The sycamore, and the Durham I used to know

Leslie Frost
Leslie Frost

This is an elegy.

There was a beautiful sycamore on Dacian Avenue. It rose out of the green and brown forest like a ghost. A long curve of trunk and branches off to the side of the lot and back from the street, it was mysterious, allusive, a fantasy tree in the straight pines and pin oaks.

I always looked at it when I walked by; I looked for it, glimmering in the small patch of undeveloped forest at the bottom of the hill near my house.

Today, the tree is gone. Bulldozed, chopped, and, hauled off with the other debris that used to be forest. I saw part of its smooth trunk in the tangled branches on the back of the truck.

The building company moves fast. It hasn’t even gotten the permit to build the house, but men have cleared the land in two days. Maybe I’d be impressed, were there no sycamore torn from its roots, but a representative promised a neighbor the tree was outside the clearing zone, so instead I’m just heartbroken. And mad.

But mostly heartbroken.

It’s easy for me to mock my own attachment to a Durham that’s gone. I’ve only lived here since 2000, and I moved to Old North Durham because in its abandoned commercial buildings I could imagine a coffee shop where Cocoa Cinnamon is now, a café where Geer Street Garden opens its old garage doors to the sun.

I’m only a bit less new Durham than my recent neighbors.

But I miss the old days. I miss zipping around on my bike with barely a car in sight. I miss the empty downtown, gothic in its abandonment and familiar in that everyone seemed either someone I knew or someone who knew someone I knew. Talk of the Town. Jo and Joe’s. Ringside. Barber and beauty shops, drug stores, a weird bookstore. A holdout furniture store.

I miss the sense of possibilities. I miss Sunday walks around my neighborhood and Old East Durham in long conversations trying to figure out how ordinary people could build economically viable neighborhoods without creating gentrification. I miss my old neighborhood, gunshots and all. I miss the diversity and the sense that we were building equality. I miss joining intense discussions about how to make our neighborhood safer, to bridge English-Spanish divides, to take care of the elderly, to gather neighbors together.

I remember meeting some of the famed elders of the Lyon Park Neighborhood Association, a strong leadership of women fighting every day to keep crime and chaos out of their neighborhood and keep neighborhood a home. That a house on Cornell Street long inhabited by drug dealers was torn down recently made a neighbor and I very happy when we happened to meet at the State Employees Credit Union while conducting our business; that a $590,000 house got built in its place was what neither of us wanted.

The new Durham is showing all of us who lived here before it became wealthy that neighborhoods aren’t in the calculus of big money. I didn’t imagine big money. A city abandoned by moneyed interests is a city with space to dream in. Artists and activists know this.

I remember the extraordinary day of the Georges Rousse exhibit in 2006; the downtown was full of people brought together to see art. I couldn’t imagine that any of those spaces would be endangered once so many people had seen them.

Liberty Warehouse is gone.

When a city is mostly abandoned, your mind fills it with your desires. I imagined Hutchins Auto becoming a garage again, next to the new coffee shop. I imagined a city of electric shops and repair shops, and studios and offices and bars and restaurants, a city that would thrive for all of us.

People are making and doing in Durham. It’s just upscale now, and enormous. Filled with entertainment, the old landscapes laid out for manual labor feel more like an exclusive shopping mall.

Durham abandoned its downtown by putting a highway through its thriving black business district and by refusing to embrace integration. Global capitalism moved abroad and shut down its mills. The city I first loved was created by a longer arc of meaning than I know.

But big money coming to town and obliterating the past is the story I know. Liberty Warehouse. The Carpenter Chevy Building. The frail networks by which the neighborhood survives in a maze of poor streets. The Generation X of neighborhood dreamers sandwiched between the mill owners and the development firms.

The sycamore was bound to fall. A small spot of forest with a beautiful tree is just a vulnerability, an unmonetized emptiness, a development opportunity.

The people who move in won’t even know what was there.

Leslie Frost, a teaching associate professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC, lives in Durham.