FROM ‘NOTHING’ TO ‘BUMPIN’
North Carolina’s capital city drawing crowds back to a rousing downtown
During the Beer and Hymns singalong at Tir Na Nog, the line couldn’t come fast enough. It’s at the tip of my tongue, ready to roll. “And if I die in ...” Scream it y’all. “Raleigh ...” I stretched out the final syllable — “eeeeee. “At least I will die freeeeee ...” I was in Raleigh singing Raleigh from Old Crow Medicine Show’s song Wagon Wheel. And I wasn’t going to whisper the most anthemic line for this time and this place. Because, as Ernest Dollar, director of the City of Raleigh Museum and the Pope House Museum, put it: “This is a bumpin’ town.” The museum’s tagline is “Then. Now. Next,” but the North Carolina capital’s “then” was more of a dirge than a hallelujah. For years, folks fled downtown for the suburbs and to other points of the Research Triangle: Durham and Chapel Hill. Government workers and educators converged on the City of Oaks by day, but bolted after their shifts. Reasons to stick around were few. But “now,” its fan base is growing with the whoosh of new restaurants, attractions, galleries, boutiques, people.
“Raleigh has gone from nothing five years ago to so much going on,” said Johnny Mack, an artist and yoga instructor who leads a donations-only class at an art gallery. “Before, no one had a reason to come downtown.”
On a May weekend, I could hardly find a reason to leave downtown. The gridded square of neighbourhoods is stitched together like a kaleidoscopic quilt, with no unattractive brown patches attached to any of the seams. For example, I slept in the Capital District (Holiday Inn), ate a vegan dinner and practised yoga in the Warehouse District (Fiction Kitchen, Rebus Works), visited working artists’ studios and a giant steel-and-copper nut in Moore Square (Artspace, Big Acorn) and soaked up the city’s utter Raleighness on Fayetteville Street (City Plaza). I travelled by foot, never needing to flag down a rickshaw. Though I did eye the free R-Line bus, because I think it was following me.
The hybrid electric bus swings through five districts, dropping off passengers at key downtown points, such as the North Carolina Museum of History, City Market and the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. With nowhere to go but around, I boarded the circulator by the convention centre (No. 13) and settled in to watch the next 19 stops flicker by the large window.
The ride was part geography lesson (pin the Contemporary Art Museum on my map) and part nosiness. I wanted to see where people were going, and whether I wanted to go there, too. Most of the other riders hopped off at Glenwood South, a honey pot of eateries and bars along Glenwood Avenue. A few bounced in the Capital District, and we picked up some folks in the Warehouse District. The crowd seemed like a mélange of visitors dressed in their dinner best and locals returning home after a long day at work. After 25 minutes, we were back at the first stop. I exited with the driver, who was taking a smoke break, and set out to retrace his tracks.
The responsible approach was to start with the museums, but, hey, it was Friday, and no one should have to do homework on the first night of the weekend. But then I walked by the City of Raleigh Museum and heard the distinct hum of a cocktail party coming from inside. I peered through the window, feeling like a child spying on her parents at an adults-only mixer. An employee caught my eye and urged me to come inside. Busted.
The city’s exhibit spaces hold First Friday on a day that needs no explanation. I didn’t put the two together until I was holding a Tecate beer and studying maps from the past two centuries.
The museum is compact but dense with information, much like the city itself. The first room featured art by Mexican artists, a nod to the city’s strong immigrant population. There was also a section dedicated to Rev. M.L. Latta, the former slave who founded Latta University, a school and orphanage for the offspring of former slaves. In a separate room, a timeline follows the civil rights movement. Feb. 10, 1960: Activists hold sit-ins at the Fayetteville Street lunch counter. Feb. 12-14, 1960: Police arrest 43 students for trespassing at Woolworth’s. May 1963: Woolworth’s removes its counter seats. 1973: Raleigh elects its first African-American mayor.
“I remember sitting at the Woolworth’s counter with my grandfather when a black couple came in,” a woman told me the next day, during a visit to the North Carolina Museum of History. “They told them they had to leave. I asked my grandfather why. He said that was just the way it is.”
The Raleigh-area native is now a grandmother herself, though she had misplaced her grandson somewhere between the Civil War and the Wright brothers. We stood side by side, staring at the lunch counter — a memory for her, a history lesson for me, a poignant moment for both of us.
The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is part of the city’s museum complex, a mini-Mall that helps support its title as the “Smithsonian of the South.” (Another similarity: Most of the major cultural venues are free.) In 2012, the science museum opened the Nature Research Center and unveiled a massive three-storey globe that could, in a pinch, be used as a decoy in an alien invasion.
The new wing is a vital lab for university and government researchers. Guests can watch them work and read about their ongoing studies, such as one involving detritus in belly buttons. (Seriously: It’s to test deodorant’s effect on microbes.) But the museum also aims to “inspire kids to be scientists,” said a front desk employee. And to get Lil’ Einsteins hyped up about science, you need to do what? Let them touch stuff! Exactly.
At the hands-on Natural World Investigate Lab, a microbiologist named Linda showed me around the tables, pointing out the various experiments. For example, I could test my cool-hand moves with pipettes, funnels, beakers and flasks. Or inspect an array of items (tarantula, sand dollar, snakeskin moult) under a super-powerful microscope. I followed her to an aquarium thick with Madagascar hissing cockroaches. She lifted one up and placed it in the palm of her hand.
“They’re really sweet,” she said, as though she were holding a kitten, not one of the world’s largest species of roaches.
She encouraged me to pet it. (My, my, what a smooth carapace you have. What is your secret?) Then she returned it to its home, accidentally flipping it on its back. Not surprisingly, it hissed.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie,” she said apologetically.
I decided on an experiment that didn’t make my skin crawl but instead caused my nose to crinkle. For the Science of Scent, all I had to do was sniff and guess the smell. With only five million scent receptors, I was no dog (they have 120 to 300 million). But I could still differentiate among cookies, breakfast, old shoes, new car and wet canine. I finished up my short career as a scientist at the fingerprinting station. Nearly 60 to 70 per cent of people have loop-patterned prints; 25 to 35 per cent have whorls; and only five per cent feature arches. I pressed my finger onto an ink pad and blotted it on a white card. I studied the black furrows, trying to discern between the swirls and the swoops. I wanted to be an arch, but I feared the worse.
“We can’t all be special,” said another volunteer, confirming my commonness.
To cheer up my digits, I considered taking them out on the town. I could smudge them on a martini glass at Capital Club 16; snap them at C Grace, a live jazz venue; or raise them high at Kings, a live music spot. But no matter what we did that evening, I would keep both thumbs up for Raleigh.