Carrboro throws a party that’s a whole day of quirky

akenney@newsobserver.comMay 5, 2013 

— Carrboro Day wasn’t much different from most Carrboro days. There were crafty wares for sale, unexpected styles of music, and a bustling mix of families and flannel. It’s just that there was more of all that than usual.

“It’s a whole day of Carrboro,” said Niki DeGroot, 33, a volunteer organizer for the town-sponsored celebration. She estimated 1,000 people or more would flock to the Town Commons on Sunday afternoon for the 18th version of Carrboro Day, and thousands more were expected at the Cat’s Cradle club for the first-ever Carrboro Block Party that afternoon and evening.

Even with blustery skies and sprinkles of rain, Sunday’s events were a chance for Carrboro residents old and new to cross paths and peruse the town’s quirks and perks. Other municipalities have their signature festivals, but Carrboro is unique in the area for having such a town-centric holiday.

To some, Carrboro Day provides regular maintenance for the town’s quirky soul amid the Triangle’s constant growth and the University of North Carolina’s never-ending flood of students. Carrboro’s residents – and its government – have long seen themselves as a tight-knit town plastered with local art and defined by progressive causes.

“People feel identified with Carrboro. It’s very diverse. People feel comfortable here,” said Nerys Levy, 67, a historian and artist who was manning the bake sale for the Friends of the Carrboro Branch Library.

Even with its municipal pride, Levy said, Carrboro doesn’t have everything it needs. She has been pushing for decades to win a full-service library here, and she won’t consider the town complete until she gets it.

That’s one of the troubles of life in little Carrboro, population roughly 20,000. It often is overshadowed or lumped together with directly neighboring Chapel Hill, which has almost triple Carrboro’s population.

In fact, it was overflow from Chapel Hill’s growing university that seeded a dramatic change for Carrboro a few decades ago.

“Carrboro was very much a blue-collar town until the 1970s,” said Richard Ellington, who lectured on the area’s mills during Carrboro Day.

Ellington grew up here, witnessing the shift that began with the construction of apartments in the ’70s. With the undergraduates came demands for expanded municipal services.

“They were viewed as outsiders,” Ellington said – so they took part of the town’s identity into their own hands. Then came the bus lines from Chapel Hill, and a transformative flood of university professors and students, most seeking less-expensive housing.

That heavy college presence fostered the growth of both an arts scene and a progressive demographic that elected the state’s first openly gay mayor. And while population turnover is heavy, more families have settled in the area. And a tight-packed cluster of restaurants, coffee shops, stores and bars gives the town its cultural backbone.

Still, Carrboro has its challenges. The town historically has been wary of new development – a proposed CVS store sparked a long protest – but it also is subject to rising housing costs. The town’s median home price already is quintuple its median household income.

To move forward, the town needs to ensure it’s affordable to a broad range of new residents, Levy said – yet she worries that overdevelopment could tarnish the town’s appeal. “How does it broaden its economic base without putting the burden on the property owners?” she asked, referring to traffic and other development impacts.

The pressures of a new wave of local development will bring that conversation to the forefront again. But as it weighs its future, Carrboro at least has itself to celebrate.

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary

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