‘A breath of fresh air’

Sep. 05, 2013 @ 05:30 PM

For generations, the three-story brick building at 107 S. Driver Street was filled with the bustle and noise of boys and girls getting an education.  Opened in 1910 as the East Durham Graded School, and later named Y. E. Smith Elementary, it was a school until the 1970s.

But in the four decades since, it has stood either vacant or vastly under-used, all the while sadly deteriorating.

Today, though, it once again is a vibrant school, and Wednesday afternoon community leaders, neighbors and many who have worked to rehabilitate and renovate the building gathered to celebrate that fact and snip a ceremonial ribbon officially marking the school’s rebirth.

The ribbon-cutting marked a milestone in three story lines that all are worth celebrating.

One is the success of Maureen Joy Charter School, the school that with its move to the Driver Street site from its home for many years on Cornwallis Road has room for planned growth. It also has planted itself firmly in a community from which many of its students already came – bringing it closer to them and opening a wide array of possibilities for more parental involvement in the school and more school involvement in the neighborhood.

And the increasingly dramatic rebirth of that neighborhood has been and will be aided significantly by the repopulating of the school building – and the investment, not just of capital but commitment, that it represents.  The refurbishing of the Holton School into a career center a few years ago, the relighting of a spark in the commercial district around Angier Avenue and Driver Street, the city’s now-underway streetscape project in the area and the work of many organizations and the neighborhood itself are paying off in a major way.

And finally, the partnership between Maureen Joy and Self-Help Ventures Fund has saved a building of major historic significance. It is the oldest still-standing school building in Durham, and is a now-rare example of a once-common early-20th century school architectural style. What’s more, it is a physical link to those long-ago days when it educated thousands of children, even before the area was annexed into the City of Durham.

Mayor Bill Bell captured the school’s significance to the neighborhood – and to the city as a whole – in his remarks at Wednesday’s ribbon cutting.

“The city has really made an investment in our inner city communities,” Bell said. “Now when I come to East Central, I no longer think of it being depressing. It’s rising. It’s really about people and a way of life.”

Durham County Commissioner Michael Page put it more simply but equally effectively. “This is a breath of fresh air for this community,” he said.

It’s easy to remember when a project like this has reached this level of success the many points along the way it might not have happened, but for the hard work, imagination and persistence of many people. To all those involved in bringing to reality this “breath of fresh air,” a heartfelt shout-out is due.