By Chauncey Zalkin
Six months ago, I was a displaced NYer living in the low country of South Carolina with my twin preschoolers desperately plotting my return to the Northeast. A month later, I was loading boxes into a U-Haul headed to a new life in Raleigh.
With Kindergarten fast approaching, I knew I had to find a place to lay roots that fit my values and interests. I’d been determined to return to the Northeast when my long-distance boyfriend at the time (he’d relocated to Apex a few years back) started sending me listings of houses inside the beltline of Raleigh in neighborhoods like Oakwood, Mordecai, Boylan Heights, 5 Points, and Glenwood South.
I had happy memories of visiting him and going to shows at Red Hat Amphitheater, playing oversized Jenga at Crank Arm Brewery and pinball at Boxcar Bar + Arcade and I loved my coffee mug from Videri Chocolate Factory. I felt there was a lot of energy and a good dose of design and independent retail in those few trips, but I had not considered moving here as I was so focused on moving back to the Northeast I ended up coming up here
Fast forward from my initial decision to try living with that boyfriend and we’re no longer together but here I am, and I can only see reasons to stay. In as few words as possible, I love it here.
I NEVER INTENDED TO MOVE TO RALEIGH BUT IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD BET FROM WHAT I WAS READING ABOUT SCHOOLS AND THE BIT I’D SEEN IN THE ARTS SO I THOUGHT I’D GIVE IT A TRY TO AT LEAST GET OUT OF THAT SMALL TOWN.
I’m currently living in a rambling arts and crafts cottage in Brooklyn Hill with a short walk to all the shops and restaurants on Glenwood and the free R bus a few blocks away. I came without a network, job, or roadmap but I immediately started pursuing the people and things that interested me. Like a starving bird released from its cage, I found myself gorging on all the city had to offer. I was at first pleasantly surprised that there were things to do having signed up for emails to learn about the city, but then my delight and enthusiasm began to snowball. There is just so much here. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of meaningful activities. I’ve actually become embarrassing in my enthusiasm for Raleigh.
Here are highlights from my experience meeting Raleigh as a single ambitious mom, from co-working spaces to music to art to the outdoors to the brilliant diverse thinkers and infectious entrepreneurial spirit I’ve come across in my short time here.
First of all, as a writer with a strong entrepreneurial bent, I was looking for resources for writers and for entrepreneurs and I quickly found Redbud Writing Project run by two NC State MFA graduates. I reached out to Emily Cataneo who not only responded right away but was happy to meet me for coffee and she and her project were a delightful find.
This was one of my first joyful observations. People are interested in other people, inclusive, and looking to collaborate. I always liked big cities –London, Tokyo, NYC — with people from all over the world, varying viewpoints, culture, grit, sophistication and ambition in spades — or sparsely populated beautiful places like Vermont, the Berkshires, or the Redwoods. Raleigh seems to have the best of all of that. It has dense greenery, rolling hills, temperate weather with actual seasons but without the endless snow-shoveling winters of the North. It feels busy but doesn’t have the endless traffic of an Atlanta or L.A. It has a feeling of expansiveness and optimism, with its diverse architecture, welcome signs in every language, and growing multi-cultural population. It feels like a city of the future and a place you can raise your kids with just enough tradition and cozy convenience to feel reassuring.
When I arrived, my kids went straight into the YMCA summer camp and which I quickly learned was run like a finely tuned machine of kindness, caring, reliability, and efficiency. In fact, your average corporate COO could learn a thing or two from the staffing practices, facilities, and management of the Triangle YMCA. It’s where I work out, sometimes work out of, where I have after care, and has been an anchor for me in getting settled here.
Co-working spaces & Networking
Take your pick. You’ve got Industrious, a slick and elegant space that will keep you focused while serving impressive baked goods; The Loading Dock which feels hip, creative, and lacks the stuffiness and bro-ishness of some coworking spaces. Then there’s the new WeWork which is welcoming, sunny, has a great view, and coincidentally arrived in Raleigh the same month I did. There’s also HQ Raleigh which I haven’t seen and Nest which feels industrial with a home-grown indie vibe.
I’ve been to networking events here and in Durham that I’ve loved and others that weren’t my cup of tea but there is something for everyone and so many options for finding your people. The highlight though has to be attending and writing for Innovate Raleigh where the enthusiasm for the future and the brain power from all manner of backgrounds and perspectives eager to solve big problems was in full effect. Again, it was the openness of the people along with the intelligence that made me feel like I was in a vital place.
First of all, when it comes to music, everyone you’d ever want to see or would want to discover comes through Raleigh. You’ve got your big venues like PNC and the urban feeling Red Hat which might frustrate you with their volume limits but makes up for in atmosphere. Then you have the two I love most — NCMA which has a summer concert series and Koka Booth, both visually arresting outdoor venues.
I bought a VIP pass to The Hopscotch Festival as a way to get to know the city’s point of view and when it arrived, I was blown away by the lineup, the experimentation, the quality, and the adventure of it all. I saw a band or two close up in an afternoon during the free shows that I felt I should have only been allowed to see crooking my neck in an arena.
There was something for everyone but amateurish it was not. I guess that’s the thing about Raleigh; there’s a certain snobbishness you acquire after living in NY a while where no other city, especially smaller ones, measure up. They either don’t have the edginess or sophistication or they lack nuance. They feel like they are not trying or try too hard. Some cities feel stuck in a time warp or they’re contrived. I find none of that to be the case with Raleigh. Hopscotch embodied what I find to be so great about the city. It’s sophisticated without the snotty attitude. It’s flexible and feels open and evolving but the quality is high, and the people are smart. It’s a city that’s becoming.
Besides Hopscotch and live music, as a huge dance fan, I have to mention I was thrilled to be able to see Paul Taylor Dance and know ABT is coming to town and that you’ve got Carolina Ballet doing Balanchine and so on. Being near Duke alone brings great things to the area so you are never without world class dance and theater and I know there are a good handful of small theaters I can’t wait to check out.
I’ve had great meals here including two otherworldly vegan meals. Whiskey Kitchen serves an amazing lamb burger and Brewery Bhavana is beautiful and feels like a labor of love. The city’s offerings don’t feel like just another hipster gimmick. They feel inspired and unique.
The Farmers market is expansive, and you have every kind of grocery store you could hope for including a new Wegman’s which is the grocery store of legends, but that’s for another article.
Living in a small town, kid friendly events were an endless loop of face painting and bouncy houses. In NY, there’s everything a type A parent could want for their kids but when you step outside your door, you blink and hundreds of dollars have flown from your pocket (sort of like a trip to Target). Like every parent, I’m new to being one with every year. Every year it’s the first time I’ve had a 1-year-old, a 2-year-old, a 3-year-old and so on. So my experience is limited to 5-year-olds, but I am floored by the lists of options for educating, entertaining, and exposing them new ideas. There are magazines, fliers, websites, all touting calendars chock full of things to do every weekend. Here’s a sampling of what we’ve done:
We’ve sat in the woods and heard storytellers and banjo players. We’ve gone to readings at Quail Ridge. We’ve hula hooped and eaten burgers while listening to (really good) live hip hop and DJs in Moore Square. We’ve celebrated the moon landing and sampled instruments at the North Carolina Museum of History. We’ve danced around butterflies at the Museum of Natural Sciences. I’ve exhausted myself chasing my kids at the Marbles Museum. We’ve watched traditional pan-Asian dance at Koka Booth and I’ve hung out while my kids as they built PVC pipe buildings at Sparkcon. And there’s so much we missed and so much more to do in the Triangle. Any Brooklyn mom would be in Seventh Heaven.
My intro to living in downtown Raleigh was a stay at an Airbnb in the neighborhood where I now live. The host was an IM Pei trained architect. Through our conversation and his surroundings, it was clear he was someone who knew how to live an artful life. He played music that wafted into the night air and spoke lovingly and with a rare familiarity about the details of his neighbors. That was the first siren song. I had been missing design lovers since leaving Barcelona and Paris, with a lot of time in design-drenched London and Milan and just to hear someone talk about light, space, material, and creative entrepreneurial people was music to my ears.
The next night I stayed at an Airbnb in Oakwood looking out at the lush beautiful yards and listening to the birds feeling a rising lightness and wondered, what is this place? It’s good to know I don’t have it all figured out but that I’ve landed in a place that feels that it’s rising instead of sinking in despair. In these fraught times, this is one blessing I am thankful for.
© Chauncey Zalkin 2019