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Chapel Hill's Dying Community

The Chapel Hill I love is not a city, town, village, or university but a community of fascinating people in a beautiful location. As humans we all want to belong to something, and the communal nature that was Chapel Hill during most of my lifetime positively shaped and nurtured me. What made our community was shared experiences that were most often the interactions of someone sharing a story to one or more fellow townspeople in a store, along a sidewalk, on a phone call, over a meal, at school, or at church. Every time I heard a fellow Chapel Hillian share an amusing anecdote or recount things about the town they remembered I felt more a part of this community. I remember, for example, in 1958 when I was at the small farmer's market on Columbia Street just north of Rosemary Street listening to two grey-haired women talking about what life had been like when they were growing up in Chapel Hill in the 1890s when there was no indoor plumbing, telephones, nor electricity. I was transfixed in amazement and immediately felt a virtual connection to the town as it existed more than 60 years before I was born.

A Chapel Hill storyteller (right) enraptures his friends at a social gathering at a home on Purefoy Road in 1958

Huggins Hardware was a hotspot for Chapel Hill locals to chat with friends. In the photo from 1953 two coversations are going on simultaneously. 

I had hoped that Chapel Hill Memories could replicate through storytelling the same communal experience I remembered from my four decades of living in Chapel Hill, yet the very nature of this requires an array of narratives and listener responses that are community-building. There was no shortage of opportunities then to meet interesting people to engage in conversation with. At least once a week my parents invited four or more people over for dinner. The guests included couples from our neighborhood, UNC students from my Dad's classes, the ministers of various churches including The Chapel of the Cross, The Church of the Holy Family, St. Thomas Moore, an array of distinguished UNC professors and administrators, and even Jesse Helms – then a commentator on WRAL who my father often enjoyed heated debates with. As a family we would also go along with our parents several times a month to drop by and visit some family in the evening for a couple of hours after dinner. In most cases these were people who were "old" to me, probably in their early 60s. Invariably they would be great storytellers and their homes always contained enchanting collections of some kind, such as old train sets, vintage women's hats displayed on the top shelves of bookcases, or intricately carved figures that they had brought back from some exotic location.

A group of UNC students and professors discussing philosophy and religion at Harry's Restaurant, Chapel Hill's bohemian haven.

Three friends catching up with one another in front of Jeff's Confectionary in 1966

In addition to this, just accompanying my mother on her household errands several times a week was my favorite, and most fruitful, time for cultivating life-long relationships with a variety of fascinating people who worked at, or owned, various businesses in town including PACE's Gift Shop in Glen Lennox, Dickinson's Nursery, which was once considered out in the country, Billy Arthur's Hobby Shop in the Eastgate Shopping Center, and along Franklin Street, Danzigner Old World Gift Shop, Foister's Camera Shop, The Intimate Book Store, Ledbetter-Pickard Stationary Store, Sutton's Drug Store, Fowler's Grocery StoreJulian's Clothing Cupboard, McGinty's Sports Shop, Lacock's Shoes, Max Snipes Barber Shop, The HubThe Little Shop, Huggins Hardware, and Kemp's Record Store.

A very common experience along the north side of Franklin Street in the 1950s and early 1960s was a car stopped in street for the driver or passenger to have a conversation with someone the knew walking along the sidewalk. 

In the afternoons in the 1950s and 60s students gathered in large numbers on the steps of Wilson Library to have conversations with friends. In this photo you will see four separate groups of people talking.

I learned a lot from listening to, and occasionally participating in, conversations with these people. They recounted real stories, usually about a recent local event from their own life that was presented with a wealth of colorful information. I learned about their idiosyncratic friends, their favorite writers, books, and composers, places they had traveled to, difficulties they had overcome, and lessons they had learned. Through these encounters Chapel Hill was a shared world in which almost everyone living there became apart of one another's lives. Mundane topics such as the television show one had recently seenwere never discussed, and sports of any kind were rarely brought up by anyone over the age of 25. I remember Loften Gardner, a retired math professor who lived on North Street, telling me that watching sports, movies, and television were "spectator activities", and that conversation on the other hand was a shared experience which was the basis of all relationships. I also noticed that while one's personal life was a common topic of conversation, no one ever talked about his or her job. In this way we learned about each other's interests, weaknesses, and most of all their strengths. Most Chapel Hillians during this time had more real friends than the often-superficial couple of hundred acquaintances that make up the bulk of our Facebook friends. Through constant interaction with hundreds of fellow citizens on a weekly basis we cultivated a network of nurturing and supportive relationships that made us feel part of a close-knit community.

I recall living rooms were often full of friends and neighbors during the evenings in Chapel Hill from the 1950s through the mid 1980s. I have scores of photos in my collection displaying this ritual, and in almost everyone the couch is packed with people. The drinks these people are most likely holding, and usually served on these occassions, was iced tea. This photo is from 1955.

Today most of my contacts with Chapel Hill friends are through e-mails and Facebook. I see in them a steady decline of human contact as conversations are expressed in only a few words. I think this kind of interaction dehumanizes us and destroys our community. We now communicate in a new language some are calling Short Messages. Our e-mails, texts, Facebook postings, are rarely more than a sentence, and are often are full of symbols and abbreviations that further truncate how much we have to say (type). I suspect chimpanzees, who have a 3000-word vocabulary, are often having more meaningful conversations than us. The ravages of television are destroying our minds, along with the trivial postings we make and read on Facebook and Twitter. Our only real intimacy is with our cellphone, which is glued to most people at all times. While most Chapel Hill conversations were once lengthy, intimate, uplifting, and informative, they are now usually mundane and only a sentence or less.

Two Chapel Hill couples sitting and talking on the stone wall across from the downtown Post Office on a chilly January evening in 1952 after having dinner together at The Rathskeller. While this attire may look formal by today's standards, it was normal evening wear then for going out to dinner with friends.

by Charly Mann



L. Cherry      12:22 PM Mon 3/31/2014

I long for long talks along Franklin Street or in local restaurants and homes with friends, but I think those days are gone with the wind. I am not sure of the cause - perhaps it is the new technology or too much caffeine.

Beverly G.      8:46 AM Thu 3/27/2014

Last week I went to a cafe in Carrboro to meet two friends for lunch. I got there about ten minutes early and noticed several people I knew sitting at tables, but al three were either engrossed on their laptop or cellphone and made attempt to speak to me. I felt quite strange being around people I knew but being socially isolated from them because of their gadgets.<br \><br \>When my friends showed up we began talking about our days at Chapel Hill High School, but were soon interrupted when one of my friends got a phone call from her daughter and started talking to her. I thought my conversation might continue with my other friend, but she took out her cell phone and began to check e-mails as she waited for our friend to finish her conversation. I was then left alone and began realizing just how the art of conversation is dying<br \>

Bill A      2:00 AM Thu 3/27/2014

Certainly the town/community has changed, Charly. Little doubt about that. I suspect that, if one could jump ahead 50 years and visit with a Chapel Hillian of 2064, he/she might share similar feelings to those you have expressed. Perhaps THESE are the good old days, viewed from a healthy perspective!

Ginger Listens      10:35 AM Wed 3/26/2014

Thanks for the wonderful article Charly. I remember as a teenager we used the term &quot;hangout&quot; as a verb and a noun to designate wanting to just gather with friends to talk. In high school the number one hangout was SLOAN&#39;s drugstore. When I was in college the hangout place for me and my friends was the Dairy Bar next to KEMP&#39;s near the corner of Henderson and Franklin Streets. <br \> <br \>I was in Chapel Hill last September to visit family and was surprised just how &quot;dead&quot; Franklin Street is today. I agree that without the people of a town regularly engaged in conversation with each other there is no community.

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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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