Durham County

One institution to another, history buff highlights community ties with Duke

In this Herald-Sun file photo, John Schelp (center) leads a three-mile walk through Old West Durham’s colorful past. Old West Durham Neighborhood Association is proposing a Neighborhood Protection Overlay.
In this Herald-Sun file photo, John Schelp (center) leads a three-mile walk through Old West Durham’s colorful past. Old West Durham Neighborhood Association is proposing a Neighborhood Protection Overlay. The Herald-Sun

John Schelp’s neighborhood history walks are becoming as much of a Durham institution as the ones he highlights along the way during his lap of the communities surrounding Duke University’s East Campus.

The latest, on Saturday, drew upwards of 100 people or more, a crowd he said was likely the largest to accompany him since he started the walks 12 years ago.

Schelp said the inspiration for the walk-and-talks came from the regrets a graduating Duke student once voiced to him that she hadn’t learned more about the city’s history during her time at the university.

Nowadays, over two or three hours, he manages to cover a lot of ground, both literally and in terms of his subject matter. He recounts the mill-village roots of the Ninth Street area, Duke’s 1892 move to Durham and the between-community-elites competition with Raleigh’s that fueled the institution’s choice of destinations, and more recent developments like the creation of RTP.

Befitting his own background as the combative former president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association, he doesn’t shy away from recent history, like that group’s occasional disputes with the neighboring university.

“We’ve worked it all out because we’ve learned that you don’t talk quietly to Duke in a back room; you put it in the newspaper on the front page,” he said during one stop, alluding to a past quarrel over the possibility of the university’s hosting on-campus, tax-exempt retail businesses. “That’s their Achilles heel, and you can bring them down.”

But the tour also illustrated that history has a way of repeating itself.

During a stop outside Baldwin Auditorium, Schelp pointed out that the northernmost portion of East Campus was once covered by a horse-racing track and grandstand, and that the university’s football and baseball teams played their games nearby in the decides between Duke’s arrival in Durham and the construction of West Campus.

Those teams long ago decamped to West Campus, but Duke’s now in the midst of building a stadium at the corner of Broad Street and West Markham Avenue for its new softball team, which is scheduled to begin play in the spring of 2018. The project initially drew criticism from one neighbor, but little in the way of actual controversy ensued.

Schelp said Duke’s development unfolded the way it did early in the 20th century because people who owned property near East Campus got wind of the fact the university was quietly buying more land around it, and “jacked up the prices” on the institution. Duke’s then-leaders responded by looking elsewhere, eventually buying the farmland that became West Campus.

“It would’ve been a very different college if Duke had gone straight up into Durham instead of over into a university in the woods, or a university in the forest,” Schelp said, asking his listeners to imagine the present West Campus attached to East Campus. “It would’ve been a very different experience.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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