Charlotte, N.C.'s Identity Crisis

Wachovia sign with building in background

A Wachovia sign is shown near the company's headquarters, background, in Charlotte, N.C. Rick Havner/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Rick Havner/AP
Wachovia and Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C.

The corporate headquarters of Wachovia, left, and Bank of America, right, in Charlotte. Chuck Burton/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Chuck Burton/AP
Andrea Cooper

Andrea Cooper is a freelance journalist and essay writer in North Carolina. She's been a commentator for All Things Considered and has written for Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and many other publications. Donna Jernigan hide caption

itoggle caption Donna Jernigan

When Wachovia opened its new headquarters in 1988, the tower shaped like a jukebox was the tallest building in North Carolina. Bank of America built its own new corporate headquarters in Charlotte a few years later. Of course its skyscraper had to be taller, with a crown at the crest, suitable for royalty.

It's no accident Wachovia looms on one end of Charlotte's downtown, Bank of America on the other. The banks have been fierce competitors, like two cowboys dueling on Main Street in old Westerns. But Charlotteans have admired them both. They put us on the map as the nation's second-largest banking center next to New York.

Now our banks are in trouble. Bank of America has needed not one, but two bailouts, totaling $45 billion. The bank's stock price has plummeted to under $5 a share. As for Wachovia, Charlotte's second-biggest employer, it lost billions and was bought by Wells Fargo last year. We don't know how many Wachovia employees will be laid off. One local economist described stepping into Wachovia's iconic building and feeling an eerie sense of crossing into conquered territory.

Our anxiety over the banking debacles isn't just about the thousands of bank jobs here, but the loss of our identity. We're used to bank mergers where we win prestige and power, and other cities console themselves over the shock that some NASCAR-loving pit stop in the Bible Belt could beat them. When Charlotte's NationsBank took over San Francisco's Bank of America in 1997, we could hear the hipsters' disbelief 3,000 miles away.

At least they had heard of us. For decades, Charlotte was invisible to most of the country. When I planned to move here from Chicago in the 1980s, my own father asked, "You're going ... where?" Back then, Charlotte's leaders longed for the city to be a place other Americans knew, visited and respected.

Charlotte's inferiority complex started to disappear when our banks began to smash your banks like grits on a diner platter. We turned into a financial powerhouse and proved every Southerner wasn't a redneck out of Deliverance. Banking helped transform us, bringing money for arts and sports and suburban mansions. People we once envied want to live here. In some neighborhoods, you're as likely to hear a Jersey or New York accent as you are to hear a "ya'll."

For the moment, we're still the nation's second-largest banking center. But we have to reinvent ourselves and develop other industries. There are other Fortune 500 companies in the area. Health care and energy are thriving fields. Yet financial services jobs provided more than a fifth of private-sector wages in this county last year. Combine the problems in banking with layoffs in construction and manufacturing, and the region's unemployment rate may hit 12 percent in 2009. Even MBAs are applying for jobs at the local amusement park.

In the next few years, Charlotte could crumble or blossom. Our civic boosters always praise the city's can-do spirit. Though I've sometimes cringed at that hokey sentiment, I find myself hoping it's true.

Andrea Cooper is a freelance journalist and essay writer in North Carolina. She's been a commentator for All Things Considered and has written for Time, Newsweek, The New York Times and many other publications.

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