Depending on who is talking, Chapel Hill is either the crown jewel or the embarrassment of the Triangle. Its slogan claims it is the “Southern Part of Heaven,” but to some people its liberal politics and restrictive business policies make them regard it more as the “Northern Part of Hell.” Unlike the other two municipalities that officially make up the Triangle (Raleigh and Durham), Chapel Hill considers itself not a city but a town, having just over 50,000 residents in the most recent U.S. census estimates (2004), and in fact its slow-growth policies has made it fall behind Cary in population. But being the home of the University of North Carolina alone makes the town an attractive area for many people to live and visit regardless of politics and policies. Other elements of Chapel Hill (which we will call “the Hill” sometime too, as do the natives do) have their pluses and minuses – let’s look at them more in depth now.
Despite growth that make it among one of the biggest municipalities overall in North Carolina, some longtime residents still persist in thinking of Chapel Hill as a village, which could explain why the main multiuse developments in town combining residential, office and commercial space are called Meadowmont Village and Southern Village. It supports the fantasy – er, belief – that everyone knows everyone else and acts respectful towards one another in a civilized society. Anybody who has seen partying done when UNC has won a national basketball championship knows what a lie that is.
There is no quaint village imagery when it comes to the price of housing anywhere in Chapel Hill, however – it is among the most expensive in the state, owing considerably due to high property taxes that include a special district tax supplementing the Chapel Hill-Carrboro city school system. (Most people favor keeping the tax because all surveys show Chapel Hill High and East Chapel Hill High rank among the best public schools in the state, if not the nation. While there are plenty of apartments and condos thanks to the college student market, rents tend to be among the highest in North Carolina, as are the costs of most average homes.
Why then live in Chapel Hill, other than convenience of getting to UNC? Well, for one, the bus system is subsidized by the town and allows anyone to ride it for free. It serves most major neighborhoods within the town limits and now features a method to monitor the status of buses online here. However, the schedule is restricted on the weekends to hourly pickups in the morning and afternoons on Saturday and virtually nothing on Sunday, and it also shortens during the periods when there are no classes in session at UNC.
There is also easy, scenic access to Jordan Lake from Fearrington Road; an emphasis on local and homegrown businesses and events; and as previously mentioned the well regarded school system. Those attractions, plus a fair number of UNC students who stay after graduation to work at the university or in town (or just want to party and never graduate), are among the main reasons as to why people reside in Chapel Hill.
Chapel Hill is a compact town to get around and visit – it takes up a grand total of just under 20 square miles. It is easier to travel there too now that the widening of U.S. 15-501 to four lanes from south of town to U.S. 64 north of Pittsboro has been completed. Still, there can be considerable traffic jams on N.C. 54 coming west and 15-501 coming south during peak driving times, which include not just morning and afternoon rush hours but also whenever UNC has a major football or basketball game.
A Few Final “Ifs” to Consider
If you want to make friends quickly with everyone, say something nice about James Taylor. The singer-songwriter actually has spent relatively little time of his life in town as an adult, but they have named a bridge after him and consider him God for recording “Carolina on My Mind,” and to believe otherwise in public is fruitless.
If you are a Republican, do not say so in Chapel Hill unless you know everyone in your vicinity will not object to you being one. No one can recall the last time a Republican won anything in town, at least by identifying himself or herself as Republican, and to say so publicly can result in you getting a swarm of arguments to defend your position. Local liberals will disagree with this assessment and say Chapel Hill is not Berkeley, but for most North Carolinians it goes far enough to the left to be considered its equivalent.
Along the same lines, if you expect the Chapel Hill Town Council to do only town-related business, think again. The group has no problems with taking left-wing political stands, such as the unanimous vote last year passing a resolution calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush, accusing him of lying to Congress and the American people and violating human rights, among other charges. What exactly this had to do with the business of the town remains unclear.
And finally, if you have the guts to say you hate the UNC Tar Heels in town too, prepare to die. Especially if you are wearing something from Duke University.