THE SCENE on Main Street is almost surreal: Two cherubic children sit in strollers while their moms chat; a silver-haired woman walks past with bags from the Village Store; and countless backpack-wearing, coffee-carrying students stream out of a coffee shop and walk toward campus—all against the backdrop of a quaint downtown streetscape. This picture is not manufactured; there is no director calling “Action!” to bring the scene to life. Davidson really is this picturesque.
Strict planning ordinances guarantee that the redbrick buildings, historic houses, and wide sidewalks are a permanent part of the Davidson DNA. No drive-thrus are allowed, and a design review process for buildings and signage protects the historic charm of downtown. Sprawl, even if it were welcome, would be impossible: Davidson is sandwiched between the college campus and Lake Norman, keeping its downtown compact and walkable. “The whole town is about community, and our planning is designed that way,” says Kim Fleming, the town’s economic development manager. “Davidson is very intentional.”
For decades, most of the 12,200 residents of Davidson did not have home mail delivery and had to go to the post office, located in the heart of town, to pick up their mail. This was the town’s decision, Fleming says, made to bring people together as part of their daily routines. The post office started delivering to all Davidson homes in 2009, but one-third of residents still keep P.O. boxes.
Maintaining the small-town feel comes at a cost. The median sale price for a home in Davidson is $287,000. Prices can triple for homes within walking distance of downtown. In the mostly college-educated community, the median household income is more than $105,000.
Residents spend a good bit of that income on their local businesses, which makes downtown Davidson the heartbeat of the community in ways that other towns would love to emulate. Within a few blocks, it’s possible to take a Pilates class, shop for fresh produce, purchase original art, mail a package, get a haircut, and earn a degree—while taking breaks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—all without venturing off of Main Street.
Even schoolchildren are learning about the importance of being engaged citizens. Every Friday, fifth-graders from Davidson Elementary School go downtown to play on the Davidson Green and spend their allowances. The most popular splurge: The “Vermonster” sundae at Ben & Jerry’s.
t’s impossible to live in Davidson without having some connection to the college. It seems like everyone in town is either a student, graduate, faculty, staff, or married into a Davidson family. There are just 1,950 students enrolled at Davidson—which Forbes ranked the best college in the South and among the top 25 nationwide in 2016—but the recreational activities attract thousands more. Even those without a direct connection spend time on campus.
The stands are packed for Wildcats basketball games. The college also stages award-winning theater productions and has two art galleries. The entire 665-acre campus is an arboretum. The first plantings were done in 1861 and paths winding through campus show off an impressive collection of trees that make it a popular place for a stroll. Adjacent to campus, the Green serves as a formal gathering place during events such as Art on the Green and Concerts on the Green.
This fierce commitment to all-things-Davidson convinced Adah Fitzgerald that a local bookstore that might struggle in another suburb could thrive in Davidson. She purchased Main Street Books in 2015 after learning the owners planned to retire and sell it. Fitzgerald, a 2001 Davidson College grad, hoped the bookstore could become more than a local business. “We wanted to be that ‘third place’ that wasn’t home and wasn’t work but another place where people went to spend time,” she explains.
In the midst of coordinating author events, hosting story times, and recommending the latest in literary fiction, Fitzgerald—who also added a seating area in the back of the bookstore to let shoppers know they’re welcome to stay and read awhile—gained an even greater appreciation for the town where she went to school. “This is a smart town, a quirky town, with a huge number of interesting things to do,” she says. “It’s the kind of place where people enjoy the experience of getting to know each other.” —Jodi Helmer
Good to Know
Davidson really is a college town: 66.9 percent of residents over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher.