Because I was born in the South, I’m a Southerner. If I had been born in the North, the West, or the Central Plains, I would just be a human being.
— Clyde Edgerton
Me: Do you consider yourself a Southerner since you’ve been here 60 years?
Mother: No. I think you have to be born to it otherwise it’s like some actor portraying a cartoonish person from the South with a terrible, exaggerated accent.
Me: Do you consider me a Southerner?
Mother: Nicole, you defy category on that and so many other levels.
Southern culture has been on the skids for a long time — and the Triad has been as much a victim as a participant in the changes that have brought about our waning way of life. From a downtrodden economic base rooted in tobacco, textiles and furniture to New South sprawl, a rapid diversification of our demographic makeup — all the way to the smoothing out of our mellifluous Southern accent — and we’re no longer the stuff that our isolation once cultivated. Or are we? And are we better or worse for the changes? Are we disappearing — or is our culture merely spreading itself thin over a nation capitalizing on our marketable “authenticity factor”? And what does that mean here at home? Wearing an aged T-shirt with the silhouette of North Carolina on it and the words “home” does not a North Carolinian make. So what does exactly? And what exactly makes a Triadian?
North Carolina has been called a “vale of humility between two mountains of conceit” — South Carolina and Virginia. I think the same could be said of the Triad within the state itself, with Charlotte and Raleigh representing those holier, larger and more prosperous states. I think of the old cartoon by Greensboro artist Harry Blair that depicted “Charlotte Man” with a BMW, slick shades and a Blackberry and “Triad Man” as a balding hippie wearing jeans and Birkenstocks. I think all the refining he’d have to do to update the latter would be to add a beard, retro glasses and darken and slim down the denim. Maybe add a vape.
Despite exciting times and much debated and unabated development for High Point, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, I firmly believe that the Triad is doing a pretty good job of keeping it real — and keeping it Southern.
Chapel Hill-based writer, essayist and sociologist John Shelton Reed once said, “Every time I look at Atlanta, I see what a quarter of a million soldiers died to prevent.” I feel the same way when I see another strip mall slapped up on the side of the road in the Piedmont. I beam, however, when I take my daily constitutional around downtown Greensboro and see what’s going on in my own backyard. From the interesting array of restaurants elbowing their way in amidst the monopoly of sports bars to the new businesses — creative agencies, green spaces, retail stores, performance venues and residential housing — it almost feels as if greater downtown Greensboro is the participant in some home-makeover show where use of existing materials (for the most part) is required. Downtown Winston-Salem, once a three-stop-shop is now a bustling marketplace with brunch-eating, IPA-drinking, shopping-bag toters bumping elbows with Mohawked punks, town drunks and foothills farmers. High Point is making headway as well with an incredible new park system underway and boutique businesses popping up in unlikely corners.
What I think it’s about is quality of life. Greensboro native and UNC-Chapel Hill professor Harry Watson says, “Because the South was so isolated due to poverty — speeded up, industrial, impersonal society developed first in the North,” he says, “In fact, in the ’30s there was a major literary experiment that began in Nashville with the Agrarians. These writers advocated an anti-industrial society in order to nurture a more humane, more moral and more in touch with art community.”
As we all know, the South is no longer isolated, but I like to think of us as a living, breathing, mutable place where we remember where we came from but don’t have blinders on to the rest of the world. Watson says his wife, who hails from New Jersey, once commented that air-conditioning was the greatest thing to happen to the South, because before that nobody would want to live here. I grew up without air-conditioning here in the Piedmont. I also remember downtown Greensboro when there were tumbleweeds rolling down Elm Street and I wouldn’t want to go back to either. Would you?