Reviving Lakewood

An intriguing venture -- an experiment, perhaps, although its instigators don’t really call it that -- is taking shape at the Lakewood Shopping Center a couple miles west of downtown.

The center occupies a site with a long history in Durham. In the very early years of the 20 century, the Durham Traction Company developed the Lakewood Amusement Park there to drive traffic on a trolley line that ended at the park. A practice in many cities in those years, the park blossomed into a major attraction with a carousel, a bowling alley, a dance hall, a roller-coaster and, of course, a lake among its features.

By mid-century, the park had succumbed to changing tastes. In 1960, Lakewood Shopping Center opened as part of the burgeoning trend of suburban and semi-suburban shopping centers across the country, a trend that around the same time birthed Northgate Shopping Center a few blocks north of downtown. (Downtowners probably didn’t see their fate coming as these centers opened, but that’s another story).

Time has long since worn the glamor from Lakewood, and it and the surrounding neighborhood began to share the doldrums of the downtown it had deflated, even as downtown was rebounding, eventually spectacularly.

Now, as the cycle of decline and revival turns again, the Lakewood area is making a comeback. Young families are snatching up still-affordable, classic housing in the nearby Lakewood-Tuscarora Historic District, the Lakewood YMCA a few years ago was recharged with new investment and a partnership with a Durham Public Schools Montessori School, Pine State Florist has re-animated what once was the upscale Rolls Florist, the Durham Literacy Center has acquired, refurbished and instilled busy life into an office building and trendy Durham food-and-coffee magnets Scratch Bakery and Cocoa Cinnamon are opening outposts there.

A driving force at the shopping center itself has been The Scrap Exchange, which first bought the old Centre Theater space for its quirky, popular re-use, recycle store that had been displaced a few years ago by the Liberty Warehouse collapse. Now, “the Scrap” has acquired another chunk of the center is and is seeking tenants -- and financing -- to develop a Reuse Arts District.

Here’s the intriguing part -- as The Herald-Sun’s Cliff Bellamy put it in a story this week, “The Scrap Exchange is seeking to redevelop the Lakewood area without driving out the people who live there, one of the pitfalls of neighborhood improvement.”

It’s likely to be a heavy lift, but as Durham struggles with the often two-edged sword of “gentrification,” its a venture we will be watching eagerly.