CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Until this year, Mona Mangat hadn't attended a political convention.
So she thought it was perfectly normal last week that Tampa's streets had an occupied feel for the Republican National Convention — mostly deserted except for a stifling security presence.
But as she stood Monday afternoon in the center of one of Charlotte's main drags, South Tryon Street, Mangat saw the opposite as the Democratic National Convention kicked off.
Thousands teemed around a thriving street market where vendors sold everything from funnel cakes and campaign souvenirs, to T-shirts and paintings. Children rolled down a giant inflatable slide. Weekend warriors scaled a climbing wall. Live music blared, with actor Jeff Bridges seizing the stage. Later, James Taylor would sing.
"There was nothing like this in Tampa," said Mangat, a St. Petersburg resident and activist with Patients Over Politics, a nonprofit. "The whole city was under lock down. There was no live music, no street festival, no life to the street. This is a much better representation of Charlotte. I'm not sure what Tampa got out of it."
Now, there was live music in Tampa, though mostly at private events.
In Tampa's defense, Tropical Storm Isaac was threatening the area and scrapped the first day. Also, as journalists and delegates arrived in Charlotte, what they witnessed was a regularly scheduled CarolinaFest — which is akin to a Taste of Charlotte event — that was taking advantage of Labor Day.
"CarolinaFest is popular," said Gerald Ballard, a Charlotte mortgage broker. "This town knows southern hospitality. Many people are here just to taste the food and listen to the music. It's not all about the Democrats."
Credit the holiday. Credit the festival. Or the Democrats.
It didn't matter.
What was witnessed by reporters and delegates was a town where its residents were celebrating. What they found in Tampa was a city that felt desolate.
"The Democrats in a way were lucky," said Kyra Phillips, an anchor with CNN Headline News. "There were two stories the media was covering in Tampa, the convention and the tropical storm. Here, the streets are jammed. In Tampa, everything was indoors and you didn't see this outdoor activity."
Charlotte and Tampa have many similarities. Both are Sun Belt cities that have mostly grown in a suburban fashion after World War II. But while Tampa Bay has a larger population, Charlotte is more dense, with a population of 750,000 that is twice the size of the city of Tampa. While Tampa Bay has nearly no major corporations, Charlotte is a banking hub, with Bank of America and the east coast operations of Wells Fargo taking root here. While Hillsborough County has rejected light rail, Charlotte has embraced it.
"Rail is one of the main factors in turning Charlotte around," Ballard said. "Five years ago, Uptown was dead. Now there's always something going on."
Restaurants and coffee houses are just steps from the security perimeter that surrounds the Charlotte Convention Center, so most journalists can easily step out and experience local cuisine. In Tampa, the security perimeter was farther away from downtown's restaurants, making it harder for visitors to step outside the "bubble."
People already are lingering in the streets in Charlotte, unlike visitors and residents in Tampa, who seemed only to be walking to and from indoor events.
Tall security fences barricaded Tampa's main park and lined city streets. In Charlotte, smaller security fences — resembling bike racks — are used instead. Security personnel studied each badge in Tampa, opening each bag at each check point. In Charlotte on Monday, guards regularly waved people through.
"Free pass, free pass, come on through," smiled one of the guards.
The result, on this first day, was that Charlotte seemed much more open and free compared to Tampa's heavily guarded streets.
But the two cities did have one commonality.
Later Monday afternoon, the street crowd bolted for cover as it began to rain hard. That James Taylor concert? It got canceled.
"We got totally drenched," Mangat said. "It was like that hurricane we expected in Tampa hit us in Charlotte. Kind of ironic, isn't it?"
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected]