Carrboro, North Carolina: The ‘Paris of the Piedmont’

Good food, good music and good people make this “Berkeley of the East Coast” a great place you’ve (maybe) never heard of.
By Joe Hart
February/March 2010
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Carrboro supports its nearby farmers with a year-round farmers market, restaurants that serve local food and a high-quality natural foods co-op. 

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Located just a few miles from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the city of Carrboro has earned its nickname as the “Paris of the Piedmont.” A strong commitment to the arts, music and locavore culture makes the town a capital of southern bohemia.

In 1995, Carrboro was the first municipality in North Carolina to elect an openly gay mayor, Mike Nelson, and also the first to extend legal rights to same-sex partners.

The same spirit infuses nearly every aspect of the town’s culture and politics, according to Kirby Zeman, a research associate at UNC who serves as a community affairs reporter at Carrboro’s independent, volunteer-run radio station, WCOM — which in itself is a primary point of pride for the community. “It’s kind of a nouveau Berkeley,” Zeman says.

Considering its size (fewer than 20,000 residents) and location, Carrboro has a reputation that draws surprising attention from far-flung locales. The primary music venue is the intimate and affordable Cat’s Cradle, which attracts notable bands and indie music fans from across the region. The town also hosts an annual music festival.

Carrboro has received national press for its commitment to the local-foods movement, a distinction made possible by the town’s year-round farmers market, a handful of high-quality restaurants that specialize in local fare, and a natural foods co-op — the Weaver Street Market — that’s as much a social meeting place for food lovers as it is a grocery store. The Market sponsors a variety of events, including wine tastings, jazz concerts and brunches. “It’s an ad-hoc town square,” Zeman says. “People bring blankets to sit on the lawn and listen to the music.”

Like a lot of attractive towns with growing populations, Carrboro faces the specter of sprawl. But the city appears to be doing a great job of using sustainable urban development to spur environmentally responsible initiatives. “Sustainability is probably one of the No.1 topics around here right now,” Zeman says. An example is Veridia, a suburban development featuring LEED-standard buildings that incorporate photovoltaics, solar heating and rainwater catch-and-reuse, as well as a community garden.

Stats: Carrboro, North Carolina

Population: 19,891

Median household income: $37,088

Weather: Warm, wet summers and mild winters with occasional snow.

What makes it great: The “Paris of the Piedmont” is a Southern cultural and food mecca that offers lots of live music.

Check out the other towns featured in our 2011 installment of Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard Of. 

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