Getting to Know Carrboro:
A Step-by-Step Guide
by Daniel Wallace
Getting to know a town, like getting to know a person, begins with
knowing its name. When you’re introduced, this is usually the first
thing. “Jim,” you might say, “this is Carrboro. Carrboro, Jim.” After
a little time passes and you get to know Carrboro better, you learn
its nicknames. Carrboro has a few: Paris of the Piedmont, Faraway
Carrboro, Seattle of the South, the Invisible Kingdom of America.
This is how it is: New York is the Big Apple. Los Angeles is the City
of Angels. Carrboro is the Paris of the Piedmont.
The latitude of Carrboro is 35.91oN, and the longitude is -79.075oW.
Good to know where it is, especially if you’re sailing there.
The estimated population in 2003 was 16,747. Since then it has grown
a little. By my count, a thousand people or so. Give or take a hundred.
Carrboro, North Carolina, is the smallest town in America with its
own foreign policy. I wish I knew if this were true; it sounds true. But
the fact is, with a population of just around 17,000, the little town
that is Carrboro does things in very big ways. It has spoken out on
the war in Iraq, stood up to the INS, voiced its problems with the
Patriot Act. Not just voiced: the Carrboro government passed resolutions.
For instance, while most of the rest of the country was boycotting
France because of their opposition to the war in Iraq, and eating
“Freedom Fries”, Carrboro offered what support it could and encouraged
people to buy French. Maybe it didn’t change the world, but it did
get the town a spot on The Daily Show. I only bring it up here for
those of you who don’t already know it: Carrboro has a personality
all its own, and it’s not afraid to proclaim it. It’s not afraid to pass
resolutions about it. It’s as if at any moment—who knows?—it might
choose to secede, and, in its quiet, always-friendly way, become the
Independent Republic of Carrboro.
For many years, Carrboro could only be understood in relation to
Chapel Hill, and for good reason. But not so much anymore. Remember
when you were growing up and one of your friends had a little brother
and you always liked him and he was kind of cute but you never really
thought of him as much more than your friend’s little brother? And
then years pass and the next time you run into the little brother he’s
not so little anymore, he’s all grown up, and after hanging out with him
for a while you start to like him—a lot—and not for who he was (your
friend’s little brother), but for who he is? Okay. Hold that thought.
And see 6.
History. It’s impossible to understand Carrboro without understanding its
history—which is true of everything, everywhere, and of everybody—
but it’s especially true of Carrboro. Because imagine this: it was never
even meant to be a town at all. All it was in the beginning was a railroad
depot. In 1882, the town to the east—that would be Chapel Hill—
determined that it needed a train station to accommodate folks
traveling there. They picked a deserted area a mile away from
campus—a mile away so no one on the Hill would be disturbed by the
unseemly sound of a train passing through.
From the very beginning, you see, Carrboro was attached to Chapel
Hill—and in a very subservient position. How subservient? It didn’t even
have a real name at first: for a long time, it was known as West of—
that’s right, West of—as in West of Chapel Hill. But Chapel Hill objected:
they didn’t want its name being used by this… this… depot. So the
name was changed to West End. A few years later it got a real name—Venable—but even that wasn’t really its own. It was the name
of a president of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill! Most
towns would have a profound insecurity complex after a past like
this. Not Carrboro. In 1898, a man named Tom Lloyd built a cotton
mill, and slowly Venable began to resemble a real town. In 1913, it
became the largest hardwood cross-tie market in the world, and the
next year its named was changed to Carrboro, after Julian Carr bought
Lloyd’s mill and donated electricity and actual streets to the town.
Finally, this former train depot found a name all its own. And yet,
Carrboro was still seen as less of a real place as it was an appendage
to the lovely and learned town of Chapel Hill, and this is how it stayed
for a long, long time. It was, literally, on the other side of the tracks.
A neighbor of mine—a lifelong resident of Chapel Hill—says that, when
she was in high school, Carrboro boys were the bad boys around town.
Going there was taking a walk on the wild side.
How times—and towns—have changed. Today, going to Carrboro is still taking a walk on the wild side, but it’s a different sort of wild side now. The fun kind of wild, the good kind. And a kind of spiritual shift has taken place. Or maybe not spiritual as much as a shift in cool, that very major thing that’s impossible to quantify but you know it when you see it… and feel it. Chapel Hill is wonderful—it’s where I live, and I love it—but over the years it’s become a bit more… corporate. A small but illustrative example: Go to a coffee shop in Chapel Hill and you’re likely to see a lot of students typing away on their Dells; in Carrboro, say at the Open Eye Café (or “Carrboro’s living room”), it’s all Apples.
If Carrboro had a presiding spirit, a statue they could erect at a
roundabout that would illustrate its character, it might be a… farmer
with a laptop? Or an architect in overalls? Or a dog in a clown suit—
not for any real reason, but because Carrboro is a town with a great
sense of humor. So, to re-cap: A beautiful town with a sense of humor
that votes democratic. (Sounds like a personals ad. Sounds like a place
some other town might want to date. I would, if I were a town. It’s so
beautiful, and it has a great personality!)
It’s the kind of small southern town where the past and the present
seem to have been fused into a single moment until it’s no longer one
time or the other. Many of the buildings on Main Street and Weaver
Street, the two main drags, haven’t changed in half a century—and
yet Carrboro is wireless. The heart of the town is a contemporary version
of the old country store, but it’s a co-op now and the food is mostly
organic. There are no big sports teams here (that action is one town
over), but there are bike lanes. Lots of them. And some serious bikers
using them. So, share the road, Buster.
Now back to that nickname, Paris of the Piedmont. How did Carrboro
get a nickname like that anyway? Not because it boasts an Eiffel Tower
all its own (plans for that are still in their infancy), but because culture
matters in Carrboro. Art matters. The name originated back in the
early ’70s, right about the time Nyle Frank, a Carrboro resident, was
crowned King of the Invisible Kingdom of America (which is another
story I encourage you to research on your own). Since then, Carrboro
has earned the fanciful appellation.
In the fall, there’s the Carrboro Music Festival, where over the course
of a single day 150 bands perform, and it’s free and open to anyone
who wants to come. In the spring is the Carrboro Poetry Festival,
where in 2005 40 poets from across North America read to over 800
people. Carrboro even has its own Poet Laureate (Todd Sandvik for
2006). Then, in November it’s the Carrboro Film Festival. The
Community Art Project—a co-venture with the Chapel Hill Public Arts
Commission—invites anyone and everyone in the county to contribute
work devoted to a theme. It began in 2002, as the 5000 Flowers
Project. 5000 was the original estimated number of victims on
September 11th. To hope that a town so small could expect the degree
of community involvement it would take to generate that many flowers
was ambitious. And, in fact, they didn’t get 5000; they got 10,000.
Poor, poor Paris. One day, it might well earn the nickname le Carrboro
de l’Europe. But only time will tell.
Two institutions are open year-round, though: The ArtsCenter and
the Cat’s Cradle. The ArtsCenter began in 1974, and since then it’s
become the soul of the arts community. And not just for Carrboro
either, but for fifty miles in any direction you care to go. It’s one-stop-
shopping for, well, anything you can think of that has anything to do
with the arts: everything from writing, music, theater—and so much
more. Without it, Carrboro would be mightily diminished. Right next
door is the Cat’s Cradle, the institution which single-handedly earned
Carrboro its designation as the Seattle of the South. Big names and
little alike, local and international, play at this world-famous music
venue—and local bands that went on to bigger things. Ben Folds Five
and The Squirrel Nut Zippers started out here.
Carrboro, more than anything else, is a community. What does this
mean, community? In this case, it means 10,000 flowers. It means
poetry and art and music. And it means Thursday evening on the lawn
in front of Weaver Street Market—or The Weave, as it’s known around
town. Weaver Street began in 1988 with a mix of financing from the
town of Carrboro, a loan from Self-Help Ventures, and individual
community support. The result is much more than a grocery store,
though. From late-spring to early-fall, the co-op hosts live music on
Thursday nights and Sunday morning jazz brunches, with local non-
profit organizations selling food, wine and beer. Hundreds of people—
children, dogs, and some of the craziest dancers you’ve seen since
1973—crowd the lawn and just… hang out. Because that’s what it
is: a hang out. The kind of place we used to have—remember?—but
don’t anymore, a place we could go and know we’d see our friends,
old and new? This lawn, this market, is the heart of Carrboro. It’s the
place to gather, to meet, to shop. Fittingly, it’s just in front of the
old Carr Mill building that still stands, a relic from an industrial past,
here in its present second-life as a shopping mall: past and present intertwined. If you live in the vicinity, I know I’ll see you there.
Or maybe right across the street, at Maple View Ice Cream. Ice cream
made by a dairy farm right down the road. Yum. It’s the best.
Carrboro is a walking town; from The Weave, you can go anywhere.
Go right, and you’ll run into Phydeaux, the best store I’ve ever been
in if you’re looking for dog-or-cat-related comestibles. They have the
best food, the best toys, and the best does-my-dog-really-deserve-an-
organic-cheese-stick-after-what-he-did-to-the-rug? Sure he does. But
not to be confused with the Spotted Dog, which is just down the street.
That’s where you can go for beer and good sandwich. Veer south
and, if you’re lucky, you might run into the Orange County Social Club,
Notice how so many things in Carrboro and known by their nicknames?
According to cultural anthropologists, this is the natural outgrowth of
a town’s “authentic personality” and “historical importance.” Or maybe
I just made that up. But the honest truth is that OCSC is a great bar,
an amazing bar, with a pool table and couches and everything. Become
a regular there, if you possibly can: It’s members only, but my guess
is you’re exactly the kind of member they’re looking for. Right next
door is Acme Food and Beverage Company, where, in addition to one
of the best burgers in town, you can drink the not-to-be-done-without
Carrboro Mojo, a delicious concoction created when spiced ginger ale
meets “Stoly”. In Carrboro-time, these establishments are fairly recent.
Not so Cliff’s Meat Market. Been here forever, right on Main Street.
They still make their own sausage and have almost any meat you could
possibly want, from goat to rabbit to chitlins. What are chitlins? Pig
stomach, mostly, with some pig intestines thrown in. I know, I know: it
sounds kind of gross, but a lot of people love them. And here is where
we begin to get a sense of what makes Carrboro special. To my mind,
it’s is the perfect incarnation of the New Old South. Down the street
from your local hog maw distributor is Akai Hana, a delicious Japanese restaurant owned by Lee Smith and Hal Crowther, two of the many
celebrity writers who live here and hereabouts. Then, in a small concrete building hidden away in a parking lot, Tom Robinson sells seafood, fresh
from the boats. A couple of blocks over is Provence. Think escargot.
Think Lemon Sole Amandine. Think—yes—of France.
Apparent opposites existing together: this is not merely a culinary
attribute of this town: it’s the people too. New Age crystal-packing
spinach-eating sandal-wearing peaceniks share the sidewalks with
tobacco-chewing coverall-wearing Sunday-go-to-meeting farmers. The
buildings—low to the ground, red brick buildings—have been there for
over half a century, but inside them are stores like Nested, a tastefully
shi-shi home furnishing store. Carrboro is not a melting pot as much as
it is a blending of cultures, and eras. This is the spirit you find every
weekend at the Farmer’s Market.
Created in 1977, the Carrboro Farmers’ Market was one of the earliest
markets to link farmers directly with their customers. This is a true
farmers’ market. Everything that is sold must be grown or produced
within a 50-mile radius of Carrboro. Twice weekly, on Wednesday
evenings and Saturday mornings, Spring through Fall, the market serves
as yet another community event: if you didn’t see Shelley and Bob at
the Weave on Thursday, you’ll probably see them at the market on
It’s a Monday, though, when I have lunch with Carrboro’s new mayor,
Mark Chilton. I remember Mark from a long time ago: in 1991 he was,
at 21, the youngest city councilman in the history of Chapel Hill. Since
then, he’s moved to Carrboro, and he’s still a young mayor, and dresses
like one: he’s wearing baggy green shorts, a blue T-shirt and a straw
hat. He apologizes for being underdressed, but there’s nothing to
apologize for. This is Carrboro, after all, where even the mayor is ultra-
casual. We talk for a while about all the wonderful things Carrboro
offers, all the things I’ve just told you all about. Then Mark says, “I
hate to put everything into political terms, but beneath all of this, all
the fun—and it is fun, Carrboro—are some really serious issues. Weaver
Street, the Farmer’s Market, they’re all part of a vision: we want to make
Carrboro a sustainable society.”
The Town of Carrboro has been running a garbage truck, a utility truck
and a backhoe on bio-deisel for over a year. Companies are measured
in three ways: social justice, economic profit and sound environmental
policies. Buying locally means local farms are preserved, the local
economy is strengthened, there’s less pollution and less dependence on
outside sources of food. Sustainable means being able to live on its own,
through the community and the people who care about it. Carrboro is a
bright place. Even though it’s clearly grown out of the shadow of its big
brother Chapel Hill, it doesn’t cast a shadow of its own, nor does it care to.
It’s our own City of Light.
— Daniel Wallace
Daniel Wallace is the author of “Big Fish, A Novel of Mythic Proportions”
(published in 1998), “Ray in Reverse” (2000) and “The Watermelon King”
(2003). He was was born in Birmingham, AL, and attended Emory University
and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying business. However,
he didn’t graduate, but instead took a job with a trading company in Nagoya,
Japan. After returning to Chapel Hill, Wallace worked for 13 years in a
bookstore and as an illustrator before Big Fish was published. He still lives in
Chapel Hill with his wife Laura and son Henry. He is currently a professor at
UNC in Chapel Hill.
Daniel Wallace’s Carrboro story and the Carrboro trivia compilation provided courtesy of Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.
Carrboro.com Extensive information and links about the city, including a business and restaurant directory. View the website >
Town of Carrboro Website
Features official notices, town forum, information on government and services. View the website >
Chapel Hill–Carrboro Chamber of Commerce Everything you need to know about the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, including information about schools, retirement and places to see. www.carolinachamber.org/aboutchcar/
* Carrboro was founded in 1882, when a spur from the Durham-Greensboro Southern Railway line was extended to link students at the University of North Carolina with the outside world. (The last passenger train to Carrboro ran in 1936, a result of the growing use of automobiles.)
* The train depot, first named West End, was located one mile from campus, the minimum distance (as mandated by a state law) to keep students as far as possible from "city temptations".
* Thomas F. Lloyd built Alberta Mill, the town’s first textile mill, in 1899. The second floor was a hosiery mill in 1902 and then back to a cotton mill. Ten years after it was built, Julian Carr, a Durham tobacco magnate, bought the mill.
* Carrboro was incorporated in 1911 and named after Carr when he agreed to furnish electricity to town residents from his mill. (The town had been named Venable, in honor of Francis P. Venable, who was president of the University at the time.)
* The abandoned, dilapidated mill site was rehabilitated as Carr Mill Mall under the Tax Reform Act of 1976. Many of the bricked-in windows were opened and the interior masonry walls, heavy timbers and maple floors were left exposed. Today the mall has restaurants and some great up-scale boutique shops.
* Carrboro has been referred to as “the Paris of the Piedmontâ€ because of its high concentration of art galleries and related facilities and services. The name originated with Nyle Frank, a UNC student, who picked it up from Chapel Hill Weekly reporter John Martin, after Frank moved to Carrboro.
* In its Travel Guide on June 18, 2002, USA Today named Carrboro 2nd of “10 great places with arts-filled spacesâ€.
* The ArtsCenter, a 21,000 sq.ft. community facility in Carrboro that offers a variety of classes and events in the visual, literary and performing arts, began as a painting class in a loft in 1975. First called The ArtSchool, it adopted its current name in 1986. On April 3, 1996, Joan Baez scheduled a fill-in concert at The ArtsCenter, and tickets to its 350-seat concert hall sold out in an hour.