Sunday, September 25, 2011

When the risk-takers run out of risks

That house on Camilla Drive is finally off the market.

You may have seen it driving through South Charlotte – or in an Observer column I wrote late last year. It’s a six-bedroom, seven-bathroom, 6,977-square-foot palace near South Park, a home that has a little Charleston, a little Dilworth, and a lot of made-you-look going on.

It is, depending on your perspective, a spectacularly unusual house in a city where even the mansions are afflicted with sameness – or it’s a self-indulgent castle unwisely plunked in a neighborhood of smaller and plainer 1970s and 80s homes.

This much we know: 4823 Camilla Drive was on the market for more than eight years, longer than any home that Realtors across Charlotte could recall. Most told us they couldn’t think of another home that came close to hanging on the rack that long.

But now the house has occupants, who have signed a lease-purchase agreement allowing them to pay monthly rent that goes toward a purchase down the road, if they decide they want to own. So although the house is off the market, it technically has not been sold.

Which means it can torment its owner a little while longer.

“Nothing about this house,” says Eric Markel, “has been easy.”

You might remember Markel. He is the cocky president of a New York property management company who moved to Charlotte 13 years ago. He decided to build a few luxury homes here, none more extravagant than Camilla, but he chose to put that house in a neighborhood with properties worth a fifth of his home’s $2.45 million asking price.

It was a bold choice in a city where boldness usually paid off handsomely. But although people were dazzled by 4823 Camilla when it hit the market in 2003, no one bought it. Then, the recession arrived.

By the time he gave me a tour last December, he was understandably miffed. Along with touting the Brazilian hardwood on the deck and the custom cherry kitchen cabinets, he had some less-than-laudatory things to say about real estate agents and Charlotte in general.

“People don’t understand it,” he said of 4823 Camilla.

And: “They’re living in their own little Charlotte world.”

Charlotte, as you might imagine, had some suggestions on what Markel might do with those Brazilian planks.

Markel laughs now at the comments – his and other’s – although he still thinks Charlotte didn’t fully appreciate his creation. He does, however, have this to say about his homebuilding career: “It’s done.”

That would be a shame, because even if it comes bundled in brashness, Markel has a point about Camilla and Charlotte. When he built the house eight years ago, our city was beginning to do things out of the ordinary architecturally. Markel saw Camilla as the antithesis of the new luxury homes that populated Charlotte, the brick mansions with all the same bells and whistles that builders knew would attract buyers.

Charlotte has historically been much like those builders – checking off all the amenities that newcomers might like. We’re clean and pretty, and we have museums and pro teams, all of which is why people like Eric Markel came here and stayed.

That’s helped us thrive enough that something special was beginning: We were accommodating the uncommon, the independent businesses and funkier neighborhoods that give a city more texture and soul.

Then the economy squeezed most everything, including Markel, who’s doing fine now, in case you’re wondering. He’s made enough money elsewhere to survive the financial blows, but he says: “I can only imagine the bigger guys that really got hit.”

He believes prosperity will return here, and he’s already seeing glimpses of it in small ways – busier nights at restaurants and the mall. Bigger investment will come, he says, for all the reasons Charlotte thrived before.

But the risk-takers, the people who wanted to build one unusual house, open one unusual business? Those are the ones who have the least amount of resources – and the least amount of will – to risk it all again. In some ways, with our biggest businesses among our most uncertain, the smallest are the ones we need more than ever.

Maybe so, Eric Markel says, although it won’t be him. “My day has passed,” he says.

Then he pauses.

“But,” he says, “human beings have short memories.”

Friday, September 16, 2011

A wedding, and all that we bring to it

Bobby is unsure about his wedding. He’s thinking that intimate might be the way to go – family and some close friends in a small celebration. Or maybe a bigger bash with everyone they know, a chance to look out on all those faces smiling back at you.

He’s the last in our family who’s unmarried. My sister was the first to take the plunge, more than 20 years ago in New Hampshire. A little more than a decade later, I brought everyone south to my bride’s Alabama church.

Now Bobby, my older brother, is thinking of having us join him in New York, where lawmakers voted this summer to legalize same-sex marriage.

This week, N.C. legislators dug in harder on keeping the wedding day away from gays, approving a constitutional amendment outlawing homosexual marriage that will go before voters next May. Our state already has a law against gay marriage, of course, but a consititutional amendment is harder to change than a simple law. Gay marriage opponents know it’s their best chance at defending an institution they believe is under attack.

That’s a word – attack – that sneaks often into this gay marriage debate. And also this word: agenda. It’s how those who fear homosexuality separate gays from the rest of us, by painting them as “others,” as an occupying force that wants to diminish the things we hold important.

Some of us, maybe most of us, know something different – that gays are our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. They grew up in the same households we did, grounded in the same values and appreciating the same institutions, then keeping or discarding those lessons as we all do when we move into adulthood. There is no gay filter through which they process all of life’s issues. It’s part, not the entirety, of who they are.

In my house, those values and institutions were brought to us by parents who are approaching 50 years together, with the delights and bumpiness that so many marriages traverse. Now, says Bobby, he looks around and is sometimes troubled that marriage isn’t valued the way he thinks it should be. That might surprise you if you believe, as many do, that gays don’t bring the same depth of commitment to their relationships. But Bobby, who’s been with his partner for 15 years, wants to participate in marriage for the same reason others don’t want him to – because it says something important.

He understands, too, that such importance is what tangles marriage with legislation. As much as homosexuals and their advocates would like a clean break between our laws and our religion, our laws are a reflection of our values, and those values are often grounded in faith.

And this is where I confess. I’ve long struggled with what my Bible says about my brother. I know Leviticus, along with the other Scripture spread before us as evidence against homosexuality. But scholars I respect tell me the Bible isn’t as certain about gays as some think. They also tell me to be cautious about selective literalism – holding up the passage condemning homesexuality yet ignoring the one that says it’s shameful for a woman to speak at church.

What they don’t have to tell me is this: We should all think hard before declaring ourselves God’s proxy on determining what makes for a big sin – and who is a sinner.

Yes, that’s an easier spot to land intellectually when you have a brother who’s gay, but polls are showing that time is bringing more of us to the same place. We live in a country that moves slowly in allowing rights to its minorities, but eventually it gets there, and eventually we will.

That’s a good thing not only for the oft-stated and significant reasons – that gay marriage laws discriminate and fuel hostility, and that gays deserve the rights and benefits that come with marriage. It’s good because my brother and Osvaldo, and all our brothers and sisters, get to do the same thing we did – stand in front of a large or intimate gathering, wear a tux or a dress or a ring or none of those, but announce a commitment we believe will endure.

Bobby isn’t sure about his wedding’s particulars, but with it he’ll get to appreciate all those things big and small. In time, that’s coming here, too, no matter what happened last week or happens in May. It’s coming not because we’re finally willing to accept people who are different, but because we understand that they’re not.