A sense of place

Bonnie Hauser, president of the grassroots organization Orange County Voice, sends this holiday greeting from New England:

This year, and every year, I spend Christmas in western Massachusetts (“the Berkshires seem dreamlike on account of their frosting…”). A few inches of snow, a little sun, and a brisk 30 degrees – warm for the area, just right for my North Carolina tolerance.

This year, more than ever, I found myself struck by how settled my surroundings truly were. Stodgy? No. Simply a place that seemed to know exactly who it was and to be content with it all.

Small, even tiny town centers surrounded by New England clapboard houses with shutters and holiday candles in windows. The towns had lights, restaurants, small shops. Everyone knows everyone, and the feeling everywhere is that “we’re in this together.”

I couldn’t help but notice the lack of ancillary town centers. No Meadowmonts or Southern Villages or Obey Creeks to cannibalize downtown goings on. Why would there be? After all, people went downtown regularly for the change of scenery and to learn what was going on locally. We were amazed to learn that an incapacitating flat tire, which forced us to abandon our car, made the morning news cycle.

The area is marked by a stark lack of ambition. In addition to their own self-interest, everyone seems committed to serve their neighbors, the town, the community. Yes, it’s stressful, because the commitment carries an obligation to your own friends and families and to be worthy of a community that will certainly transcend your meager lifetime. I saw the stress in my friends who were planning a local concert to raise money for much-needed improvements to the town hall.

There was no soaring rhetoric about economic development or buying locally. No massive developers or major interest in massive development. (Yes, there’s a buzz about a few condominiums going on the back of the Card Lake Inn.) The locals trust their planning boards – after all, they know who serves, and there is widespread agreement about their shared future. Local businesses are essential to the vitality of the community, so no one needs to be reminded to support them. And it all comes with a spirit of respect and belonging.

So I start the new year wondering if Chapel Hill and Orange County will ever settle into our own clarity of self. Who will hold the vision? And will our leaders and our communities – rather than developers – work together to assure that the vision remains sustainable for the long haul?

— Bonnie Hauser

Contact Bonnie at bonnie@OrangeCountyVoice.org.

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  1. Terri Buckner

     /  January 1, 2013

    There is no comparison between any town in the Research Triangle and the New England of today. People are leaving the northern climates and those industrial cities and small burgs to move south. We are forced by their decisions to change from the small village we were up until the 1980s, the village the sounds very similar to what you are describing. We need to figure out how we grow, not if we grow. We haven’t been given a choice.

  2. Bonnie

     /  January 1, 2013

    Terri i agree but add that major constructs like town centers and community-driven development seem to be missing from our vision, if there’s a vision at all.
    And developers seem to be leading the way.

    I am strongly pro development, but without an over arching vision, the sprawl and conflict will continue.

    There are many communities, much larger than ours and growing faster than we are, that have a stronger identity and meaningful sense of place. We have wonderful assets to work with but haven’t seemed to find a way to unify them into a cohesive whole.

  3. Patrick M

     /  January 2, 2013

    Terri is absolutely correct about the differences in regional economies, and about the large number of people moving south, but the data indicates that people are not necessarily moving away from northern urban centers, but more so from northern rural areas. In fact, the principal economic centers of New England having all seen growing populations for 20+ years, even if that growth is not as fast as other areas of the country.

    Compare the 40 years of declining population in Berkshire County (which was decommissioned as a governing body in 2000)


    with the last 40 years of growing population in Chapel Hill.


    Also look at Boston, Providence, Worcester, and Manchester.





    Anywhere in far Western MA or rural/semi-rural New England is simply not facing development pressure. That’s why the look/feel there remains consistent over time.

  4. Steve Wells

     /  January 2, 2013

    My Mother-In-Law has told stories about the problems with drugs and alcohol in the 1960s in the rural areas of New England due to nothing to do. She left after High School for better opportunities in Syracuse.

    Comparing Chapel Hill to rural Massachusetts is not a reasonable or realistic comparison in 1965 or 2013.

  5. Tom Field

     /  January 3, 2013

    It is unrealistic to compare us to them — we have Roger Perry to deal with.

  6. Bonnie

     /  January 3, 2013

    The goal was never to compare us to the Berkshires, , but to open us to thinking about creating a town center and other models for community that take us beyond being a college town surrounded by fabricated, Disneyesque villages. The question is “who are we”? And hopefully the answer includes the the entire county, it’s towns and it’s neighbors – not just Chapel Hill and UNC.

    Let’s not become too enamoured with ourselves. We are the slowest growing part of the rapidly growing Triangle and our votes still depend on the preferences of UNC students, There are only. 130,000 of us and less the half of us live in Chapel Hill.

    Certainly we can learn from orhers. But we first have to be open to possibities. If you take the Berkshire analogy further, youll find a massive shopping areas with big box stores and, yes a 250 ton per day Waste-to-energy plant. But it’s not near any residences. These large commercial areas are gentrifying depressed areas and not compromising charming town centers. They provide the benefit of sales and commercial property taxes without imposing traffic jams or commercial nuisances on local residential communities,

    There are many options and ideas, and it’s hard work to think it through. Much easier to entrust it to developers (who are not the bad guys -just opportunists).

    We’re not the Berkshires. But who are we?

  7. Many

     /  January 7, 2013

    Disclaimer: I have only lived here since 1983.

    To me, we are a quintessential college town. We enjoy both the benefits and tensions of having a rural and town population that have lived here all of their lives and a transplant community that brings with it not just the “Yankee” culture but people and cultures from all over the world. To a degree Chapel Hill and Carrboro have that small town feel, but they also have terrific food, an outstanding medical community, and nationally recognized education and sports. Chapel Hill and Carrboro attract world class minds, as well as all the current cultural and technological conveniences. That is what makes this area special to me and is “who we are”.

    Sure, we have a lot of petty bickering. There are the aforementioned tensions between rural and town interests. But for the most part, we have a fairly robust government, competent staff and most importantly citizen involvement and dialog.

    All in all I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do.

    With regard to growth; I don’t feel the growth pressure any more now, than I did 20 years ago before I-40. Things have grown everywhere and we are not unique in that regard. You might find it interesting that the St Louis Fed (FRED) economic data of Civilian Noninstitutional Population (CNP16OV) http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/CNP16OV shows a quarterly US population growth of people over 16 at 0.6% or roughly 2.3 – 2.9 million persons per year, and slowing. (the gap depending largely on immigration both legal and illegal).

    Assuming the current ratio of population to infrastructure, adding 23-29 million people each decade nationwide will mean roughly: building and paying for ~8,000 new schools, developing land to accommodate ~11.5 million new housing units and constructing enough roads to handle ~23.6 million more vehicles. This is coupled with addressing the problems of an aging society. http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0038.pdf

    On the other hand I see some possible outcomes to the overall slowing of population growth that have me pretty optimistic about the future. I am not quite as giddy as Larry Siegel, but I think his piece on world population is worth a read. http://larrysiegeldotorg.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/fewer-richer-greener_siegel_2012_03_021.pdf

  8. DOM

     /  January 7, 2013

    Remember, Cambridge MA, Berkeley CA, and Madison WI are also “college towns”. The longer we try to keep ourselves ‘unique’ by curtailing growth and progress and expansion, the longer we’ll be discouraging the valuable mixture of ideas and economic/cultural diversity that are so important to a truly academic community.

    When are we going to get over the elitist mindset: “Small is Special” and embrace healthy growth and variety?

  9. Bonnie

     /  January 7, 2013

    Ithe question is not about size, it’s about vision. Who’s vision are we growing into and why? Small, charming is one vision. There are others.

    Then there’s the issue of town vs county vs developer. Do we continue react to developer proposals or do we work together toward a vision of development and density and ask developers to help us create it..

    there are choices.

  10. Many

     /  January 7, 2013

    Not sure of why Cambridge, Madison and Berkeley are being mentioned. Is it because they are larger, more dense? To me they are college cities not towns.

    In my mind there are two kinds of “growth”. For lack of better terms, I’ll call them quality & quantity. Quality growth is what I would like to see. Defining “quality” in this context is not up to one individual, but as Bonnie suggests, it requires a goal and an inclusive plan to get there, it’s that “vision” thing.

    Quantity growth is what I think of when others use the term “sprawl” in a derogatory way.

    To me, Roger Perry & EWP are behaving rationally. I think they actually try to either comply with the regulation that seems to flip-flop back and forth like a freshly caught fish or to influence regulation (to their advantage of course).

    What is not rational or particularly useful is the arbitrary and divisive branding of others thoughts and ideas as “elitist”

  11. DOM

     /  January 7, 2013

    Quantity and quality are NOT mutually exclusive. Until we accept that, we’re doomed to remain in the past.

  12. Many

     /  January 17, 2013

    On a some what related note I was struck be the NYT article “36 hours in Durham”. Pretty good press, I think.