Chapel Hill: Opinion

Henry Gargan: The kids are all right

As I prepare to take on post-grad life, I’ve been struggling to compose a grand farewell to my home of 21 years.

But it seems more appropriate to narrow that mandate somewhat and say goodbye to an institution that seemed to see Chapel Hill as I saw it. Thrill City, like me, will be leaving town for good next month.

Even if you’ve never heard of Thrill City, there’s no missing the streetwear store on West Franklin Street. It’s tiny – probably the size of one of my old dorm rooms – but during business hours in good weather, the door is flung wide open and whoever’s minding the shop will be blasting hip hop over the store’s speakers. It’s unlike anything else on the block.

Thrill City, in its style, will hold a final block party at the store on May 2 before its owners close up shop and move on to other things. Ostensibly, Thrill City is a T-shirt company. For its biggest fans, though, it both manufactured and sold pride in Chapel Hill at a time in our lives when we’d begun to become disillusioned with the place – either because we were fed up with its increasingly yuppie sensibilities or because we’d just been here too long.

Some of that pride stemmed from the designs, which often drew on basketball lore or town landmarks for inspiration. But most of it was derived from the fact that one of our peers had committed so heavily to giving this town something to hang its hat on and succeeded. Apart from making and selling shirts, Thrill City built a youth culture in Chapel Hill that, while inevitably tied to the university, was keenly aware of the town’s character and relationships with Durham, Raleigh and the rest of the state. Bull City, meet Thrill City.

Before he owned a store on Franklin Street, I remembered Ryan Cocca chiefly as a goofy trombonist from high school jazz band. His sophomore year of college, he started the business from scratch. I bought my first Thrill City shirt, a Kendall Marshall tribute tee, from Ryan outside the Varsity Theater the night Austin Rivers hit that game-winner back in 2012.

I watched from afar as Thrill City grew from a bedroom enterprise into a business with a Franklin Street storefront. Somewhere in between, in the spring of 2013, Ryan asked if I’d want to help him start a blog for the company. We noticed there was little in what was left of the Chapel Hill media that gave a narrative voice to the daily lives of young people in the town and set out to do something about it. It was the freedom to explore Chapel Hill through this new editorial lens that led me to the job of opinion editor at The Daily Tar Heel, and, ultimately, the privilege to write this column.

Yet as grateful as I am to Thrill City for everything it’s done for me and this town, I’m not surprised or sad to see it go.

“Leaving is the most Chapel Hill thing you could do,” I told Ryan when he announced the store would be closing, and I didn’t mean it as a dig. Nothing stays put here for too long, even the very best things.

I lived a privileged enough childhood to internalize an expectation of upward mobility, and without realizing it, mobility became the operative word in my imaginings of the future. Unlike the vast majority of people throughout human history, I never pictured myself growing old in the place I grew up.

Children, and children of towns like Chapel Hill especially, often end up falling in love with the place they’d always been taught it was their birthright to leave behind. Then we leave anyway. Then, maybe, we end up having kids of our own and coming back here to worry about what the young people these days are doing to our beloved hometown.

But if I come back to find something half as good as Thrill City helping those kids fall in love with Chapel Hill like I did, I’ll know everything is going to be all right.

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