City Portrait: Chapel Hill
Why Chapel Hill, North Carolina, may be the South's most civilized town (except when it comes to basketball)
The Big Picture
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a town I wish I loved less than I do. I have lived in Louisiana, New Zealand, Oregon, Canada, Connecticut, Scotland, and New York City (where I currently dwell), yet I have never been entirely happy in any of these places, because, like the fool who can’t rid his head of memories of the girl he adored in eighth grade, I cannot let go of my hometown.
Sometimes described by its boosters as “the pat of butter in a sea of grits,” Chapel Hill (and its adjunct community, Carrboro) lies on a belt of high and wooded ground two and a half hours from the Atlantic Ocean and four east of the Appalachian Range. We are 140 miles east of Charlotte, and thirty miles north of Raleigh, our capital. But Chapel Hill’s citizens understand that what makes our town so agreeable is not that it lies in the gravitational field of other destinations, but that it is politely and resolutely a distinct place with an array of magnetisms (often counterpoised) entirely its own.
Chapel Hill’s Southernness is fitful. Our cosmopolitan vanity is wounded when friends in New York or Los Angeles say insufferable things like “Well, it all sounds very nice, but I could never live in the South.” We retort heatedly with examples of our village’s urbanity: its art house movie theaters (we have two!), our socialist bookshop (it occupies the lower floor of a venerable massage parlor), and the roster of dining establishments of which the James Beard Foundation has taken notice. Or we mention that, thanks to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is part of the Research Triangle, which has the highest concentration of Ph.D.s in the United States. They have fetched up and washed out here in such numbers that you can hardly get your oil changed without the Jiffy Lube attendant offering his maunderings on Kierkegaard. We talk about the magicians of science out in the Research Triangle Park, designing snazzy new antibiotics and long polymers. We mention our cherished nightclub, Cat’s Cradle (in Carrboro), and our indie music boom in the 1990s, when bands like Superchunk, Polvo, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers convinced hundreds of young hairy people to load their cars with guitars and amplifiers and drive to our town. Or we quote the late long-reigning right-wing troglodyte Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), who, when asked his opinion about construction of a new state zoo, said, disdaining our un-Dixielike political tendencies, “Why do we need a zoo when we could just put up a fence around Chapel Hill?”
And yet: While traditionally Red State Carolina may scoff at Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s dubious Southern bona fides, I submit that we have salvaged most of what is good about the Southern way of things and left the unpleasant bits at the curb. Our schools are excellent, and yoga is a local epidemic, yet on a summer night in Carrboro, you need not look far to find porches stocked with people plucking banjos with utmost sincerity. In our downtown, million-dollar green-built condominiums are springing up like kudzu shoots, but we still have springtime eruptions of old-growth azalea and dogwood blossoms to gobsmack a Savannahian. Free parking is increasingly hard to come by, but drive three miles to the north or west, and you are in swaying cornscapes and pasturelands comely enough to stop your heart. We have three “progressive” grocery stores and uncountable espresso peddlers, yet we are, to a citizen, people who will clench fists and go red in the face if told there are ways to eat pulled pork other than in a rinse of vinegar and pepper flakes.
Even as sprawl metastasizes at our margins and Priuses eclipse Ford pickups in the vehicle registry, we are a people nearly wretched with nostalgia. “How many Chapel Hillians does it take to change a lightbulb?” runs an old joke. “Ten: one to change it and nine to moon about how great the old lightbulb was.” The antique rites of village life are important to us. To pass an acquaintance on the sidewalk without saying anything is to gravely breach the social code (you’re acquainted with the entire phone book if you’ve been here more than two years). Urban transplants scorn our sociability as fraudulent Mayberryism, but we understand that the health of a community sometimes depends on listening to news that you are not interested in while the milk goes warm in your grocery bag. Sentimental bootleggers still sell moonshine in the outer county. Whole-hog cookery remains a cherished rite, and you cannot ascend to plenary status as a Chapel Hill native if you have not thrown at least one pig picking. Not long ago, I roasted my first hog with my friend Matt Neal, son of the great, departed chef Bill Neal, whose restaurant Crook’s Corner reintroduced shrimp and grits to the world. It was a chilly evening, and we stayed up all night, drinking bourbon, shoveling applewood embers into the cooker’s belly. We dared not open the cooker’s top, for fear we’d lose precious warmth and sour the meat. When we lifted the lid the following morning, we were surprised to find that the pig was on fire and had been that way for eight hours at least. We hosed it off. It looked like a fallen meteorite but dressed out at eighty pounds of good flesh. These days, Matt operates, contrarily, a New York-–style deli in Carrboro. His sandwiches surpass any I’ve found in my Brooklyn neighborhood. He does not sell barbecue.
Many of our citizens would tell you that the town’s most essential tribal marrow lies in our hatred of the sports teams and athletics boosters of Duke University, ten miles away in Durham. (Hatred is not too strong a word. Multiple books have been written about the purity of our loathing.) However, I think we privately adore Duke. Duke, which is exclusive, and expensive, and chiefly attended by people from New Jersey, allows us to feel like up-from-the-red-clay salt-of-the-earthers when we root for UNC, which is also exclusive, but a good value for its tuition fees, and which admits at least a token quota of North Carolinians. We might think the emerald quads and oak-limb vaultings of the UNC campus a bit too glorious and prepossessing if it weren’t for Duke’s architecture, built, supposedly, to replicate Princeton when Princeton could not be bribed into renaming itself Duke. The result is a gaudy fantasyland of Gothic spires and leaded glass raised in vulgar inversion of our state’s fine motto, Esse quam videri: “To be, rather than to seem.”
To my mind, Chapel Hill’s highest virtue is not its brittle preoccupations with sports or provincial tradition but the limberness of the place. It is a Shangri-la of indeterminacy: neither fusty Old South sanctum nor soulless New South suburb, neither metropolis nor boondocks. To live easefully in New York or New Orleans, one must strive to be a New Yorker or a New Orleanian. In Chapel Hill, a town too genial to demand much of its people, one can simply be.
In Chapel Hill, life is at once simple and civilized. I look forward to one day moving home to a town where basketball season and tomato season at the farmers’ market arrive to nearly equal fanfare, a pony-size city where you can catch a performance by a superb garage band or a world-class orchestra without worrying that your car is being stripped in the parking lot, a place to wake on weekend mornings to the sound of a police siren that on second hearing turns out to be a mourning dove cooing in the pines.