CHARLOTTE, N.C. Ten miles can make a world of difference.
Growing up inside the beltline of Raleigh, I never really noticed the metropolitan area’s internal cultural distinctions. Then I went to middle school a few miles away in Cary.
In the time-honored neighborhoods of west Raleigh, many families have lived there for generations. Inside the city limits of Cary, being a native is the exception to the rule.
Twenty-five miles can make a world of difference, too.
Going to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I never really noticed the bubble encompassing the campus. Then Amendment One showed up on the ballot. Prior to the May referendum, I didn’t know Vote FOR signs existed. But a trip home to Raleigh suddenly made me realize not everyone was so AGAINST the amendment as they seemed in Chapel Hill.
Despite differences, Raleigh, Cary and Chapel Hill still live, breathe and thrive as a unit.
“I don’t think you can talk about Raleigh without considering the Research Triangle region,” said Smedes York, Raleigh mayor in 1979 and 1981 and chairman of the board of York Properties Inc.
Composed of the Raleigh-Cary and Durham-Chapel Hill metropolitan areas, the Triangle came to be in the 1950s when the Research Triangle Park was created to “reverse the brain drain.” Its purpose was to spur economic growth and employ graduates from the region’s fine universities. Its result has been a diverse region, uniformly characterized by a cultured population and a technology-driven, knowledge-based economy.
As a 2008 Triangle Community Foundation report noted, outsiders may view the region as a cohesive metropolis, but most of the Triangle’s residents are quick to define a specific city, town or neighborhood as “home.”
Some tried-and-true Raleigh natives are among the first to tell you exactly where they live. Never to be associated with the Northerners of Cary or the liberals of Chapel Hill, a faction of Raleigh’s population is slow to associate themselves with the progressive stereotype of the greater region.
But that faction is dwindling. “People aren’t interest in the old people anymore, the old money, the old Raleigh,” said Jane Brady, an inside the beltline resident whose family has lived in Raleigh for generations. “They’re interested in what’s new – in the Red Hats, SAS, and all the big corporate names. The old stuff – I mean, it still matters, but it’s not the only game in town anymore.”
In many ways SAS epitomizes the interconnectedness of the region. The company’s success has benefited the entire Triangle. SAS used to be on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. But when the company outgrew its rented space, CEO James Goodnight and his wife, Ann, decided to move the business to Cary.
The move transformed the town. “What used to be a bedroom community to Raleigh is now a thriving city in its own right,” Ann Goodnight said. Cary has grown from a town of 7,500 in 1972 to a booming city of nearly 140,000 today.
And the move transformed the region. As SAS became the world’s largest privately held software company, the Goodnights invested in the Triangle.
“I think we’ve been successful in growing our cultural amenities because of the folks that have moved into the area,” Goodnight said. Look to Cary Academy, the Goodnight Scholarship Program at N.C. State and the North Carolina Museum of Art for proof.
“I would think we’ve been on a long-term positive trend since the Park was established,” York said. “And it has a lot to do with the universities staying strong and the universities have a lot to do with the park staying strong.”
The Triangle grows as a unit, building off the institutions, businesses, and cultural amenities of each place. Yet, residents don’t identify with the region as a whole.
When people ask me where I’m from, I could say the Research Triangle, I could say Raleigh or Cary or Chapel Hill. I could say, “It’s complicated.” But it’s not. Despite living and loving all the amenities of the region, there is a five-mile radius, and only a five-mile radius, that I truly consider “home.”