Friday, September 07, 2007

Destination Chapel Hill

Laurie Paolicelli, for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, is spearheading an effort to have Chapel Hill selected as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Distinctive Destinations for 2008. (Hillsborough is one for 2007.) She asked me to write a letter in support of the nomination. Here is what I wrote.

To the National Trust:

In November 1829, William Ruffin wrote from Chapel Hill to his father, Thomas Ruffin, who was soon to begin his distinguished career on the North Carolina Supreme Court, with a complaint about his new college town:

I think that the Trustees were imprudent in their choice of a site for the University. Instead of situating it in a town where there is good society or at least respectable with whom the students might have intercourse, they picked upon a spot at the time almost uninhabited and entirely destitute of persons with whom a gentleman ought to have intercourse. . . . The Trustees chose the spot where young men were to be trained up in the paths of science and morality, but left it open for vagabonds. If they wished a retired place aloof from the world, secluded from all intercourse with men—they should have permitted no one to settle on it. Whereas they have let all come who wished until finally half the villains in the state have congregated and fixed upon this place as one in which they can spend their time idly and at their ease.

Young Mr. Ruffin, no model student, should not be taken as a reliable witness. His father had pulled him out of a private college in Baltimore in favor of the state school that was both less expensive and closer to his watchful eye in Hillsborough. William’s sense of a clear difference between the town and the gown is accurate; but by the early 21st century, I believe most people have come to find the tension to be creative, healthy, and productive.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was “the first state university to open its doors.” I understand that folks down in Georgia had their charter earlier, but Chapel Hill brought more determination to the project. The physical campus, a beautiful space full of old buildings still in use surrounded by giant canopy trees, offers fascinating glimpses into a rich past, “rich” as in bountiful and “rich” as in fraught with the complexities that mark the entire American South. On McCorkle Place is an obelisk to the Rev. Joseph Caldwell, first president of the university. This marker was erected in 1904 to replace one considered not fine enough. The old marker was removed to the African American cemetery, where it marks the burial place of three slaves, including November Caldwell, who had belonged to Joseph Caldwell. Professor Tim McMillan offers a walking tour of the campus that reveals other interesting traces of the university’s racial history.

The African American cemetery and its white counterpart are next to the Center for Dramatic Art, which houses the Paul Green Theater, named for the first southern playwright to gain national attention. The original Playmakers Theater, which has just been renovated, is in an 1851 building that is a National Historic Landmark. A couple of blocks away, on beautiful Franklin Street with its large historic houses (within one of Chapel Hill’s three National Register districts), is the Horace Williams House, named for a UNC philosophy professor and home to the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill. Thomas Wolfe’s portrait hangs in the Dialectic Chambers in New West (actually an old building, recently renovated), and his shadow is everywhere.

When I came to Chapel Hill as a graduate student twenty years ago this fall, I was drawn to the university for its academic strengths, of course—but also to the town itself for its reputation as a beacon of light within North Carolina and the South. Thanks to the work of Frank Porter Graham, Howard Odum, and many other university figures, Chapel Hill has a secure reputation as a place where progressive ideas are born and progressive ideals are lived out. It has been my privilege to participate as a public official in the thoughtful evolution of this thriving and inclusive town. For me, the pleasures of living and working in Chapel Hill are inexhaustible. I am convinced that the history and character of Chapel Hill, as reflected in its built environment and the generosity of its citizens, are more than enough to make it a Distinctive Destination for 2008. I hope you will agree.

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