Gentrification comes with a price

Jul. 14, 2014 @ 02:52 PM

I confess, I knew. A couple of weeks ago I had heard from a friend that the new owners of the Penny Furniture Building, the Caktus Group, were planning to paint over the Emily Weinstein mural.

I shook my head. I thought my disbelief was justifiable. For the past year I’ve been documenting the creation of the Durham Civil Rights History Mural adjacent to the Penny Furniture Building, so why would anyone in their right mind paint over a beloved mural as a new one is coming into existence? No way, I said. The city, the lawyers, the Durham community were not going to let it happen. No way.

 And then, right around the 4th July weekend I saw the cranes move into the Arts Council parking lot. The workers confirmed it: They were there to paint over the mural. At that point, both as a documentary filmmaker and a community activist I wondered what I was going to do. Should I put down my camera, place my body between the machines and the mural and call the local media hoping they would get there before the police did? But is that really my place? Why should I interfere when it appeared no one else was willing to stop it? Why should I substitute my individual action for the collective responsibility of a community apparently asleep at the wheel as Durham is being radically transformed by the powerful forces of gentrification?

So then, I should film it, I thought. It’s the perfect photo op. As a filmmaker, it doesn’t get any better. But, as I brandished my camera and pointed it at the mural I had second thoughts. The moment felt, how should I put it…? Voyeuristic? Exploitative? Pornographic? In my work, I’m always reminded of that famous photograph of the starving African child and the vulture lurking behind it. I don’t think I could just stand there, in front of a dying child, waiting for the moment the vulture enters the frame so that I can take the perfect picture. As the workers began spraying the wall I decided to put down my camera. If I was not going to try and “save” the mural – why should I profit from its destruction? To be a witness means more than just witnessing an event by watching or recording it. For me witnessing means taking moral responsibility for your actions and since I wasn’t going to stop the workers from erasing mural, I walked away.

I confess, I’m still disturbed by the whole thing as I am left with more questions than answers. Why did the Durham Historic Preservation Commission rubber-stamp the destruction of the mural without inviting any public comments? And who are the members of this commission anyway? And what about the Caktus Group? Why did they come to our city? Because it’s the “tastiest” city in the South according to Southern Living? How can they be so successful and at the same time so oblivious? 

And what about the Durham community? Who is that community anyway now that luxurious apartments sprout like mushrooms all the while we have the highest poverty rate in the state? I mean, who are we? All I know is that I am deeply troubled by what is going in Durham, my adopted home for the past 25 years. Yes, gentrification is a moral choice and it comes at a price. As I drive everyday through Durham, I cannot forget that I am responsible for the city I leave behind to my children.    

Rodrigo Dorfman is a Durham resident.