“Ahh, it feels just the same.” That was my first thought upon exiting RDU airport. After hours of air-conditioned airplane boredom, the humidity and soft evening heat hit me full in the face and I knew I was home. I moved to D.C. last fall and just spent a summer working abroad, but the Triangle, particularly Chapel Hill, is still the place I know the best and where I feel most comfortable. And despite some changes, the area seems to be flourishing.
I took a long walk the day after I got home, across UNC’s campus, through downtown Chapel Hill and into Carrboro. I grew up here and know this area like the back of my hand. That temple of knowledge, Davis Library, was built when I was in high school; my friends and I used to smoke cigarettes and pretend to study on the eighth floor. Near Silent Sam, on McCorkle Place, a big tree’s just been cut down; I remember lying underneath it during a summer storm and watching the sky light up behind its branches.
I kept walking, past University Square. Time Out, another major hangout spot for my high school friends and me, is still there, though the rest of the shopping center seems to be ailing right now; half of its storefronts are dark.
Change–sometimes it’s barely noticeable, but ultimately I guess it’s a fact of life. I’m still mourning the loss of Pyewacket, formerly my favorite restaurant in town, and the Inside Scoop, the best ice cream store anywhere, is going out of business. Things come and go. But having been gone for a while gives me some perspective, and I’m mostly impressed by how well this area is doing. Franklin Street’s lively and new bars seem to be constantly taking the place of defunct old ones.
What’s funny, though, is that a lot of the more interesting places and people in town have moved to Carrboro. Weaver Street Market has become the hub that everything centers around, the place to meet people and enjoy a free afternoon. Within walking distance of the market’s green lawn are lots of fun possibilities: yoga, tomato tasting, music, theatre, shopping, dancing…. Fliers everywhere testify to the area’s energy.
But when my walk finally took me to Carrboro, what impressed me the most was the number of cool, alternative-looking people buzzing around. Growing up in Chapel Hill, I used to think that was the norm–a community full of liberal, creative people with an interest in learning about life and looking a little more deeply for meaning. Unfortunately, I turned out to be wrong. When I finally ventured out of Chapel Hill, I found that this country has become quite conservative, and finding people with mixed backgrounds like mine whom I can relate to has been a challenge. I know that a lot of my old friends who moved away have had the same problem.
Living in D.C., where almost everyone’s in transit, has also taught me to value that sense of place that really creates a community. Here, everyone seems to know everyone, or is one degree removed, and the dash of Southern country that permeates the town makes it just a little slower and homier. Up on the Weaver Street lawn, I ran into former neighbors I haven’t seen in years, old high school acquaintances, and friends of friends who were talking about a cookout that was going on later that evening. People were enjoying the last of the summer, and the feeling was mellow and relaxed.
When I lived here, I sometimes complained about how young people in the area (including me) seemed to be in a state of protracted adolescence, indefinitely putting off responsibility and adulthood. And there may be some truth to that. But Adulthood, with a capital A, is not amazingly exciting in itself, and I can say from experience that living among people who don’t have a sense of belonging to a distinct place, who are eager to get on the career train, and whose main idea of fun is shopping, can be mighty boring. Those who haven’t ventured out of this area in a while might not realize how unusual it is, but this little corner of the Triangle is a special pocket of the world and should be appreciated.