by Susan Prothro Worley
The destination of choice for Chapel Hill kids in the 1960s was Franklin Street. I don't remember that area being referred to then as downtown. Whenever anyone I knew was headed that way, we said we were going "uptown," probably because that part of Franklin Street sits at the top of the hill that defines our town.
Friends enjoying a meal at Suttons Drug Store on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill
Franklin Street plays a central role in our memories of Chapel Hill just as it plays a central role in our town. It's Franklin Street that forms the backdrop for many of the things we remember best. Not only personal childhood experiences took place on Franklin Street - for me that would be going to the movies at the Carolina or Varsity, eating pizza at the Rat, browsing at the Intimate - but it's also the place we traditionally gather as a community, whether for the Beat Dook parade, street festivals, protest marches, or basketball celebrations.
Enjoying coffee and great conversation on the stone wall next to the UNC campus on the south side of Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill.
Looking back at a time we can never return to, it's natural to think of that past as a better era. When I was a child, there was much lamenting over the loss of our village atmosphere. A regular Chapel Hill Weekly series, Looking Back, included stories from past decades, highlighting the small town atmosphere of an earlier period. As much as I loved my hometown, from a young age I felt a sense of loss that Chapel Hill was no longer the special village it had been before I arrived. Along with that sense of loss, I felt some guilt because my family, having shown up in 1960, was part of the problem. It was because of newcomers like us that a formerly wooded area was carved into the developments of Coker Hills and Lake Forest. Without us, Eastgate Shopping Center may never have been built and Estes Hills Elementary School wouldn't have been necessary.
The face of a young girl strolling down Franklin Street near the Kidzu Museum
There I was though, along with my newly arrived neighbors and classmates, contributing to change and development but claiming Chapel Hill as our own just as generations before us had done.
At that time, Chapel Hill was a town where dogs roamed free and so did kids. Safety was not an issue we gave a lot of thought to. We biked and walked around town and campus without a sense of boundaries or fear.
Locally Grown Rooftop Music and Movies Series is held in downtown Chapel Hill on top of the Wallace Parking Deck during the summer.
When I think back to those childhood days uptown, it's easy to recall various experiences that might make the police blotter today. However, we didn't associate such episodes with a place or with a time period. We learned that scary things can happen in the world but, just because they sometimes happened on Franklin Street, that didn't mean Franklin Street was a threatening place to be.
Carolina blue eyes in a future Tar Heel scholar
Recently, a handful of Franklin Street merchants began expressing their frustrations about crime, street people, and the lack of parking downtown. It struck me as odd, first because it didn't match my reality of the vibrant place I visit. What was really puzzling was that it was coming from people who had every reason to promote a positive image of Franklin Street. It wasn't long before I started hearing the same rumblings from friends - not based on their experiences but on those complaints that were now being perceived as fact. It only takes a short time before rumors become conventional wisdom. And of course there are people who can come up with a negative story about an experience on Franklin Street...or any other street in America. Just as has been true in past times though, those random incidents don't define the place.
Michael Brown mural on the side of the NCNB building in downtown Chapel Hill
We warmly remember past characters of Franklin Street, chuckling at their eccentricities. Is it possible that some of the so-called street people sitting on a bench uptown could be the Franklin Street characters of today? The only way to find out is to get to know them.
The diversity of life in downtown Chapel Hill
Today many of the places and people we recall from our own childhoods on Franklin Street are gone. Just as people in the 60s lamented the loss of the village, it's easy for us in 2010 to dwell on the things we miss from our own pasts. There is a whole new generation of children though, and a new crop of students, and newcomers to town, and they are creating memories of their own. They may enjoy the view from Top of the Hill, marvel at Michael Brown's murals, check out the caricatures of local celebrities at Spanky's, or take their children to Kidzu Museum.
Enjoying Ben & Jerry Ice Cream on West Franklin street in Chapel Hill
For newcomers and oldtimers alike, there are plenty of merchants to counter the negativity of those whose glass is perennially half empty. Locally owned, thriving Franklin Street businesses, places like Med Deli, Chapel Hill Sportswear, The Varsity, and Chapel Hill Comics, are too busy serving happy customers to spend their time complaining.
Two young people on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill
A site like chapelhillmemories is a draw for those of us who remember the good old days. But it takes nothing away from yesterday's creaky wood floors at the Intimate Book Store to acknowledge the fun of identifying North Carolina musicians pictured on the walls of today's Pepper's Pizza. The joys of a small town have given way to the vibrancy of a small city. Missing the former shouldn't stop us from embracing the latter. If we do, we miss out on the very place that defines our community, uptown Chapel Hill.
Susan Prothro Worley has been the personification of Chapel Hill for the last five decades. She eats and breathes the place, and Carolina blue blood runs through her veins. She loves the history of the town, and adores its present. There is very little she does not like about Chapel Hill. She is the Executive Director of Orange County's Volunteers for Youth.
What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. or the crisp October nights. No, our love for this place is based upon the fact that it is as it was meant to be, The University of the People.