Two Fridays ago I walked from Greenlaw to Topo with two colleagues, a familiar enough walk, and had a familiar enough conversation: “Remind me where you’re from again? Oh yeah, I think I know where that is.” I tell people I am from Chapel Hill now. After eleven (non-consecutive) years, it seems true. And of course, it’s easier than walking them down the trail of North Carolina cities and towns I have lived in. “That’s so nice that you’re from here,” my colleague told me, “this is such a nice town. So small and so safe.” She is right in a way. But after this week’s events, it feels as though this town is hateful, enormous, and never, never again, safe. I have written about the safety of this town, how comfortable I feel walking where I like, but here I did not take into account the privileges that being a white woman affords me in my explorations of the limits of Chapel Hill. There are, of course, dangers to being a white woman in this town, but none that limit my ability to feel as though I belong to this community. I am, unequivocally, a member of this campus and a citizen of Chapel Hill. My colleagues, neighbors, and fellow inhabiters of public space–the coffee drinkers at Weaver Street, the morning commuters along Cameron Avenue, the shufflers through the campus bookstore–allow me to feel this way. It disturbs me that there are people who feel that this community does not welcome them, and after the murders of three Muslim students on Tuesday, I can begin to see them. Fear is palpable.
When I heard the news on Tuesday night (A text after class: “There was a shooting. Are you alright?”), I decided to walk home. I took the bike path back to Carrboro and felt safe walking down the dark of the shortcut that once formed (and maybe still does) the connection between the “Haves” of Chapel Hill and the “Have-nots” of Carrboro. A biker yelled “On your right!” A woman smiled and kept walking her dog. I first tried to guess when Chapel Hill became so rancid with death, but only succeeded in dissuading myself, reminding myself that I have only been here five years, and of course my adult eyes have only just begun to open. I passed the Ready Mixed Concrete Plant and remembered the death of David Shannon in October 2012 and the mystery that surrounded his fall. On a night as crisp as Tuesday was you can smell the grease and smoke of the Wendy’s almost by the time the Old Carrboro Cemetery is in sight and I remembered the note scrawled on a fast-food takeout bag found in Faith Hedgepath’s room the night she was murdered in September 2012. Two girls ran past me near Armadillo Grill. One of their T-shirts read ‘Eve Carson Memorial 5K.’ What makes the death of a student that much harder to carry? What makes the deaths of these three students that much harder to carry than the others?
“Any university catalyzes the highest and lowest of human desires,” Daphne Athas writes in her fantastic non-fiction study of this town, Chapel Hill In Plain Sight. “Murders, like responsibilities, originate in dreams. The student population is perennially at the age of dreaming.” Is it just the not knowing what might have happened–the dreams shot down–that breaks us? Athas writes about the town’s first murder: Peter Droomgoole, whose body was found under a rock on the Fall Line. His murder haunted a future student, Wray Martin, who, entranced by Droomgoole’s death, began to mince the details of the murder with his own ideals of “medieval chivalry” and founded the Order of the Gimghoul, now one of the most prestigious organizations you can be tapped for on campus. Martin would go walking to the Fall Line, which overlooks the Triassic Basin and from which, during the winter, you can see down almost to Durham County, collecting rocks into a mound. After his death, the stones would be used to build Gimghould Castle. In 1950, Athas, brought by her friend, Wayne, ran from Carrboro all the way to Forest Theatre to look for the blood spilled in the murder-suicide of Leon Smithey and his roommate. They explored the theatre looking for fresh blood, then through Battle Park, finding nothing. The next year, Miss Rachel Crook, the seventy-two year old owner of a bait and tackle and laundry shop at the edge of town, was found raped and murdered. Her store is now the site of Crook’s Corner, the restaurant famous for its pink plastic pig and the reinvigoration of shrimp and grits as a traditional southern dish.
The list goes on: Eastwood Lake used to be called Granny’s Lake after the body of a Duke student’s grandmother, whom he had killed, was found floating in the water in the early sixties. Not long afterward, two students were found dead of cyanide poisoning in their dormitory beds. The rape and murder an eleven year girl, whose body was found hanging from a tree in Finley Golf Course, in the early eighties. Two students held up at knife point at Morehead Planetarium, one let go, the other raped, murdered, and found in a dumpster in Greensboro. And of course, Eve Carson, kidnapped by her home on Friendly Lane, held at bay at an ATM, shot in the head, and found dead on Hillcrest Circle. How many others does Athas leave off the list for the sake of editing?
The loss of human lives is terrible, but it’s something you can feel. The sadness and fear that surround the deaths of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, Razan Abu-Salha is everywhere. But the loss of the probity of a place is also terrible, and as I walk through this town and I pass that engimatic pig above Crook’s Corner or feel the cold emanating from the gold of the Planetarium’s sundial, I also feel a loss. But these murders are different. Of course Finley Forest Condominiums will suffer. But other Chapel Hill murders can perhaps be explained in some way, and I feel as though those deaths do no inundate the whole town the way these three murders have. You can isolate–even the deaths of the last few years–to their location in town. The Carrboro mixing plant. Hedgepath’s apartment. Friendly Lane. Here and now though, an entire town consumed in grief, an entire town’s goodness ebbing. Placelessness can be an action. These three murders will fall into the history of murder in Chapel Hill, but I think their role in receding Chapel Hill’s sense of place–warm, friendly, small, and safe–will be felt for longer than this community will grieve.