I love Fayettteville, in eastern North Carolina. I have been visiting once a month, mostly on business, for the last 5 years or so. Before that, I had never been, even though Fayetteville is only over an hour away from where I have spent most of my life, the Triangle in North Carolina.
Before visiting, when I was much younger, I read about Fayetteville a lot, in history books. I grew up in Hillsborough NC, and starting at age 10 or so, I became fascinated with the Revolutionary and Antebellum history of North Carolina. Hillsborough had been a backwoods capital, and many of the buildings still stood from that time, piquing my interest. From what I could understand, Fayetteville was also a Colonial capital of North Carolina, and the history was the same. There were Constitutional Conventions held in Fayetteville, just like those in Hillsborough, including the one that chartered the first public university, the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill. Also, a historic building that still stands in Fayetteville, the Cool Springs Tavern, looks eerily similar to one of my favorite buildings on Earth, the Colonial Inn in Hillsborough.
With those visuals as my only compass, boy was I in for a surprise the first time I barreled into Fayetteville via State Hwy 87. The first landmark you encounter is not a historic building, but the expansive (19 square miles) Fort Bragg Army Base that Fayetteville might be best known for. Fort Bragg dominates Fayetteville, or rather the 30,000 people that live on or around the base.
Fort Bragg experienced one of its biggest building booms in the 1960’s, between World War II and the Vietnam War. Amazingly, a lot of these buildings still survive, and are used daily as businesses, public spaces and homes. Where I live and work, in Durham, and Chapel Hill, developers have almost erased any trace of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and have paved those old buildings over with 40,000 square feet faceless buildings, which stand behind 4,000 parking spots, housing Wal-Marts and Petco and Costco, and Best Buy. Fayetteville has some of these stores, mostly dotting the All-American Expressway. But, if you concentrate on State Hwy’s 24 and 87, and U.S. Hwy’s 301 and 401, you will be transported 40 years back in time. Not in a museum, but in a living world of yesteryear.
First, you will notice the pawn shops, clustered around the base. They have names like Ace and Jerry’s, and the windows are plastered with the insignias of the Airborne units stationed at Fort Bragg, a nod to their best customers. You will then see the stereo shops, for those with a bit more spending money. My favorite is Stereo World, on Bragg Blvd. This place oozes stereo cool, and you just know they have outfitted thousands of bubble window converison vans with top of the line stereo equipment.
Night clubs are everywhere, littering the aluminum clad strip malls that line Bragg Blvd. and the highways. Many have very cool names; Bottom’s Up, The Lotus Room, Jester’s, The Shady Lady Lounge are just a few of them. The most eerie is the Palomino, which occupies half of a dingy, brick fronted strip mall on Owen Drive. From the name I am guessing the motif is country, and I gues one of the selling points of visiting is that if the Palomino isn’t your style, a topless bar takes up most of the rest of the strip mall. Each time I pass it is daytime, and so there are no cars in the parking lot, as if the places were closed for good. Only at night is the parking lot used.
My two favorite storefronts are on Bragg Blvd. The first is a Krispy Kreme. I know these are all over, but Fayetteville still holds on to its original Krispy Kreme building, white bricks, arching roof with lots of glass, and the towering neon Krispy Kreme sign that teeters over the 4 lane highway, enticing all with “Hot Doughnuts Now!”
The other is Animal Fair Pet Shop, which lures pet lovers in with a circus theme sign. A circus train car, the kind that would hold animals in the Dumbo movie, is painted on the front of the store, to create the iullusion you are stepping into a happy circus when entering the pet store. I thought mom and pop pet stores were extinct, but Fayetteville has one. And, once finished shopping here, you can walk a block south down Bragg Blvd to a neighboring store named “Uptown Undies,” which advertises lingerie and novelties.
The soldiers in Fayetteville really shape the city. I first realized this in the way people drive. People in Fayetteville drive aggressive, and fast! You will be motoring down one of the highways, and a truck set up high on custom wheels, or a motorcycle will go screaming past you, and cut into your lane, the driver with short hair and a big grin on his face. I asked my good friend who lived on and around Fort Bragg for almost 20 years why this was and he told me this,
“(As a soldier) You work and train every day and that training is how to kill someone or how not to be killed. Your superior officer is always telling you that your unit is on standby, and most times its a false alarm, which is stressful in itself. But, once a year, its not a false alarm, and you have 24 hours to hug and kiss your wife and kids, and tell them that you love them and you will see them soon. But, you aren’t sure if you will see them again, let alone soon. So, yes, sometimes you drive way too fast, or get in a fight, or tell someone to shove off, or screw around, and sometimes you don’t care about the consequences, because you do not know if you are even going to be around to face them.”
And, you see that very sentiment on some of the soldiers’ faces, men and women. Others have a distant look. Not scared, just a look on their face like they really have a lot on thier mind. I always notice how striking they are, these people who protect all of us overseas and in the United States. Fit men and women, walking with model-like posture in fatigues. The men with close cut hair, and muscles in their arms as big as my head. The women are thin, hair up, maybe under one of those lopsided berets the Airborne units wear. Drinking coffee out of a paper cup, or a beer out of a pint glass, just like you and I do.
Since I don’t live near a military base, I have to stop myself from staring at anyone in uniform, I just don’t see it everyday. But, in the grocery stores and banks and restaurants of Fayetteville people barely notice that ten percent of the other customers are in uniform.
I am mesmerized, by the buildings, by the people, by what’s a bit different every time I visit Fayetteville. Besides work I have visited a few other times alone, making photographs of all the scenes I find so visually appealing. I hope to make a trip to Fayetteville into weekend trip with the family. We’ll shop the flea market at the old drive-in movie theatre, maybe check out the Airborne Museum downtown, eat hot doughnuts, and say thank you to any soldiers we see.