Durham must protect its renters, keepers of our community, culture

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove contributed photo

Across the street from where I live in Durham’s Walltown community, the trees lean in to embrace one another from each bank of Ellerbee Creek.

A few years ago, my daughter discovered a fork in an old oak where she can sit several feet above the water and contemplate life. She calls it her “special place.” I asked her if I could join her there one evening, and I thought as we sat together listening to the creek how little I know about the Ellerbe people — the people who knew this place, its ways, and its gifts long before we were here.

When I came to Durham in 2003 I learned about Walltown from African-American elders who grew up here in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They told me how, during Jim Crow segregation, they went to school and church, bought groceries and wood to heat their homes, and entertained themselves on the weekends right here in the neighborhood.

Many of those elders were the first in their families to go to college and went on to work in cities up and down the East Coast. But they always came home to Walltown. After several of them had retired and moved back, they started an annual Walltown neighborhood reunion, where we all have a cook-out, worship together at one of the neighborhood churches, and renew our vows to this place “until til death do us part.”

Sadly, the forces of gentrification may break up the Walltown community before death does.

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As property values in Durham’s core have risen sharply over the past decade, rents in Walltown have as much as tripled. Despite successful living-wage campaigns with the city and with Duke a decade ago, service workers can’t afford to live in this historic service community. The poorest among us are being pushed out.

As the Herald-Sun has reported this year, gentrification is a major justice issue for all of us in Durham. Who benefits from surging property values and how we support and promote affordable housing options for people who are being priced out are crucial questions in our common life.

Equally important, however, is the integrity of communities like Walltown, where renters who have known one another for generations have shared a common life and culture. Affordable housing just anywhere will not preserve the gifts of this place. Until we learn to see the value of communities like this, we don’t even know how much we have to lose.

It took me some time to recognize how renters have been the keepers of culture in Walltown. In upwardly mobile white culture, I had learned to assume that home-ownership and a stable, healthy community go hand-in-hand.

But in historically black communities like Walltown, “red-lining” prevented residents from becoming homeowners for generations. Though residents were deeply invested in life here through institutions like the churches, the community center, and the community-supported youth program, no bank would give them a loan to purchase their home. Over a lifetime many people paid the value of their homes to landlords several times over, but home ownership was unimaginable.

In the economy of a booming housing market, neighborhoods like Walltown can look like a “frontier” of opportunity for developers — older homes that can be torn down, creating space for urban infill. Property owners in Walltown receive regular offers for their land.

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But sitting by the Ellerbe Creek with my daughter, it occurred to me that our challenge today must, in some ways, be like the one that the original inhabitants of this land faced. The “opportunity” of white settlers in this land we now call North Carolina presented an imminent threat to native life — people who’d never imagined a property title to the land.

We know very little now about the wisdom we lost when white culture displaced the indigenous inhabitants of this place. But we do know something about the rich culture that generations of people have cultivated in Walltown. They are with us still. They have an annual reunion to celebrate what was passed on to them. Durham should do everything we can to preserve the affordable rentals that make a culture like Walltown’s possible.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a Baptist minister in Durham, North Carolina, and author of “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion.”