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Old Raleigh, meet the new.

Raleigh: Getting the old downtown back on its feet 

Old Raleigh, meet the new.

I feel the train before I hear it. The rails purr; the air hums. Finally, the 10:23 a.m. Carolinian whistles as it approaches Durham station, and coach passengers jockey for position on the platform. The woman in a hijab and her daughter are bound for New York City, where they'll transfer to a train to Canada. An elderly couple is dressed like time travelers from a bygone era: she in a crisp, ecru pantsuit, red lipstick and perfectly coiffed white hair; he in coffee slacks, a tidy navy-blue blazer and blue-and-white pinstriped shirt.

Amtrak rolls east, shimmying on its rails past industrial brownfields, green pastures and a Cary gas station advertising $3.18 for a gallon of regular unleaded. For that amount, by car, it would have cost at least as much as (if not more than) a roundtrip ticket—$10. Tired of the traffic, parking and gas prices, I've all but sworn off driving to Raleigh. I'll explore the best of the city by train, bus and on foot.

Within 30 minutes, a voice announces "Raleigh," and we pass Central Prison, which is certainly not the best of anything, unless it would be the best place to cut your hand on razor wire. I disembark on Cabarrus Street, a forlorn area just west of downtown. Closer to the city center blares the urban cacophony of Raleigh's renaissance: saws slicing metal. Bulldozers nudging dirt. Hammers pounding wood.

Once a sleepy Southern capital, Raleigh became notorious for its suburban sprawl, where conformity rules the strip malls and gated subdivisions; only now is the city reinvigorating its downtown. Yet, like the sign at a Martin Street check-cashing store reads: "Change is not free." Inevitably, downtown redevelopment has cost Raleigh some of its best attractions—Bickett Gallery and Kings, for example. And the harsh right angles of new high-rises collide with rounded, two-story Queen Anne homes, illustrating downtown's tension between preserving the best of the past and building the best future we can envision.

At the Farmers' Market in Moore Square Park - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS

That vision includes Moore Square Park, at Hargett and Blount streets, where the fledgling mid-week Farmers' Market is Raleigh's first foray into bringing local and regional food into a city setting. A woman, her belongings stuffed into three bags, suns herself on a bench. Behind her slumps a sand sculpture of an elephant. Nearby, a banjo and fiddle duo tentatively performs while state employees, retirees and moms pushing strollers peruse today's offerings: organic greens, strawberries, goat cheese, flowers, Lumpy's ice cream, hormone-free meat and wine. Scratch, a bakery, is selling personal-sized pies, including Mexican vanilla and Shaker lemon.

"We have the potential to convert people to eating healthy and local instead of going to major supermarkets," says market board member Jennifer Kelly, who moved to Raleigh two years ago from New York City. "Durham and Chapel Hill have always had this scene. Now Raleigh is doing that. People are moving here with more sophisticated demands."

Yet, sometimes, nothing fills the belly like a nitrate-laced hot dog. At the 97-year-old Person Street Pharmacy in Historic Oakwood (702 N. Person St., 832-6432), the line extends from the counter to the front door for Wednesday's special—two hot dogs for 99 cents. (The drug store is in back, in case anyone needs a nitroglycerin tablet afterward.) The counter crew can barely meet the demand, and it seems every table has at least one hot dog on it, some slathered in slaw and chili sauce, others as bare in their buns as newborn babes in a blanket. I opt for a chocolate malt. Geez-us wept. It's the best chocolate malt I've ever had. Ever. Smooth, gritless, yet thick, with the perfect calibration of malt, milk and ice cream. I feel like crying when I slurp the bottom of the cup dry.

On top of the drink cooler sits a journal where people can write their memories of the neighborhood mainstay. One entry is from Daniel Pippleton, who moved to Oakwood in the 1970s, when a Person's vanilla milkshake became one of his four food groups. "No matter who I met, I would always tell them of the neighborhood pharmacy where you could get a vanilla milkshake with three simple ingredients: milk, vanilla and ice cream," wrote Pippleton, now an Army Chief Warrant Officer and helicopter pilot in Hawaii, who occasionally returns to the area. "As I sit here sipping the shake, which was, by the way, made by a girl who probably wasn't even born yet the first time I tasted one, I wonder if she realizes how effortlessly she has helped me reconnect to my past."

My sugar high reconnects me to the downtown transit station to catch the Southbound No. 4 bus, which takes me to Quail Ridge Books & Music (3522 Wade Ave., 828-1588, quailridgebooks.booksense.com). This independent store is big enough to carry reading essentials for a vibrant literary life, but not so large as to feel impersonal. Plus, its magazine section is stocked with a small forest of tracts including Skyscraper, Wired, tricycle and The New Yorker. And the floor isn't carpeted with those pesky subscription cards that invariably fall out of a 'zine's pages.

I buy John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers, which details the unseen side of transportation—tractor-trailers, coal trains, boats. I have nearly all his books, I tell the cordial, knowledgeable clerk.

"Ah, a completist," he says. "We've got you right where we want you."

Yes, I'm afraid you do.

Capital Area Transit's No. 4 bus (www.raleigh-nc.org/transit) won't be back this way for 20 minutes, so I hike the half-mile or so to the Reedy Creek Greenway Trail at the corner of Hillsborough and Gorman streets, near Meredith College. Dotted by otherworldly metal sculptures, the 5.3-mile trail runs through to Umstead State Park with diversions to Schenck Forest, the N.C. Museum of Art and Loblolly Trail along the way.

Cup A Joe on Hillsborough Street - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

The sun is cauterizing my scalp, so I seek refuge in the air-conditioning of the No. 12 bus, which snakes around Cameron Village before stopping downtown. Public transportation is like pinball, in that hundreds of lives bounce off one another in a tight space. A man talks animatedly to himself in what sounds like Chinese. More people get on. And then more.

"Hi, I'm Jefferson," exclaims a man, extending his hand while sliding into the seat beside me. We chat about Indiana, where I'm from, which, as usual, leads the conversation to fellow Hoosier and aging rock star John Mellencamp.

Jefferson has a little ditty about "Jack and Diane."

"When that song 'Jack and Diane' came out," he announces, "someone went to the courthouse and looked up all the registered voters between ages 18-25 in the county and none of them were named Jack or Diane."

It's now standing room only and the orchestra of voices crescendos to deafening volume; I fear the windows may break. Stunned, a man in the front seat stares at everyone around him and yells: "Man, I'm looking for some peace!"

Not here, man. Not here.

For some solace, I hit one of city's best coffee spots, The Morning Times (8 E. Hargett St., 836-1204, morningtimes-raleigh.com), the teetotalin' cousin to the Raleigh Times Bar (14 E. Hargett St., 833-0999, raleightimesbar.com) next door. The windows are long and the ceilings, high. I'm alone, with my cup, for the first time today.

The 4:50 p.m. train to Durham (www.amtrak.com) is running a half-hour late. Someone call Mussolini. Over the station intercom, someone says flatly: "The funeral home is here."

"What's that?" I ask a crew member on the platform.

"It's a casket," he says, shaking his head as if creeped out by the idea. The body is headed for Charlotte. "You won't see it. It goes in baggage. They'll bring a forklift to load it."

The train arrives. I never see the coffin, but I imagine the body, resting inside, going home.

Although the Triangle Transit Authority (ridetta.org) pushed for a commuter train to connect Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill, the initiative failed. That's a shame, because TTA buses, while cheaper than the train ($4-$5 roundtrip), lack the allure of riding the rails. Nonetheless, I grab a morning TTA bus, which unlike its city counterparts is eerily quiet. Most passengers are N.C. State students or commuters to Research Triangle Park or Raleigh, and they are immersed in their laptops, textbooks and cell phones.

Brad Cook, who works at Schoolkids Records, eats a cookie - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

Coffee. I'm always looking for coffee. Percolator (5039 Falls of the Neuse Road, 713-0007, www.percolatorlounge.com) is an excellent suburban option, but I need caffeine now, not when the No. 2 bus can get me to North Raleigh. Cup A Joe, west of the N.C. State campus (3100 Hillsborough St., 828-9665, www.cspot.com), brewsor more aptly, refinescoffee to a 10W-40 thickness. It's strong, it's bold, it kicks my ass. I'm ready to play Donkey Kong, located in the smoking room, where the pressed-tin ceilings are painted yellow, the color of nicotine. I'm not a smoker, but I sit in that section, anyway. Its vibe feels like the back of a school bus: rebellious, cool and a little dangerous. A young woman wears giant sunglasses indoors. She smokes Marlboro Menthols. So much for dangerous.

Before heading to the art galleries in Boylan Heights, I stop by Reader's Corner (3201 Hillsborough St., 828-7024). Down the street, Nice Price Books and Schoolkids Records have hipper book and music selections (High Fidelity music snobs please note that Nice Price was playing a rare tune by psychedelic band the Checkmates in-store), but Reader's Corner beats 'em both for weirdness honors.

LPs by Jim Nabors and Foghat (next year's headliners at Bud Light Downtown Live, perhaps?) intermingle with sound effects records. Environments features "The Psychological Ultimate Seashore." On the back, listeners comment "fantastic for making love" and "better than a tranquilizer," and I wonder how one album can be both.

Born after 1985? Thumb through the 1971 edition of World Book encyclopedias and learn why your parents are so warped. The entry for now-banned DDT innocuously reads, "A popular name for a powerful insecticide." Or view a map of the U.S.S.R.

Let me tell you younguns, it was one honkin'-ass Communist country and the United States had its twitchy finger on the red button for 40 years because of it. In modern times, we use duct tape to protect ourselves from foreign attacks, but there are remnants of Raleigh's old fallout shelters downtown, in the old Justice Building at Morgan and Fayetteville streets (capacity 1,300, but when the big one drops, who's counting?) and the Capital Club Building at 16 W. Martin St.

I stop by Western Lanes Bowling Center (2512 Hillsborough St., 832-3533), and I'm again transported back to the Cold War era. There's no time for a game today, but I want to caress the retro, aqua-and-white vinyl seats and hold a bowling ball in my hands. The joint also serves food, but the heat has made me nauseated, meaning I also have to forgo a plate of my favorite French fries at Char-Grill (618 Hillsborough St., 821-7636, chargrill-nc.com), where flames lick the spatulas.

With its humble, restored bungalows, colorful flower gardens and serpentine streets, Boylan Heights (www.boylanheights.org), near southwest Raleigh, is the city's best historic neighborhood (at least that's what I think, at the risk of receiving angry letters from residents of Cameron Park, Oakwood and Glenwood). antfarm studios, an artists' cooperative, is tucked inside an old brick building in a nook at 303 Kinsey St. (828-2514, www.antfarmstudios.org). I hear metal being beaten, but this time it's not from construction. Inside, a man shapes steel over a hot fire, and the studio is cluttered inside and out with metal of all shapes and sizes.

Outside rests a shiny, silver Airstream, and I step over myriad pieces of rusted machinery hidden in the long grass to get to Rebus Works, which is on the same lot at 301-2 Kinsey St. (754-8452, www.rebusworks.us), but offers a more delicate inventory of elegant pottery and glassware.

I stand on a nearby overpass, a tangle of rail lines leading to downtown. Behind me, Bloomsbury Estates, a new condo project, rises over Boylan Heights, dwarfing the bungalows. To the east, three construction cranes hunch over the city, as if poised to pluck fish from a stream. Skeletons of half-finished buildings resculpt the skyline. Old Raleigh, meet the new.

  • Old Raleigh, meet the new.

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