I’m writing about making I-277 a river to promote my brand.
Some people are talking about walling off uptown Charlotte with a moat. It’s a joke. But what if it’s not a joke?
NOTE: I’ve moved my writing home over to Substack. To find and support more of my work, head over here to peruse, subscribe, and support the North Carolina Rabbit Hole.
Here’s a warning: I’m probably going to be wasting your time. But this is the Internet, and this is probably why you came here anyway, so here goes.
Some people, it seems, do not care for Interstate 277 in Charlotte. For one thing, nobody calls it that, right? It’s the Belk or the Brookshire. Anyway, it sucks. And so, the folks who look all the way to the future have decided that it needs to go. Or be buried underneath the ground, where you’ll forget about it.
Turn it into a river?
Full disclosure, this is a whimsical daydream thought up by a co-founder of Charlotte Agenda, a website that I enjoy and have definitely always enjoyed. She’d kind of mused over the idea back in March, but back in June, she tweeted this:
And off we went.
It took only 16 days for the I-277 River movement to land an honest-to-God celebrity endorsement:
The discourse has died down, but not before the frivolity morphed into its natural second act: the You All Aren’t Really Serious About This, Are You? phase.
The Make I-277 A River movement never went full Cone Weed, but it is still out there, a deep cut of recent Charlotte Twitter, an insider’s reference delivered with a smirk. And yet, for all of its online simmering, one thing never happened:
Nobody wrote a story on it! Nobody! That is, UNTIL NOW.
Folks, I am here to smother the Interstate 277 River movement with a pillow of love. I come to research it. To ponder it. And, ultimately, to dab on it. But mostly, I am going to attempt to take it seriously. As an actual idea. And as a joke.
First off, rerouting a river is some serious shit. I went to college at Ohio University, where they re-channeled the Hocking River in 1971 because it kept flooding the dorms. They literally moved five miles of waterway from the center to the outer edge of campus. When they did this, the Environmental Protection Agency was one year old, and since then, the Army Corps of Engineers has said that, in hindsight, they wouldn’t do that again. So, yes, in a fantasy world where there’s still lead in gasoline, you could dig a trench across Mecklenburg County just to get a little bit of murky Catawba River water to flow around the big pretty buildings. But, that’s a long haul — seven miles, one way. Plus, you’re violating the most basic water thing, which is that water flows downhill, so you’d need to pump it all the way up to uptown, just to let it flow back down. That’s some U.S. National Whitewater Center on steroids-type shit there.
Which dovetails into the other point: There isn’t enough flow in the Catawba to make it an interesting river anyway. One early proposal for the Whitewater Center suggested that some of the Catawba could to be diverted into a man-made channel with rocks and rapids. But the water there just wasn’t flowing fast enough, and the elevation wasn’t dropping quickly enough. That’s because the Catawba River is (looks both ways before whispering) actually more of a lake. It’s dam-controlled within an inch of its life, and the water flows as swiftly as molasses.
So, if you were going to divert an actual flowing waterway, Little Sugar Creek is about as good as you’re gonna get, and if you think the Catawba is a lazy river, then man, you’re not gonna like the ditch with a greenway next to it. Besides, don’t forget that for decades, Little Sugar Creek was literally hidden from public view, covered by asphalt and tunneled underneath Midtown. Just leave it alone. IT’S BEEN THROUGH ENOUGH.
But hey, I know, maybe you all want a river because other cities have rivers flowing through them, and they make for terrific Instagram shots. It’s true! But in North Carolina, consider that nobody really puts important stuff down on the banks. In 2016, I paddled the entire length of the Cape Fear River, all 200-some miles of it. It was a lonely and isolating experience. For the first 150 miles, I saw trees. That was it. Trees. When I got to Fayetteville, a city of 200,000 people, I expected to, ahem, see it. Nope. I went underneath a few more bridges than I had earlier. I heard a few more honking horns. Saw an extra john boat or two. I wondered aloud, hey, why don’t they do something cool with this here river? And about five months later, Hurricane Matthew came through and shot that river out of its banks something awful, and I had my answer.
Ah, but wait, what about Wilmington? It has a river walk! It has a cool bridge! It’s built right on the river! Sure is! But at that point, the Cape Fear is past the last lock and dam, and it’s increasingly a tidal estuary at that point, less susceptible to flooding and more influenced by, you know, THE RISING SEAS. Point being, most cities do not want to put all of their cool stuff right down by a real river, because real rivers are terrific until it rains. I used to live in a river town. You know what Huntington, West Virginia did with the Ohio River? That’s right, they built the wall— a flood wall, to try and keep the river out. The city eventually created a little park on the other side, but it was sort of smelly because of the stuff that was being carried downstream. It was not a popular destination.
So, let’s recap — actually, let’s not. You’re not getting the Rio Belko.
But here’s the thing about this stupid idea that I’m wasting time on: It’s a very pure Charlotte joke. An I-277 River is a formulaic punchline that, in some way, the city has been building to since the Hornets came to town. Back when they arrived in 1987, Charlotte had half the population and best known for wrasslin’ and NASCAR. Nobody really thought the NBA would come here. Then it did, and still-in-shock Charlotteans, who had nothing else to do over the winter, filled the Coliseum to capacity night after night. The teal and purple Starter jacket became a national phenomenon. I wasn’t living in Charlotte then, but that had to have been a bewildering experience. Then came the Panthers in the mid-90s, and things kept snowballing. Nothing was too outlandish anymore. The ambition of the place was fueled by two competing banks that paid for all of the nice stuff in town (thank Bank of America for the bus terminal, they built it!). For a good two decades, every domino fell the right way. You could kiss the ground and, a year later, a skyscraper would appear on that exact spot. A light rail was conjured into existence. Someone placed their hand on a book of spells and wished for a major motion picture to be filmed here and BAM! Juwanna Mann.
Hence, once social media started to invade our lives ten years ago, no idea seemed too farfetched. The pump was primed for the likes of me to occasionally pop off with posts like: “I think NASA should move their launch pads out to the old Eastland Mall site.” Your response would be like “hahaha what I never thought of that” and you’d think, he’s joking. Right? He’s joking. Right? RIGHT?
I mean, I still lived in town in 2011 when folks in town, with a visible DNC 2012 contact high, were talking about the Olympics. The Olympics! Discus and handball and all of that. Honest to God, people with six-figure salaries were talking about it. Not some dude with 15 followers firing off a drunken tweet. No. The head of the Charlotte Chamber was interviewed on television about it. His message: Crazy, right? You think I’m joking? WELL MAYBE I’M NOT JOKING.
But! That was “Then.” Things have happened since “Then.” Serious things. So today, you aren’t actually thinking about turning I-277 into a river. Are you? What with the problems out there with [gestures broadly]? Of course not, you’d say. It was a joke! Can’t you take a joke? Today, a bold, deranged proposal like this starts off innocuously only on Twitter. And then some people make dad jokes about it, and then someone else steps in and says “I can’t believe we’re talking about X when Y is a problem,” and then people dunk on that person, and then we’re just dunking dunking dunking. If you hinted at the fact that this might be a real idea, you set yourself up to be Greg Paulus on the receiving end of a Danny Green nutmegging.
Then again, saying it’s all a joke masks the real reason why we do anything on Twitter around here, a reason that I had never seen someone explain so honestly before now:
I had not heard of the term “trigger marketing” before, but now, after a minute on some cookie-installing explainer websites, I have! You just watch for someone to say something, wait for it to be enough of A Thing, and then you chime in with a well-timed, memorable opinion. Maybe you burnish someone else’s brand (Lord knows I get enough emails from PR firms telling me an expert is available to talk about whatever mild controversy has bubbled up on any given day). Maybe you polish your own. Hell, before I wrote this Hot 277 Take, I tested the waters with a inner belt river joke, and landed at least one organic version of a “Well, Actually”:
I mean, there’s always a rush to jump on to the next thing as it’s taking off, right? That’s true of everyone but also true of Charlotte, a city that I still love and consider to be mine, five years after we broke up. True, we’ve had the same problems as a lot of our sister cities, but also, we’ve got ambition, motherfuckers. If we can just figure out a way to build that moat, we’ll literally be separated from our peers. After all, we Charlotteans are always looking for ways to stand apart.
Jeremy Markovich is a Charlottean emeritus. To promote his brand.