Geographically, Northside refers to the area formerly made up of the “Pottersfield” and “Sunset” neighborhoods northwest of UNC along the border of Chapel Hill/Carrboro, NC, historically bordered to the west by the railroad tracks that cut through Carrboro and to the east by North Columbia and to the south by West Franklin (today, by Rosemary St.). Just south of Northside is the Midway area that joined Northside to Pine Knolls (historically Knolls Development), another historically Black neighborhood just west of Merrit Mill Rd, where the University built homes for some janitorial staff and provided housing subsidies for other Black workers facing postwar hardship. From 1951 until desegregation in 1966, Pine Knolls was also home to the black high school, Lincoln High.
Since the late 19th century, the portion of Carrboro west of the tracks (then known as “West End” and, for a short period, “Venable”–after the sitting president of UNC at Chapel Hill, 1900-1914) was an emerging mill town. When Julian Carr bought the mill in 1909, it–and soon the town at large–acquired his name. Like many mill villages, Carrboro depended on the agricultural flight of poor whites willing to work in a debt economy; it quickly became a company town largely exclusive of black workers. The train tracks that carried cotton goods to the North and musicians on the Black “chitlin’ circuit” to Chapel Hill and throughout the South now divided poor white and black communities, while the black shanty town, Tin Top, hovered on the edge. In the northwest hills where the land beyond what were then Carrboro and Chapel Hill flowed into each other, so did the lives of black and white small farmers, who describe their interdependence as part of the way of agricultural life. As the 1944 map of “The Negro Community” shows, the Chapel Hill town town line stopped just past the Orange County Training School and shy of the segregated enclave known as Windy Hill:
Today Northside is considerably less sprawling. According to the terms of the Northside Conservation District agreeement, it officially stops short of the Trinity Court public housing complex to the north and includes only a brief strip of the old Sunset neighborhood.
Many residents disavow the name “Northside,” saying: that’s what “you” call it; to me it’s PottersField or Sunset or Lloyd/Broad —the names by which generations of residents called their neighborhoods, neighborhoods distinguished not only by location but by the tight networks of neighbors and kin that made up family. Today, “Northside” and “Pine Knolls” name formerly segregated, low-wealth neighborhoods threatened by recent state legislation significantly weakening ordinances protecting municipal Conservation Districts.
Historically, Northside is a labor settlement, euphemistically known as the University’s “service community.” Once Southern Democrats managed to repeal the legal promise of Reconstruction and white supremacists put a stranglehold on sharecropping, land ownership became an increasingly distant vision for free Black men and women. With the turn of the 20th century, the rise of the railroad, wartime-Depression era costs of living, and the tightening grip of Jim Crow, southern Blacks joined what would be called the Great Migration to the north, searching for jobs in emerging urban centers. Some, however, went only as far as Chapel Hill or Carrboro, where they were met by two rising industries: the flagship University of North Carolina and Carr Mill, one of many textile factories sweeping across the Piedmont region. Both needed labor but the mill tended to favor poor whites, who were also on the move from failing agriculture. A University that once rented slaves to construct its facilities soon became the largest employer of blacks hired to maintain them. Some black land owners managed to maintain large swathes of land in Chatham and Orange Counties in part by performing long hours of manual labor at the University. Many more built homes in Northside and dedicated themselves to subsistence wages of $1/14 hours days in the University laundry or other maintenance “services.” New residents joined those who had long made their living laying the stonework that distinguishes the UNC campus or providing domestic support for families of UNC faculty and administrators.
Northside residents eventually became labor leaders (establishing the first janitorial union in 1939 and the mechanics shop in the mid-1940s) and, later, civil rights leaders in a town where the first Freedom Riders of 1947–including a young Bayard Rustin–were mobbed and sentenced to months of hard labor. Today Northside is the most socio-economically diverse area in Chapel Hill. It is also one of the most threatened by private investment and displacement. Like many similar areas across the U.S., the infrastructure of Northside suffered in the wake of desegregation. Black businesses collapsed; local teachers and school administrators lost their jobs. White businesses took over west Franklin St and much of Rosemary. Targeted for “urban renewal”–what James Baldwin famously called “negro removal”–in the late 1970s, community members faced down HUD and kept most of their homes from the demolition that destroyed much of the Hayti community in Durham. By the 80s, however, a new generation of young people pursued higher education and better jobs elsewhere or found themselves at sea in the rising tide that was Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina. Black flight left some residences unoccupied and ripe for misuse and investment.
Still, residents continued to fight for their homes, property, and community. They created a neighborhood watch system and, in 2003-2004, worked with the town to make Northside a Neighborhood Conservation District. While Northside’s history may have rivalled that of “east enders,” its architecture lacked the style and consistency generally associated with a historic district. Designation as a historic district would have more tightly restricted development but residents wanted to keep the right to renovate small homes to accommodate family needs and interests. Oversize construction, predatory sales, and the emergence of a student rental market that thrived on flagrant violation of occupancy code followed. While neighbors warmly insist that students have always lived in Northside, they also note that by the late 90s, the delicate balance between the lifestyles of transient students and those of fourth and fifth generation residents had shifted away from neighborliness to nuisance and neglect. By 2008, while a luxury, mixed-use condo development rose on the square-block site that housed the former black business district, the residential area had become what one realty broadside called “hot property” for rental investment and was becoming what one resident called “a big dorm.” From 1980 to 2010, the number of black residents in Northside dropped by 40%. Meanwhile the number of University workers who lived more than ten miles from the University rose to more than 60%.
But as Mrs. Gladys Pendergraph Brandon declares, “we have always been about change.” The struggle to pursue the right kind of change, the kind of change that honors a history of struggle, hard-won rights, and an ethics of homeplace, continued, resulting in a moratorium on development in 2011, new policies meant to secure the diversity and vitality of Northside, and the Northside Neighborhood Initiative—a historic, collaboration between the community, university, and town. As of 2016, strategic efforts to balance the market, to educate student tenants, to retain multi-generational families, and to attract new homeowners intent on living close, connected, and proud, has resulted in a 60% decrease in nuisance complaints and the first increase in the African-American population in Northside in 40 years.
Northside is a rare and abundant community. It has become commonplace to bemoan the loss of the kind of community life that, for de Tocqueville, made American democracy exceptional. Social pundits like Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone and Marc Dunkelman in The Vanishing Neighbor decry the loss of “mid-ring” connections. According to Dunkelman, in the millenial U.S., we continue to have strong ties with our immediate family and close friends and have expanded ties with acquaintances through digital media but increasingly lack those familiar associations that keep us talking with one another and practicing the sometimes fraught work of public discussion and compromise. Everyday interactions between the grocer and the customer, the dentist and patient, the teacher and student and parent and grocer and the friend of the dentist are on the brink of collapse, Dunkelman argues, and so too are the kinds of community that ground and fuel democratic exchange. “Village thinking” is dismissed as nostalgic. “Executive lifestyles” prefer property lines and quiet to the happy screams of children zig-zagging between kitchens. The front porch has moved to the back deck. We don’t know our neighbors’ names much less tie the fruitfulness of our own lives into theirs.
Northside is different. Historically secured by four pillars of community—business, school, church, and family, and rooted in generations of faith and struggle, Northsiders continue to live and die by the mandate to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” And the neighbors that make up Northside community are not limited to residents. They include all of those who have ever lived, worked, worshipped, played, served and have been served in Northside. Northside community is tightly networked and intergenerationally robust.
In their work on Abundant Community, John McNight and Peter Block claim that much of our contemporary culture is driven by assumptions about scarcity: there isn’t enough to go around so you better fight hard to get your piece of the pie. By this logic, a neighbor provokes fear and envy. He/she may have what you better scramble to get. To the contrary, Northside has thrived on a logic of abundance: there’s always enough to go around; come and get it. Enough time, enough space, enough food, enough love, enough care. And plenty of power. When one neighbor heard a developer’s apologetic claim, “it must be hard to be on the other side of power,” she burst out laughing: “we’ve got the power!,” she said, “we’ve got the power!” Liberal pieties tend to confuse power and control. Power for many Northsiders is beyond measure and held collectively. “Its end is,” as Dr. King said, reconciliation; its end is redemption; its end is the creation of the beloved community” (Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” 1956). While the struggle for rights, access, and equity will continue, its foundations in Northside are forever strong.