Published: Feb 16, 2013 07:00 PM
Modified: Feb 15, 2013 10:51 AM
If you haven’t seen Playmaker’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Clybourne Park,” I urge you to do so.
In “Raisin” and the first half of “Clybourne,” residents from a white, middle-class neighborhood object to a black family moving in. The second half of “Clybourne” is set 50 years later in that same neighborhood, now designated as a historic, working-class neighborhood by the City Council. A white family has purchased one of the homes and wants to tear it down and rebuild on the lot.
While “Clybourne Park” demonstrates how badly attempts to discuss race can go awry, race isn’t the only reason residents object to changes in their neighborhood. I saw the plays on a Saturday, and the following Monday night, the Chapel Hill Town Council held a public hearing on Bicycle Apartments, a re-development project on MLK Boulevard that would replace a 2-story, 74-unit student apartment complex with a 194-unit student-targeted complex that ranges in height from four to six stories. This project abuts the Franklin-Rosemary Historic District, and residents lined up with their objections. Replace “race” with “student” and “Clybourne Park” could easily be set in Chapel Hill.
In 2003, Northside became the first Neighborhood Conservation District in Chapel Hill. NCD zoning overlays aim to “preserve and protect unique and distinctive older in-town residential neighborhoods or commercial districts which contribute significantly to the overall character and identity of the Town.” The threat to Northside – students.
Lena, one of the characters in “Clybourne Park,” grew up in the neighborhood and is now living there and raising her own family. Her great aunt, the mother in “Raisin,” was the first black homeowner in “Clybourne Park”. At one point Lena says, “No one, myself included, likes having to dictate what you can or can’t do with your own home, but there’s just a lot of pride, and a lot of memories in these houses, and for some of us, that connection still has value.”
Like Lena, the residents of the Franklin-Rosemary Historic District have precious memories of their homes and their neighbors. And students, young people living independently for the first time, may not always be respectful of those sensibilities. Residents reported problems with litter and traffic and their fear that those problems would increase with increased student population.
Some residents believe the university should provide a bed for every undergraduate head – not just for freshmen and sophomore. But there are unfilled beds on campus now, so it’s hard to make the argument that increasing the campus supply of beds would discourage students from wanting to live off-campus. Other suggestions have been to build more apartment-type housing on Carolina North. But Carolina North is years away from construction.
And so we are left with these bright young people who come to Chapel Hill to learn and mature, the people who make our town what it is, who fuel our economy, who fund our world-class transit system, whose existence makes our community home to Playmakers – unwanted as neighbors.
During the final 2020 leadership committee meeting, the younger members of that group bluntly declared that they want a more forward-looking plan rather than one that puts such emphasis on preservation. They, like the Downtown Partnership and the Chamber of Commerce, want students living downtown rather than driving in to campus every day. But it’s my generation of residents who own the property and take the time and energy to lobby the Town Council against changes that threaten our memories and sense of home.
Good art forces us to look at truths we would rather avoid. Discussions around student housing sound eerily like the ones in “Raisin” and “Clybourne Park.”
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