Most residents stay only four years. Some hang around for a few more. But time doesn’t matter. Those who give themselves to Chapel Hill at all walk away with the right to say they’re Tar Heels — born, bred, and dead — and that’s a gift that lasts a lifetime.
Let’s imagine for one moment that Chapel Hill doesn’t exist. Poof. Thousands of teenagers across the country are suddenly bareheaded, their Carolina ball caps gone. Poof. Throughout the land, the iPods of music critics erase their favorite songs. Poof. The rosters of NBA teams from coast to coast begin to hemorrhage skill as dozens of the world’s best players forget the lessons taught to them by men named Dean and Roy. Poof. North Carolina’s best students start to stream out of state. Poof. North Carolina is no longer North Carolina.
It’s hard to picture our state without this small town because Chapel Hill is such a part of North Carolina. Simultaneously cosmopolitan and provincial, it might make the news more than any other North Carolina city. The basketball team alone ensures this qualification for at least one month of the year. Or maybe it’s just that I notice its name more whenever I hear it now because the news is the only way I get to see Chapel Hill. I moved away in July 2010. And this is a major problem. Because Chapel Hill is my favorite city in the world, and I measure every other city against it. Thus far, according to my cosmic yardstick, all others come up short.
This problem started early in life. During the last two decades of the 20th century, the children I grew up with in Greensboro dreamed not of our own lovely and quiet town, but of a different municipality only 50 miles east: Chapel Hill. My classmates appeared to have been indoctrinated in some religion centered on this mysterious, storied place. They spoke about such Chapel Hill denizens as Sam Perkins, Eric Montross, Michael Jordan, and Dean Smith with a reverence reserved for gods. I heard legend of friends’ older siblings who were students at Carolina, of parents who had met there while undergraduates. Of family trips to football games, brother’s fraternity parties, and dreams of garnering Morehead Scholarships.
But I couldn’t have picked a single one of those Carolina basketball deities out of a lineup. I didn’t care about basketball. I anti-cared about basketball. I was too busy playing drums in my attic. And I had no relatives who claimed UNC as their alma mater. My parents wed in the chapel at Princeton University, and I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, after my father finished his graduate degree at Harvard. Who cared about UNC? Not I. I didn’t even know it was one of the nation’s great universities. It wasn’t in the Ivy League, was it? I was an educational elitist by age 9.
But here’s the thing about Chapel Hill. I didn’t need to be a basketball fan. I didn’t need to be the son of an alum. I didn’t need to long to attend school there. Because while my friends were waving Carolina blue pompoms and attending reunions with their parents on the lawn of the Carolina Inn, I was listening to mixtapes filled with bands who all called Chapel Hill home. So my own Chapel Hill sacristy was soon built, constructed out of well-worn cassettes played in my Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia on the way to high school and cemented with dreams of seeing shows at the Cat’s Cradle.
At 18 I enrolled in Columbia University but deferred admission. New York City could wait. I wanted to live where the real action was: Chapel Hill.
Chapel Hill confounds stereotype, especially Southern stereotype — a highly resistant strain of the disease. On any given day, a selective census report might yield something like this: a khaki-clad Deke shopping for blazers at Julian’s, a pale indie rocker loitering outside the Local 506, 10 students playing pickup basketball at Carmichael Gymnasium, two soft-skinned freshmen toting monogrammed L.L. Bean backpacks past the Bell Tower, a bespectacled reader of Rimbaud in the garden outside Café Driade, a young lady driving a pickup with a gun rack down Franklin Street, a pack of sun-cured migrant workers waiting for jobs near U.S. Highway 15-501, a soccer field filled with players who’ll dominate next year’s Olympics, a beleaguered former presidential candidate, and a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist.
So what? Many towns boast an impressive and diverse population. But in Chapel Hill, these disparate groups exist, for the most part, in some strange harmony singular to the South. Look at me. Yes, I moved to town because of the music, yet within weeks — it was like cultural osmosis — I realized I knew the name of every player on the basketball team. I knew the names of professors at a school I didn’t attend. I actually felt that sacred aura that hovers around the Old Well. Why? Because every musician I knew loved sports, because the athletes I knew loved the local bands, because fraternity brothers were inviting me to parties, because the alums worshipped at the altar of UNC, and because everyone welcomed me with open arms. Add to all of that the illimitable romance of tree-shade, columns, humidity, and nights buzzing with the songs of crickets while lit by intermittent flashes of fireflies and heat lightning. I was in love.
The character of Chapel Hill is inextricably linked with its largest employer — the University of North Carolina. Founded in 1795 as the first state university in the nation, UNC continues its mandate to provide the best for North Carolina students. In-state tuition is just $8,646, one of the world’s best educational bargains (supposing you can get in). But UNC isn’t just a major player in North Carolina; while focusing on those students closest to home, the university has become one of the best centers of learning in the world. And this rare combination of dutiful housekeeping leading to excellence, of humility yielding distinction, applies to more than just UNC. It’s the type of integrity central to Chapel Hill’s identity.
In the South, young scholars, artists, musicians, programmers, or scientists might be referred to as special or different by their neighbors. We know what this means. It means that they’re weirdos and might should leave off with the dreaming. But Chapel Hill is a city that specializes in dreamers who’ve out-dreamt their hometowns. “Come here,” it seems to say. “It’s OK for you to be unusual and excellent. We’ll help.”
And help it has. A list of famed Chapel Hill residents is long and august. But Chapel Hill is not special because of its famous citizens, even if there are many. In so many ways, those lauded individuals are special because of Chapel Hill.
History drips from the low oak branches in Chapel Hill, but that’s not why the place is great. History is a mutable thing, and Chapel Hill is in the business of making it. Today minds are being molded behind classroom walls. New songs are being composed. Diseases are being beaten. Unfinished novels are nearing their end. And our favorite teams are getting new players. Chapel Hill is not a museum of accomplishment; it is a machine that generates the stuff anew, again and again and again.
Just a taste
Even without the university, its sports teams, the beautiful homes, wooded hills, or legendary music, Chapel Hill would still be my favorite town for its restaurants alone. There’s a reason Bon Appétit recently named the place “America’s Foodiest Small Town.” Shrimp and grits at Crook’s Corner, crispy duck soup at the Lantern, chicken and dumplings at Mama Dip’s, espresso at Café Driade, a luau pie from Pepper’s Pizza, a chicken biscuit from Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen, two hot dogs and an orangeade from Sutton’s, a mango-chili popsicle from Locopops — in my absence, I dream of all these meals.
And then there are the lost menus of restaurants no longer with us. How I long for a serving of lasagna (aka bowl of cheese) from the legendary Rathskeller, not for the food alone, but for the delivery of said dish by any member of a waitstaff that seemed to have been born within the magical painted caverns of that ancient underground haunt. I miss Tater Tots from Hector’s; the storied African tuna melt from the lost Skylight Exchange; and on hot, sleepy afternoons I can still find myself craving a caffeine and sugar jolt delivered via milkshake from the long lost Café Trio.
Chapel Hill beguiles all senses and then ruins them for any other part of the country. I have a homing instinct now, turned toward those acres of Carolina Piedmont tucked under Interstate 40, hidden in longleaf pines, sweltering in the summer heat. Bring me back, people. Someone get married, please, have a party, something. Send me an invitation. I want to drive down Franklin Street, park beside a mural, say hi to Gary at the Crunkelton, see the Delacroix at the Ackland, overeat, and then swim it off in my ex-step-father-in-law’s pool (Yes, you read that right — it’s a Chapel Hill kind of family.).
Mosquitoes, parking, and heat be damned. Chapel Hill, I love you.
27 Views of Chapel Hill
After a successful run with 27 Views of Hillsborough in 2010, Eno Publishers expands its literary ode idea into a series. In 27 Views of Chapel Hill, some of the brightest literary minds in the South write about their shining hometown in a variety of forms — from poetry to fiction to essay. There’s one catch. Chapel Hill has so many quality writers, the book includes 29 views of Chapel Hill, not 27. Here are a few glimpses:
“See, both James and I have changed a wee bit since the late 50s when we were 12 and 14, respectively. His hairline has receded and I’ve had a major recession. But when we were kids, we were spend-the-night type of friends.” — author Jock Lauterer, on growing up with musician James Taylor
“The restaurant menu has changed with the times. We now offer vegetable platters, for example. However, there are still people in the community who are interested in cooking game meat, like rabbit and squirrel. Recently, someone called the restaurant and said that he had caught a raccoon in his garbage can and wanted to know how to cook it.” — excerpt pulled from Mama Dip’s Kitchen, the cookbook written by Mildred “Mama Dip” Council, the 82-year-old owner of Mama Dip’s Restaurant, who opened her restaurant in 1976 with $64 and grew it into a Chapel Hill landmark
“All I know is, the town’s dogwoods and azaleas and other local flora are always weeks ahead of anything blooming in my yard in Durham, only seven miles away. And that’s one reason I love Chapel Hill, and feel truly lucky coming here to teach or attend church or go to a restaurant or movie or ballgame: It’s a place of early blooming, where plants and people can just go ahead and burst into blossom without worrying about the pressures that might hold them back elsewhere.” — Michael McFee, poet and creative writing instructor at UNC, on his love of Chapel Hill
27 Views of Chapel Hill: A Southern University Town in Prose and Poetry with introduction by Daniel Wallace. Eno Publishers. 2011, 240 pages, paperback, $16.50.
— compiled by Michael Graff
135 East Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514
Dean E. Smith Center
300 Skipper Bowles Drive
Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514
Sutton’s Drug Store
159 East Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514
North Carolina Botanical Garden
100 Old Mason Farm Road
Chapel Hill, N.C. 27517
Nic Brown is the author of the novels Doubles and Floodmarkers, which was selected as an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times Book Review. His writing has appeared in the Harvard Review, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, and Garden & Gun, among many other publications. He is now a professor at the University of Northern Colorado.
For more good eats in Chapel Hill, see Food on Franklin.