LET’S LOOK AT THE WAYS THIS CENTURY WAS SETTING THE STAGE FOR THE 2000s
This story ran in January 1999 with the first installment of “Approaching the Millennium,” a yearlong project that examined accomplishments in North Carolina during the 20th century.
By Guy Lucas
JOURNAL STATE EDITOR
The 20th century ends. The third millennium begins.
What is it in the human psyche that makes us giddy at large multiples of 10? Golden anniversaries. Centennials. How many people won’t admit to letting out a war whoop when the car’s odometer rolls over to 100,000?
Some would argue that the year 2000 is almost an arbitrary milestone, a measure of time in a calendar created by Christians, who are a minority in the world, that is based on an inaccurate calculation of the year Christ died. Then there is the argument that the new century and the new millennium really start in 2001, not 2000.
All of that ignores human nature. It’s futile to say there’s nothing to celebrate while a party breaks out all around you.
So we are here. The waning days of the 20th century. In the history books of the future, everything from 1900 to 1999 will be lumped together. There will be chapters – perhaps “1900 to World War I,” “The Depression,” “World War II and the Baby Boom,” “The Cold War,” “The Post-Cold War” – but the world begins anew with the turn of the century. What will they say of our years? What forces shaped us, shaped North Carolina and its people? What set us apart?
We at the Winston-Salem Journal searched for a way to mark the transition to the new century. We wanted to do more than a simple set of historical pieces marking the major events and people of the past 100 years because more has happened than the passing of time and the march of events. The real story of this or any time is how people, their perceptions and their lifestyles are shaped by the cumulative effects of events and the actions of other people.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote more than 50 years ago:
“The generation which reached maturity around 1800 was born spiritually at Valley Forge. Its milk was the illiterate letters, the verbal messages, the casualty reports written during the desperate seven-year retreat from Massachusetts to the Carolinas – and the return back to the Virginia town; its toys were the flintlock in the corner, the epaulets of a Hessian grenadier; its first legend the print of Washington on the schoolroom wall. . . .”
Fitzgerald’s own generation, born about the end of the 19th century, grew up in a rising world power that had just defeated the fading world power of Spain. They marched into World War I bearing high ideals and marched home disillusioned. They were witnesses to many of the technological revolutions that reshaped life more than the changes in any previous age.
When another writer 50 years from now looks back, what might she say? What will she see as the things that made her generation unique and guided her world and her outlook as the 21st century began?
These are the questions we will examine during the coming year in this occasional series, “Approaching the Millennium.”
We will shine a spotlight on the events, people and trends that made us and created the North Carolina we know.
We hope to chart the experiences of the century, particularly those that are unique to North Carolina and that say something about what it means to have been a North Carolinian in the 20th century and to be one now as we enter the 21st.
In the end, we hope at least to have illuminated that path that led us to where we are today and to have peered around the corner of tomorrow for a glimpse of where we all are going.
THE NEW NORTH STATE
INFLUX OF OUTSIDERS FROM ALL AROUND HAS REPAINTED THE CULTURAL LANDSCAPE AND POSSIBLY REDEFINED THE WORD ‘SOUTHERN’
This story was the closing installment of “Approaching the Millennium.”
By Guy Lucas
JOURNAL STATE EDITOR
Jahan Salehi felt a little apprehensive before going with his wife, Ann Dils, for her job interview in 1996 at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Salehi had been living in New York City for 10 years. He had been to North Carolina four times in his life – always to Duck on the Outer Banks. All he knew about North Carolina was that Jesse Helms was one of its senators.
“I had to look up Greensboro on a map,” he said.
As he looked for census information on the state, he already had some idea of the stereotypical Southerner: rural, conservative, Protestant.
What Salehi and Dils found when they arrived defied the stereotypes. The first gasoline station that they went to in Greensboro doubled as a Lebanese grocery, which thrilled Salehi. He loves to cook exotic dishes, and he had worried about being able to find the necessary spices here.
Ever since they moved to North Carolina, they have found a community much more diverse than people outside the South expect to find here, he said.
“The state is changing so rapidly that everything I’d read in the last census . . . is all wrong,” he said.
A North Carolinian from 100 years ago would have a hard time recognizing parts of the state today – partly because of all the cars, jet planes, tall city buildings and the wide freeways linking sprawling suburban areas, but more because of the people and the changing culture.
In North Raleigh, accents from New York can seem more common than those from the Old North State. In Winston-Salem, clusters of businesses have signs all in Spanish. On Topsail Island, the newest cottages often are stucco – sometimes painted pink – and have exotic palm trees planted in lawns of thick sod laid over the sand. Near the New River in Alleghany County, a number of summer homes belong to Cuban families who live in Florida.
The changes are evidence of a historic shift in the state’s population, said John Shelton Reed, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the past 30 years, the state has seen a large influx of new residents from other states and nations.
“(There has been) nothing on this scale, at least not since the 18th century, when the Scotch-Irish came down from Pennsylvania and settled the Piedmont,” Reed said.
The state’s strong economy, particularly in the Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham areas, has fueled the influx. Some of the newcomers will be here just a few years before moving on to other jobs, but many will stay and help shape the North Carolina of the 21st century.
The price of prosperity
Hal Crowther worries that the future of North Carolina will be the same as Hillsborough’s recent past: booming development and sprawl that sap the qualities that made the place unique.
Crowther, who lives in Hillsborough and writes a column on Southern culture for the Oxford American magazine, said that the downside of the state’s strong economy is that it has led to development that is turning formerly rural areas into relatively generic suburban neighborhoods.
“Rural areas give any state its character,” he said.
Local residents at first may see the changes as bringing increasing prosperity, but eventually it can result in large-scale development that compromises the town’s character, Crowther said.
The pattern can be seen in booming areas across the South, such as Cary, Concord and the north Georgia suburbs of Atlanta, he said.
“If you look at every Southern state, the ones with the most prosperity . . . those are going to be the ones that lose their character the most quickly,” he said.
In addition, the people who are moving into these new neighborhoods are often from very different backgrounds than the region’s longtime residents. It is unclear whether the recent wave of newcomers will become assimilated into Southern culture or will fundamentally change it, said Harry Watson, the director of the Center for the Study of the American South in Chapel Hill.
This isn’t the first time that people from other places have moved to the South. What usually happens is that over the years, the newcomers adapt to their surroundings – their behavior changes, and their children grow up with Southern accents.
“I think Southern culture has an enormously powerful assimilative pull,” Watson said. “Many people who move here begin to act like natives.”
But there has never been an influx of this size before.
From late in the 19th century until about 1960, more people left the South than moved into it. In the 1930s and ’40s, some people referred to the South as the “seedbed of the nation” because of all the young people leaving the region for other places, Reed wrote in My Tears Spoiled My Aim, a collection of essays on Southern culture.
Now, more people move into the region than leave it.
The large concentration of non-Southerners in the larger cities creates a buffer against assimilation, Watson said. Non-Southerners can move here and live, work and socialize mostly with other non-Southerners. The question is whether they will.
Growing ethnic groups
When Marco A. Saucedo first visited North Carolina as part of a construction crew in the early 1980s, it often seemed to him that he and his co-workers were the only Hispanics in the state.
Saucedo and his family lived in Atlanta, but as an employee for a construction company based in Houston he traveled across the Southeast for various projects, including several in North Carolina.
“There were no people nowhere that you could say were Hispanic,” he said. But over the years, he noticed that pockets of Hispanics formed, and their numbers grew rapidly. “(Now) you can see a lot of Hispanic people on the street from everywhere.”
In fact, the South as a whole has seen tremendous growth in the number of residents who are of Hispanic or Asian descent – ethnic groups that previously had been small in the region. The number of Hispanics in North Carolina increased 163.6 percent from 1980 to 1997, according to U.S. census data, and the number of Asians and Pacific islanders increased 334.6 percent.
The Census Bureau estimated that there were more than 149,000 Hispanics in the state in 1997, but state officials say that there actually were about 250,000. The census estimate of the number of Asian and Pacific islanders, 92,036, was nearly equal to the number of American Indians, 95,398.
Those were still much smaller than the number of whites and blacks in the state – 5.6 million and 1.6 million – but the population of whites and blacks increased at a much slower rate, about 25 percent each, from 1980 to 1997, the census estimated.
In a sense, Saucedo brought his wife, Lucy, and three children to Winston-Salem 2 1/2 years ago because there already were so many Hispanics in the state: He saw an opportunity to start a radio station catering to Hispanics.
He had some experience as a disc jockey, working part-time at a station in Atlanta since 1991. And for several years before that, Saucedo had made cassettes of music for the construction company’s Hispanic drivers because they passed through so much territory, such as North Carolina, where there were no stations with Spanish-language broadcasts or music. People he knew in Charlotte encouraged him to start his own station, and eventually he started looking for a place to do it.
He uses his radio broadcasts not only to entertain his listeners but to help those who are new to the United States learn to fit into American society, such as by telling them how to get driver’s licenses. He often volunteers to act as a translator. Saucedo sees a bright future for Winston-Salem, and he thinks that Hispanics can help make it happen.
“We can grow with the city over here and with the population here,” he said.
That growth already is changing the city’s appearance, as Wilma B. Hall can attest. Hall, a native of Winston-Salem, has run the Southside Cafe on Waughtown Street near Old Lexington Road for 37 years. The area once was notable for two of its large employers, McLean Trucking Co. and Western Electric, but those are gone – McLean went bankrupt in 1986, and the Western Electric plant, which by then was part of AT&T Technologies Inc., closed in 1988. In recent years, Waughtown has been known for the number of new businesses that cater to Hispanics – there are at least a half dozen within a block of Southside Cafe that have Spanish names and all-Spanish signs.
“Anything that goes out of business out here, they grab it,” Hall said.
It clearly has changed the city’s culture, she said, but she feels it has been enriching.
“You get to know more people and the way they live,” she said.
The arrival of new ethnic groups is nothing new in the United States, but the South has not seen much of it before, Watson said. The region faces the challenge of avoiding the growing pains that accompanied the changes in other regions.
New England, for instance, had a relatively homogenous population – Protestant and largely descended from English settlers – in the early 19th century but then received a wave of Irish immigrants, Watson said. The result was a lot of tension between the ethnic groups – the Irish were disparaged as an inferior race who were inherently criminals and drunkards, and there were anti-Catholic riots.
That level of violence and prejudice against people who are not natives of the United States is unlikely now, he said, but “I wouldn’t say that the South is necessarily exempt.”
“One difference is we’ve had a century and a half of propaganda against nativism,” he said. Many people now believe in the “melting pot,” the idea that one of the strengths of the United States is its diversity.
“That, I think, is a powerful element in culture now. It wasn’t powerful in the 1830s,” Watson said.
Saucedo said that there are isolated incidents – his 11-year-old daughter, who was born in Atlanta, was once told by another child, “Go back to your own country” – but so far he hasn’t seen or heard of any widespread discrimination or resentment toward Hispanics, even though North Carolina has a reputation elsewhere for anti-Hispanic sentiment.
“North Carolina, all my life I heard it was very, very . . . against Hispanic people,” he said. “But I’ve never seen anything like that.”
The new North Carolinians
Talk to non-natives about what they like about North Carolina, and a common theme emerges: People are more relaxed and friendly here, the pace of life is enjoyable, and the climate and landscape are beautiful.
“One time I was driving on a Sunday morning, and I felt so peaceful,” Saucedo said. “I like Atlanta. I love Atlanta. But I can’t see myself living there again.”
Count Salehi and Dils among the newcomers who feel that there is a lot about the area worth praising, including some of the distinctive features of Southern culture. They have not taken to stock-car racing, but Salehi has developed a taste for barbecue. Dils, a dance historian, happily describes learning about clogging, which she had not heard of before moving here.
Salehi – the CEO of Healant, a company that creates and maintains health-related Web sites – also said that the business climate here is good, taxes are relatively low, and there is a ready pool of people with computer skills and a good education. When looking for a place to set up his business, he did not have much trouble finding a good building with low rent. When he looked for a “world-class,” local law firm to represent the company, he found one.
“You may not get the amazing array of competition you find in L.A. or California,” but you can find the quality, he said.
At the same time, many of the things that they feel make the Triad so livable are the result of people coming to North Carolina from other places.
Dils misses the range of New York’s cultural offerings, but she is pleased with what she has found here, particularly a variety of dance from other countries.
“I’m surprised at how much ethnic dance is here,” she said.
She and Salehi both like that they can choose from a variety of Indian, Vietnamese and other ethnic restaurants.
They also like that they have made many friends who have moved to Greensboro from other states and other countries.
These things may not have the deep North Carolina roots that barbecue and stock-car racing do, but all now are part of the Triad’s evolving identity.
Stephen Fischer appreciates the cultural changes that the state has seen, but they are a small part of what has kept him here.
Like Dils, Fischer came to North Carolina from a big city for a job teaching in the arts.
After living nearly all of his life in a succession of big cities – Pittsburgh, Hartford, New York, London and most recently Los Angeles – Fischer moved to Winston-Salem in 1994 for a two-year job teaching screenwriting at the N.C. School of the Arts.
But when Fischer talks about why he likes it here, he spends most of his time talking about intangible things. Winston-Salem just feels like home.
“For me to have a sense of home and a sense of place is unusual,” he said.
He chose to continue living in Winston-Salem even after his term at the School of the Arts ended. He now teaches at Duke University, so he commutes to Durham.
Though taking a job in North Carolina was partly just a “wacky impulse,” Fischer said it was a good move for him.
“It’s been very good for my writing and very good for my soul,” he said. In Los Angeles, where he lived for 16 years, his happiness always seemed to come from external things, such as selling a movie or television script. Here, it is much different.
“There are days I just open my door . . . and feel the cool fall air and see the leaves, and I am happy. I’m content.”