Durham, where people do impossible things

Feb. 15, 2014 @ 11:22 PM

Durham is an impossible city. And I love it.

Because people in Durham do impossible things, like electing a Jewish mayor in 1951. That would have been impossible just once in a southern city back then. But Durham re-elected Emmauel “Mutt” Evans five more times. And Evans ran with the full support of the Durham business community because business leaders were trying to do what must have seemed impossible in the 1950s and ’60s, namely, find peaceful path to better race relations. By the way, 1951 was a historic year for Durham, not only because of  Mutt’s victory, but also because Katherine Robinson Everett and Mary Duke Biddle Trent became the first women to be elected to the Durham City Council.

And how’s this for impossible -- nine years ago a group of neighborhood residents got together to save a beaver dam from the earth movers that were expanding I-85.

Hey folks, listen up! In Beaver vs. Highway the highway always wins! Oh, yeah, I forgot, this is Durham. The beavers won. And, I-85 was expanded. That’s damn-well impossible. (pun intended). The victory has since been memorialized with an annual Beaver Queen Pageant, which, frankly, is impossible to describe.

There’s more. After being scolded by their neighbors in Southwest Central Durham for failing to consult them before drafting a plan to “improve the community” the folks at Duke University apologized and sat down to listen. Go ahead, read that sentence again. Impossible right?  Who, at a university the size of Duke in a city the size of Durham listens to anybody but themselves?

But this is Durham, so Duke listened. And through a newly created Southwest Central Durham Quality of Life Committee the neighbors identified several priorities, including better housing. Duke partnered with the Self-Help Credit Union to buy derelict properties and convert them to fair-priced homes. The result is about 150 new houses occupied by families with modest incomes. The neighbors spoke, the institutions listened, the neighbors won. Yep, Durham is impossible. 

So when people said that it was impossible to get enough community financing to build a co-op grocery store in this city, I knew that the Durham Central Market would be open very soon. Once again, Durham is on the verge of doing the impossible. People in this city are buying memberships in a store that that right now is only a hill of dirt at Kent Corner. And they’re making larger financial investments in the form of preferred shares, to buy a piece of an impossible dream -- a locally owned natural foods store that will encourage sustainable farming, responsible development, community engagement and job growth.

It’s something Durham wants. And when people in this town know what they want, they’re impossible to stop.

Frank Stasio is host of WUNC’s “State of Things” and chairman of the board of Durham Central Market. For more information on the market, or on how to become a member and invest, visit its website, http://durhamcentralmarket.org/