I'm going to make this short and sweet: an institution that pretty much defined Chapel Hill and Carolina for many of us died today, and the outpouring on Facebook is unlike anything I've seen since... well, never. Not even the national elections had this level of public hand-wringing amongst my particular diaspora of North Carolinians.
For those of you who went to other schools, it was simply a pizza joint called Pepper's, but it represented something much bigger. In 1986, when they finally finished Interstate 40 through greater Chapel Hill and on to the ocean, the clock started ticking on anything interesting or weird still left on Franklin Street, and the closing of Pepper's Pizza means we have hit 11:59.
The interstate brought massive malls and commuter townships like North Raleigh, Cary and Morrisville. Then UNC ditched its terrible meal plan and developed on-campus restaurants and hangouts that catered to every whim. The first salvo was fired in 1987, when Fowler's market closed, and with it, "Big Bertha", a massive walk-in refrigerated room the size of a small church, carrying every kind of beer. Hence this iconic graffiti from the early '90s:
No longer could students walk to a grocery store: they had to take what the campus would give them. Soon thereafter, beloved restaurants and experimental stores began dropping like gnats. A wonderfully beat-up movie theater called "The Carolina Blue & White" became The Gap, which became... vacant. The huge malls on I-40 started its slow death grip on downtown.
I kvetched nine years ago about the endless coffeetization of Franklin Street, waxed philippic about Pyewacket closing 11 years ago, pissed and moaned about Jeff's Confectionery and The Intimate Bookshop shuttering a decade ago... but now that the Rathskellar and Pepper's are both gone, I will make one last argument:
CHAPEL HILL AND UNC, WHY ARE YOU BEING SUCH IDIOTS??? I know this sounds stupid, but every time a place like Pepper's closes, about four thousand of us subconsciously decide never to come back. Ostensibly, you want us to keep visiting the school, show it to our kids, foster the kinship we'd nurtured, and spend money - the kind of money we didn't have when we lived there. But if there's nothing left we recognize, why should we?
Yes, I can hear the detractors now. "Waaaaaaaah!," they cry in sarcastic derision, "Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! They took away my Barrel of Fun and my Schoolkids Records and now I'm gonna take my toys and stay home! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!"
Fair enough. But while you're busy thinking that us alumni are a bunch of crybabies clinging to the past, we might as well forgo that trip to our alma mater, and then our kids probably won't want to go either, then our GAA memberships will lapse, and before you know it, the only connection we'll have to UNC (besides basketball) will be a few random comments on long-abandoned Facebook pages.
Jon leads my sister past another failed Cold Stone Creamery, Chapel Hill, Dec. 2008
My radical solution? You can let the free market take care of everything else, but find a way to subsidize one or two of our cherished places. It may seem moronic (or socialist), but it'll engender good will for decades, and it'll eventually pay for itself. Chapel Hill will get to keep its entirely-past-expiry-date label as "cool and bohemian" and perhaps... just perhaps... the town can be saved from becoming another soulless "New South" nowhereville replete with chain yoga centers, "Noodles & Company", and sad baby saplings guy-wired into bright-red cedar mulch.
I'm coming on Saturday for the home Dook game, the same way I've come for 28(!!!) years in a row, but I'm a dork, a completist, an anomaly. I've managed to make new memories with some of these eye-rolling restaurateurs - after all, in a decade, some other Carolina grad will stomp in anger when the Yogurt Pump closes. But for now, you guys have got to stop the bleeding. Re-open the Rat, for god's sake! Put new pipes in Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe! Give us a shred of evidence that Thomas Wolfe was wrong!