Durham’s ‘tale of two cities’ stubbornly endures

Oct. 15, 2013 @ 03:27 PM

The Durham Performing Arts Center continues to reap great financial returns for the city – not to mention greatly adding to our cultural amenities.

Crime is down.  SAT scores are up.  Unemployment is at its lowest level in years. Our brewers practically ran the table at the State Fair N. C. Brewers’ Cup competition.

College basketball season is just weeks away.

We have been awash in good news these past couple of weeks.

And there’s reason to be excited about that, and to revel in the continuing stream of accolades that come our way as a foodie haven, a creative-class magnet, a retirement Mecca, a research and educational star.

But a low-key symposium at the Durham Convention Center Thursday served as a reminder -- not that many of our neighbors can forget -- that there is a cloud over our bright landscape.

In nearly a decade here, I’ve had countless conversations about that cloud – a threat, I truly believe, as do many others, that can ultimately threaten this city’s arc of progress.

Durham is, as Gayle Harris, the county’s public-health chief said, “a tale of two cities – the haves and the have-nots.” Harris, head of the Durham County Department of Public Health, was quoting a favorite observation of Dr. Evelyn Schmidt, the former longtime CEO of Lincoln Community Health Center.

Schmidt had and Harris has an important perspective on one of the effects of that economic divide – the health inequities that were the subject of Thursday’s symposium.

“Durham is the City of Medicine,” Harris said, “but certainly not a community of health.”

She urged the group, as my colleague Keith Upchurch reported in Friday’s paper, to confront the gaps in income, housing and education that erode the health of too many in this affluent city.

“If we’re going to change the health status of our community, we’ve got to pull back the covers on the issues and talk about them,” Harris said.

Here’s a pair of statistics that highlights our tale of two cities.

We all know that the presence of one of the country’s top research universities and its highly rated medical center – as well as one of the country’s most esteemed historically black universities – leads to a highly educated workforce with strong earnings potential. The Research Triangle Park adds to our roster of well-paying white-collar jobs.

Indeed, with a median household income of $48,023 in 2010, we rank as the 10th-highest-earning county in the state.

But nearly one in five of Durham county households are below the poverty line.  Our 18.4 percent poverty rate ranks near middle statewide – 46th lowest among our 100 counties.

The stark difference those numbers imply is accentuated by our proximity to Wake County – second-highest household income in the state at $61,954, fourth-lowest poverty rate at 12 percent.  

The income differentials here impact not only the health outcomes discussed Thursday, but educational outcomes. The haves/have-nots divide certainly contributes to our crime rate – although the vast majority of people who are poor never commit a crime, I hasten to add.

There’s some danger that our very success – a downtown that has rebounded from the depths of the 1980s, sprawling shopping complexes drawing affluent customers from throughout the region, new office parks emerging even during the Great Recession – will lull us into obliviousness to the “two cities” divide.

That would be a serious mistake destined to, at some point, bring a day of reckoning. Instead, let’s hope for the day we celebrate one of the “great things happening in Durham” as a significant dent in our income, health and education disparities.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.