A Radical But Interesting Idea

I have heard that Jesse Helms once described Chapel Hill as the “North Carolina Zoo.” I am pretty sure he was not trying to be flattering. However, for many people who lived here at that time it was a compliment. It was evidence that Chapel Hill was an interesting and unique place. Too bad Chapel Hill is no longer so interesting.

Perhaps it is time to consider a radical New Year’s resolution. In 2009 let’s raise Chapel Hill’s interest quotient (IQ). The first step in this process may be the hardest. We will have to break through our collective denial and admit that we have become the least interesting point of the three major communities that form the Triangle.

A relatively short time ago it would have been unthinkable to suggest that either Raleigh or Durham was a more interesting place than Chapel Hill. However, over the past fifteen or twenty years both cities have aggressively built on their strengths and added to their IQ. Durham has reinvented old areas and neighborhoods to create an attractive, fun and vibrant sense of place. Raleigh has provided housing and entertainment venues to attract thousands of people to move downtown and add life to the inner city. During the same period Chapel Hill’s most interesting feature has become our proximity to Carrboro.

In 2009 let’s try some new approaches to increase the interest quotient of Chapel Hill. If we make downtown more user-friendly and fun it might attract more people and some of them might be interesting. How about designating a new “free speech zone” on Franklin Street that encourages students and others to transfer some of the on-campus energy from “The Pit” to Franklin Street? How about inviting Carrboro to collaborate with Chapel Hill to expand the Carrboro Music Festival to become a Carrboro/Chapel Hill music extravaganza? How about just making parking downtown free on weekends?

It is possible that the addition of new condos, retail, and office space downtown will add to the interest quotient of Chapel Hill. I doubt it. I think we have paid so much attention to protecting the economic viability of the community that we may have forgotten what previously made Chapel Hill an interesting town. Maybe we should build a new zoo. We could name it after Jesse Helms.


 Michael B. Owen


I got a telephone call this morning from someone who had read the "Radical but Interesting Idea" commentary regarding Chapel Hill. She said that she believed Chapel Hill was less a less interesting place than when she moved her 15 years ago. She said that she thinks Chapel Hill no longer has a sense of innovation or vision. She suggested another radical but interesting proposal - term limits for members of the Town Council. This is not something that would have occured to me but I wonder if other people have opinions on it.Michael B. Owen

I don't support term limits, at least for local office.  If there's a problem with Council members being "unbeatable" due to the influence of the office (I don't think such a problem exists, though incumbancy is a hurdle for outsiders), then there are other measures that would be more targetted solutions.  The recently implemented public campaign financing comes to mind.Interestingly, we do have term limits for advisory boards: a maximum of two three-year terms for most boards, with some exceptions.  Though, appointed boards are a whole different beast, in that they're not directly accountable through elections.

to limit someone's term. I never did understand this issue, except as a tool for the minority to circumvent the voters.

Since interesting is subjective, everyone's view of it is different. Personally, I prefer They Might Be Giants take on it:Is it sad to say we'll romantacize/The things we knew before/It was not, not, not so great.As for Term Limits, that radical idea was introduced by the Republicans in response to Franklin Roosevelt and was used during the 90s by them to try to get rid of incumbent democrats. Mark is exactly right.Panaceas seem to be the order of the day.

Seems to me, too, that the distinctiveness of downtown Chapel Hill has been fading for several reasons, including ownership of much of the real estate by people who aren't much interested in keeping downtown interesting, as well as backlash from having become "too interesting" on specific occasions like Hallowe'en.  It always has struck me that the 8pm to 10 pm ghosttown-lull between dinnertime and when students emerge for evening activities is haunting, daunting, and indicative of something missing in thinking about the downtown.  The economic downturn threatens to make that lull and the occasional 5-8 pm lull even worse. For what it's worth: It often seems that something basic is being missed about who comes to a downtown area and why (and this includes Durham and Raleigh): dinner and a movie, a concert, or similar event.  It's now easier and more inviting to do that at Timberlyne or Southern Village, which have both seen the number of restaurants increase, than it is downtown. Some of us also remember being able to eat nearby and then walk to the triplex on Elliott St., which has been an ugly vacant lot for years and is now about to sprout an office complex, I believe - which probably won't make the Elliott St. area particularly "interesting" after 5 pm either, except for the evening rush at Whole Foods. 

"I think we have paid so much attention to protecting the economic
viability of the community that we may have forgotten what previously
made Chapel Hill an interesting town."I'm curious as to how you came to this conclusion. To me, the change in the community is the result of not protecting the economic viability of the people that made the community interesting in the first place--all the young faculty members and researchers who brought new ideas and rebellion along with high ideals. Plus the working class folks and those students who came and never left, and the artists. In other words, this used to be a economically and socially diverse community. Now most of those people can't afford to live here. It's probably not a simple cause and effect situation but all the emphasis on growth has played a significant role in changing our reputation as a hornet's nest of liberals (per Jesse H) to a great place to buy a million dollar condo. 

You nailed it.

Thanks for your post. My comment about having "paid so much attention to protecting the economic viability of the community..." was referring to reliance on the development of condos, etc. to revitalize the downtown without any consideration of the intangibles that could build on the historic strengths that made Chapel Hill  (as you say)  "a hornet's nest of liberals."For example,  I wonder why the Town of Chapel Hill doesn't make small business loans to independent businesses who want to startup on Franklin Street? It might help fill vacant store fronts with local, interesting shops again and avoid the recreation of SouthPoint on Franklin Street. Michael B. Owen

I'd say the biggest problem with the downtown potion of Franklin St is that there is no change strategy. Different groups are coming up with their individual tactics of what changes need to come first, but they aren't unified in their thinking. The actions of elected officials over the past several years add up to a belief that bringing in rich people to live in condos will stimulate business. The downtown business owners think parking, safety and panhandling are the problems. If other shoppers are like me, they think there are very few businesses of interest. Back when  Franklin St was hopping, there was a synergy that melded all of those issues. When the town hired their economic development officer, I had hoped we would see a strategy developed within the first year that would address the synergy issue. Hopefully a small business loan program will be included in the larger plan, if one ever gets developed. 

Recent newspaper articles and an editorial in the Chapel Hill News suggest that we are not alone here in the recognition that Chapel Hill has become  less interesting. The News even suggests that the Town has "lost its cool."I believe more community conversation on this topic could be very interesting (and healthy) for the future of Chapel Hill.Recapturing "the cool factor" might take 15 or 20 years. The good news is that getting there will surely be more than half of the fun.  Michael B. Owen

Trouble follows the useage of a word of which everyone thinks they know the meaning when, in fact, it means many different things to different people. Plus, having Ted Abernathy upbraid Chapel Hill on its lack of coolness is like listening to Barry Manilow criticize a band for its lack of funk.  

I don't know Ted Abernathy or Barry Manilow. Focusing on personalities that you may or may not like doesn't seem to have much to do with this issue."Cool" is a subjective term but I bet you would agree (if you have lived here very long) with the Chapel Hill News editoral in the Sunday paper. The News acknowledges that Chapel Hill has lost its edge regarding interesting, funky, creative energy downtown. The newspaper points out that people from other Triangle communities don't bother to come here anymore to shop, dine, entertain, etc. because Durham and Raleigh have become more attractive.The challenge of recapturing Chapel Hill's "cool" has little to do with the old (and now irrelevant) arguments about slow growth, no growth, smart growth, etc. I think the old "slow growth/no growth" debate has placed too much emphaisis on preventing something bad from happening instead of creating something good. Michael B. Owen

If we don't understand who started this discussion and - more importantly - what their motives are, then we are just being played.

This particular discussion started on this site on January 4, 2009. The discussion predates the Ted Abernathy/Barry Manilow report and subsequent news commentary. I don't know about you but, I am not being played by anyone on this issue.  Michael B. Owen

Well, if you ever do run into Barry Manilow, tell him he got mentioned on OP.

I would never want to encourage Barry. He might think that he has an audience here. Michael B. Owen

 Really folks, trying to restore Chapel Hill's "cool" is like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube.  Ain't gonna happen.  The era we remember so fondly (waving to Gerry here) was a bona fide cultural revolution.  We may be poised on a somewhat radical threshold with Barack's coronation, but the change won't be as obvious as long hair and public pot-smoking, weekly war protests, and all the fun of the sixties.  Chapel Hill's culture will never revert back to the way it was.  But the people who live in this area are no less happy than they were back then, and possibly more.  La-di-da...

I agree that trying to recreate Chapel Hill's past would be pathetic and boring.Instead of focusing on the past, I think we should reinvent a new and different sense of place that is edgy, and unique (or at least interesting). In my opinion the Annual Sleeze Music Fesival that used to occur on West Franklin Street was a good example.There are probably simple, little things we could do to build momentum. We could encourage (and maybe audition) more street musicians for upcoming warmer days. We could make it easier for resturants downtown to have sidewalk seating. We could return the responsibility for the planters on Franklin Street back to individual volunteers who were doing a better and more creative job that those who are doing it now. Some people have suggested a long term idea of the Town offering low cost loans to small, independent, local (and funky) businesses that want to start up downtown. In a town like ours I am sure there are infinite ideas about how to reinvent a sense of "cool" for Chapel Hill. I just hope we will continue to talk about it. Ignoring the challenge may send us continuing down the path of becoming a bland, expensive suburb of Raleigh/Durham. That fate may be inevitable. However, even if we fail to make Chapel Hill "cool", taking on the challenge could be fun and interesting. Michael B. Owen  

I always thought downtown would be way more interesting if Franklin St. from Columbia to Henderson St. was closed to vehicle traffic (except well-scheduled servicing access).

Maybe closing a stretch of the street to cars would help. I dunno. Many cities have reopened the pedestrian malls to traffic (see Fayetteville Street in Raleigh). I wonder what it would take to make such a space work? Michael B. Owen

Money, which no one has unless you are the feds who own the printing press.

Good going, Michael.  No reason not to keep the good times rolling by trying hard to influence the Town's economic development guy (name?), Downtown Commission, and even the Chamber of Commerce to encourage a resurgence of cool businesses and volunteerism.  As a card-carrying Carrboro ambassador, I strive at all times to minimize and blur all perceived rivalry between our two towns.  Carrboro has the same problem with coolness: too much and the whole thing eats itself alive.  I'm tired of hearing "Carrboro is the old Chapel Hill."  The lament is that people come back to Chapel Hill with James Taylor-ish expectations and end up dismayed.  I truly wish Chapel Hill had the same appeal Carrboro does today, and that our towns worked more closely toward a cultural partnership.  

As an Ambassador,do you think Carborro would be interested in expanding the Carrboro Music Festival into Chapel Hill? I don't know if there is support anywhere for such a thing but the annual Festival is a lot of fun and seems like something that could easily grow into the Carrboro/Chapel Hill Music Festival. Michael B. Owen

That would certainly be one way to blend CH and Carrboro in spirit, even if only for a day.  No, let me amend that: the dozens of people needed to organize a joint Music Festival would get to know and like each other very well.  Several of my best friends are fellow CMF volunteers, and I wouldn't mind spreading the love around.  But the notion of doubling (?) the Festival's program and geographical scope is truly daunting.  Carrboro has accessible public areas like Town Hall, the Century Center, and Weaver Street Market; Chapel Hill really doesn't.  The grassy quad opposite Franklin Street is not fair game unless UNC decides to make it so.  Police and fire collaborate well, but a state of emergency prevailing in both towns at once might not fly at the highest levels.  All food for thought.  Obviously I've thought about this before. - c. 

I meant a state of high alert, not state of emergency.  Carrboro fire and police go into high alert on the day of the Music Festival because of the crowd and street closings.  - c. 

Going into high alert for a joint music festival...

High Alert - is that an interesting oxymoron? Michael B. Owen

My conscience goes into high gear about this.  I've had my share of successes as a founding organizer, and taken plenty of licks over CMF's thirteen-year history.  I made a stink during my tenure as chair, seriously questioning the deceptively low budget: staff overtime isn't cheap, and street closing costs my Town a fortune.  I really wouldn't want to impose this design on the Town of Chapel Hill.  CMF works great in Carrboro because it's naturally contained.  Expanding into Chapel Hill, well, it just gets too darn big.  Carrboro isn't in the business of helping Chapel Hill get its cool back.  Sorry. 

I am just grateful that you have thought about expanding the Musis Festival in the past. Apparently, it is not a feasible idea but still an interesting one. Michael B. Owen

Michael, I feel like the biggest heel on the planet for saying that last thing.  I apologize and applaud you for opening this thread and this dialogue!  - c. 

Catherine, as they say in New Jersey, "Don't worry bout it."   Michael B. Owen

Man, I throw myself on the floor all the friggin time trying to get Chapel Hill and Carrboro on the same page, and today I blow the whole thing with a careless blurt.  Okay, I'm over it.  Gotta start fresh.  Let's do a sidebar if you'd like to visit the CMF table sometime.  It's the best volunteer gig around.  High school students earn service learning hours by signing up early -- spread the word.  We need a volunteer coordinator.  Whole 'nother thread.  


Catherine: I am curious about the Carrboro Music Festival. What's the schedule for organizing meetings?I am also curious about other issues that you think Chapel Hil and Carrboro need to "get on the same page." Are there any interesting examples? Michael B. Owen

Michael, we might should do a sidebar re CMF.  I'm at catdevine@mindspring.com.  - c.     


Community Guidelines

By using this site, you agree to our community guidelines. Inappropriate or disruptive behavior will result in moderation or eviction.


Content license

By contributing to OrangePolitics, you agree to license your contributions under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Creative Commons License

Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by WeebPal.