Here is a great piece written by one of our regulars, Brett Webb-Mitchell.
There are those of us in Chapel Hill and Carrboro who remember when the Bohemian society was well established in this Southern oasis.
Carrboro-ites ordained themselves the “Paris of the Piedmont,” and Chapel Hill was considered downright funky. This was the Carrboro and Chapel Hill that I fell in love with when I was doing my doctoral work in the ’80s. There was the Rathskeller and its greasy food in its dark basement locale; the Intimate Bookstore and its rough wooden floors with books piled on top of each other rising from the floor; and a group of women selling home-grown flowers in the entrance to one of the banks. Hippies and artists strolled the streets of Carrboro, while musicians practiced their craft in cheap, old ramshackle mill houses.
Many of us mourn the loss of the free spirit culture in this college town. More “Wisteria Lane” neighborhoods and their copycat families – anything but the single life – spring up every year, and everywhere. But such sorrow is premature. I recently spent almost an entire day at Foster’s on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, pleased to find what I thought was gone forever.
With free Wi-Fi service and electrical outlets aplenty, I found a seat along one wall. From a distance I suppose we resembled modern-day rabbis in a yeshiva, studiously reading our electronic copy of Holy writ. Some were students writing final papers; others catching up on e-mails with a latte in hand. Still others were reading the latest website news, downloading music or watching YouTube. A wicker basket at the end of a long table held hard copy news, wrinkled, yellow, torn, and well-read, from The Independent to the Chapel Hill News.
Each day since I have settled into my seat, computer open, letting the noise of the café atmosphere become white noise, drawn into my own intellectually stimulating cocoon.
I am engaged in a conversation of a group of women of various ages discussing their book-of-the-month seated around a long wooden table. A young couple from Calais utters fluent French as they share sips from a common cup of a cappuccino. Two women from China are learning Spanish with a tutor over their Cokes.
At night, I sit by senior citizen diners from New York City originally who live in a nearby retirement community. Next to them is a group of lesbians, with a rainbow-colored boa stretching down three tables, known as TALES (Triangle Area Lesbians). Across the restaurant a group of evangelical Christians is engrossed in a theological debate over pizza.
On another day, a Town Council member meets a constituent over a wrapped sandwich while nearby two young moms try to carry on a conversation about raising babies while their tots crawl out of their unbelted strollers. Under the outside pergola tired Census takers take an afternoon break from their work, while two middle-aged women share gossip as one of their dogs eat scraps from the table. An African American woman and Asian American man, wearing Obama-Biden T-shirts, sit next to a young man whose T-shirt reflects his displeasure in President Obama. A former U.S. senator sits down to a chicken sandwich while an also-ran Senate candidate sits next to me on the padded pew. A student athlete leans close and whispers to his date while a table full of deaf gay men use sign language to order dinner.
For a while, amid the smell of freshly roasted coffee, there is no disconnection from body, from presence, from city, from culture. In this café, we are rooted in time and place by our love of diversity of these towns, rediscovering the timeless Bohemian nature of Chapel Hill-Carrboro.
Brett Webb-Mitchell is director of the religious non-profit School of the Pilgrim and an ordained clergy person in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Contact him at Brett@schoolofthepilgrim.com.