Weaving communities together in the mill district

If you’re new to Charlotte, or old to Charlotte, or visiting from out of town, NoDa can be a little confusing. Is it Davidson, like where the college is? Is it anything on North Davidson Street; like even inside the I-277 loop? Is it even a real place, or just an area in the city of Charlotte (or maybe the town of Davidson)?

The truth is, NoDa was a tongue-in-cheek marketing idea from the 1980s to lure people from other gallery crawls to the re-birthing downtown mills of North Charlotte. But calling it North Charlotte was misleading in the 1980s because North Charlotte, by then, sprawled for many miles beyond here.

But in 1904, when this neighborhood was developed as a mill district, this was the northern edge of Charlotte (perhaps you caught the NoDa News story about whiskey prescriptions being filled here, just outside the boundary of the city). It was just far enough from downtown Charlotte that we needed our own main street shops; think of North Charlotte as a satellite second city center in growing Charlotte.

So for 80 years we called it North Charlotte. Then came the NoDa name, a nod to New York’s SoHo, and I imagine that the artists and galleries who started using the name were part tongue-in-cheek, and part idealistic and optimistic.

Many artists and pioneers of early NoDa are still around and available for conversations about how serious the name is. People pronounce it differently, or think of the boundaries differently, or think it’s silly, or “not the same as it used to be.” I cringe when the local news broadcaster says a crime
happened “in No-Dahh” when they really mean up on Sugar Creek and Tryon. Man, they don’t know anything.

If you’re looking for a definitive boundary of NoDa, you will never find it. For a decade, I’ve been researching and producing Charlotte neighborhood maps and helping our neighborhood association (as well as many others in Charlotte) define and market their areas. But the arbiter of boundary lines is the incorporated City of Charlotte, which doesn’t even officially recognize NoDa as a neighborhood. The first place I found a graphic boundary of North Charlotte was the 2008 City of Charlotte Quality of Life map and survey. This map influenced the boundaries of the NoDa Neighborhood Association, which then influenced my personal graphic interpretation maps, and even the current Google maps impression of North Charlotte. The City of Charlotte has since chopped up the Q.O.L. and removed defined boundaries in favor of smaller and more detailed bites within each neighborhood.

North Charlotte’s historic boundaries might surprise you: from the Lynx light rail line to the 7-11 on The Plaza, and Matheson Avenue to… Eastway Drive? But not the pocket of homes on Ritch and Benard avenues, or the stub of Charles Avenue behind the Chadbourne Mill that became an island when Matheson Avenue was built (even though Charles Avenue was an important street with historic North Charlotte mill homes up and down). Oh, and Bearwood Avenue underneath Sugar Creek is North Charlotte, so don’t forget to welcome them into the village.

Confused yet? Here’s more: Before Amelie’s flagship store opened, Marguerite’s Bakery used NoDa to describe its location, which has always been in Villa Heights. It’s right across the street from NoDa Storage, which is officially in Optimist Park, and just down the road from Pho NoDa, which is also really in Villa Heights. But they’re all on North Davidson Street.

NoDa’s boundaries represent the organized sphere of influence that the name NoDa is worth. The NoDa NBA represents the neighbors on Benard and Ritch avenues (even though they are not in the 28205 zip code).

No one, and everyone, can claim NoDa, since NoDa isn’t an official place, and no one really owns the name anyway. But is it unfair or counterproductive to Villa Heights, Optimist Park, Belmont, and poor little Uptown, to lose their identity and history? Our four unique neighborhoods are equally rich in history, importance, and culture.

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, we were working on a project to help with some of the confusion, and to tell the broad story of Charlotte’s Mill District neighborhoods of North Charlotte, Villa Heights, Optimist Park, and Belmont. As the boundaries blur between these communities, let’s take a moment to recognize we are all here because of seven historic mills, clustered like pearls along the railroad lines with our modern Lynx stations. Without these mills, we would have no main streets for art galleries and fish tacos.

I’m looking forward to our mills being renovated and reopened (truly unique in Charlotte to have such a historic district). Let’s consider again expanding our interpretation of NoDa beyond a tongue-in-cheek SoHo of the south, to a vibrant historic district of mills, main streets, and villages. We will always call it NoDa (pronounce it however you like). And we will gladly support the growing community and local businesses in Villa Heights, Optimist Park, and Belmont as neighbors and historic contributors to Charlotte’s only intact Mill District.

Want to learn more? Check out MillDistrictCLT.com for a history lesson, maps, and lots more to come. Interested in how the streets and boundaries have changed in 120 years? Follow me and Docklands Design on Instagram (@escapists) and Etsy (/Docklands), as I am currently restoring archived maps and real estate plots from many of Charlotte’s first neighborhood offerings. See you around the village!