When I grew up in North Raleigh in the late 1980s, I had zero awareness of Wake Forest. Despite the close proximity of my neighbor, it might as well have been Tennessee.
Later in life, when my brother and best friend both independently made it their home, I knew it in name, but not much more. They both lived in subdivisions I had trouble distinguishing from the ones I grew up in. My assessment was that Wake Forest was little more than a suburb of Raleigh.
I’m embarassed to say that it took writing this column for me to become exposed to the unique character of the town: The historic downtown, the diversity of culture and activities, the life-long residents and story-tellers.
But now I begin to wonder: With Raleigh and Durham becoming such cultural touchstones of North Carolina — veritable foodie meccas and siren-song shoals for musical aspirants — what of Wake Forest? Do the residents feel a pull to rival their bigger siblings? Do they feel the need to prove themselves?
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As you might imagine if you’ve read my column before, the people of Wake Forest are fiercely loyal to their town.
Lisa Newhouse says there is no comparison to Raleigh, and she wouldn’t want one.
“Wake Forest is such a unique, charming small town and has an identity and history that is all it's own,” she said via e-mail. “It offers all of the amenities of Raleigh but draws upon its richness of character and community to make you really feel a sense of home while you are here.”
Of course, she is a little biased. In addition to being a resident, she is also the downtown development director for the town. But she did once live in Raleigh, so she has a good platform from which to judge the comparison. She said she felt no sense of connection or community pride when she moved to Raleigh 20 years ago. So, when she had children, her family moved on to Wake Forest.
She says the town is aware of its history without being beholden to it.
“Wake Forest has done a wonderful job of blending the old with the new; of celebrating and honoring it's history, but also welcoming and encouraging diversity and change,” she said.
“It has that everybody knows everybody quality,” she said, also via email. “My mechanic knows a plumber who knows an electrician, etc — sort of our own Angie's List.”
Eileen Reed moved to Wake Forest in 2000. She said the population has about doubled in size since then, but that it’s retained its “small-town feel.”
“It has that everybody knows everybody quality,” she said, also via email. “My mechanic knows a plumber who knows an electrician, etc. — sort of our own Angie's List.”
She also draws no comparison between Raleigh and Wake Forest.
“As Andy Taylor would say ‘That's the big city.’” she said.
And she added that even though some large developments have sprung up in the town, downtown remains largely untouched — something for which she seems grateful.
One resident, Richard Downs, said it is precisely what sets Wake Forest apart from Raleigh that makes it special.
“Wake Forest does not need to compare to Raleigh,” he said. “That is why we live here: because it is a small community.”
Though he added, and perhaps fears, that it is growing too rapidly.
So in the shadow of a revitalized Raleigh, Wake Forest still thrives. And if anything, it seems that its residents worry they will grow to resemble Raleigh. They certainly don’t seem to want to emulate it.
And that sounds great to me. Something I’ve always valued about the Triangle area is its diversity. I can go from downtown Raleigh — the “big city” — to the woods and subdivisions of North Raleigh, to the quaint old town of Wake Forest. I feel as though I’m traveling through time as well as space, just like they sometimes did in the Twilight Zone.
And there’s nothing like a little time travel to give you perspective.