Chapel Hill: Opinion

Art Menius: Remembrance of things past while moving forward

By Art Menius

Art Menius
Art Menius

“When you are a kid, you think nothing will change. When you’re old, you thinking nothing should change except in retrograde. In between lots of us want to be the change.”

The Carrboro philosopher on the Weaver Street Market lawn had a point on a preternaturally warm November afternoon. He was talking about the Chapel Hill elections, but my thoughts ran in a more personal direction.

On two recent trips to Durham I had taken a route that passed the house where my grandmother grew up despite the hideous two-story garage attachment that had nothing to do with the 19th-century farm house.

“What’s the matter? You drifted off somewhere of seen a ghost,” he asked when I said nothing.

“I just realized I am seeking ghosts,” said I. “And I didn’t even know it.”

Besides routing by the old family home, I had gone out of my way to look at the apartment complex built on the site of her home from 1917 to 1955. I had taken to referring to local places by what used to be there. I listen to the Jam, Talking Heads, and Bad Brains as if it were 1977 and I again 22.

Having recently crossed the Rubicon of age 60, I supposed this was a natural process. I still can feel good, albeit with two bad knees. I enjoy being in the younger segment of the Chapel Hill Rotary Club. I treasure the rebirth of 1960s activism of Feel the Bern. I still hate “The Lawrence Welk Show.” Not matter how much I romanticize the past, like most of my age cohort, I have little desire for time travel. Yet I was aware that many strangers, especially in these college towns, viewed me as old. I had already grown weary of hearing “Wow, you’re older than my parents!”

My conundrum as I age, however, comes from the question of change and growth. On that issue, I am a lot divided like the Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

On the one foot, I sound a lot like a CHALT member. I oppose big box stores and any businesses without local ownership. I long for the towns in I knew as an undergrad forty years and complain like an old man about the new building activity.

On the other foot, however, I realize that increasing the housing stock will be essential to squelch continued, rapid gentrification – an intriguing pro-growth and anti-change position. I want southern Orange County to be affordable for middle class, no matter how fast the forces of globalization may be decreasing its numbers. From almost any perspective, especially in use of fossil fuels, 40,000 Orange residents commuting for work in other counties and 37,000 commuting in can hardly be considered sustainable or efficient. Compare those number to less than 20,000 people living and working in the county. To reduce that and to expand property tax revenue, I celebrate increasing the numbers of locally owned retailers.

Thinking about the latter provided a means to my effort to resolve the internal conflict. I support growth in housing stock and business so long as the builders and stores are local. Locally owned businesses with solid customer bases keep a lot more money at home (48 percent) than the chains (14 percent), while lowering taxes and tending to donate more to area nonprofits. A lot of Americans seem to think the same way as me: 65 percent prefer to buy local, 60 percent feel a sense of place, and half favor locally owned restaurants. Localization also reduces the number of commuters.

“Where have you been?” asked the picnic table thinker. “You’ve been staring at the Century Center for like 10 minutes.”

“I have? Sorry. I was just figuring out the economic future of Carrboro and Chapel Hill. I had to reckon how to preserve their character while accepting change and growth.”

“You did all that in 10 minutes? Tell me more.”

“It starts with local first, building strong communities with civicly engaged citizens,” I began. Now he was staring at the Carolina blue sky.

You can reach Art Menius at