We’ve heard a lot in the news lately about Main Street vs. Wall Street. The term “Main Street” evokes visions of Norman Rockwell’s America, a kinder, gentler place of charming small towns, where neighbors watch out for one another and mom-and-pop businesses anchor the local economy. Main Street is such a powerful symbol of old-fashioned American values that the Walt Disney Company positions a ‘themed land’ called Main Street, U.S.A. as the first attraction visitors encounter when they step inside the gates of the company’s Magic Kingdom-style parks around the world.
It’s sometimes hard for residents of congested, crime-ridden cities and sprawling suburban developments, who endure soul-crushing commutes each day, to imagine that towns like Mayberry, the fictional community in North Carolina that was the setting for The Andy Griffith Show, actually exist today. But that’s exactly how the lucky denizens of countless historic towns in the South describe their communities.
At Home in Aiken, SC
Kristina Giffin and her husband Bill moved to Cedar Creek in Aiken, SC (population 25,000) from Chicago in 2002 after retiring from careers as human resources executives. Giffin says, “We loved Chicago, but wanted a smaller, and frankly less expensive area for our retirement years. Everyone is friendly and welcoming in Aiken and we’ve never felt anything but warmth and Southern hospitality from local people. The town is quaint and comfortable in every way, yet has the advantages of a small university town with the University of South Carolina−Aiken, which attracts unique events and people.
Seniors over a certain age can audit classes at USC-Aiken for free. It doesn’t feel as if the university takes over the town, though, which is how we felt when investigating some university towns.”
Founded in 1835, Aiken is located on the western side of the state, so it’s not threatened by hurricanes, yet residents have access to wonderful beaches within two to three hours. Aiken also enjoys the largest in-city park in the country, Hitchcock Woods, which at 2,000 acres is larger than Central Park, and is the site of fox hunts, horse shows and scenic walking trails. Aiken’s downtown area is thriving, with lovely antique shops, a specialty kitchen store, a yarn shop, gift stores, restaurants and other businesses. An “artists” parlor’ features the work of many talented local artists and craftspeople for sale. Parking downtown is always free. There aren’t even meters.
The Giffins’ favorite restaurants are Linda’s Bistro and Malia’s, both of which are locally owned and managed, and their favorite shop is Tea Garden Gifts on Laurens Street. Giffin says, “It is a delight. Unfortunately, we can never go in without spending at least a few dollars.”
Charlottesville, VA: Small-Town Feel, Cosmopolitan Offerings
Situated in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Charlottesville, VA (population 46,000) is a quintessential college town, home to the prestigious University of Virginia. UVA junior Laura Nessler, a theater arts major, says of the town, “Charlottesville is a lot more cosmopolitan than the rest of central Virginia, but I still think there are some ‘small-town values’ at play here-I’ve never had more friendly strangers talk to me at coffee shops.”
Nessler describes the downtown open-air pedestrian mall as “the perfect crossroads of C-ville, with a huge mix of townies, students, retirees, teenagers, etc.” The mall is packed with restaurants and shops, most of which are locally owned.
Brendan Wolfe, 37, moved from Iowa to Charlottesville on July 4, 2007, to be with his fiancé. He says that the date “seemed perfect considering the local obsession with Thomas Jefferson.” About the town’s historic appeal, he says, “My dad’s a history teacher and I’ve always been an avid reader of history myself, and now I’m the editor of an encyclopedia of Virginia history. Charlottesville and Virginia are for people like me with Monticello, the nearby Civil War battlefields, the university professors, etc. I love the landscape here (so many trees and mountains). There are great restaurants. It’s very laid-back.”
Chapel Hill, NC: Intellectual Mecca, Cozy Corner of the World
Chapel Hill, NC (population 54,000) is another bucolic college town, home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which was founded in 1795, making it the oldest state-supported university in the United States. The town was chartered in 1851. Its main drag, Franklin Street, was named in memory of Benjamin Franklin. The small city maintains its village atmosphere, with an historic downtown that features gracious wide sidewalks and plenty of places to sit, eat ice cream, and people-watch. It’s easy to walk and bicycle around town, and there is good public transportation.
Kathe Douglas, 43, works in cancer research at Duke University in nearby Durham. She says, “College
degrees are thick on the ground in Chapel Hill: all the baristas have or are getting a Ph.D. Everybody reads and listens to NPR.” When asked if crime is an issue, she replies, “Ha. It’s Mayberry. We don’t lock our doors.”
For barbeque, Douglas says there’s no question: Allen and Sons is best. It is renowned for succulent hickory-smoked ribs, pulled pork, peach cobbler and peanut butter pie. Her other dining tips: Elmo’s in Carrboro (a diner), Breadmen’s (another diner that is hugely popular for weekend brunch)-both have great veggie side dishes-Crook’s Corner for fancy Southern chow, The Armadillo Grill for quick, made-from-scratch Mexican fare and the frozen margarita slushies and the elegant Weathervane Café for ladies who lunch.
Pastoral, Historic Greensboro, GA
Traveling through Greensboro, GA (population 3,000), visitors see dairy and horse farms, as well as the expansive Lake Oconee-with 19,500 square miles of surface area and 374 miles of shoreline. The lake is surrounded by golf communities, as well as three 85-acre public parks and three public boat ramps. The area is part of the Antebellum Trail, a region of the state that was not touched by Sherman’s March to the Sea. As a result, many old antebellum homes still stand in the area and some of them are open to the public.
Diane Myers is a retired elementary school library media specialist from Atlanta who moved to the Greensboro region. Myers says that the area offers great shopping for antiques and art. In particular, she recommends the Greensboro Antique Mall and Dreamcatcher’s, as well as Genuine Georgia, a gallery that specializes in art by Georgia artists. She says, “It has wonderful, beautifully handmade things-textiles, pottery, paintings, etc.” Her favorite Greensboro restaurant is The Yesterday Café, where she suggests ordering the entrée and two-vegetable special, and the delicious buttermilk pie.
Another thing that makes Greensboro, as well as many other small towns, appealing is the fact that driving isn’t stressful. Myers says, “The biggest traffic tie-ups are the logging and dairy trucks that travel through downtown Greensboro, with its two traffic lights. The two-lane roads can be a problem if you get behind a slow driver, but otherwise, there is little traffic on those roads.”
Southport, NC: Southern Charm by the Sea
The town of Southport, NC (population 3,000) overlooks the Cape Fear River at its mouth to the Atlantic Ocean. Established in 1792, the town maintains its charm with neighborhood streets lined with restored historic homes and 200+ year-old live oak trees, as well as with a thriving downtown business district filled with antique stores, boutiques, fine dining and a maritime museum.
Kathleen Dzubak, 66, and her husband, Robert, 68, left demanding jobs in Danbury, CT, and moved to Southport a decade ago. They chose the location because of its small-town character and also because it reminded them of Cape Cod, where they had vacationed for many years.
For the Dzubaks, moving to Southport was a return to a simpler way of life. Kathleen Dzubak says, “We learned to live at and appreciate a slower pace. We walk our dogs to the river and take them to the beach a few times a week. Being in a small place like this is nice, homey. Everyone knows everyone else and we felt welcomed right away.”
She now runs a quirky and colorful garden shop called Curb Appeal in the historic downtown district on North Howe Street. “People watch out for one another in Southport,” she says. “There’s pride in the town; I see it with the customers in my shop. Friendly greetings, genuine interest in one another. My business, and many others, get involved in community events. I have been in business for five years. My garden shop is located on the main street. I leave items outdoors on the porch and in the yard, and I have never had one thing taken. This always amazes people who ask me if I leave things out.”
Henderson County, NC: Beauty. Mountains. Magic.
Henderson County, NC, was settled in the 1700s on Cherokee hunting grounds. The 375-square-mile fertile high plateau became home to Scotch-Irish, Welsh, and English pioneers. In the early 1800s, the town of Hendersonville (current population 12,000) became a summer resort for wealthy South Carolina planters escaping the heat of the Low Country. The tradition continues today, with the region’s pleasant summers and mild winters attracting both year-round residents and summer visitors.
Author Shelley Lieber sums up the area’s appeal this way: “Beauty. Mountains. Art. Friendly people. Almost everyone who comes here ‘feels’ the magic.” Nancy Reed, 48, and her husband Michael, 58, certainly did when they visited Hendersonville several years ago. Reed explains, “It was love at first sight. Hendersonville is the very essence of a 21st-century Mayberry RFD. Both my husband and I come from small towns and, while we lived in the greater Washington, D.C. metro area for the past 20+ years, we always knew we wanted to find someday a way to marry the diversity, cultural amenities, and opportunities that we had come to enjoy from the ‘big city’ with that of small-town America.”
The Reeds were so smitten with the area’s offerings, including the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra and the Flat Rock Playhouse, that they impulse-bought a condo in the Cummings Cove Golf Community. Reed says, “We are passionate about golf, and Cummings Cove offers one of the most breathtaking mountain courses we had ever played… with Hendersonville and Cummings Cove, there was no settling for what we found-we found the whole deal.”
Amenitized planned communities are located in close proximity to these Main Street USA towns. If you desire amenity living near a small town, what are you waiting for?
Aiken, South Carolina
The Ridge at Chukker Creek
Three Runs Plantation
Stone Orchard at Wintergreen
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
The Legacy at Jordan Lake
Hendersonville, North Carolina
Southport, North Carolina
St. James Plantation
The Preserve at Oak Island