The 100 Block


By Laurie Paolicelli

East Franklin Street’s oldest business Carolina Coffee Shop.

One of the many services the Visitors Center provides is as a repository for our visitors’ reviews of Chapel Hill. Many in them focus on how the town has changed. It’s impossible not to be aware of the growth we’re experiencing. But the comments vary wildly. Alumnae and newcomers have radically different views of what Chapel Hill was and what it is.

Visitors who have come here over the years are often taken aback. Wow, the tenor of their reflections go, how this place has changed. They love Chapel Hill though and it’s their memories that sustain that love: lunch at the Rathskellar, dinner at Pyewacket, shopping at Fowler’s Grocery, Ham’s restaurant, and the numerous clothing stores and gas stations that seemed to be Franklin Street.

On the other hand, newcomers from cities across the country, whether it’s Cleveland, Minneapolis, San Francisco — you name it — have a different perspective. They love the hipster vibe and sense of community. But just wait: for them as well, the future will be nothing like the present.

East Franklin Street near the Varsity Theater, Chapel Hill.

The heart of downtown Chapel Hill is often referred to as “the 100 block,” because the businesses there bear an address in the 100s. That’s the block that seems to mean the most. Many, especially boomers, miss the days of family-owned drug stores, independently-run restaurants, and all the clothing stores there were to choose from, even the big boxes: yes, once upon a time a Belk’s and The Gap were here.

Nostalgia calls, but in our hearts we know that a downtown has to change to prosper. Call it the free market, supply demand, or historic buildings feeling their age. And we’ve moved on from Millennials and Generation Z: it’s the Amazon Generation now. Order a new outfit in the morning and get it delivered by the time you get home from work. 

For better or worse, agents of change undermine the status quo. But that’s the distinction, isn’t it? It’s better or worse, and sometimes that’s a judgement call, and often it’s the long-time residents vs. the newcomers. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.

For instance: some lifers might think the East 100 block is losing some of its historical magic, but the newcomers — after taking their kids on a campus tour — find it quaint, hip, and a fun place just to loaf.

Dorothy Lundgren, a visitor from the Midwest who came to see her grandson play soccer, is one such visitor. “We always buy Tar Heel memorabilia,” she says, “especially something for the babies in our family. And my husband loves the socks.” She visits the 100 block for that.

Madison Rosenberg, a twenty-something hipster, sees some of the block’s glitter. “I love Creative Metalsmith,” she says. “I have a collection of handmade pins of insects I get tons of compliments on.” You have to go a long way to find insect pins. But they’re right here in Chapel Hill.

East Franklin Street Map Rendering by Creative Forces, Inc.


And the list goes on. In fact, there were so many stores listed in our survey, that we put together a map of which shops are located where and on the 100 block. We too were surprised to see that this famous street offered everything from one of the most popular chicken strip stores in the country (Raising Cane’s) to curated jewellery (Creative Metalsmiths), a jam-packed book store (Epilogue) designer men’s clothing (Julian’s), and lots of bubble tea options. Bubble tea is all the rage. And, of course, this being a college town, there’s a long list of bars, cookies, sweets, pizza, and all the fast food you can get your hands on.

The alumni who come here see the changes. But it’s not the new construction and disappearing storefronts they talk about most: it’s the intangibles. It’s hanging out in front of the retro shoe stores, or grabbing a piece of pizza at Pepper’s. It’s the memory of early morning coffee conversations at Sutton’s that make them smile. We can’t deny this town has changed — but what hasn’t?  

No matter how long we’ve been here, it’s our experiences that linger, in our minds and hearts, and memories are forever. There’s no place like your alma mater, and there’s no place like Chapel Hill. The past is beautiful, but the present is vibrant. And we can guarantee that it will change again, for the better to some, but not to everybody. That’s what time does to us all. But what it is and who we are is not even the important thing: it’s who and what we can be that truly matters.

Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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