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Downtown Chapel Hill - A Safe & Fun Destination

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.

Sutton's Drug Store

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.

Stone Wall on Franklin Street

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.

Miss Chapel Hill 2022

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.

Rooftop Eating and Music

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

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 Chapel Hill

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 Downtown Life

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.

Ben & Jerry's Chapel Hill

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.

Happy Children Chapel Hill

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.




Crimzones      8:47 PM Sun 9/4/2011

@Ruth there's no "downtown," only an uptown. Only one bookstore, which is a great used books place just on the Carrboro side of the Vespa restaurant on Franklin. You can also shop at Student Stores and various BNs at malls in the area. But there are no other indie bookshops now, alas.

Mike Holland      11:43 AM Fri 4/2/2010

Chapel Hill has become an entertainment strip, running from the core, centered around the theater, peppers pizza, etc, down to Carrboro. It doesn't have a boundary. If you come from outside and just arrive, it appears to be a continuum of shops, restaurants and entertainment running from the post-office across from the Morehead, continuously down to Weaver street and on out to the farmers market stopping only at Cycle 9, just before you get to the bait shop and the final blip of retail, across from the other post-office on hwy 54. That core is surrounded by an endless series of cul-de-sac sprawl, punctuated by the occasional oddity such as Arcadia development. The lack of big box retail is a hugh relief. Hopefully, Chapel Hill will be able to fuse with Carborro and the best of both synergize to build the true City that CH will become. With parking, national retail creep and 10 story apartment buildings dragging things down, it appears CH is in a race with itself... will it be able to keep the things that made it charming as it moves into its next incarnation. God forbid that it continues to over market it's main drag, Franklin Street, which was the number one thing that brought us to the area. Long live the freedom of Franklin!

Neil Seger      12:47 PM Wed 3/10/2010

I looked at three web sights today to plan a visit to Chapel Hill, and yours is by far the best even though much of your content is on Chapel Hill history.

Ruth Ingram      5:20 PM Tue 3/9/2010

Thank you Ms. Worley for the detailed information on Chapel Hill bookstores. I promise to visit all the ones you mentioned except the one that sells comics.

Susan Prothro Worley      1:28 PM Tue 3/9/2010

Ruth, in answer to your question about bookstores, there are several on Franklin Street itself. Internationalist Books is a nonprofit collective specializing in alternative literature. The Bookshop features rare and used books and Chapel Hill Comics stocks graphic novels, comics, and children's books. Franklin Street Ram Book & Supply and Tar Heel Bookstore sell textbooks. A short walk from Franklin Street across campus, Bull's Head Bookshop in the Student Stores is a great place to browse. FlyLeaf Books, an independently owned local bookstore, is a couple of blocks north of Franklin Street on MLK Boulevard.

Gene Williams      10:21 AM Tue 3/9/2010

My grandparents lived off Battle Lane in Chapel Hill in the 1960s, and I would often visit them when I was a kid. In those days I recall seeing a lot of young kids my age (10 to 15) downtown in the afternoons. <br \><br \>Last year when I visited Chapel Hill with my son I did not see a single unsupervised young person downtown. I do not know why this is. I surmised it might be because families with children just can not afford housing close to downtown

Patricia Fields Neubert      7:35 PM Mon 3/8/2010

I have enjoyed your piece, Susan. Please, don’t feel guilty about populating the village – welcome to all!<br \><br \>As children, we would walk or ride bikes &quot;uptown&quot; for the afternoon - spending time upstairs at the Intimate Book Store, checking out the dark, cool rooms of the Morehead Planetarium, an apple cider and the “gambler” in the Rattskellar, sitting in the old two story home that housed the Public Library (close to the corner of Franklin and Columbia) reading mystery books, running the stairs of the Forest Theater, and perhaps getting either an ice cream cone or lemonade at the Scuttlebutt, across from the Carolina Inn.<br \> <br \>There are those that can make others feel unsafe just about any where – I can’t imagine any negative vibes floating around. I always enjoy seeing what is new around town. The stagnant towns have a name – ghost towns!<br \>

Alice Hills      6:45 PM Mon 3/8/2010

To me it was never &quot;uptown&quot; or &quot;downtown&quot;, but Franklin Street. It has changed a lot since I was an undergraduate at Carolina from 1978 to 1981. I think the author is correct in that we should not live in the past, and that Chapel Hill has evolved into a small city. There is much I really love about the town, but where at one time all the great places were along Franklin Street they are now spread out over many miles. I wish Chapel Hill was more like Boulder where all the good restaurants, clubs, grocery stores, and stores are still centrally located and close to campus.

Kate Stafford      12:48 PM Mon 3/8/2010

I have been doing research for the last few months about a place for my husband and I to retire to. Chapel Hill has been on my list from the beginning, but several incidents I have read about had me hesitant to move there. After reading this article Chapel Hill is now at the top of my list.

Ruth Ingram      10:07 AM Mon 3/8/2010

My family and I are planning to visit Chapel Hill later this month so that my son can visit UNC. Can you tell me the location and name of the best downtown bookstore?

Patti Brown      9:19 AM Mon 3/8/2010

Your photographs make downtown Chapel Hill more enticing than ever, especially the pictures of those adorable children.

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Chapel Hill is located on a hill whose only distinguishing feature in the 18th century was a small chapel on top called New Hope Chapel. This church was built in 1752 and is currently the location of The Carolina Inn. The town was founded in 1819, and chartered in 1851.



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.

-- Charles Kuralt



Dark Side of the Hill -- Pink Floyd, the creators of the most popular album in history, Dark Side of the Moon, took the second half of their name from Floyd Council, a Chapel Hill native, and great blues singer and guitarist. He once belonged to a group called "The Chapel Hillbillies".



Check out Charly Mann's other website:
Oklahoma Birds and Butterflies


We need your help. Send your submissions, ideas, photos, and questions to CHMemories@gmail.com.





There would probably be no Chapel Hill if the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees in 1793 had not chosen land across from New Hope Chapel for the location of the university. By 1800 there were about 100 people living in thirty houses surrounding the campus.



The University North Carolina's first student was Hinton James, who enrolled in February, 1795. There is now a dormitory on the campus named in his honor.





The University of North Carolina was closed from 1870 to 1875 because of lack of state funding.





William Ackland left his art collection and $1.25 million to Duke University in 1940 on the condition that he would be buried in the art museum that the University was to build with his bequest. Duke rejected this condition even though members of the Duke Family are buried in Duke Chapel. What followed was a long and acrimonious legal battle between Ackland relatives who now wanted the inheritance, Rollins College, and the University of North Carolina, each attempting to receive the funds. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and in 1949 UNC was awarded the money for the museum. Ackland is buried near the museum's entrance. When the museum first opened, in the early sixties, there were rumors that his remains were leaking out of the mausoleum.



The official name of the Arboretum on the University of North Carolina campus is the Coker Arboretum. It is named after Dr. William Cocker, the University's first botany professor. It occupies a little more than five acres. It was founded in 1903.



Chapel Hill's main street has always been called Franklin Street. It was named after Benjamin Franklin in the early 1790s.



We need your help. Send your submissions, ideas, photos, and questions to CHMemories@gmail.com.



Chapel Hill High School and Chapel Hill Junior High were on Franklin Street in the same location as University Square until the mid 1960s.



The Colonial Drug Store at 450 West Franklin Street was owned and operated by John Carswell. It was famous for a fresh-squeezed carbonated orange beverage called a "Big O". In the early 1970s, I managed the Record and Tape Center next door, and must have had over 100 of those drinks. The Colonial Drug Store closed in 1996.



Sutton's Drugstore, which opened in 1923, has one of the last soda fountains in the South. It is one of the few businesses remaining on Franklin Street that was in operation when I was growing up in the 1950s.



Future President Gerald Ford lived in Chapel Hill twice. First when he was 24, in 1938, he took a law couse in summer school at UNC. He lived in the Carr Building, which was a law school dormitory. At the same time, Richard Nixon, the man he served under as Vice President, was attending law school at Duke. In 1942, Ford returned to Chapel Hill to attend the U.S. Navy's Pre-Flight School training program. He lived in a rental house on Hidden Hills Drive.



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