily change your mind. But you’re going to question things. That’s what we’ll do here.

One more item about me: I’m one of those shy types whose job calls on him to talk to folks.

That’s a good thing. Each week, I’ll be posting this column online on my blog, along with other thoughts during the week. There, you can tell me what you think – or ask me what the heck I was thinking. I promise the conversation will not end there.

You can even do it the old-fashioned way, with a phone call, or the sorta old-fashioned way, with an email. Or say hello if you see me on the street or in a restaurant. Even in a rest room. But a handshake will do just fine.