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.
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.