This week's Fact Friday comes to you from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.
For much of its history, the South was the United States' least urban region. Until the Civil War its economy was based not on trade and industrial production, which tend to spur city development, but on agriculture. Early Southern "urban centers" were villages and small towns, most located on the rivers by which cotton and tobacco were shipped out of the region.
Defeat in the Civil War and the end of slavery led Southern leaders to push for non-agricultural development. The decades following the war were ballyhooed as the "New South Era," and saw a radical transformation in the character of the region. The South developed a manufacturing base, resting largely on cotton textile production, and the small towns and villages grew rapidly into cities. Inland industrial centers surpassed the old ports in importance and population.
The new course was largely set by the 1930s. The original New South entrepreneurs turned over their projects to a younger generation of followers. Cities continued to expand in patterns established in the earlier period, and the region slowly became less agricultural and less impoverished. Leaders continued to celebrate the creation of a New South, but to a large extent the transformation had taken place, and the post-Depression decades consisted of fulfilling the goals established earlier.
The development of Charlotte, North Carolina is a model example of this regional pattern. Its history may be divided into three phases. In the first, from 1753 to 1880, Charlotte was established as an inland trading village, growing to a small town after the arrival of the railroad in the 1850s. The second phase, the New South era, saw Charlotte transformed into the Carolina's largest city, a textile and distribution center. By 1930 the city's development patterns were set and many of the skyscrapers, fine suburbs, and leading businesses we know today were in place. The third era, since the Depression, has seen economic diversification and continued steady growth which, while not as explosive as the New South era in percentage terms, has greatly surpassed it in real numbers.
The national economic cycle has provided a counterpoint to the regional trend. Charlotte's growth rate has been always upward, but the curve has been far from smooth. Since the coming of the railroads in the 1850s, if not before, the city has been firmly tied to the national economy. Charlotte's growth reflects the national succession of boom decades and depression years, a key factor in the timing of local building activity and neighborhood development.
Subsequent posts in this series will highlight each of the three phases of Charlotte's growth in more detail.