What is Charlotte, NC like - and how is it different than St Louis, MO?
July 2, 2016 12:53 PM   Subscribe

We are considering relocating... can you give us some insight about life in Charlotte, NC? Aside from better weather, how is it different than where we live now in St Louis, MO?

We're both self-employed so we can work anywhere, but we've been spoiled by the cost of living and very low housing costs in St Louis. Most of the other cities we've considered have been eliminated because of cost (San Francisco, Seattle) or weather (Boston, Chicago). Charlotte is just about the same size as St Louis, a comparable cost of living, and better weather. But what's it really like there? How else is it different than St Louis?

We're looking for good schools, an educated, liberal population, good coffeeshops, and good weather. The primary reasons we want to leave St Louis are (1) the midwest is full of pickup driving, gun toting republicans, (2) the cold winters and steamy summers, (3) there's little of interest outside of St Louis, and (4) the population here as a whole are not inclusive, activist, or progressive. I was hoping to find something in the Northwest but the larger cities are just too expensive.

Thanks for any insight!
posted by kdern to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Summer's in Charlotte are steamier than STL, but winters are much milder. Area is not that liberal but not too "redneck". The city is too suburban, imo.
posted by sandmanwv at 12:59 PM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I lived in Charlotte 2000-2013. There are educated, liberal people, but they exist in pockets among a sea of pickup-driving, gun-toting Republicans. If you're looking for the inclusive, activist, progressive crowd, I recommend the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte. The weather is great in the spring and fall, not too bad in the winter - maybe one or two snowfalls per year, temperatures not usually much below freezing. Summer is miserable. Charlotte is 3-4 hours driving distance from the mountains and from the ocean, which is good for weekend trips.
posted by Daily Alice at 1:04 PM on July 2, 2016

Okay, I grew up in Louisville and have lived in Lexington, KY; Metro Detroit, MI; Dublin, Ireland; tiny Appalachian town in KY; and now, Charlotte, NC. I did take some students for a weekend in St. Louis once, so that's my only experience there.

Pickup-driving gun-toting Republicans: well, there is an image of Charlotte that is "Billy Graham and NASCAR," but I think that Charlotte was fading probably twenty years ago. There are LOTS of transplants here. You do occasionally meet natives, but it's surprisingly rare. Our neighborhood has some literal gun-toting Republicans (one doofus mows the yard with a pistol on his hip, presumably for some really gnarly thistle), since it's transitionally working class economically. However, there are also people in the neighborhood from Burma, Vietnam, El Salvador, Mexico and parts of the Middle East. I live in the most international part of the city, but still, the international population here is higher than it may at first appear.

Secondly, to the above point, I work at the very large, urban research university here, so that colors who I meet a bit. I also would advise you to sift carefully through advice you might get about where to buy a house. We live in East Charlotte nearish to Uptown, which again, is the most international part of the city, and very close to all of the cultural activities. You will probably get lots of advice to move to South Charlotte, which is much more suburban and more conservative (although not exactly rednecky, since this is a super wealthy city).

As a point to Charlotte's emerging liberality: Charlotte passed (I think unanimously) a transgender bathroom ordinance which was struck down by the state legislature and lead to some national boycotting. Charlotte's businesses and institutions wanted the transgender ordinance passed so that we would be seen as a welcoming city on a national and international stage. North Carolina was Obama's closest victory in 2008 and closest loss in 2014. Currently, Clinton leads Trump in NC, as well.

Further: having lived in Detroit, which has a large and politically-strong African American community, Charlotte is more liberal than any city I've lived in with regard to race relations. I will state here that I am white, so a black citizen may of course have a different point of view, but in my experiences here with students and friends, there is more integration between black and white people socially.

Cold winters and steamy summers: Is the weather better than St. Louis? Yes, probably. I bet summers are actually fairly similar, if my growing up years in Louisville are any indication, while winters here are much, much milder. During winter of one of our six years here, the temperature never went below freezing (of course that means summer will be pretty buggy). It usually snows once during winter with one to two weeks where it fluctuates below freezing. And yes, as noted above, you can get to mountains and oceans within a half day or less. My in-laws moved to a retirement community in the mountains and you can escape the heat up there somewhat.

Little of interest outside of St. Louis: well, Raleigh-Durham is three hours away. Asheville, which is a pretty fancy vacation town, is about two hours away. Charleston is about two hours, I think, while Savannah is about four. Jacksonville is about eight hours away. The mountains will make any return trips to St. Louis feel really long - it takes me seven hours to get to Louisville, if I only stop once.

Population that is inclusive, activist and progressive: Well, I don't quite know how to compare that between cities. I have known activist and progressive and "reactivist and regressive" people in every place I've lived. I think activists would be easy to find here. Two of the stronger, larger groups would probably be: civil rights activists, both young and old, as well as international activists regarding famine relief and other ideas connected to Baptist international outreach. I am not a religious person or church-goer and have not really had many people proselytize here, but the religious communities here are active (and diverse!).

Good luck! You can MeMail if you want, or my Email is in my profile.
posted by Slothrop at 1:22 PM on July 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

have you considered fayetteville, arkansas? smaller, sure, but definitely more liberal and active, great food/coffee/brewery scene, milder summers and winters, gorgeous scenery, a cost of living that's frankly hard to beat.
posted by nadawi at 2:01 PM on July 2, 2016

My $.02 is that while NC and MO were both confederate states, MO is more like the midwest. Someone calling into NPR said that MO is below the biscuit but above the grit line.
posted by brujita at 2:33 PM on July 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you are considering moving to NC, perhaps you might also consider Chapel Hill / Carrboro, one of the points of the Triangle (the others being Durham and Raleigh). Housing would be cheaper in Durham, but the schools aren't as good as in Chapel Hill / Carrboro. Wake County has good schools, but Raleigh is a bit more conservative than Chapel Hill or Durham. Having those three locales in relatively close proximity creates an interesting environment that I find qualitatively different from there being one large city.
posted by research monkey at 2:41 PM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

28-year Charlotte resident here, and my first thought in reading your intro was like research monkey's: Look at the Triangle. There are lots of reasons people move to and love Charlotte, but your top four criteria aren't necessarily theirs.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 3:09 PM on July 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm just outside Raleigh. So, IMO:

Both Charlotte and the Triangle area are too large to characterize with stereotypes. Politically, state-wide races in NC are purple. All the state-wide November races here are currently polling within the margin of error, including the presidential race. One of the first things the GOP did though, when it seized control of the state legislature was to gerrymander the Congressional districts, reversing the old Dem gerrymandering. As a result, local elections often lean conservative.

Growth in both areas is new, within the last 30-40 years. Both areas are quite sprawly.

Charlotte is a business, banking and insurance city. NASCAR gets it some national TV attention, perhaps, but it's the other folks running the place.

The Triangle is academics, research, tech, software, and medicine.

If you're able to take a look at the Triangle area, I strongly recommend doing that.
posted by justcorbly at 3:38 PM on July 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

A current promotional campaign uses the slogan "Charlotte's Got A Lot", which from the perspective of a semi-regular visitor feels like the Queen City doth protest too much.

I know that it has decent and funky areas. I also know that as the largest city in the state, with a majority-minority population within its city limits, it's diverse and has cultural influences not as prevalent in other NC cities. (That said, this Creative Loafing piece from 2014 discusses in detail the problems of self-segregation in the city's professional cultural scene.)

But: it's sprawly, car-dependent, A/C-dependent in summer, aggressively bland in terms of architecture and urban planning, and focused on business people doing business things for business. It presents itself to newcomers like a city-sized airport terminal.
posted by holgate at 5:49 PM on July 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

I lived in Charlotte and have family and friends there. IMO the entire city is super sprawly and suburban. It's amazing how big Charlotte, in terms of area, actually is. "Agressively bland" is the perfect description of most of CLT. The main industry is banking so lots of things close early downtown. There is an active arts/music scene and the whole central area has gone through huge, hipster-y changes and they added one light rail line. It is much 'cooler' than when I lived there (except a lot of the old music venues I went to seem to be getting evicted for this new wave, like any other city).

All my artsy liberal friends live in NODA or Plaza-Midwood neighborhoods. My southern parents claim all the yankees are moving there and ruining it with their non-southern food. It's a big place, but I have the same priorities you do and I wouldn't move back there. If you were going to move to NC I would say Chapel Hill but it's much more of a college town than Charlotte.

Personally I moved to Oakland - way better weather than the south. Expensive and no good BBQ though..
posted by bradbane at 5:53 PM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

If schools are the number 1 priority I'd go to Chapel Hill/Carrboro. If you do choose Charlotte, look at schools that feed into high school IB programs or "Middle College" programs. That being said, I moved down to Charlotte in February and I'm really happy with that choice. Yes to good coffee shops, same weather as Chapel Hill/Carrboro, not too far from beach or mountains. The city is really changing and you can still get a house cheap-ish in parts of the city. My sister is a theater dork and likes coming to crash with me (from Carrboro) so we can see the shows that come through. There's also professional football, basketball, and minor league baseball if you're into that.

It feels like half the city is from somewhere else (many from banking in NY and NJ) but while people may be conservative in appearance/dress there's still a decent amount of social liberalism (maybe I think that because of the crowds I run in).

The city is going through a lot of change (my life time Charlotte resident roommate and colleagues can attest to that) and I think people who haven't lived in Charlotte the last 5 years may know a different city than the one I do.

I think there's a reality of most places you move to which is that it matters what people you meet and the life you make for yourself. Coffee shops and theater don't mean crap if you don't go to them.
posted by raccoon409 at 6:02 PM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've lived in Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh since 1986 and visited Charlotte a bunch of times, and I'm wondering why, once you decided on North Carolina, you settled on Charlotte instead of the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area if you really "can work anywhere." Being a small hop from the Appalachian Mountains instead of 4 hours away counts as a really good reason, of course, but if that wasn't your main consideration you might want to reconsider.

The RDU/Triangle area has 3 decent, relatively open-minded and just-shy-of-small-urban university communities mixed in with all of the many right-wing conservative mainstream folks that flood most areas of the state (and don't kid yourself: as justcorbly indicated, the worst kind of fundamentalist Republicans control both houses of the state legislature and have redistricted themselves comfortably free of serious challenge at least until 2020 and probably after). Charlotte/Mecklenburg County is no more politically liberal than Raleigh/Wake County, for sure, and the schools in Chapel Hill/Carrboro and Raleigh include some of the best in the state, and while Charlotte does have light rail that seems to be relatively successful, my distinct impression is that it doesn't really have as much going on culturally and politically. Charlotte folks will disagree, I'm sure, but I think the arts scene in the Triangle is richer, with Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State all bringing world-class acts to the area regularly, a vibrant theater scene in each of the three towns, lots of solid music clubs and a ton of galleries and interesting folks making cool things happen. I think the activism scene is sharper here, too, but that's just a vague impression.

Also, I'd bet whatever cost-of-living calculator you're using finds similar numbers for Raleigh and Charlotte. There are lots of affordable apartments here (roomie and I are in a cheap, cozy 2-bedroom in a nice tree-filled neighborhood within easy biking distance from the heart of downtown, for instance), and while the days of buying ultra-cheap houses inside the beltline are coming to an end, a pal who's done work on renovating old houses tells me she's still finding good deals around.

As far as the three towns in the Triangle themselves, I'm gonna quibble with the following:

Raleigh is a bit more conservative than Chapel Hill or Durham

I don't know how many folks in this thread have lived in all three, but in my opinion Chapel Hill has grown increasingly staid and conservative over the last 20 years, while Raleigh has become markedly more liberal and active. For instance, Democrats swept the last election for the county commissioners race in Raleigh's county (leading the asshole state GOP to redraw the districts in retaliation, which bullshit redrawing just got thrown out by the 4th Circuit federal court, goddess bless them).

This is quibbling, though. Bottom line is if you're planning a move to North Carolina based on cost-of-living and finding liberal, educated neighbors and haven't yet looked at the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area, you should at the very least reconsider asap.
posted by mediareport at 6:27 PM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you're looking for smallish liberal towns in NC, I believe you are actually looking for Asheville. It's fairly well-known as a haven for left-leaning folks who recycle and like organic food. I used to live in Candler, which is about ten minutes from downtown Asheville and very affordable, and I really liked it there.
posted by ananci at 7:01 PM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Speaking as someone who has lived in the expensive cities in the Northeast, New York City, St. Louis, and now Louisville: sorry, but you are simply not going to get the low cost of living from a city in red/swing state (like St. Louis) in the kind of progressive city you seem to be looking for. Frankly, my experience was that there are large progressive/activist groups/people in St. Louis, and in any city that size, although you may need to search them out a bit. Anywhere where those communities are the norm will be more expensive. That's the trade off. (Look into the cost of living for Asheville--the NC city with the liberal reputation--and you'll see what I mean.)

But consider Louisville; similar to St. Louis, but it's know for its arts/theater scene, it tends to be a bit more "hipster" in its reputation, and the summers are slightly less humid (slightly). The cost of living is equivalent. But you're still going to see pick-ups and guns.
posted by likeatoaster at 8:53 PM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not sure if you are only looking to compare St. Louis to Charlotte, or are you also asking for alternate places that feel like St. Louis but without the same downsides? Because if it's the latter, have you considered Baltimore?
posted by Mchelly at 4:43 AM on July 3, 2016

I've lived in Charlotte for 5 years, and I think it's a place that has something for everyone. Asheville and the triangle area are nice too. I'm from a college town (Charlottesville, VA) so when I opted to move to NC I was looking for something different. I love the perks of a bigger city- our pro sports, theater, etc. You can also find distinct neighborhoods with different pros and cons that are all still close to the center of the city. I'm definitely a city person though, and not as concerned about proximity to the mountains or the beach, although both are close. I also can't say I know too much about school districts but if you aren't basing where in Charlotte you'd live on proximity to work, it seems like you could prioritize that easily. Overall I love Charlotte and don't have any plans to relocate.
posted by Katie8709 at 6:52 AM on July 3, 2016

One thought, if I were going to move back to the south to a liberal city my first pick would be Savannah, GA actually. Sort of like a mini New Orleans (I lived in both). The downtown is beautiful, the food is good, and it was solidly progressive even before the art school moved in. It's a lot like Asheville but on the coast instead of in the mountains, more artist than hippie vibe. Driving distance to Charleston, Charlotte, Atlanta, or down to the beaches on the gulf. Big film festival, tons of art, lots of events, constant art openings & artist talks, etc. because of the school there. Also: drinking in public is legal and you can get "to go" cups from the bars! Rare for the south.

It's sort of like Chapel Hill but in a NOLA setting. Outside of the downtown area it gets suburban/gun-toting quick (there's an Air Force base there) but that's going to be true of almost every city in the south.
posted by bradbane at 9:58 AM on July 3, 2016

If schools are the top priority, then the side-effects of sprawl and white flight kick in: you'll be guided out to the more upscale burbs, most of which tend to be less diverse, less affordable and more (affluently) conservative (with the college town of Davidson as an affluent liberal exception). That then puts you a fair drive away from social and cultural things in more central locations.
posted by holgate at 8:19 PM on July 4, 2016

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