In 2006, Harry Alston was riding his bicycle down N.C. 54 when a bus carrying the Boston College basketball team clipped him, ending his life at 39.
The sad news spread quickly, but at the funeral as unexpected as his death had been there was at least one happy surprise: the turnout, an unexpected reunion that brought together many residents of his neighborhood growing up in Ridgefield Apartments.
Rashii Purefoy, an old neighbor of Alston there, remembers a few people at the funeral thinking if so many people could show up for that, why not get together again under better circumstances?
It made us kind of sad that there were this many at the funeral, but not together for something happier, Purefoy said.
The idea quickly spawned a tradition that has stuck ever since.
On a recent Saturday, for the sixth year in a row, old Ridgefield neighbors came together at Hargraves Community Center to share some food, play some music, and remember the good times.
As ex-residents will tell you, Ridgefield in the 1970s was like one big family the kind of place where neighbors looked out for one another, kids played safely outside, and someone elses parents had free rein to whoop them if they needed it.
But Sherry Hooker, a Chapel Hill resident, remembers that as time passed, people who were very close lost touch.
As people got on their feet, people would leave, she said.
As a kid, she said, the neighborhood seemed so nice she couldnt understand why anyone would ever want to leave.
When we moved there, we didnt even know we were staying in the projects, she said. We thought we were movin on up! I was mad when we moved.
Looking back now, she said, it meant more than just the amenities.
For us, it was a place to move until you got on your feet. Until you could do better, she said. My mom ended up going to school, becoming a nurse and retiring at UNC.
And it wasnt just old neighbors who showed up at the Saturday reunion.
William Gattis drove the Chapel Hill Librarys bookmobile from 1971 to 1985, spending a lot of his time in Ridgefield, bringing books to kids with no way to get to the library.
Its a way to renew friendships. Thats why I come here, he said about the reunion.
Sophia Mitchell remembered growing up in Ridgefield and seeing him around. Now a teacher, she thanked him for making her passionate about reading.
Thank you for helping to show my mom who I could really be, Mitchell told Gattis. Everyone clapped he was visibly moved.
To look back on it, Mitchell said later, we made something out of ourselves. Our parents made something out of themselves, by working extra hard, by relying on the neighborhood.
The crowd at Hargraves was a little smaller this year only about 25 but people there said it ebbs and flows each year, and theres not a single doubt about doing it again next year.
Also there was Harry Alstons mother. Six years later, she still tears up if you ask about him.
He was so special, she said, dabbing her eyes. He would come to see me almost every day. I miss him.
But getting together and seeing everyone again helps her a lot.
Its a blessing, she said.
If it werent for our neighborhood, who knows where wed be today, Mitchell said.