By Laurie Paolicelli
Robert Humphreys grew up in downtown Chapel Hill a generation ago, and even though he’s lived through the changes the inexorable passage of time has wrought, he still loves it. The evolving facelifts of Franklin and Rosemary Streets don’t rankle him in the least. “It’s still a cool place,” he says.
And he has quite the perspective. Robert’s parents owned the dry cleaners at 422 W. Franklin St. “They were great people who worked very hard. The older I get the more I realized how much they sacrificed, like most parents do, so that we could live with as little fear and as much laughter as possible.”
Robert went to Chapel Hill High School when it was still located in the old University Square, before Target and the shops that now line Franklin Street.
When Robert got involved with the dry cleaners as a young adult, he and some of his associates created a a sort of cheerleading association for downtown that would explore tours, trolley rides, concerts, parades — all those things that connect community.
Even back then Chapel Hill had a willing group of boosters. Together they created the first “Chapel Hill Downtown Commission.” Just a few of the names on the board of directors: Kathleen Lord, with Emma Contemporary Fashion; Missy Julian Fox, Julian’s; July Raymond Jennings, Uniquities; Dana McMahan, The Laughing Turtle, Jared Resnick, West End Wine Bar; Scott Roberts, Blue Skies Clothiers; Margaret Skinner, The Carolina Inn.
In an annual report at the turn of the century, Executive Director Robert Humphreys wrote:
“…The single greatest challenge for 2001 and beyond is how to compete with an ever improving and expanding regional marketplace coupled with a very tight economy. Our Summer Series 2001 combined our Concert Series with our Movies on the Plaza to become ‘Thursdays Rock in Downtown Chapel Hill.” Nine consecutive Thursdays were planned to bring people Downtown for fun and enjoyment. Never before had the Board undertaken such an intense time commitment to programming.”
Robert goes on to say that eighteen new businesses were introduced to the neighborhood with “our ratio of independently owned and operated businesses to corporate/franchise operations maintain the historical four to one balance.”
Looking back at The Chapel Hill Carrboro-Downtown Commission, it’s amazing what they were able to accomplish out of our pure passion, commitment, and grit. Remember: there was no internet, no Facebook, Instagram or NextBus app.
And yet their Annual Report boasts of establishing a service tax district, a capital campaign to purchase trolleys (a service discontinued in 1995); opening a Welcome Center at the old McDade Building, and creating a cooperative recycling program allowing businesses to comply with a ban on cardboard from the local landfill, and so many other successful endeavors.
“There’s no question that downtown Chapel Hill has changed,” Humphreys says, “because society has changed. It’s more challenging to have big festivals when people are allowed to carry guns and folks are bused in from the state. That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. We’re lucky to live in one of the coolest towns there is and I’m sure there’s a way to don a uniform on Halloween and head downtown (Humphrey’s does it regularly), and celebrate a win over Duke without getting hurt. I’ve always believed in downtown and I always will.”
The urban studies theorist Richard Florida agrees: “Great downtowns are not reducible to just offices. Even if the office were to go the way of the horse-drawn carriage, the neighborhoods we refer to today as downtowns would endure. Downtowns and the cities they anchor are the most adaptive and resilient of human creations; they have survived far worse. They have been rebuilt and remade in the aftermaths of all manner of crises and catastrophes — epidemics and plagues; great fires, floods and natural disasters; wars and terrorist attacks.”
Like all communities, Chapel Hill saw a significant drop in downtown activity during 2020. But Matt Gladdek, director of Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership, said locally, that traffic began to return sooner than many other places – and at a higher rate than before. Data from Placer.ai shows that this past summer, Chapel Hill outperformed its pre-pandemic retail chain and domestic tourism numbers compared to 2019. Gladdek said this most recent fiscal year, which finished this summer, not only marked a five-year high for foot traffic but also outpaced Durham’s recovery of pedestrians.
“Looking at our calendar year, we’re on track for 9.5 million visits downtown. That’s a really impressive number for only 85 acres that we have here. Huge thanks as we look at where our high visit [times] come from — those are our hotel visits and stuff like that around football and basketball games.”
More than a half century ago, a then-young urbanist named Jane Jacobs wrote a seminal essay on the sterile skyscraper canyons of the mid-20th century — titled simply “Downtown is for People” — arguing that the future of urban centers lies in their becoming more balanced neighborhoods. That is even more the case today.
Robert Humphreys agrees: Chapel Hill is the ideal testament.
“So much fun, food, and energy always just a short walk away. Downtown in a small town is the best of both worlds,” says Mark Zimmerman. He and his wife Leslie love their 140 W. Franklin Street abode and the growing dining selections that surround them.
Join a free walking tour http://www.freewalkingtourschapelhill.com
To join a New Year’s Eve dance party with Robert Humphreys and his band, Nomad, see party info below.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.