Durham County

London paper lauds Chapel Hill’s ‘utopian’ liberalism and Southern culture

The Guardian newspaper has picked Chapel Hill the first place in a series about the best towns and small cities in the United States. Flyleaf Books is one of the landmarks mentioned in the article. In this file photo, Flyleaf Books manager Travis Smith rings up books while chatting with a customer at the Chapel Hill store..
The Guardian newspaper has picked Chapel Hill the first place in a series about the best towns and small cities in the United States. Flyleaf Books is one of the landmarks mentioned in the article. In this file photo, Flyleaf Books manager Travis Smith rings up books while chatting with a customer at the Chapel Hill store.. Tammy Grubb

The Guardian newspaper of London has picked Chapel Hill as its first in a series exploring the best towns and small cities in the United States.

Chapel Hill “blends liberal philosophy and Southern culture in a way that borders on the utopian,” wrote Emma John, explaining why she picked Chapel Hill to begin the new series. John, quoting novelist and University of North Carolina alumnus Thomas Wolfe, writes of the university’s “bewitching presence” on the town. “Even the fire trucks are Carolina Blue,” she writes.

John also understands the importance of what some writers have called Chapel Hill, and North Carolina’s, secular religion: “You can’t hope to understand this town until you experience its fanaticism for college sports and in particular its championship-winning basketball team,” John writes.

John spent three days in Chapel Hill preparing her story, said Patty Griffin, communications director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau. John worked with the Visitors Bureau, which made an itinerary for her, Griffin said. The ininerary also included places in Carrboro. Chapel Hill is one of six towns and small cities that The Guardian will visit in the series, Griffin said.

The Herald-Sun posted an online article Thursday about The Guardian series. The post prompted several comments from readers. Some claimed that The Guardian article was solicited and even financed by the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau and Visit NC.

At the end of her article, John stated that “The trip was provided by Visit North Carolina with accommodation at The Franklin Hotel....” John stayed at The Franklin Hotel on West Franklin Street during her visit, Griffin stated in an email.

Griffin disputed that the visitors bureau had solicited the article from John. “The visitors bureau did not originally approach her about writing this article,” Griffin stated in an email. Visit NC contacted the visitors bureau in mid-August about John and her article, the email stated. The visitors bureau then made an itinerary for John, who was not able to include every place she visited in the story, Griffin stated.

The visitors bureau did spend some money for expenses. “The Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau spent $111.02 on [Emma John] (meals/taxes/tips, cup a coffee at Open Eye, $5 tix to Cat’s Cradle ... and a box of Chapel Hill Toffee in her welcome to Chapel Hill bag),” Griffin stated. John ate seven meals during her visit, Griffin stated.

A spokesperson from Visit NC disputed claims that they had orchestrated the story or paid John’s expenses. “This is not a pay-to-play article,” said Eleanor Talley, public relations manager for Visit NC. John booked her own flights, and Visit NC did not pay for travel, her hotel or other expenses, Talley said.

John is writing a book about mountain music traditions, and spends some of her time in Boone, Talley said. Visit NC has known John for some time, and worked with her on other stories, Talley said. John approached Visit NC about the series she was planning, and “we pitched multiple locations to her,” Talley said. When she chose Chapel Hill as her first stop, Visit NC put her in contact with the Chapel Hill visitors bureau, she said.

Visit NC is the marketing and public relations arm for the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, a nonprofit public-private organization. The Economic Development Partnership operates under contract with the North Carolina Department of Commerce and gets financial support from private companies throughout the state, according to its website.

Visit NC works with convention and visitors bureaus around the state to promote economic development and tourism.

John said she admired Chapel Hill’s liberal, progressive qualities, Griffin said. “She wanted a town that offered a lot of culture, a lot of music, good food, fun nightlife, and she found all of that and more in Chapel Hill,” Griffin said.

In her article, John offers a roundup of the town’s culinary, artistic and cultural life. John has profiles of UNC’s Memorial Hall, Flyleaf Books (which John calls “a bookstore run by smart people with great passions and big ideas.’), Local 506 and Cat’s Cradle. Restaurants getting a nod include Top of the Hill Restaurant, Curryblossom Café, Crook’s Corner and Mediterranean Deli.

Recent protests over the Silent Sam Confederate statue also get a mention.

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1

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