Starlight on 22nd Signifies a Passing of the Torch by NoDa Pioneers
New bar in Optimist Park blends ideas from Ruth Ava Lyons, Paul Sires and their son, Orion
“Can we change the music? It’s just not very chill.”
I looked up from my phone — killing time while my interviewee, Orion Sires, tended to a customer behind the bar — and squinted across the sea of mismatched tables and chairs inside Starlight on 22nd in search of the source of the complaint.
My eyes, scanning the room for the disgruntled patron who wasn’t feeling the vibes of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” at that moment, landed on Ruth Ava Lyons. Oh, I thought, it’s just a mother who isn’t into her son’s music. Then I smiled at the irony.
Before stepping away to make a drink, Orion had just finished telling me about the pressure he feels to fill the imposing shoes of his parents, NoDa pioneers Paul Sires and Ruth Ava Lyons. The artist couple is known for turning the neighborhood into an arts district back in the 1980s and continuing to support the local arts community through property they own.
The family’s latest venture is Starlight on 22nd, a bar and cultural center in Optimist Park on the edge of NoDa that they own with 27-year-old Orion. But instead of stepping back into the spotlight as the faces of the new bar, the couple has handed their son the reins to steer Starlight in the direction he sees fit.
“We’re just passing the torch, which is not just for our business but for a lot of our cultural activities,” Ruth Ava Lyons said. “We feel that it’s time for some other people to step up and be active — be activists.”
Still, their hand is evident in Starlight’s eclectic blend of artsy and retro, and like most parents, they have their opinions on the music.
Lighting the way
When painter Ruth Ava Lyons and sculptor Paul Sires arrived in Charlotte in the mid-’80s, the creative hub we call NoDa today was a dilapidated and neglected mill village of north Charlotte. Captivated by the area’s character, the couple restored the 1927 Lowder Building and created the first artist establishment, the Center of the Earth Gallery, which they ran for 22 years.
They continued to renovate nearby buildings and millhouses as part of a revitalization effort, offered studio spaces for artists and lobbied to attract arts-related businesses such as The Evening Muse, which still stands today thanks in no small part to them.
Now they aim to do the same on East 22nd Street with Starlight and their other properties on the same road — X Foundation artist and design studios along with Rock on 22nd, which houses Pachyderm Music Lab and We Rock Charlotte.
There’s also an open lot where they plan to host concerts, festivals and markets.
“I say all the time, ‘Oh damn. It’s just like what we did 30 years ago,’” Ruth Ava Lyons said. “We’re not off the beaten path, we’re on the edge of all that activity, but in the old days people were scared to come to NoDa and we had to do all kinds of things to try to get them there and now we’re doing the same thing because we’re in between all that construction. No one can see us.”
Growing up, Orion remembers serving as his dad’s right-hand man in the studio. Over the years, Paul Sires has created large-scale sculptural work outside of the Spectrum Center, among many other locations around Charlotte.
“My dad brought me to his studio and we made stuff,” Orion said. “We made swords, we made crossbows, we made catapults, we built forts. We built, I mean, just making stuff out of wood. My dad taught me how to sculpt, taught me how to cut stone. I was doing stuff that kids just weren’t doing.”
Yet Orion insists he never felt pressured by his parents to become an artist. He attended Elon and Queens universities, earning a business administration degree in finance before going on to work at a financial advising firm.
“I went into that world and I did it for two years and I hated it. And I didn’t want to be in the office anymore,” he said. “And my dad was like, ‘Come work for me. You can work with your hands again.’”
Orion eventually transitioned into a bookkeeping and administration role at his parents’ property management firm, Eden Orion Realty. He communicated with tenants and collected rent, but the daily grind caught up to him.
An opportunity presented itself when the Starlight property, which at the time was used as artist studios, underwent a city zoning change.
“My dad was like, ‘Well, what would you do with this place?’ And I said, ‘Bar.’”
At first, Orion’s vision for Starlight on 22nd differed from his parents. He wanted to create an upscale lounge with new furniture and a modern feel, but Ruth and Paul insisted on making it funky with a heavy emphasis on thrifted and repurposed decor.
Orion had to let go and trust the process — notions all too familiar for the son of artists.
“Me and my dad were doing all this manual labor, tacking all these things up, cutting all the wood, thrifting all this furniture and all the reclaimed wood and these shingles and hanging up Ruth’s old artwork from the ’90s,” Orion said.
“They kind of taught me that you can throw together anything, and it’s about the vibe and the energy you create. And slowly everything came together, and it just looks really great the way that it is.”
His parents like to make use use of everything, even if it seems useless to him, Orion said.
To that end, everything in Starlight on 22nd is either thrifted, repurposed or created; the ceiling in the entryway is made completely out of streetlights, above the bar hang the old doors of The Evening Muse, and on top of each table sits a trophy or vintage trinket.
“NoDa, when my parents came in, was funky,” Orion said. “And so the way that the bar is now, it appeals to the way NoDa was back in the ’80s and ’90s and this retro vibe with the disco and the starlight and Ruth’s old paintings and all the old repurposed furniture and the wood … it reminds me of how NoDa used to be — how wherever you went, it was funky.”
“It’s NoDa nostalgic.”
And Orion has seen how those who come to Starlight on 22nd appreciate the nostalgia. Looking around the bar, he said it sometimes feels like cellphones don’t exist, the way people come to Starlight to have an intimate time, to talk one-on-one and to play an old board game together.
“This whole place, it’s a time capsule,” he said. “You don’t age. Time doesn’t move forward. It’s another universe in here.”
A bright future
The week before Starlight on 22nd opened in late 2021, Orion and his wife, Dyanna, welcomed a baby girl, Aspen. Her birth sparked an energy in the 27-year-old to revisit some of his childhood interests and reminisce on a time when life seemed simpler.
Orion used the retirement savings he had begun to collect during his time in finance to start an online Mercari shop selling vintage Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, then launched a YouTube channel where he opens packs of cards and other products and vlogs about his life.
“Everything I do now won’t be for me anymore. Everything will end up being hers one day, and everything that they’ve done for me, now I get it,” he said, referring to his parents. “Being a parent, now I get it.”
Orion’s new-wave approach to investing and branding differs from what made his parents successful over the years. He’s put money into the electric vehicle industry, mainly Tesla and QuantumScape — an American company that conducts research about solid-state lithium metal batteries for electric cars.
He idolizes YouTuber and social media personality Logan Paul, inspired by the way he built his personal brand and hopes to do the same through investing, self marketing and entrepreneurship.
“Everything I do, I try to see as an investment. This is part of the reason why I don’t travel the world,” Orion said. “As much as memories are really important in traveling and seeing things is important, I can do that later in life. Early on, I just want to have things because one day I’ll be too old to drive the sports cars and get in a low car and I’ll be too old to try and do things that are entrepreneurial. I’ll be burned out by then. Everything I have to do and start while I’m young.”
With most of his money tied to investments, Orion said he needs Starlight on 22nd to work out double time, and he has plenty of ideas for making that happen.
The space hosts drag shows, open mic nights, live music and stand-up comedy, and he plans to add health and wellness events, theatre productions and spoken-word poetry slams. But that’s just the beginning; Orion wants to turn the property’s outdoor area into a tiki bar with a “Pantheon, Colosseum-like stage” to host outdoor comedy shows and live music.
A self-proclaimed “huge nerd,” he excitedly told me he’s been working with the Charlotte Gaymers Network (CGN) to hold game nights at Starlight. The group, founded in 2020 as a way for Charlotte’s LGBTQ+ community to stay connected, gathers to play board, tabletop and video games.
As the son of local pioneers, Orion said the pressure to be great fuels his drive to be successful. In a way, each avenue he takes — investing, his card business, his YouTube channel, and now Starlight on 22nd — is like another layer to the safety net.
“I’m definitely afraid that I could not live up to [my parents’] expectations, but they don’t care if I have all this stuff and that’s the funny thing,” Orion said. “My parents don’t care if I have cars or gold or a house. None of that matters to them. They want to see me thriving and doing my best. And the bar is great for that, because the bar allows me to interact with people, and they’re seeing me on some nights run the whole place by myself. So that makes them really happy. The great thing about them is they don’t set crazy expectations or expect anything. All they’ve ever done is be open-minded and love me.”
Orion named the bar, and the more we talked about it, the more we realized its endless connotations.
“It was catchy. It was cosmic. It was the universe,” Orion said. “We’re all stars and dust, right? And that may be an oversimplification, but that’s what Starlight is all about. It’s about all-togetherness.”
It can also be thought of as a beacon, Orion said, like the North Star, shining above the neighborhood with the message, “Come here to be treated like you’re special and you matter and we care about you.”
The word “starlight” is defined as literally as it sounds: the light emitted by stars. That might be the most accurate meaning of all behind the bar’s moniker, I thought, because that’s what Orion is: the light emitted by his parents, the stars of NoDa.
Looking at the definition, I smiled at the irony.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.