Two old houses that had been repurposed as locally owned businesses were razed this summer. A new hotel will replace them.
These houses weren’t on the historic register; they weren’t even in the historic district. But in conjunction with 140 West and Carolina Square the replacement of these houses with a large, modern hotel adds to the significant changes that have occurred over the past few years to the downtown Chapel Hill landscape.
“Once upon a time, there was a street like other streets and college towns, that is a place that is more than a street, it is a heartbeat. The 100 blocks of Franklin Street to a Chapel Hill native is hallowed ground, made so by all the events that we have all witnessed over the years.” (Jock Lauterer)
Landscapes, as Lauterer describes, are not just about appearances; they reflect the “the aspirations, values, experiences, and shared understandings of the place’s occupants.” The downtown Chapel Hill landscape is becoming less like “other streets and college towns” and more like Cary. When I walk downtown these days, I feel anonymous, invisible. I rarely run into friends or acquaintances, and it’s been years since I’ve heard a street musician. The flower ladies are no more. The heartbeat has developed a dysrhythmia.
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Those who believe that growth will bring affordability have probably stopped reading by now. They’ve embraced the developers’ claims that new apartment buildings will bring down local rental rates; they believe that tourism and its support industries will generate sales tax revenues that relieve the burden of property taxes on local home owners. They see what is coming (or is already here) as salvation. And maybe they are right. But I still mourn the change.
The Downtown Partnership states its mission as “enhancing and promoting the assets of downtown Chapel Hill and developing programming to address the basic, fundamental needs of downtown, including cleanliness, safety, policies and parking, all in an effort to foster an environment that will support economic growth and prosperity.”
If they really want to promote the assets of the downtown area, they need to look back, back to the days when the sidewalks were packed with students. When the bars and restaurants catered to a large population with limited incomes. When regionally and sometimes nationally known bands competed with one another for the most dancers on a Saturday night.
We may not be able to replace the flower ladies; their fields were converted to housing years ago. But we can make sure that we hang on to the old stalwart businesses like Sutton Drugs and the Shrunken Head. And we can commit to supporting the reincarnations of the Carolina Theater and Schoolkids Records. These aren’t the businesses that attract the residents of 140 East, but they bring alumni back year after year and they define the heartbeat of the town.
I’m not advocating that we regress altogether. Now that we have high-end apartments, we need to accommodate those residents. They need a full service grocery. We all benefit from the FRANK Gallery. But we can’t forget the students. We need their energy and vitality if we want Franklin Street to maintain the “hallowed ground” status in our memories.
What Chapel Hill is losing and what Carrboro is fighting to maintain is a sense of place. Wallace Stegner wrote that “place is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, known it, died in it – have both experienced and shaped it, as individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities, over more than one generation.”
Downtown Chapel Hill is not the only section of town that is losing its identity. Growth and change are everywhere. But downtown is the one sector I hope we can all agree on. We need and want the UNC students and the high school students to spend their time on Franklin Street, building memories that will solidify their ties to our community. A T-shirt here and a milkshake there may not be the most sophisticated economic development plan, but it is a plan that is sustainable in more ways that just financial.
Terri Buckner lives in the Carrboro ETJ. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.