at least there’s ye olde waffles

6/30/09

Those of you who live in Chapel Hill already know: The Varsity movie theater is going out of business. Now, I’m all for a town that changes with the times, and our friend Speed Levitch always talks about New York City being a jazz improv itself, and thus you should never mourn the passing of a venue… but this is total bullshit. This is the tipping point where people must ask a simple question: what the fuck is going on? What the hell is Chapel Hill, the town, anymore? Was it ever what we thought it was?

For those of you who don’t know Chapel Hill, The Varsity has shown movies since the Great Depression, and was the cultural touchstone for anyone coming through town in the last half of the 20th century. I’ve already described watching “Pulp Fiction” there, but there were so many more indelible moments… “The Cook, The Thief”, “The Usual Suspects”, “Beetlejuice”, every date, the popcorn popped in olive oil with real butter… along with Pepper’s Pizza, it anchored the town’s downtown persona.

Now Chapel Hill’s storied Franklin Street is two things: a place to buy “Duck Fook” T-shirts, and seventeen coffee bars. Oh yeah, and some chicken place called “Cluck U.” which is so MOTHERFUCKING STUPID that it PHYSICALLY PAINS ME TO MENTION IT IN THE BLOG.

What a colossal waste. I’m sure those of you with destroyed hometowns can commiserate – I’m not saying we should carve in stone some dusty old shops that don’t make money, but is it too much to ask a physical location to maintain a modicum of personality? I saw a bumper sticker in Santa Monica today that said “Keep Missoula Weird”, and I thought, well, at least they’re trying.

ChapelHill1890(bl2).jpg

Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, in 1890 – looking towards Spanky’s from the post office

I’m on an email list that was trying to tackle the Chapel Hill/Franklin Street problem, and I’d love to hear what you would do with CH, or your own little town. As an armchair city planner, these were my thoughts:

1. Bring back the diagonal parking of the 1940s and make Franklin Street two lanes with a middle turning lane. Downtown was doomed from the day it went from “village center” to “thoroughfare”.

2. With two lanes, traffic slows down and pedestrian traffic skyrockets. Franklin Street already has an ace in the hole: studies have shown than people love to shop, meet, live and thrive in a town where there is a 2:1 height-of-building to size-of-street ratio. In other words, we love tall(ish) buildings on both sides of a narrow street, much like the old cities of Europe that still thrive. Want to kill commerce? Widen a road.

Ever been in those Midwestern cities with gigantic streets and huge, flat stores on either side? Notice the complete lack of community in that setting. Think of places that are amazing: the Marais in Paris, Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Bleecker Street in NYC, Bourbon and Royal Street in New Orleans, Soho in London. High, old buildings on either side of slow, windy streets, and TONS of people having fun.

3. Speaking of which, allow restaurant seating on the sidewalk – at the very least, let coffee joints and restaurants to extend a few feet out, like they do in Rome or Paris. It’s fine if they’re roped off or contained in a nice barrier, but getting people outside changes everything (unless it’s 104 degrees).

4. A bookstore concept – a Barnes & Noble under a different skin, with constant readings and small performances. Visiting professors who are teaching a seminar are always looking for a venue for their “after-class talk” and they usually suck (having done it for years).

5. The Varsity needs to be a live-music venue, with occasional dance nights. With Youtube, bitorrent, etc., the only must-actually-go-see events left are live sports and live music. Can you imagine the cool factor of the Varsity, smack in the middle of downtown, with a huge breaking band? Shades of the Viper Room in LA or the Knitting Factory in NYC.

6. A green space for congregation with a semi-permanent vendor that sells hot dogs or barbecue or popsicles or coffee. Not to invoke Paris again, but people LOVE to sit in city centers under nice trees and ogle other people, preferably while drinking a Fanta. You could tear down everything around the old Schoolkids, move the bus stop down in front of the church, move in some huge, ancient trees and suddenly you’ve got a fantastic destination.

7. Some sort of mini-Whole Foods. Everything you need, organic (or local), packed into a great spot – like that restaurant space across Columbia St. from Spanky’s. If any of you had been in a Bread & Circus in Cambridge, MA (or Trader Joe’s), that’s the kind of vibe. Complete with walk-in beer cooler with selections from every country in the world. If Big Bertha was the first to go, then let’s bring her back, as it were.

When I said these things on the email list, one criticism was directed at the supermarket, and how nobody will carry groceries when they can park so easily elsewhere. Fair enough, but doesn’t it seem weird you can’t buy, say, “sugar” or “flour” in downtown Chapel Hill?

Now you can’t see a movie either. I wonder what has to happen for anything to change, or is it just hopeless nostalgia that keeps me caring? Perhaps the religion of Dean, Gut & Roy is enough, the Carolina Way can run through the diaspora, and the rest is for the current generation of townies to figure out for themselves.

0 thoughts on “at least there’s ye olde waffles

  1. eric g.

    This is terribly sad news. I couldn’t possibly count the number of movies I saw at the Varsity in my life, from packed houses for films like “The Player” to being the only person in the audience for John Huston’s last movie, an adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Just the other day, I wondered if the Varsity was still there, and I comforted myself with the thought that it would always be there, anchoring the middle of my favorite block in the world. I’m very bummed by this.

    Reply
  2. chip

    Ian,
    check your email. I’ve been replying to your emails.
    As for Chapel Thrill, I’ll say more later.

    Reply
  3. D

    That’s why Carrboro is doing so well. It fills this niche, and in a better location for the people who will take advantage of it than East Franklin, which has been going downhill ever since they ran off the flower ladies.
    You can’t discount the crime/safety issue either. One story about shotgun-toting muggers lurking in the shadows and suddenly those little alleys don’t seem so quaint anymore….

    Reply
  4. Lee

    I agree with the diagonal parking and the sidewalks need to be wider to allow for outdoor seating AND walking. Narrowing the street would do that. I think there’s some sort of ordinance against outdoor dining b/c that Besa Mi Burro place had to stop doing it or something…I don’t remember.
    I feel like that the kids of UNC have changed and are more conservative and less interesting. Also, the people who live near Franklin St and could walk to it, are super rich now b/c the property is so expensive around there and I think that all the people with any funk have moved to Carrboro. It’s just a different vibe. And rents on Franklin St are so expensive now that the only people who can afford them are huge companies. The little guy tries to make it thinking Franklin St is the end all be all but in the end, there’s no parking and they have a limited customer base. At least that’s the way I see it. You can’t open a dive like Peppers any more on Franklin St. Living in Durham, it’s not worth the drive anymore b/c there’s nothing that interesting about Franklin St. I do drive to Carrboro sometimes though to hang out.
    And D is hitting a little something in that when we were in college, the punks and drama kids used to hang out at the post office and you just felt cool seeing them there by proxy. Now, on a Friday night, you see gangs hanging there and it’s a little intimidating.
    And I totally agree on the grocery thing. We often went to Fowler’s just to get cheese or um, beer, or whatever. I guess not enuf to keep them in business, though.

    Reply
  5. wottop

    Big Bertha
    The Rat
    Hectors
    Billy at TimeOut
    Raising Arizona at the Varsity
    Just have to remember them and hope there will be something fun when and if my kids go there.

    Reply
  6. D

    I looked up the statement from Bruce Stone, the current owner, on the Independent. The reasons he cites include problems with the downtown area and a poor market for specialty films among college students. Which seems to confirm what folks are saying here. He also points to the dynamics of the independent film market, which is a bigger issue.
    If I’m remembering my local history correctly, I think Stone bought the Varsity the last time it was going under. So there’s an easy solution for anyone who really wants to keep it in place.

    Reply
  7. Will

    You forgot about the problem of all the homeless people that plague Franklin St. Downtown was doomed ever since they turned the old jail into a homeless shelter.

    Reply
  8. Joanna

    Ram Triple closed.
    Carolina Theater closed.
    Ram Triple closed.
    Elliot Road Theater (what was that called?) closed.
    Varsity closed.
    Visart Elliot Road closed.
    Visart Franklin St. closed.
    Chelsea (closing discussed)
    Redbox $1 rental vending machine with locations all over town seems to be doing quite well.

    Reply
  9. I Heart Downtown Chapel Hill

    About eleven years ago at a dinner party a fellow guest was complaining about a particular downtown Chapel Hill restaurant that had just changed owners and re-vamped its menu and atmosphere. With tons of comments like “Downtown is just not the same” and “I can’t believe X restaurant is gone” and “the problem with downtown is…” – a very wise man at the party turned to those lamenting it’s demise and asked one question – “Are you the same person today as when you came to Chapel Hill and UNC many years ago?” The answers were of course “NO”. He then asked “Then why do you expect the downtown and the businesses to remain the same? You’ve changed, shouldn’t they?”
    Chapel Hill is perfect on the day you arrive. (I can’t take credit for that beautiful sentiment but I like to use it often.) It’s a feeling and love like no other. When alumni and visitors come back they want that feeling and vision to be there – it can be a brutal shock when they realize the little pizza place they ate at religiously as a student is gone. Forest for the trees folks…because downtown Chapel Hill has a lot of fabulous businesses and things going on! Change may not feel good but for any downtown to survive but it has to evolve.
    The Varsity had more issues than parking or panhandling to battle. The owners did no marketing of any kind. They slapped letters on the marquee and aimed the projector at the screen – theaters will die with the ‘if you build it they will come’ mentality. Relying on being a theater near a campus doesn’t cut it when students today have countless forms of media to turn to. Not to mention the numerous clean, friendly, comfortable movie theaters around here. And let’s not get started on other old businesses that are gone like the Rat – it’s issues had nothing to do with downtown but everything to do with bad business management.
    Parking is an issue – for those that expect to be able to pull up to the front door of a business and not pay. Oh yeah, that’s called Southpoint Mall and they don’t have anything in the world like Sugarlands or Sandwhich or Med Deli or Julian’s or Kidzu…
    As for Ian’s points-
    1. Diagonal parking – Franklin Street is a state road and NCDOT wouldn’t even entertain that thought. The traffic load is way too heavy to even consider slowing it down into narrower lanes. The homey-ness of diagonal parking worked in 1940 when people had only the downtown to shop in. I don’t need to explain the reality of shopping malls and suburbs to you!
    2. Pedestrian traffic counts during the day for Chapel Hill are consistently in the top of the list for the entire state. This dies during the summer and winter months with UNC being out. The problem is getting people to come downtown in the first place – via car, bus, bike, etc. And walk in retail business is dying universally – the internet got us to Ian’s blog; probably got a few of you to a shopping site today too.
    3. The Town allows sidewalk dining! Just takes a simple permit application and as long as there is enough room for people to walk by, and the business maintains the furniture; you’re good to go! Ben & Jerry’s, Talulla’s, Carolina Brewery, Elaine’s, Med Deli all do it beautifully and successfully. The sidewalks on the West End are much wider than the East End – that would be the biggest barrier for an East End business to do sidewalk dining.
    4.& 7. Just put a bookstore or grocery store on Franklin Street and all is solved! Seriously, those are the first ‘go to’ businesses people quote when they lament downtown. In reality No large retailer (be it Barnes & Noble or Trader Joe’s or even a Weaver Street Market) would even consider opening on Franklin Street currently. There is simply not enough people living downtown to support it. Of course people in the outlying neighborhoods would never drive to downtown to grocery shop- that’s not the draw for a retailer like this. A downtown grocery store/bookstore has to serve those already downtown. It will come in time- With Greenbridge, 140 West, Warehouse Apts, Shortbread Lofts and other recently Town approved developments with living space, the downtown is moving in that direction of creating urban dwellers. With the University Foundation’s purchase of University Square and development in the next several years downtown is going to take on a whole new persona…with more people living, eating, shopping and working downtown. Incidentally, Walgreens is opening in November in the old Gap spot – they feel that downtown has more than enough foot traffic to support them. And they’ll have a small grocery section. Hmm…wonder if they’ll sell sugar and flour?
    5. I guess it’s all about perspective – no doubt most of you think of downtown as the 100 East Franklin block. That is totally understandable considering you were students back in the day and probably didn’t venture much further. The West End has Local 506 and the Cave, Mansion 462- not the size of a Varsity type live music venue but none the less great places to see shows. Players (that famous slightly skeezy club) recently got new management and is overhauling the inside – with the intended purpose of bringing a good live music venue on the 100 East Franklin Block!
    6. Wouldn’t it be great to transport the Weaver Street Market lawn to Chapel Hill? Wait…Chapel Hill has something better…McCorkle Place. I’m surprised you forgot about that Ian. There couldn’t be a more beautiful park-like setting possible. Grabbing some take out and sitting on the plushest green grass around (thank you UNC groundskeeping), under the shadiest trees while soaking in the best people watching ever. Just tear down those buildings (less than a block from McCorkle Place) and grow some grass and transplant trees? Seriously, not only are those buildings historically significant to the downtown I’m pretty sure UNC wouldn’t take too kindly to it as the owners, nor would the great businesses located in them now either! And smack dab in front of the old School Kids is one of the most ancient and grand trees on that block! I guess it’s still all about perspective….
    I’ve never understood those that go to the knee-jerk reaction of ‘downtown is deteriorating’. Call me Pollyanna if you will – I love downtown Chapel Hill and the last thing I would do is try to convince others that it’s nothing but heaven. It’s not the same place that it was the day I arrived I think it’s actually lovelier!
    And I just saw a movie downtown last week…up on Wallace Plaza. Going back next week and the week after to see other movies as well. It was free and they had free popcorn! Take that Varsity!

    Reply
  10. Nostalgia Girl

    Ah, proverbial memory lane – I started working at the old ice cream/coffee shop next to the Varsity (Gelato D’Oro) in 1985 or 86. This was before anyone actually drank fancy coffee and I felt oh so sophisticated working there. I used to make waffle cones and watch whoever was taking tickets at the movie theater across the street. I smelled like a giant waffle cone all summer.
    I was working at Gelato D’Oro the day the Klan
    marched – remember those guys? Everybody closed up and lined both sides of Franklin to hoot and holler at them.
    Working there was supercool because everybody you knew or wanted to know came by or passed by at some point during your shift – Very key when you are 17 and have mad crushes on just about everybody eventually. Plus, I got
    to see all the movies for free, and since I worked off and on at the Varsity through college,
    that was a lot of freebies. Depending on who was working, I could still get in during visits home after I left town for grad school – awesome. Hmmmm, now the Varsity’s closing…all those tickets I never paid for!
    I agree with Lee about the change in character of the neighborhoods around Franklin street. I haven’t been back to Chapel Hill since 2004 or so but when I was there I was shocked to see how upscale everything was. The dumpy (I say
    that affectionately) A&P around the corner from my mother’s house turned into Foster’s – which has great food, don’t get me wrong – but the parking lot was always packed and with high status cars to boot. I loved that A&P
    because it was the kind of place that if you bought bread and milk and batteries and then forgot the batteries, you could come back two days later and the manager remembered that you forgot your batteries and gave them to you.
    Anyway – I sound like a grandma on her front porch rocking chair “Remember when….” Geez. Love your blog, Ian!

    Reply
  11. Jody

    Eh, I think it’s perspective. Different generation, different technology, it’s probably much harder to get a fake ID and so on. I mean, we watched the midnight showings of Holy Grail at the Varsity (which was great fun, mind you, and now that I think about it, may have been the Ram Triple) because you couldn’t get it anywhere else – not easily anyway.
    I miss the Rat, and original Hector’s, but I probably wouldn’t want a double cheeseburger pita at this point. However, I must confess that I have made a Greek grilled cheese and cucumber sub in the past two weeks, the former from Hector’s and the latter from Linda’s, because of those places. Likely not what the kids are eating these days anyway…

    Reply
  12. Ian

    “I Heart Downtown Chapel Hill” – great, great post. All salient points. My thoughts are:
    – there has to be some exception the DOT can come up with about Franklin St. being a state road. We fought that battle in upstate NY and won. Other communities have narrowed their shopping district roads – it has to be possible.
    – the Schoolkids building is historic? I thought it was kind of a shithole, but I might be mistaken. And I’m all for McCorkle Place being the place to lounge (having done it for decades) but like you said, kids change, and it’s too far away to carry your food AND they don’t allow concessions to be sold there.
    – I don’t consider a Walgreen’s opening to be a positive move toward Chapel Hill’s bohemian vibe, even if it does bring in foot traffic. Seems like just more money lost from Sutton’s.
    – in general, though, it’s true… as a freshman, Franklin Street is magic regardless. There might even be alumni 30 years from now saying “oh man, where did Cluck U. go?”

    Reply
  13. Tanya

    This is why I love this blog. Opposite perspectives, and I agree with both. :) I assume the current UNC class will have the same bit o’ nostalgia for today’s Chapel Hill as we do from our years there — no matter what it looks like. That’s what makes it Heaven.

    Reply
  14. kevin from NC

    CHill ran into a problem when they started spending all the money in the 80’s to upgrade Franklin…All it did was create a new expense paradigm and made it impossible for the locals to exists in the 100 block. They were all driven to W Franklin and Carrboro. They spent a lot of money trying to make it like it was in the 70s… and it just doesn’t work.

    Reply
  15. T.J.

    “1. Diagonal parking – Franklin Street is a state road and NCDOT wouldn’t even entertain that thought. The traffic load is way too heavy to even consider slowing it down into narrower lanes….”
    “- there has to be some exception the DOT can come up with about Franklin St. being a state road. We fought that battle in upstate NY and won. Other communities have narrowed their shopping district roads – it has to be possible.”
    This is something that I have some personal NC experience in as well. I’m on the Lenoir, NC, City Council. Several years ago we wanted to put in diagonal parking in our downtown, but the State owned one of the roads in the downtown area and wasn’t interested in doing what we wanted. We got them to redirect the State Highway to roads outside our downtown, do some improvements and repairs to the road prior to doing so, then gave us the road. Once all the roads in the downtown were city streets rather than state-maintained, we could do as we pleased. One federal grant for downtown revitalization later (which I opposed on philosophical grounds as a violation of federalism, BTW), we had a couple beautiful downtown streets with much narrower crosswalks, diagonal parking, no thoroughfare traffic, slower traffic, and much more pedestrian-friendly areas.

    Reply
  16. Neva

    I Heart got it right. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived here all along but I don’t find it so bad.
    You have a memory of just those few blocks of F street and yes, they are not the same – but what we have now is really so much better because it extends way down F street and into Carrboro with so many more options down there than ever existed in the 1980s and 90s. So, we lost a little of what you are nostalgic over but we gained great stuff down a little farther west. What you describe is available – just not where you remember it to be.
    Also, I love the Varsity, don’t get me wrong and I am sad about it. I recently saw Slumdog Millionaire there. I have tons of great memories from there but for the experience of seeing a movie these days – it really sucked in comparison. I liked to go there for the nostalgia but I have to admit there is something to the whole stadium seating, Dolby surround sound experience of movie theaters today that improves it and the Varsity never changed one bit. The floors are horribly sticky, the seats uncomfortable and floppy and the bathrooms disgusting. Nostalgia be damned – I like cup holders! Okay – thrown darts now..

    Reply
  17. Caitlin

    RIP Varsity Theater. And I heard the Skylight Exchange is gone now too. I miss their African Tuna Melts.

    Reply
  18. jje

    Hey, does anybody know what happened to the nifty gargoyle statues that used to hang off the deck of Top of the Hill? I noticed they were gone two weekends ago. If memory serves, they were Carolina-themed, including dook and state gargoyles. (Ha, my iPhone wants to correct dook to “doom.”)

    Reply
  19. alyson

    When I got to Chapel Hill, there was the Intimate Bookshop, and the Carolina Theater (where I saw Boogie Nights on opening weekend when I was in such a state that I screamed bloody murder during the mixtape scene with the firecrackers) the Varsity, the Rat (which was gross, no matter what fond memories it may hold), and Schoolkids, and all the rest. I loved it because it seemed like a place tailor-made for me. I lived there ten years and watched it change, and I didn’t like everything that happened. I missed the things I loved, and it will sting to see the Varsity gone. I do think, though, that it serves its community for the most part. And in that respect, it’s the same as it was when I arrived.
    On a side note, I feel like Bleecker St is the biggest tourist trap sham of a neighborhood. It doesn’t seem to serve its community at all. But I could be wrong about that.

    Reply
  20. Neva

    Jody – Midnight showing of Holy Grail was at the Ram Triple for sure. Saw it a couple times there.They did Monty Python and Rocky Horror there at midnight. Varsity never did midnight shows I don’t think.
    Not Dead Yet!

    Reply
  21. Ehren

    Ironically, Ian, the Knitting Factory will be closing when the lease runs out. They were going to reopen down the street from me in Billyburg, but they changed their minds. Soon, the closest Knitting Factory to my apartment will be … Boise, Idaho. No, that is not a joke.

    Reply
  22. littlerattyratratrat

    I remember seeing the first Toy Story at the Varsity, back in the day when it was only us computer dweebs who’d ever heard of Pixar.
    Been a few years since I’ve left the Triangle. Nothing wrong with nostalgia, I guess, but it’s really our younger days in these settings that we’re missing.
    (But I do miss the now-vanished Burrito Bunker, there on the backside of Franklin Street. I must have accounted for half of their revenue…best cheap-ass burritos on the planet.)

    Reply
  23. xuxE

    i loved that theater and the one in carrboro even more, and some of that old funkiness was nice *back in the day* but even then there was a battle of yuppie encroachment vs. funky hole in the walls.
    i think the nature of coolness is that once it is gone it’s gone until it comes back full circle into retro. those chain stores have to completely close down due to the recession, empty out and get depressing, and then bit by bit the coolness may have cheap space to bloom again.
    because once the most interesting people you know start congregating somewhere with a better vibe, there is no going back just because the traffic or parking or seating arrangement changes. a vibe or a scene that is created by urban planning is actually just an aesthetic, a cute veneer. plastering on a nice aesthetic isn’t going to attract actually cool and interesting people. there is probably a malcolm gladwell book about it.

    Reply
  24. Susan

    I only lived in CH for college in the late 80’s-early 90’s so that is how I remember it. I don’t get back that way often. I did however move after graduation to work in Charlottesville VA (UVA) and I have to say that town is awesome. I lived there 10 years. We do go back there quite often and it doesn’t change much. Their “downtown mall” area is great. Pedestrian mostly with one street opened for cars to pass. There is an ice rink, movie theater (old one that plays movies for $1), children’s museum, ice cream, lots of unique restaurants most with outdoor seating, neat shops that change peridically, a book store….you get the picture…something for everyone. They really made an effort to appeal to everyone. Great college town second only to Chapel Hill of course :)

    Reply

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