Westin Resort & Spa, Hilton Head, SC, July 2, 2020, 10:00 am

It was a warm summer morning, and we were on the 3rd floor of our hotel patiently waiting for the elevator.   It had been six long Covid-angst ridden months of social distancing, masking and not leaving the house – we were ready for these few days of vacation.

This being the pre-vaccine Covid era, we – as so many other parents – were rightfully concerned about the impacts of the deadly virus.  Fully masked, the five of us entered the elevator, when another couple butted in.

Politely, my partner asked: “Would you please mind waiting on the next ride?”

Aggressively, the woman responded yes, they would indeed mind – and since they were “healthcare professionals” we didn’t need to worry.

I told my then five-year-old daughter (as my three-year-old and one year old watched dumbfounded) – in German “dear step away, this lady is a bit weird”.

As we finally reached the garage, I told my daughters (in English) “please, step away – their time is more valuable than ours”.

The woman screamed at me: “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?

Those words have echoed ever since.

It’s a phrase that was uttered a lot in my native Germany, where as a Nepali-German, I was never quite accepted as a local (despite being born in Germany and German being my first language).

It’s a phrase that has deep racist roots (and is now the title of a best-selling memoir that tries to reclaim the phrase).

It’s a phrase that I haven’t (yet?) heard in Chapel Hill, to where I moved seven years ago, after many years in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.   In Chapel Hill, unlike in South Carolina, I haven’t seen a Confederate flag – Ukrainian flags are far more prevalent.  In Chapel Hill, when I take my daughters to the playground, we hear all sorts of languages spoken – and they’ve come to love the diversity and feel at home here.

Yet – as I get more involved in the local politics of the town – I can’t help but notice the same ugly undercurrent.

As I drive through town and see the ugly signs saying “No to Rezoning – Save Chapel Hill” – I can’t help but associate it with a rejection of the ideals of this nation.   A nation that on one of its most famous monuments has the inscription:

 “…Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Our country has not always lived up to the ideal – much of that has been noted; but shouldn’t we as an enlightened community strive to live up to those ideals?

Shouldn’t Chapel Hill increase its density in a smart, efficient, livable manner for all?   Or should all the teachers, firemen, grocery workers, mechanics, grad students live elsewhere and drive many miles to our town?   If they are good enough to work here, why can they not live here?

What are opponents of the smart-growth strategies that this town is pursuing really saying?   To me, it seems the opponents are essentially screaming “go back to where you came from.”

We should reject this – we should truly “Save Chapel Hill” from that ugly past and move forward, and embrace those that would love to live, rent, own and contribute even more to our community.

Christian Matthaeus (@madbaker47) is a financial consultant and has lived in Chapel Hill with his family since 2016. He grew up in Germany and Nepal, which influenced his love for walkable and bike-able...