What if a newsroom listened to people for two months before it wrote anything?
That's what The Herald-Sun has been doing as we get ready to report on gentrification in Durham. Rather than go out and report the story we think is happening, we have brought people into our newsroom and met with people outside of it to ask them what they see happening, as a revitalized downtown ripples through the city.
We don't want to prejudge the story. We know gentrification is a loaded word and that people disagree on its meaning, There is even disagreement in our newsroom, though we seem to have settled on a definition that gentrification means the displacement of poorer people by wealthier people. But more on that in a moment.
In the last two months, we have met and listened to residents, developers, community organizers and the city manager. Two weeks ago I spoke to the InterNeighborhood Council about the project the same night they passed a resolution on the Old West Durham neighborhood's effort to protect its historic character. I sat in the back as Constance Stancil, director of the Neighborhood Improvement Services Department, referenced the "gentleman from the newspaper" and said gentrification isn't all bad; "we just have to manage it."
Gentrification isn't all bad.
As builder Adam Dickinson told me last fall when I reported on his modernist Pleiades homes in Old North Durham, new housing contributes to Durham's tax base, providing new revenue the city can use to meet its goals (not ironically like affordable housing).
But if people are displaced — either because they choose to leave or because they feel forced to leave by rising property values around them — well, then that's something we should talk about.
As Matt Jantzen, of Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods) told us, in just his eight years in Durham he feels he has already witnessed a sea change. "It's going to define Durham," he says of changes in home ownership, "because it doesn't go backward."
As Melissa Norton, president of the Durham Community Land Trustees told us, historic patterns of discrimination have made some neighborhoods and the neighbors living there more vulnerable than others. "We think we've made more progress than we have," she said.
As Camryn Smith of Communities First Association told us, even struggling neighborhoods are home to the people in them. "Inequality is soaring in Durham; I see it," she said. "They have $500 in food stamps. They have seven people in the house, and they're working three minimum-wage jobs. These are the people in my neighborhood."
We were still searching for a name for our project when we met with Tia Wilson Hall of Bull City 150. I told her we want our stories to be data driven, but that we also want to tell people's realities: the homeowner with three letters from developers asking if she wants to sell, the siblings whose parents have died and who are trying to decide whether to hold onto the house or cash in, as is their right.
"That's the story of my street," she said.
And that is how we got the name for our project.
You can follow us as we report this story in a new Facebook group, "The Story of My Street: Gentrification in Durham." In two weeks, 150 people have joined, many sharing why they care about this issue. Follow our posts, moderated by reporters Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan, Zachery Eanes and me, and contribute to the conversation.
This is important work. And on this Facebook group you can read in real time how we're going about it: whom we're meeting, which neighborhoods we're visiting, what data sets we're studying. You can question our assumptions, tell us who else we need to talk to, and contribute your perspective and knowledge. Look for our first story in the project later this month.
I hope you'll join us.
Mark Schultz is the managing editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-829-8950, at email@example.com, on Facebook and on Twitter @HeraldSunEditor.