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Meacham's Wall


On the long list of troubles the Meadowmont development might bring to town, ruining the N.C. 54 entrance to Chapel Hill probably fell near the bottom, after traffic, general quality of life, and Yankees, but it was still an issue. Part of the planners' solution was to frame Meadowmont's main road with handbuilt stone walls, one of Chapel Hill's unofficial architectural themes. Such an entry would be a pleasant addition to the route, and would create an easy link--aesthetically, historically, psychologically--between town and development. It would also slow, at least in one place, the rate of the construction to an older pace.

When Russell Shores of Endeavour Construction was vying for the contract on the walls, he put together a sampler of area snapshots, from which the developers chose the blocky yellowish angles of the Forest Theater. The theater was rebuilt in 1940 using fieldstone from a farm in north Chatham County, a fact unknown to Shores when he took a drive through Orange and Chatham counties, leaving inquiries in the mailboxes on particularly rocky-looking plots. The Chatham County cattle farmer who called him up took note when Shores mentioned the Forest Theater. "I was a boy when they hauled my daddy's stone for that theater," Marvin Meacham said. "I think they gave him 25 cents a load back then. Course, it'll cost you a little more." Meacham's grandfather bought the land a century ago for his wife, who insisted that he move the family there from Bynum when she couldn't keep her laundry white in the clay-clogged waters of the Haw. It is a comely hill-and-dale parcel on the county line; part woods, part rolling field, and it is chocked absolutely full of stones.

The stones, a geologist tells me, are a species of granite, a great subterranean blob about 550 million years old that gives the hill to Chapel Hill and surfaces in boulders and slabs throughout the county. The Meachams' has a pink and yellow cast and floats up in the fields like bars of soap. "We clear a field and a month later it's full of stone again," says Meacham's wife Geraldine. "We've broke a lot of plow points on those stones." They've also made use of it. Each house on the property has a fieldstone chimney, the family cemetery a low dry stack wall. The stone is, in fact, perfect for walls: It comes up in flat slabs, four or five inches thick; it cleaves in neat 90-degree corners; it has tasteful medallions of lichen on exposed faces. It also has to be collected by hand.

Picking rock is a brutish business, still done the old-fashioned way: with shovels and a dump truck. Shores has made a slight but important addendum to Meacham's daddy's formula with a Bobcat, a haunchy, nimble little bulldozer that can pivot in the tight quarters of the new-growth woods where the Meachams have been dumping fieldstone for the last century. Most of the rock to be picked is just below the surface of the forest floor, under a thin mat of roots and leaves and soil. Sean, who has worked with Shores for 12 years, demonstrated how he divines the location of a rock by sounding it out with the tip of a shovel. "Like I'm hunting Easter eggs," he said. He wedged a blade under a promising edge. Wide, flat rocks lever up easily, with a rewarding maw underneath. Rocks with a belly on them, useless for a wall, are harder to get a bite on with a shovel and a great disappointment when unearthed. Seven or eight Bobcat buckets make a dump-truck load; one load is three or four tons of rock. Shores and his crew began picking rock in February. By summer, they had hauled several hundred tons of rock down U.S. 15-501 and tipped it out, a few loads a day, at the feet of the builders.

Shores subcontracted Custom Stone and Marble of Durham to do the actual wall-building, on top of concrete footers Shores pours himself. The stone is heavier and more brittle than the quarried stone the builders usually use, but it needs a minimum of shaping, and the walls they build with it are worthy and fine. They have built the main entrance walls and their columns, the bus stop, and the frame for the Meadowmont sign, and they will build walls at the swim club and in several of the development's planned parks. They are wiry, sunburned men, lightly floured with masonry dust. The ground around them is littered with little white cocoons of the first-aid tape they wrap their fingers with. They are paid by the foot. Not including columns, which can take a day or more, a good week's work for one man can be more than 100 feet of wall.

Construction around the wall happens at a more urgent rate. It takes only a few weeks for plots marked out with strings and pink flags to become foundations, then pale, leggy frames, and then drywalled and Tyveked semblances of houses. What amounts to a little town is being erected all of a piece, with a village square, parks, restaurants, and shopping, and stately high-dollar manses beside cheaper cottages and townhouses. This is "neo-traditional" development, in which a mixed-use neighborhood that would naturally evolve over generations is recapitulated seamlessly in the space of one or two years. But it is not, the Meadowmont Web site reassures us, "another cookie-cutter neighborhood," and indeed the naturalness, if calculated, is not unconvincing. The streets near completion seem broken-in, almost familiar, as if they had been lifted from an old home movie. Even the street names are resolutely uncute, with the exception of Meadowmont Lane, after the name that the DuBose family, who sold the developers the property, had for their estate. "Some-stuff-we-bulldozed-to-build-you-a Lane," my passenger suggests moodily as we take an after-hours drive around, steering over a slick eluvial fan of clay and gravel at the bottom of a hill.

Although the project took 10 acrimonious years to approve, and construction is reputedly ahead of schedule, demand is outstripping supply. There are occupied homes next to half-framed houses, joggers jogging around bulldozers. "People were literally driving in behind the dump trucks to move in," a town official tells me. And not all out-of-towners, either. Lee Pavao, mayoral candidate in Chapel Hill, notes that of the first 1,500 inquiries about houses, 65 percent were Chapel Hill residents. As we crest the hill, a cluster of deer watches us from a stand of trees left in a bulldozed pasture.

It isn't that none of us will want to live at Meadowmont, or shop there, or eat there, for we undoubtedly will. In all likelihood it will be a nice place to live and shop and eat. Traffic will be worse, though traffic will be worse anyway, and the mixed-use plan is intended to ease the problem. We say that the quality of life is changing, by which we mean that life is becoming more urban, with more urban hassles, and this is true. True, too, that we have probably been spoiled by the buffers of farmland around our towns. As for Yankees, plenty of folks who consider themselves local, myself included, come from stock a lot newer to the area than the Meachams or the DuBoses.

It's possible that the particular brand of ire Meadowmont provokes is more a reaction to what seems beyond our control, the speedy corporate sprawl that changes our drives, our country vistas, our grocery stores and our neighbors. Development on this order is out of sync with the human pace of growth familiar to us, the incremental changes we notice only in old photographs: how mangy the back yard used to be, how small the shrubs; how skinny we were, how young. We like to be shown in small ways--by a bumper crop of leeks, say, or a baby--where the time goes.

Marvin Meacham has recently set a long obelisk-like fieldstone on one end in concrete at the top of his driveway, and dug four holes around it for his wife to plant climbing vines. He has no plans to sell his land, though parcels adjoining his are being sold for large sums by his neighbors without compunction. He seems to enjoy the ornery kind of power this gives him more than the windfall a sale would bring, though he may simply be waiting for the market to get really good. From the obelisk, you can see the house where he was born. Lace-edged tobacco pushes up through the fields along the roads into his property, roads that were named for his and other families, now mostly gone. His woods, in the green midsummer heat, are thick and still. You can't hear the sounds of the city at all. EndBlock

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