If you are in search of hipster food trucks, vegan cafes, or art galleries in Charlotte, you head down to the South End — or, as Dan Foster has taken to calling it, “Brooklyn” — which is where Chuck Barger runs a local institution called Common Market. It is hard to say exactly what kind of a business Common Market is: part bar, part deli, part convenience store, part coffeehouse and Internet café.
Mr. Barger is a more or less conventional liberal but also an entrepreneur, the sort of liberal who brings to mind Robert Conquest’s observation that everybody is a conservative about the thing he knows best. His sense of timing is not exactly flawless: He pulled out of his old business (designing educational materials for the Smithsonian and PBS, among other clients) and changed careers just as the U.S. and world economies were getting ready to go into a round of unpleasant convulsions. He signed a lease for his new business in April 2008, but it was the next April before he was ready to open his doors.
“It was kind of scary,” he says. “We were signing leases and buying equipment, and I was thinking, ‘What do I do?’” Entrepreneurial success stories look like slam-dunks only in retrospect, and in many cases not even then. Mr. Barger shakes his head with a little bit of disbelief: “We started a business, which turned out to be a successful business, in the worst month the economy has seen in the past 100 years.” He describes Common Market as a classical “third space” operation: “It’s about community as much as commerce. We want to make money, but we also want to make people happy.”
He had a few other advantages as well: Charlotte’s economy is uncommonly dependent on finance and was hit harder than most cities by the financial crisis, but not so hard that people were going to stop buying coffee or sandwiches or going out for the occasional beer. (Mr. Barger refers to his tiny four-seater bar as “the family-values bar, a place you go have a beer but bring grandma and the young’uns.”) He also benefited from a local effort to revitalize the center-city area and thinks that the 1 percent surtax that local businesses pay to fund it has been money well spent.
And that’s where Mr. Barger gets in touch with his inner Tocqueville. He describes a classical, locally oriented civil-society ecosystem in which the economic-development authority, Center City Partners, is counterbalanced by the South End Neighborhood Association and the hatchling local merchants’ association and homeowners groups. “You get a check-and-balance system,” he says. I invite him to contrast that approach with such nationwide programs as stimulus bills and ask whether he thinks that the powers that be in Washington understand the local challenges in Charlotte. He laughs: “They don’t even know what’s going on in Washington.”
He says he has enjoyed the convention and the protests, but he does have a complaint: “The voice of the poor has not been heard at either convention, not the Republicans in Tampa or the Democrats here. The economy is not getting any better for them.”
You don’t have to go very far to see that. Head the wrong way down Freedom Drive and you get into the sort of exurban wasteland where businesses erect chain-link fences around their properties. A mile or two past that and there’s barbed wire atop those fences, and soon enough there’s barbed wire around private houses. On that side of Charlotte, you can see the remains of what once clearly were solidly respectable neighborhoods, neat little brick houses now enclosed by antiburglar bars. If South End is Brooklyn, this is the Bronx. (In truth, it’s somewhat worse than the Bronx: In four years of living in the South Bronx, I never saw a prostitute on the street with the exception of the very specialized trade in transsexuals that characterizes the Third Avenue Bridge. I never saw a drug deal happen on the street.)