Built on tobacco and textiles and anchored by Duke University, Durham has a long history of both working-class grit and rigorous intellectualism. Nationally recognized as a center for black-owned businesses around the turn of the 20th century and an important player in the Civil Rights Movement, the city is home to a strong and vibrant African American community. Though suburbanization emptied the downtown during the 1960s and ’70s, the red-brick city has recovered in recent years and is now experiencing rapid growth and change.
As new people move in and bulldozers make way for development, Durham has become a city of shifting demographics and stark contrasts. Warehouses hold tech startups beneath their now-defunct smokestacks and water towers, microbreweries and bistros alternate with aging auto-body shops and hardware stores, and renovated bungalows flank their sagging, dilapidated cousins. At one end of Durham’s Main Street, a meat-and-three serves oxtails with a gospel music soundtrack, and at the other, a dimly-lit tapas bar pours expensive wine and dishes out fancy olives.
In an effort to document the rapidly changing landscape of the earthy, creative, and passionate city, students in the Spring 2016 "Documenting Durham" class at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University each explored a single city block. Under our guidance, they spent six weeks in the field where they conducted interviews, made photographs, and worked toward an understanding of the people in their place and the various forces that have affected them over time.
While some students documented their own streets and neighborhoods, others explored territory less familiar to them. One student documented a block containing a Middle Eastern market, another captured a residential community for adults with disabilities, and still another set up camp outside the downtown post office and spoke with patrons who came and went.
Below, you will find a few of the stories they came away with.
THE 600-BLOCK OF PRIMITIVE STREET
A new Durhamite meets her neighbors in the heart of a diverse and fast-changing downtown neighborhood
By Lisa Watts
A dumpster. A work permit in a plastic stand. Short wood stakes with pink plastic ribbons. These are among the first signals that another house in Durham’s Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood is about to undergo a transformation. A sagging, weathered, 1920s bungalow will emerge in a few month shiny and new, shored up and updated. The new owners will arrive, joining the growing ranks of people like me who have recently chosen this little enclave as home.
My husband and I moved to this neighborhood from Greensboro two years ago. From our house, we can walk a half mile east to the city’s burgeoning downtown or a half mile northwest to a brewery, coffee shop, and our choice of restaurants. We can sit on our front porch and wave to neighbors strolling by with babies and dogs.
It wasn’t always this way. Cleveland-Holloway had its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, when wealthy families lived in the stately homes along Holloway and Cleveland streets, and laborers, teachers, and clerks filled the smaller homes in the interior blocks. As residents began heading for the suburbs in the 1960s, the area declined. By 2005, entire blocks sat empty, a neighbor tells me, and squatters occupied the vacant properties. As families began to renovate homes in the last 10 years, they’d find syringes on the sidewalk and hear gunshots at night.
Just after my husband and I relocated, a socially aware friend informed us that we had picked the epicenter of Durham’s gentrification wars. We knew none of the neighborhood’s history, just loved our newly renovated bungalow and its proximity to town. We started to worry: Had Bob and I just contributed to a “war”? Should we have bought a home in the suburbs to avoid being part of the problem? Would that have helped slow the changes?
Over time, we’ve met a few neighbors, and we exchange updates on the neighborhood with them: The house with a dumpster sprouted a for-sale sign; the tow-headed baby up the street suddenly started to walk. Honestly, though, we only know neighbors who look like us: the white, middle-class newcomers with one or two dogs. We don’t know the older black couple who sits on their porch and gives a small wave when we walk by. Or the Hispanic families with small kids wheeling by on scooters.
Five houses run up the street that extends perpendicularly from the front of our house. This block of Primitive Street is home to white, black, and Hispanic people, owners and renters, long-timers and newcomers, retirees and young families. It’s a perfect microcosm of our neighborhood. I set out to meet these neighbors and to learn how they feel about the changes.
Each household surprised me. The two families who recently bought here feel guilty about gentrification while also feeling relieved about a growing sense of safety. Felix, a longer-term owner with a large tarp covering much of his roof, agrees with Salomon next door to him: The neighborhood is as safe and quiet as it’s ever been.
Gentrification will keep steamrolling through this end of Durham as the city’s fortunes grow. Meanwhile, I’ve gotten to know my closest neighbors, for however long our paths cross.
“I like the diversity of Durham, the edgy feel of it. There’s no question it’s a bit of risk to live here. Angela thinks I don’t recognize it; she thinks I’m naive,” says Ken Meashey, who is retired but is a partner in renovating nearby houses.
“A lot of places we looked at just felt like little walled-off cities of other people moving here from Boston,” Andrew says. “The day we moved in here,” Jeanine remembers, “people kept stopping by to say hi and welcome us to the neighborhood. We go to kids’ birthday parties, the guys have gone to play basketball down at the park, people have met up for drinks.”
“I’m happy about the changes. There used to be a lot of people fighting and cursing, they used to make a lot of noise. Right across the street there, it was noisy. It’s much better now.”
“It was much worse here years ago, much more crime. People used to break your windows and steal your stereo, that kind of thing. People used to cut across my driveway and steal tools from my shed back here. In the last two or three years, there’s been a lot of new people, it’s been quieter, safer. Muy tranquillo.”
THE 1100-BLOCK OF WEST CHAPEL HILL STREET
Three markets cater to diverse crowds on West Chapel Hill Street
By Liza Hoos
The 1100 block of West Chapel Hill Street hosts an eclectic mix of businesses, including T-Mac’s Custom Window Tinting, Tabernacle of Joy Ministries, and a Mediterranean fast food joint called Quick Meal, where you can drive through to pick up a gyro, philly cheese-steak, or funnel cake, among other treats. Other buildings on this block have more mysterious purposes, like the lonely 1920s era house that, according to Google Maps, contains a boat rental service (no signs or boats on site support this claim), or a diminutive white brick building with multiple “NO TRESPASSING” and “KEEP OUT” signs taped to darkened windows.
Though some buildings on the block appear seldom entered, three markets here stay consistently busy. The first of these is Al Taiba Market, a boxy brick building on the north side of the street with front windows completely covered by advertisements for food items imported from the Middle East. Inside, Anwar Jawad stands behind the butcher counter and weighs a cut of lamb for a customer. Al Taiba is one of the only places in Durham to buy Halal or Kosher meat. Anwar effortlessly recites an abbreviated list of the countries his customers hail from, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, China, and Mexico. He speculates that if he still lived in Jerusalem, he wouldn’t be in such frequent contact with people from so many different places. “That’s what’s good about America,” he says.
A few buildings west of Al-Taiba is University Market, where Alaadin El Hamalawi, originally from Kuwait, has worked for 25 years. A steady stream of people moves in and out of this gas station convenience store, and El Hamalawi treats every customer like a close friend. He greets them with a quick, soft, and casual, “Hey baby, how you doing?” before ringing up the cost of their gas, cigarettes, lottery tickets, or soft drinks. “The neighborhood used to be a bad neighborhood, a very bad neighborhood — gang stuff, and shooting each other and stuff,” he says. “And then in 20 years, the neighborhood changed completely, for the better.” Now he is no longer nervous walking home late at night.
Across the street from University Market stands the most recent addition to the block, the one-year-old Durham Co-op Market. A local alternative to Whole Foods, the Co-op caters to the health and environmentally-conscious who want organic, fresh, and sustainably-grown food. A huge event calendar on an inside wall lists monthly events such as Meatless Mondays, Wednesday Winesdays, and Thursday $3 vegan-friendly dinners.
As downtown Durham grows, its challenge will be to maintain a wide variety of businesses serving the needs of diverse groups of people. As El Hamalawi says, “It’s like if you want to make juice: if you mix one [fruit] by itself, it tastes good, but that’s normal. But when you put a lot of fruits in it, it makes a difference, makes it taste better. That’s what makes Durham special now… It has a lot of cultures, a lot of people mix, mix, and mix.”
THE 400-BLOCK OF MAPLE STREET
The three young members of the Maple Street Blackjack Club make their own rules
“You just hit them a few times — maybe a couple, or up to twenty. But not hard; you can’t hurt them,” says Anderson Bunting, a freckle-faced 11-year-old, in reference to his opponents in the game of Sweeper, which he created with his partner-in-crime, D’Shaun Lyons, two years and 10 inches his junior.
“Can I be the sweeper first?” asks Dereon Barrett, the only girl in the group and the youngest of the three. Her perfectly braided hair has pieces of purple woven in today, and she wears it fashionably up to one side. At just eight years old, Barrett exudes confidence and warmth. As the three wander her yard getting ready for the game, her Yorkie, Taz, follows their every move, leash dragging behind.
Dereon Barrett, Age 8
“I am strong... My mom does my hair. A lot of people play with my hair because it’s nice. I have a lot of friends and stuff at school . . . At my daycare, I’m a cheerleader... My dog is really sweet; he gets a bath every night, and he sleeps with me.”
Club name: Hello Kitty
Stick name: The Juggernaut
Anderson Bunting, Age 11
“To be in the club you need strength, stamina, and agility. And you need to be a good fighter. I’m really strong...I’m the leader, because I put together the group. We made our own symbol, but it’s not like a gang symbol; we’re just a group of kids. ”
Club name: White Death
Stick name: The Reaper
D’Shaun Lyons, Age 9
“We need armor. I’m gonna make the armor. I’m a good fighter too . . . Next snake I see, I’ll take two knives, cut the tail off with one, then cut the head off with the other. Bam, bam! You need some help carrying all those groceries in”?
Club name: Chaos
Stick name: Trygon
On this one-block stretch of Maple Street, between Taylor and Southgate, there are three homes and two duplexes. Among the seven residences, you’ll find eight adults, one teenager, five dogs, four cats, and the three aforementioned kids. Across the street is a giant rock wall and chain link fence that surrounds the soccer field at Holton Career & Resource Center. Aside from my husband and me, everyone on our block is renting, and the house at the center of the block seems to be unoccupied, from what we’ve all observed. “That backyard is where all the snakes come from,” Keisha Lyons, D’Shaun’s mother, has asserted on several occasions.
None of us have lived on Maple Street more than a few years, but in that short time we’ve watched the surrounding neighborhood, for better or for worse, change a lot. It reached the depth of its decline in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but over the last 20 or so years, houses have been rehabilitated, and the area has become safe enough for neighbors to sit on their porches. All the while, the only three kids on this quiet, sparsely populated block have banded together to make things much more lively.
On a warm afternoon in March, as birds chirp, wisteria blooms, and the youth soccer season begins across the street, the trio explains the rules of Sweeper—a role-playing game involving stick weapons and a robot—to me. Though the occasional car drives way too fast down the sloped road, the three kids of Maple Street are as street-smart as you could hope of elementary schoolers.
Days later, I see the boys run back and forth across our yard between their two homes several times. I can tell they’re up to something, and excited, as usual. They’re swinging their sticks as they proudly announce their new club — Blackjack. In great detail, Bunting explains that besides the fact that they’re anticipating an apocalypse, the club’s main focus is to become good fighters. They want to be better prepared for the neighborhood kids who have given them trouble in the past. “We’re always threatened, because we’re the ‘losers’,” he says using air quotes, with raised brows and wide, annoyed eyes.
Though things don’t always go these kids’ ways, they all agree they like living on Maple Street and imagine they will live here a long time. Though that’s not in their control, one thing is clear: these kids look out for each other while they’re here. Barrett says she likes having the boys around at school and home, and Bunting refers to Lyons as his brother. As Maple Street evolves, I’m confident these kids will evolve along with it and that the Blackjack Club will be prepared.
THE 800-BLOCK OF NORTH STREET
The residents of North Street embody hospitality
The North Street Community between Geer Street and Northwood Street gives full expression to the language of welcome. On this block, inviting porches and edible landscapes create vital communal space for residents to gather and greet. People slow down and give full attention to each other. It’s a community alive with relationships.
The neighborhood reflects the visioning of a small group of families involved in Reality Ministries, a Durham-based organization that creates opportunities for adults with and without disabilities to experience belonging. The vision came to fruition in 2011 when a Chapel Hill property group bought a block of 16 dilapidated apartment buildings near Fullsteam Brewery not to flip and sell, but rather to rehabilitate and create space for adults of all abilities, limitations, gifts, and challenges to share in life together.
The neighborhood occupies a small part of the ever-changing cityscape of Durham, where questions of thoughtful revitalization, affordability, and displacement loom large. Though small in scope, North Street is a departure from the ubiquitous market-rate projects taking shape in Durham. Its formation, realized over time, reflects an attentiveness to people who often remain unseen in our Durham communities.
If you walk down Northwood Street, you are guaranteed a greeting, or you might even be invited in. There is a radiance cast by the residents you encounter. “For my brother, the daily exchanges with neighbors and strangers have been transformative,” says Catherine Preston, who moved into the community with her brother Tom in May of 2013, after their mother died. Catherine has been a part of the visioning of North Street since the beginning. Before they moved into their space, her brother insisted on two essentials for the house: a big kitchen and lots of light. “So now our windows give Tom the opportunity to see people,” Catherine says, smiling. “It takes him time to make friends, but now I can encourage him to run out and say hello. Plus, Tom can walk everywhere! To the grocery, Wells Fargo, and even Duke’s East Campus.”
At North Street, residents do not see disability as a barrier. “It is not that us with abled-bodies are making things possible for people with disabilities,” says Susan McSwain, director of Reality Ministries and resident of North Street, “but we are all enriched by a sense of belonging.”
The community hopes to extend the mark of hospitality further as they refurbish the last of the 16 buildings, on the corner of North and Geer streets, into a space they will call “The Corner House,” dedicated to residents who might not be able to pay the standard rental rate. “We will make room for those with needs God longs to meet,” says Greg Little, the resident of North Street who gave birth to the vision of the Corner House. He will soon move in with his wife Janice. “I know it is just one house,” Little adds, “but the vision of the house is a bunch of small gestures of love, service, and tenderness to the most marginalized. We hope to embody little acts of welcome and small gestures of making room.”
THE 100-BLOCK OF EAST GEER STREET
The organizations on East Geer Street collaborate to serve at-risk members of the community
By Holly Bourne
“A lot of our clients don’t really care if Durham is written up in the New York Times,” says Eliza Bordley of Inter-faith Food Shuttle, one of the nonprofit agencies located on the 100 block of Geer Street. She is alluding to the tide of gentrification sweeping Durham.
Walk a few blocks west of the hunger-relief nonprofit, and you encounter a sprawl of fashionable restaurants, craft breweries, and coffee houses. Walk just one block east, and you have entered census tracts 9, 10, and 11, consistently the poorest tracts in Durham.
The businesses located on this short block of Geer Street are well aware of the dichotomy pressing in on Durham. They focus their work on the communities that have resided here long before Durham became a trend-setting destination.
Back in the mid 1960’s, these blocks of Durham contained beautiful homes and thriving small businesses. But slowly the demographics changed, and for many decades, this block suffered from serious urban blight. Banks foreclosed and abandoned buildings, and prostitution, drug transactions, and crime took over.
Founded in 1986 and located in the stately brick building at 110 E. Geer, the nonprofit Reinvestment Partners, an advocate for economic justice and promoter of wealth in underserved communities, worked with the City of Durham to rehabilitate most of the historic buildings on the block, which now sit beautifully appointed. “When we started the revitalization [in 2011], there were over four hundred 9-1-1 calls at the corner of Geer and Roxboro,” says Reinvestment Partners Executive Director Peter Skillern.
Many of the buildings Reinvestment Partners brought back to life now hold organizations working for good. In a bright yellow house, Sunrise Recovery Resource Center serves around 30 clients daily, providing them warm meals, substance abuse counseling, and job assistance. Another building, a 1920’s gas station, is home to Bull City Cool, Durham’s first food hub and Reinvestment Partners’ latest entrepreneurial project. Launched in September 2015, Bull City Cool aims to strengthen Durham’s local food system by offering cold storage, office space, and community meeting space to non-profit and for-profit food agencies.
In between these buildings and in the center of the block sits the Geer Street Learning Garden, a half-acre patch of planted vegetable rows, greenhouses, and compost piles, operated by Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, a tenant at Bull City Cool. Bordley, the Shuttle’s Urban agricultural manager, explains the organization’s goals: “We have positioned ourselves near the poorest tracts of Durham and are engaging kids at nearby elementary schools,” she says. “Research shows if kids catch the bug, parents catch the bug.” In addition to engaging children, the Learning Garden invites the clients at Sunrise Recovery to volunteer every Wednesday in exchange for some of the bounty. This type of reciprocal relationship is one of many examples of the creative work taking place on Geer Street.
Alone and together, the organizations on the 100-block of the street demonstrate the power of urban renewal and community connectedness by changing the lives of people in Durham’s at-risk communities.
THE 300-BLOCK OF EAST CHAPEL HILL STREET
Patrons of the downtown post office share their views on the changing city around them
The interior of the U.S. Post Office on Chapel Hill Street in Durham is a solemn space, cool and dim, with a long, vaulted gallery in terra cotta, wood and brass—a perfect 1930s New Deal kind of space meant to affirm and inspire. In one corner, you can make copies for 15 cents a page. Past the glass-topped and green felt counters and next to a row of closed service windows stands a small display: a makeshift museum housing an impermanent collection of artifacts and ephemera without context or explanation. There are a handful of unnamed tools and Columbia selling savings bonds. Archival photos show cranes pulling a building out of the ground.
Though it is an anachronistic environment, a post office is a lens into contemporary life, one of the few places in town where everyone turns up, where everyone is welcome. Like the makeshift museum, it displays its denizens without fanfare. Here’s Kevin. Here’s Terrence. Here’s Wally, and here’s Anita.
Kevin was born and raised in Durham. He works at the 21c, a boutique hotel that he says, ten years ago, would have been impossible to imagine in Durham. “Old Durham is a place you would not come downtown.” But New Durham — “New Durham is an experiment,” he says. It started with the nightlife, he says. Before, the only reason to come downtown was to go to the post office or the courthouse. But then Durham developed a nightlife. And now it has a day life too.
Terrence has been working the block up and down, soliciting people for help. He looks like he has trouble moving, like an old injury has stayed with him. He says he’s lived in Durham off and on for twenty years. He’s seen the change, but he’s not sold on New Durham. “You clean it all up, but you don’t clean the problem up,” he says. “It’s all cleaned up, but the killing’s still going on.” He’s trying to get to Raleigh.
Wally needs to drop off a package. Dressed in khaki slacks, a navy guayabera, and Rockports, he has a springy stride. “I’m doing my best impression of Telly Savalas,” he says, working on a Tootsie Pop. Wally lived in Durham as a child, the son of a policeman, but moved to Raleigh as an adult before returning to the Bull City just over a decade ago. He says he likes living here, likes that his neighbors get upset when he doesn’t ask them for help painting his porch. He calls it “The Care Aspect”— that’s what makes Durham different. “The city went through a dark time but it came back because people started to care,” he says.
Anita doesn’t want to talk. She says she’s not been feeling well today. Then she makes her way slowly into the post office to attend to whatever business she has inside. But on her way back out to her car, she says she’d like to help out by allowing her photo to be taken. Here's Anita. And here is Durham.