A City in Transition: Understanding Raleigh’s Identity

I moved to Raleigh in 2006, and it was obvious to me from the beginning that I wasn’t the only transplant. The “Raleigh native” is somewhat of a rarity. I’m always fascinated to meet such a person. What is it that draws people to Raleigh-Durham? It certainly helps that Raleigh-Durham keeps showing up in rankings of top places to live. But here are a few dynamics behind that.

Small wanting to be big

Raleigh is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. And the growth is accumulating in “growth centers” (Cameron Village/NCSU area, Crabtree, Mid-Town/North Hills, New Bern Ave and Wake Medical Center). Public transportation has not yet accommodated all the new people, but the city is striving to catch up in order to facilitate rapid growth. Still, at this point, most people don’t tend to walk, bicycle, or use public transportation for their commute. Eighty-eight percent of commuters drive their own car.

Conservative wanting to be progressive

This struggle plays out in politics, responses to state politics, desire to attract business to Wake County. There is a felt tension between Charlotte, the more liberal big NC city, and Raleigh the more conservative. Raleigh seems to be trying to break this mold as we have shifted from McCrory to Cooper, and continue to see activists working to repeal HB2 and speak loudly against Trump, among other things.

Old wanting to be modern

Matt Tomasulo running for Raleigh city council at-large in 2015, ran a slick campaign built around the idea of “making Raleigh a twenty-first century city.” There’s a narrative packed into that statement. Tomasula is the Founder and Chief Instigator behind Walk [Your City], an emerging civic platform to help cities put people first and embrace walkability through online tools that boost offline mobility.

Diverse and growing in diversity

The Research Triangle is drawing a diverse array of employees. There is a large Indian population in Morrisville. Refugees have settled in Raleigh and African and Hispanic immigrants continues to fill the Capital Blvd corridor.

Suburban morphing toward urban

The urban area in Raleigh is expanding from within the inner beltline to within the outer beltline. As growth centers expand along the inner beltline, population and business continues to expand between the beltlines. What was once suburban is turning urban, and “suburban” is now being pushed further out into places like Knightdale, Brier Creek, and Heritage.

Highly educated and achievement oriented

This is not a new shift but as with any large city, lots of people means there are lots of people more educated and more advanced than you are which means you will feel challenged to reach down and strive to do better. Home to eight colleges or universities, including NC State, Duke, and UNC, the Triangle will only continue to advance in education.

New subcultures emerging

Besides these big shifts, there are a number of interesting developments at the “subculture” level. There is greater interest in fitness and health (by the way, check out “The Church of CrossFit” from The Atlantic), there is a growing hipster and artist community, local coffee shops and small craft breweries keep popping up, and local t-shirts are a bit of a craze. More people seem to be identifying strongly as North Carolinians or Raleigh-ites, whether they were born here or in the Midwest like me.

Implications

So many people in RDU have relocated from other places, meaning they are far from family, detached from supportive networks, and “separated from extended families and under a great deal of stress.” At the same time, they’re feeling the pressure of a highly educated and achievement oriented setting. All of this means that we’re logistically we’re fast paced, busy. As Mary Bell said, “achievement is the alcohol of our time…these days the best people don’t abuse alcohol, they abuse their lives.” And that’s no less true in Raleigh than in so many larger cities.

Along with this, depression is a big struggle along with anxieties. People are seeking fulfillment in some constructed identity or achievement. At the same time, there is a large and growing international community, many of whom are struggling through the transition to life in a new country. They are also disconnected from family and roots, and struggle with depression, substance abuse and loneliness.

There is huge space for the gospel in the midst of all this. The gospel teaches us that no earthly achievements will ever satisfy the inner-cravings of the heart. That pursuit is like drinking salt-water to sate your thirst. The gospel also bring the indestructible joy of communion with God and the assurance of undoing life with him. This reality is emotionally stabilizing in the midst of life’s vicissitudes. And the gospel brings us into deep community with others, a community shaped by love, humility and mutual acceptance. These relationships are intended by God to make life bearable even blessed. The gospel speaks most fully to the aspirations of the human soul, and that is true in Raleigh as in every other part of the world.

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