In the late 1960s before I was even tall enough to see out the window of a car, Independence Boulevard (Hwy. 74) was already important in my life. It was the way to the beach, my happy place even at that early age. Every summer and quite a few Thanksgivings one or the other of my family’s cars moved through the traffic on the narrow lanes leading out of Charlotte, NC, heading for Windy Hill, SC. Cars and trucks zipped by, too close and too fast. Looking up I could see the signs we passed: Krispy Kreme, The Charlotte Coliseum, Kmart. Though Charlotte had the worst traffic, Hwy. 74 also passed through Matthews, Indian Trail, then Monroe before it opened up some and we felt, truly, on our way. The turn onto Hwy. 601 towards Pageland was probably about the time we started saying “Are we there yet?” and looking down every side street to see if we could see the ocean. About three hours later, we did.
Reaching Independence Blvd. on the return trip meant we were home. Though we lived in a suburb twenty minutes north of the city, we always answered the question “Where are you from?” with “Charlotte” because no one had ever heard of our, then, tiny town of Huntersville. It sometimes felt like it took as long to go that last quarter of the drive because the city traffic slowed our roll, sometimes to a standstill. We would finally escape the mire when we exited the Hwy. 74 corridor at Interstate 77 and headed north towards Huntersville, both sad and glad to be home.
On July 30th, 1975, when I was ten years old, Independence Blvd. became our conduit to the snazzy new Eastland Mall. At the time, it was the largest mall in North Carolina and my mother and I were there at least two Saturdays a month, shopping at Belk, Ivey’s, or J.C. Penney. (The mall also had the first ice skating rink I had ever seen other than on televised Olympic figure skating events, which I loved.) Halfway down Independence Blvd. Mom would jokingly tell me it was time to cover my eyes, now that I was riding in the front seat and could see Thompson’s Bootery and Bloomery out the passenger side window as we crossed Pecan Avenue. The store had, evidently, started out as the place to buy your Buster Brown shoes, then later added lingerie to their repertoire. The window display included a variety of female mannequins in see-thru, frilly gowns, panties, and bras. Never having seen such things in our home or on TV at the time, the display seemed scandalous to my young eyes, so, of course, I stared all the way past each time we headed to the mall.
Shopping time was even more of a bonding time for Mom and me than those beach trips we took as a family because it was one of the few times that it was usually just me and Mom hanging out together. I would endure the hour she wanted to spend in the Alfred Dunner section at Belk, trying on and buying clothes to wear to work, so that she would accompany me to Lerner, my favorite store for school clothes. I would make my choices in June, then we would put everything on layaway until school started in late August, paying a little every couple of weeks until it was time to take my selections home at last. I remember fondly our game planning on the way down Independence Blvd., discussing which store we would hit first, which of the food court stands we would lunch at, what the day’s goals and budget were. Independence Blvd. was our boardroom then, as cars careened past, seeming dangerously close in the narrow, twisty lanes.
My mother was a fast but careful driver. It was all the others zooming by us that scared me. Everyone on Independence Blvd. always seemed to be in a rush to get somewhere … passing through on their way to somewhere else, hurrying to a meeting, or just heading to the mall. I was horrified when, on about the third day of my sophomore year of high school, my Driver’s Ed teacher told me I would be driving down Independence Blvd. that day. He used his students’ driving time, usually, to run his personal errands. One day we would be driving to Cornelius, the small town north of Huntersville, to pick up his shoes from the shoe repair store, the next down Independence Blvd. to pick up tickets to some event that was to be held at The Charlotte Coliseum. I was scared to death. The worst moment was when I had to merge into traffic from the left as we exited the Brookshire Freeway portion of Hwy. 74 and entered Independence Blvd. proper. Once I did that without killing myself, Mr. Dorman, or anyone else, I felt a little relief. Then I had to merge all the way across into the right lane so I could turn onto the road that ran alongside The Charlotte Coliseum. Terri Grier, my new best friend and I sat in the car while Mr. Dorman went inside to pick up his tickets. I was so relieved when he came back out and told Terri she would be driving us back to school.
Not too long after that first semester of high school ended, I turned sixteen and got my driver’s license. My Mom passed down her 1976 Ford Granada, and I was free at last … at least until eleven o’clock on weekends, that is. My friend, Terri, and I would load up in the Granada and head down Independence Blvd. towards the mall, often stopping off at Krispy Kreme when the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign was on. We parked in the bottom level of the parking deck and cruised the mall on foot, looking for our friends who all hung out there. More often than not, we would segue from the mall meet ups to video gaming at Putt-Putt just down the street. It was there I met my future husband, one of Terri’s old neighbors, on a tenth grade Saturday night. The meeting was brief. After all, I had to get back on Independence Blvd. and head home by 10:30 in order to make my curfew.
Darryl and I did not become a couple until nearly a year later when I needed help to make an ex-boyfriend jealous at a North Mecklenburg High School football game one Friday night and just happened to run into him and his best friend, Mike Phillips, in the stands. Darryl was happy to help and the rest is history. From that night until our high school graduation we were on Independence Blvd. nearly every weekend. We would head to Eastland Mall or to Darryl’s Restaurant (no relation), which was where I first heard of and tried Buffalo Wings. Or we would head to Grady’s for Chocolate Bar Cake or catch a $1 movie at the Regency Theatre off Albemarle Road. We saw nearly every popular 1980s group on Independence Blvd. at The Charlotte Coliseum, which I always thought looked like a landed spaceship sitting beside Hwy. 74. Back then we could see Journey AND Loverboy for about $16.00 for the both of us. I saw Styx, Foreigner, Jackson Browne, Billy Joel, ZZ Top, Rush, James Taylor, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, AC/DC, The Bangles, Heart, Quiet Riot, Billy Squire, Eddie Money, REO Speedwagon, Motley Crue, Chicago, Toto, The Ramones, The Clash, just to name a few. The spectacle of the bands brought back childhood memories of Barnum and Bailey Circuses my parents had taken me to in the same building.
As Darryl and I neared graduation, I took the trek up Independence Blvd. to purchase my prom dress. Once we had walked across the stage, we took good ole Hwy. 74 once again, heading for Senior Week at the Beach, a rite of passage for North Meck. grads every year. Less than two years later I took Independence Blvd. to buy another dress, … this time a wedding dress … and we were married two years and one week after our high school graduation.
We traveled Hwy. 74 a lot in the first fifteen years of our marriage, whether we were heading to the beach or just heading to The Wing Ranch on Kings Drive, our all-time favorite restaurant and hang out to go to with great friends Mike and Cathy Phillips. We went to Eastland Mall less and less as other area malls opened. Replaced by a new facility on Tyvola Road, the old Charlotte Coliseum had become a venue for minor league hockey. We enjoyed going to Charlotte Checkers games with friends Kim and Jim Sholley and others. I took a friend and neighbor, Jim McCallister, to Stars on Ice there when Darryl wouldn’t go with me. We also went to Southern Christmas Shows together in the early 1990’s at Ovens Auditorium, right next door to the old space ship.
As more and more shopping, dining, and entertainment venues came to the suburbs were we lived, we traveled less and less into Charlotte, until traveling down Independence for those things became a rarity. We even found several alternate routes to the beach. In the early 2000’s Independence Blvd. got a facelift, becoming more of a freeway than a shopping and entertainment corridor. Trips up it were more likely trips to the hospitals in Charlotte to visit family or friends, less happy events. Eastland Mall closed for good in 2010. Grady’s and Darryl’s were closed. The Wing Ranch moved, first to Albemarle Road, then to Dilworth before, I believe, it eventually closed, too. Gone were the concerts at the old Charlotte Coliseum. Ringling Brothers no longer brought the circus to town. Kmart had closed its doors on Independence Blvd. in 1994 or 1995 and the Krispy Kreme did not survive the improvements to the road.
We lived in the Charlotte city limits from 1989 to 1998 when we decided we were tired of the high taxes that paid for new stadiums and arenas we had voted against. Instead of heading to Highway 74 towards uptown Charlotte, we took its extension, Highway 16, traveling northwest into Lincoln County. We’ve been there ever since. I love Denver, where we live now, but I sure do miss many things about the days I traveled Independence Blvd. so frequently, when it seemed like that road led everywhere I wanted to be.