Tin Top, a.k.a. Tintop or Tin Top Alley, once known as a party place of sorts and described by some as a “rough neighborhood,” came into being as early as the 1920s but was mostly physically gone by the 1940s. Its name was derived from the "tin" or metal roofs that were on the houses in the neighborhood. Tin Top’s northern boundary was East Main (then also known as Jones Ferry Road) and Rosemary Street (later the West Franklin extension); its southern boundary was just south of present-day Brewer Lane; its western boundary was the textile mill property
, Carrboro Cemetery
, and the railroad track; and its eastern boundary was Merritt Mill Road (and later the the West Franklin/East Main connector). What was called "Tintop Alley" may have become Brewer's Lane in the 1940s.
The area was perhaps first occupied due to it being affordable property because it was somewhat of a "no-man's land" between Carrboro and Chapel Hill (i.e. a somewhat marginal piece of land; local author Daphne Atlas
-- who once lived on the edge of Tin Top beginning in 1939 -- called it "a black belt" that "did and does now separate Chapel Hill from Carrboro"), and because a seasonal creek ran through the area which likely began at a spring (either or both of these would have ensured a source of water). It was also within convenient distance to Carrboro’s business district and to Chapel Hill’s African American business district, and West Franklin Street and East Main were the routes of NC Highway 14
and Highway 54 through Chapel Hill and Carrboro at the time.
One of the earliest sections of the neighborhood was known as "Kent Court" (see 1915 Sanborn map excerpt below); also part of the original neighborhood was Eden Court (later Seminole Place), Trice Field, St. Paul's A.M.E. Church
, the original Mt. Olive Lodge (i.e. Masonic/Odd Fellows lodge), and the Quaker School
. Initially it seems as if the edges of the neighborhood consisted of mostly white families, but by the 1920s the neighborhood apparently was becoming known as a predominantly black neighborhood as lots and houses for sale were marketed to African American families
when it was subdivided. Part of the neighborhood (Seminole Place) was developed by Luther Hargraves in the early 1920s as housing for local African American residents (during the Depression, Luther Hargraves is said to have not collected rent on his properties if the tenants were unable to pay; however, he apparently soon went bankrupt and his properties were foreclosed on by the bank). Other parts of the neighborhood were developed by Otis Neville (see below), Frank Brewer, and others. The railroad line, which ran between Carrboro and the UNC campus and through Tin Top, was constructed in the early 1920s, and soon became the pedestrian short cut between Chapel Hill and Carrboro; the East Main/West Franklin Street connector (which straightened out and simplified the route of Highway 14 and 54) was constructed sometime between 1925 and May 1929. Both divided the neighborhood more or less in half.
Likely due to the Great Depression
and the poverty that came along with it, the Tin Top area became known as an area of "ill respute," and alcohol and other such "vices" were apparently readily available. A 1939 study of housing in Chapel Hill characterized the housing in Tin Top as consisting of “crude shanties with leaning chimneys, single rooms which once were constituents of real dwellings, open wells, no wells at all, one and two-room cabins with meager and make-shift furnishings" and dwellings that were "scattered at random about an open meadow and approached only by narrow footpaths.” However, based on the Sanborn maps of Chapel Hill, one can see there were also more substantial dwellings on the edges of the neighborhood and clustered around the church. Perhaps, behind these structures was where the above-described "substandard housing" was located, and/or the structures may have been located just south of the railroad tracks. Daphne Atlas wrote in her book Chapel Hill in Plain Sight
: “Past the knoll of Merritt Mill Road, later called Knoll’s Development
, was the black tin town with guitars, laughter, and screams wafting up on hot Saturday nights... .”
Tin Top seems to have faded away as an entity/physicality during or just after World War Two, at the same time that Chapel Hill's population greatly expanded due to increased enrollment at UNC (and perhaps more public scrutiny due to numerous and seemingly frequent murders occurring there and being reported in local newspapers). The former neighborhood was further erased when Carr Court
was developed on the former Eden Court/Seminole Place property in 1954, when the shopping center that the Arts Center
and the Cat’s Cradle
currently occupy and the former Performance
building were constructed in the late 1960s, and when the cement plant/quarry was built in the 1980s-1990s. And some remaining traces of it were further erased with the construction of the 300 East Main
Today, there are still several structures that survive from the former neighborhood; all seem to have been built in the mid-to-late 1920s. They are the Church of God (outlined in blue, on a map below), the former dwelling that now houses Back Alley Bikes (formerly Nice Price Books) (outlined in red, on a map below), and the dwelling located to the southwest of the church (outlined in yellow, on a map below). No other contemporary structures exist; the (now abandoned) houses and the automotive shop (also referred to as the "junk yard") behind the former Performance building were constructed in the late 1950s. The seasonal creek and spring that was in the middle of the neighborhood was modified (culverted) when the railroad went through the neighborhood, and was further modified when the now abandoned buildings and the shopping center were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s.
Kent Court, 1915 Sanborn map excerpt
Property of Otis Neville, 1924 (lots 12 and 13 became the 'Church of God' property)
1944 map excerpt showing Tin Top area
1925 Sanborn map excerpt showing Tin Top area
1932 Sanborn map excerpt showing Tin Top area
1945 Sanborn map excerpt showing Tin Top area
1955 USDA aerial photograph excerpt showing former Tin Top area
2011 Google Maps excerpt showing site of Tin Top (with original/historic structures outlined)
The Church of God, view west, August 2011
Back Alley Bikes/Nice Price Books/etc., view west, August 2011
The dwelling southwest of the church, view south-west, August 2011
From the May 4, 1938 Daily Tar Heel
From the May 20, 1947 Daily Tar Heel
Atlas, Daphne. Chapel Hill in Plain Sight: Notes from the Other Side of the Tracks. Hillsborough: Eno Publishers, 2010. 32-34.
Brown, Agnes. The Negro Churches of Chapel Hill: A Community Study. Unpublished M.A. Thesis, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 1939.
Chapman, John. Black Freedom and the University of North Carolina, 1793-1960. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina. 2006.
Mark Chilton, personal communication.
Ernie Dollar, personal communication.
Freeman, Charles M. Growth and Plan for a Community: A Study of Negro Life in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, North Carolina. Unpublished master’s thesis. University of North Carolina, 1944.
Orange County Register of Deeds Office
Deed Book 85, page 547 (1924)
Deed Book 83, page 326 (1925)
Deed Book 92, page 9 (1929)
Deed Book 132, page 245 (1949)
Deed Book 133, page 8 (1949)
Plat Book 1, page 23 (1924)
Plat Book 5, page 43 (1954)
Sanborn Map Company. Map of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 1915, 1925, 1932, 1945.
David Southern, personal communication. (Also, thanks to David for providing the 1924 land auction ad from the Chapel Hill Weekly.)
USDA aerial photos of Chapel Hill. AJV-8-54 (1938), 8P-124 (1955).
U.S. Federal Census. Chapel Hill Township. 1910, 1920, 1930.