We can expect growing debate over the g-word

Jul. 19, 2014 @ 02:12 PM

Rodrigo Dorfman, in a guest column on this page Tuesday, tossed out the g-word – gentrification -- and set off a minor round of debate on neighborhood discussion groups. Dorfman often does that. He’s outspoken, thoughtful and prone to poke at painful issues.

At least one e who responded to the column raised the point that the act that prompted Dorfman to write, while unfortunate, wasn’t really a gentrification issue. I’ll expand a bit on that in a moment, but whether the instant case was gentrification or not, we’re likely to hear a lot more debate around the subject.

Gentrification has long been a worry of many in this community who see a potential – even likely – downside of the revitalization of downtown and surrounding areas.  As Durham leaves further and further behind its past as a textile-and-tobacco-factory town and attracts droves of affluent newcomers, many of those newcomers envision living in cool, rebounding neighborhoods that not so long ago would have been unattractive to them.

The gentrification worry is another facet of a puzzle oft-stated here these days. How does Durham keep the gritty, down-to-earth character that is attracting new development, as that development promises – or threatens, depending on your view – to alter that character?

Dorman’s gentrification example was the painting-over of a mural, beloved by many, painted two decades ago by local artist Emily Weinstein on the façade of Penny Furniture Company. A new owner is renovating that building, long dormant, as part of downtown’s continuing rebirth.

But the mural paint-over wasn’t gentrification, Michael Bacon, another local activist and on-line discussion regular, argued.

Responding to Dorfman’s column, Bacon wrote:

“The covering of the mural was a stupid decision, a loss to the Durham community, and it made me sad.  Gentrification is the entry (or sometimes the return) of higher net worth individuals and businesses to residential and commercial areas populated by lower net worth individuals and businesses, often (but not always) triggering the displacement of those lower net worth.

“The removal of Emily's beautiful Eno painting was not due to a disparity in net worth.  High dollar art did not move in on low dollar art.  It was due to a public good (the mural) being appropriated and deployed by people who don't see the value in it but are allowed to do so because they retain legal property rights over the mural.”

I would make another point, putting on my preservationist’s hat. The Historic Properties Commission came in for some flak for approving the mural’s removal – but, in point of fact, the mural, while  a lovely addition, would have inhibited restoring key historic elements of the building. Resurrecting the building’s original design elements is in itself a public good.

The issue of the affluent displacing the less affluent pops up around the city in many places. Googling gentrification and Durham yields evidence of discussions around Old Hayti, Southside, North Durham Park and the sprawling University Apartments on East Chapel Hill Street where new ownership has brought renovations, higher rent – and dismay from some longtime residents.

The infusion in the next several months of hundreds of brand-new, upscale residential units in downtown will further transform the composition of the population. Just in this past year, the rise in parking costs that accompanies revitalization’s increased demand has angered some pioneers in the first wave of downtown’s resettlers.

I’m glad we published Dorman’s piece, and I hope the debate that it has engendered continues on many levels. Robustly hashing out the gentrification issue would be in Durham’s character.

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