No one can tell the story of Carrboro better than two local authors who have witnessed how the town has changed over the years.
Dave Otto and Richard Ellington have teamed up again to write their second book — “Carrboro: Images of Modern America.”
Their first book, “Carrboro: Images of America,” was published in 2011 and discusses Carrboro’s history from colonial settlement to the mid-20th century, with a focus on its mill town identity. Since then, Carrboro has transformed from working-class into a trendy urban center of arts.
How did that happen?
“Carrboro: Images of Modern America” documents this change, featuring pictures of Carrboro then and now.
“What I see as the real thrust in this book is the dramatic changes that are occurring in Carrboro today,” Otto said.
Otto, a Massachusetts native who moved to Carrboro in 1972, is a freelance photographer. He retired from 35 years in research for the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007. Ellington, who worked for 43 years in the information technology division at UNC-Chapel Hill, is a local history buff, born and raised in Carrboro. He knows the town like the back of his hand.
The two have formed a complementary relationship for this project. For the first book, Ellington provided a comprehensive collection of old pictures of Carrboro, while Otto had the time to do some writing. Otto took most of the color photos in the second book and wrote captions for them, and Ellington was responsible for Chapter 1, the historical part of the book.
“Talking about division of labor, my computer skills are negligible, but Richard’s are infinite,” Otto said. “One of the things that have made our partnership really work is that he has expertise in a lot of the areas I lack.”
Chapters 2 to 7 in the new book center on people’s everyday life in Carrboro. As a photographer, Otto said he is not a big fan of taking portraits.
“Whenever I could, I tried to show the town in action, or people in action,” he said, adding that he wanted to portray Carrboro as a fun place to live.
According to their new book, factors that have led to Carrboro’s transition into a center of artistic innovation include:
- The closure of the last mill in the early 1960s marked the end of the mill town era.
- The arrival of French artist Jacques Menache in 1975. He founded the ArtsSchool, predecessor of the ArtsCenter.
- The preservation of the original Alberta Cotton Mill led by local activists and the subsequent opening of Carr Mill Mall in 1977.
- UNC-Chapel Hill’s decision to encourage students to live off campus in 1978, which brought student residents to Carrboro.
- The opening of Weaver Street Market in 1988.
Otto and Ellington do not just tell their readers what they know — they invested enormous time and energy digging into and reconstructing the history of Carrboro. They combed through the North Carolina Collection at Wilson Library, including historical documents and photographic archives.
Ellington said they spent many hours sitting in the library with cotton gloves and a magnifying glass, looking at the 35 mm negatives on the light table.
“We got to know the clerks in the North Carolina Collection very well,” he said.
Otto said as they were going through the files, they found pictures that were actually taken in Carrboro, but the captions would say the place was in Chapel Hill.
“There was a lot of misinformation we had to sort through,” he said.
The future of Carrboro
Talking about challenges Carrboro will face moving forward, Otto named traffic congestion and the skyrocketing real estate prices.
“There are all kinds of plans for building new structures and new complexes, but there’s no plan at all to modify the traffic in Carrboro,” he said.
Otto also said because Carrboro is small geographically, it does not have the tax base to do a lot of things the residents might want to do. That results in Carrboro having one of the highest real estate tax rates in the state. “Carrboro is really a unique place to live. The problem is ‘Can you afford it?’” he said.
“People working in Weaver Street cannot afford to live here,” Ellington said.
A successful book launch
Otto and Ellington held a book launch party on Feb. 22 at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, where they gave a presentation and signed copies.
Marisa DiNovis, a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill, works at Flyleaf Books. She said the bookstore sold 13 copies of “Carrboro: Images of Modern America” that day. “Compared to recent weekends, the turnouts were pretty good,” she said.
Jeremy Hawkins, a writer and local who also works at the bookstore, said he definitely wanted to read the book.
“I was looking through it and I know half of the people in the book,” he said.
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