Just 10 miles from uptown Charlotte, the University City area seems like a city all its own. Aptly named for the crown jewel of the area, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC), the area is rooted in education and fueled by innovation.
Once will not be enough. There’s more than enough to see and do in one day. Between exhibitions, performances, food truck feasts, farmers market finds, nature trails and bookish delights, University City is an experience seeker’s gold mine. (UNCC 49er pun intended.)
This is the fifth installment of a new exploration series sponsored by OrthoCarolina, that encourages everyone to go for walks to discover creative communities across the Charlotte region.
Trains, trails and automobiles
Don’t be intimidated by the major thoroughfares that encircle the area. Interstates 85 and 485 flank University City on the east and west, respectively, while University City Blvd. and N. Tryon St. run parallel on either side of UNCC’s campus. These main (and busy) roads make it easy to reach the destination, but it’s not the only way to explore University City. Pockets of walkable spaces, greenway trails and multiple LYNX Blue Line stations make the area feel approachable and well connected.
The LYNX Blue Line
The light rail, as many know it, is a great way to cover a lot of ground. The last four stations are perfectly placed to explore nearby attractions, and each station features noteworthy public art.
- University City Blvd. Station features work by artist Jackie Chang. Text marries images in the glass windscreens at the passenger shelters. The word “WHERE,” with “HERE” embedded within it, is printed above Chang’s digitally created images of foliage against a blue sky.
- McCullough Station’s Ebb & Flow is the work of artist Shaun Cassidy. Custom blue sculptural benches formed into the shape of standing leaves are placed at each end of the platform, with perforated leaves casting playful shadows on the concrete. Flowing leaf patterns are echoed in the etched windscreen glass and stainless steel trackway fencing.
- JW Clay Blvd./UNC Charlotte Station has works by Chang similar to University City Blvd. station. But take a minute to appreciate this station’s glass enclosures. The evocative works by Susan Brenner (The Red Tree at the JW Clay station tower and Waterfall at the University City Blvd. station tower) illustrate sentiments of growth and movement found throughout nature.
- UNC Charlotte – Main Station’s featured artist, Mikyoung Kim, stages a stellar finale at the last stop on the Blue Line and the main entrance to UNCC.
Look closely at the glass wIndscreen. Its designs incorporate world maps with each continent outlined in blue. vertical white and grey lines curving through the maps represent the world’s time zones.
But the main attraction is Kim’s functional sculpture with two fluid, perforated stainless steel forms centered on beige pavers. A choreographed lighting program, activated by motion sensors, enhances the exhibit, interacting with light rail riders and passersby.
You’ll also spot works along the rails by artists Carolyn Braaksma (intricate designs in the stones of walls and bridges) and Darren Goins (quirky bike parking).
From bridges and streams to butterflies and blue herons, you’ll see something new around every corner. There are also several connector paths to nearby neighborhoods and offshoot greenways, like Barton Creek Greenway that leads to the walkway by the Shoppes at University Place.
Nothing “beets” local
The University City Farmers Market is a must-do on Saturdays, May through October, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Located along the lake at The Shoppes at University Place and easily accessible from the JW Clay/UNCC Station, you’ll find organically grown fare along with cooking demonstrations and live music by local artists.
Quench your thirst with cold-pressed organic juices from Dr. O.J.’s Organic Juice or a fresh-squeezed lemonade from Squeeze. If you need a cup of ambition, you have your pick. If java is your jam, the University area has something brewing for you. Drip Joint, Ocio Cafe, The Coffee Tin and Detour Coffeebar have unique coffee creations to kickstart your day.
Pair it with a treat from Sweet Bite Cupcake or Urban Honey and peruse the slew of arts and crafts vendors. (And since life is all about balance, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Camp Gladiator hosts workouts at the market the first and last Saturday at 9 a.m.)
University City has a host of culinary offerings; the hardest part is deciding where to start! Order up some vegan comfort food at Black-and-women-owned VelTree or a ‘90s-themed treat from Ninety’s Ice Cream (featuring brand new 90s-themed wall art by Alex Duncan a.k.a. @x.dunc).
Explore the international food scene with specialties from Le Kebab Grill (flavorful falafel), Papi’s Puerto Rican Cuisine (amazing arroz con pollo), Sarangi Indian & Nepali Cuisine (savory samosa chaat), Banh Mi Brothers (lovely lemongrass grilled chicken) and Tea Fusion Café (delicious bubble tea).
UNC Charlotte’s art of gold
UNC Charlotte (the university’s newly released preferred moniker) alumni know that 49ers bleed green and gold. They’re probably also familiar with the school’s iconic “49er Miner” statue by Lorenzo Ghiglieri and “Norm the Miner” mascot. But, you may not know the series of fortuitous events that make the 49ers moniker so meaningful.
UNC Charlotte was founded in 1946 (originally known as the Charlotte Center) to serve the educational needs of veterans returning from World War II. But these centers started to close in 1949 as the need decreased.
Enter Bonnie Cone, the school’s founder. She recognized the need for a public college in the region. Charlotte College was officially established in 1949 thanks to “Miss Bonnie” (as she was affectionately known).
The 49ers nickname was adopted in 1961 as a nod to the Charlotte region’s rich gold-mining history and a reference to the California gold rush. (The “gold-seekers, called ‘forty-niners’ (referring to 1849, the peak year for Gold Rush immigration” is how Wikipedia explains it.)
Plus, the university happens to sit on Highway 49. (Charlotte College became the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 1965 when it officially joined the UNC system.)
History aside, the campus is abuzz with fresh starts and final chapters. But you don’t need to go back to school to experience the offerings on campus. Whether you’re wandering through the gardens or absorbing an exhibit, you’ll find a mindset shift.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, so wear comfortable walking shoes. But the public art and beautiful landscaping throughout the campus help break up the hills and stairs you’ll encounter along the way. (Getting that blood pumping keeps the creativity flowing, though, right?)
Plan some time to explore the flora and fauna at the UNCC Botanical Gardens.
Start at The McMillan Greenhouse (several parking spaces are available for guests), sign in and take a peek at the collection of rare and seasonal plants. The Dinosaur Garden is a fun feature of the greenhouse. The lush space has the greatest diversity of ferns (and other fern-like plants) in the Charlotte area. The greenhouse also hosts seasonal events, like the annual Fall Plant Sale (open to the public Oct. 1 and 2, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
From the Greenhouse, cross over Mary Alexander Rd. to enter the Botanical Gardens, then choose your own nature adventure. The Susie Harwood Garden is on your left and Van Landingham Glen is to your right. Each has paths that wind by unique features and beautiful blooms.
One of the most moving experiences in the Gardens is the newly opened Polly Rogers Memorial Sensory Garden (located within Van Landingham Glen). The garden honors Polly Rogers, the UNCC sophomore who died in an auto accident in May 2018.
The therapeutic environment is designed for all, regardless of ability — a nod to Polly’s ambition to be a special education teacher. The magical space is meant to reflect Polly’s spirit — peaceful and contemplative, yet whimsical and fun. The clear pavers are “fairy garden art” designed by the Gardens’ staff, and contribute to the imaginative feel of Polly’s Garden.
As you walk along the pebble path, take note of the symbols in the stonework in Polly’s Garden — they mark her final resting place, where her remains are interred. Her family chose the symbols to represent things Polly was passionate about: The ram (Polly’s astrological sign), the autism awareness heart (for her passion for special education), the symbol for “I love you” in sign language (which Polly often used with her friends and family) and a lightning bolt (reflecting Polly’s energetic personality).
While it may sound like a somber experience, the space is designed to invite individuals of all ages and abilities to embrace their creativity and feel at one with the world around them.
Paperbacks, paints and Pinot
Start at the newly opened Urban Reader Bookstore, a Black-owned book shop specializing in African-American titles. The independent shop also hosts community events and game nights. The walls are adorned with original art by Tajmah Allison.
Next, head across the street for a 90-minute art session at City Art Room (online ticket purchase is strongly recommended, since walk-in space is limited and rates increase by $10). You have your choice of canvas painting, glass painting or clay molding, plus karaoke and a wine bar. (Bonus, snack bar offerings are just $1.)
Once you’ve created your masterpiece, stroll next door for a wine tasting and live music at The Wine Vault.
Take a look; it’s in a book…
For a literary adventure, dig into any topic you fancy at J. Murrey Atkins Library. You’ll see students tucked in study corners, but feel free to quietly peruse the library’s collection of books and rotating exhibits.
Fun fact for bibliophiles: In 2016, Atkins Library celebrated the acquisition of its 2 millionth volume, a rare sixth edition of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, published in 1793.
For a real treat, take the elevator to the 10th floor to see the Special Collections and University Archives. The quiet space houses unpublished materials such as archival records, photographs, maps, manuscripts, oral history recordings and rare books. Plus, you’ll score some views of the campus and, on a clear day, the Charlotte skyline.
Want more library fun? The Charles C. Hight Architecture Library is on the second floor of Storrs Hall, which houses the School of Architecture (SoA) at UNCC. It is the only branch library at the university. The primary focus of the collection is 20th and 21st-century design, architects and the built environment.
UNCC has a plethora of performances and exhibits in the works. Start at the Student Union Art Gallery to view the current exhibition, On the way to Thriving: Lillian & Teresa, on display through Aug. 30.
Then venture to other exhibits and performances available at various locations on campus. You can view the full calendar on the university’s website, but here’s a peek at some of the upcoming highlights:
- Aug. 30 at Belk Theatre – Robinson Hall: Branford Marsalis
- Sept. 10 and 11 at Belk Theatre – Robinson Hall: Faculty Dance Concert
- Oct. 2-6 in the Arts Quad: Migrant X
- Through Oct. 20 at Rowe Upper Gallery: In Spite of Enclosures (Works by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist D Rosen.)
- Through Oct. 1 at Rowe Lower Gallery: Metamorphosis (Works by Lacey McKinney and Jon Verney.)
- Through Oct. 13 at Lambla Gallery in Storrs Hall: Migrating Borders (Work by Lidia Klein and Marc Manack, professors in the SoA at UNCC.)
Did We Miss One of Your Favorites?
If you have a favorite creative location in the University City area that we didn’t include in this story, reach out to us at email@example.com with a description and a photo! We’ll add it to the story as a reader suggestion.
All photos below were taken by Ernesto Moreno, unless otherwise noted.
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