I grew up on the stories my dad told me about the Durham of his childhood.
These were rich tales about a magical place where he and his friends played sandlot football, boxed at the John Avery Boy’s Club, and went to the Regal Theater (the Carolina Theater being segregated at that time) to watch chapter movies. He talked about going to Garrett’s Drug Store on Sundays, which was owned by Dr. Garret, an African-American pharmacist. If my dad, uncle, and aunt behaved themselves during the church service at White Rock Baptist church, he said they’d get the best ice-cream soda floats there.
Once this area was called Black Wall Street because of the thriving African-American business there. My grandfather worked at one of the foundations of that business community his entire life, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance company. The Mutual building my grandfather worked in is still there, but most of what was around during my dad’s childhood is not. Even the street he grew up on, then called Glenn, is now called Gillette. Urban renewal or as some in my community say, “urban removal,” came in with a vengeance when Highway 147 was built through the heart of what once was.
I didn’t grow up in Durham, but I became a writer here. I rented an apartment not far from Ninth Street, a small humble place that I could afford on a night security guard’s hourly wage. During the day, I wrote in the basement of the Regulator Bookshop, which then had a café. I ate at Bhans Cuisine every day, made friends with a tattoo artist at what was then Dogg Star Tattoo parlor, and had countless thought-provoking conversations over the hum of the tattoo machine. I knew many of the business owners by their first names, as well as the panhandlers. It was like the sitcom “Cheers.” It was the peace that comes with going where everybody knows your name, but instead of that place being a bar, it was a whole street. I lived in that apartment near Ninth Street seven years, wrote a book of poetry, several plays, and co-founded an arts and activism organization there.
I now live in a different part of the city, and when I return to my old haunts on Ninth Street ... well, when I saw the Waffle House there, I felt like someone hit me in the face with a brick. No disrespect to the Waffle House, but that’s not where the Waffle House goes. With the exception of the Jimmy Johns, Ninth street has always felt like a mom and pop small independent business place, where there’s hardly any turnover and you know folks. Parking that was once free is now metered. I understand this as change. For some, it is progress. For me, progress is often in the eye of the beholder. Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be shaped. It should be. The question is, who gets to do the shaping, and who gets to benefit from it.
Musicians, visual artists, and poets gave folk a reason to go downtown again. Now, most artists can’t afford to live anywhere near downtown. It also seems that the revitalization has done little for the surrounding community other than making it more expensive to live there. And yes, it’s nice, to have bikes offered by the city for people to rent. It looks hip and renewable-sustainable-chic, but as a friend intimated in a Facebook post, it would be better to spend that money on putting sidewalks in the surrounding community or more shelters for bus stops, so folks don’t get drenched in the rain while waiting on a bus to go to work.
As we move forward into a new year. It’s important that we pay attention to the changes taking place in our city, that we get involved and express our opinions so that when the changes happen, they happen with us rather than to us. As new energy and people from other places choose the Bull City, we should welcome them, but that doesn’t correlate to letting them rearrange all the furniture in our house without our say so. There is a feel, a personality, a certain character about Durham that transcends generations and makes it the unique place that it is. In the midst of these changing times, we have to hold onto that.
Howard Craft is a playwright who lives in Duham. Wrote to him in c/o firstname.lastname@example.org and share your reaction to this column at email@example.com