Story and photos by Lisa Sorg
Eleven miles, walked twice. Two cases of heat exhaustion. Countless mosquitoes. Hundreds of cars. Since GoTriangle announced the Durham portion of its proposed light rail line, I have wanted to experience it, not as a simulated fly over, but on the ground. A map is a representation of the route, but it lacks ground truth, the sense of place and people along the way.
For the next nine days, I’ll post photos, stories, census data and yes, maps from the line and its environs in hopes that readers will consider and discuss the pros and cons of the $1.8 billion project. It will not only be an enormous engineering feat, but the light rail line will have generational effects on neighborhoods, people, businesses and the social connections among them.
Despite the road signs that have sprung up around Durham that say, “No light rail”, there is a lot of local and federal support for the project. (Full disclosure: I’m for it.) The federal government will chip in half of the cost—$900 million—while a part of local taxes, passed by a voter referendum, will provide 25 percent of it, about $450 million.
However, on a state level, that support died this week on Jones Street. The legislature all but reneged on its funding commitment, decreasing it to a measly $500,000. GoTriangle has said the train will keep a rollin’ so to speak. There could be other funding sources to tap, and time to tap them. We should know more by mid-October.
The public can comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement until Oct. 13. A public hearing is scheduled for Durham on Thursday, Oct. 1, 4–7 p.m., Durham County Commission Chamber, 200 E. Main St., Second Floor.
I encourage you to also walk at least a portion of the line. Bring water, bug spray and sunblock. And enjoy getting to know your city from the ground up.
Next: Alston Avenue
At one of two matchbox-size, lemon-yellow houses on East Pettigrew Street, a woman sat on her porch, scanning her mobile phone, as two boys rough-housed in the driveway. A man was nailing new address numbers on the house, and fixing a screen door.
“Make sure no one can get in,” the woman told him.
I asked her if she had heard about the light rail line or the Alston Avenue Station that would be built across from her house. She had no idea.
“How will you deal with the noise?” I asked.
At that moment, as if on cue, a westbound Amtrak train sped by. She looked at me, as if the train’s horn answered the question. “Between Amtrak and the freight train, it’s about every 30 minutes,” she said. “And I have a new grandbaby.”
I told her it would likely be 10 years before the station was built. “Well, I won’t be living here then,” she replied.
The houses are so close to the street—5, 6 feet at most, that It’s difficult to envision who, if anyone, will be living along this stretch when the station arrives. Yet after decades of disinvestment, this neighborhood has enormous possibility for the construction of safe, affordable housing, which is badly needed. Center Investment Corp., based in Durham, owns 1.1 acres of vacant land at Murphy and Pettigrew streets. (My bet is that it becomes a parking lot, but here’s hoping.)
A block south, another small lot, owned by Beverly Weaver of Richardson, Texas, sits vacant. Many streets, such as Grant and Colfax, have scattered empty lots that could support small single-family homes.
The Alston Avenue Station will be the line’s easternmost stop at Pettigrew and Murphy streets, a once-vibrant area that in the mid-20th century was home to the Gann Hosiery Mills. At its peak, the mills’ 150 employees produced 120,000 pairs of socks a week. Then the mills closed, the Durham Freeway was built, displacing hundreds of residents, and years of disinvestment followed.
Neighborhood residents are displeased about the placement of the Alston Avenue station, James Chavis told Council earlier this month, because it will be located west, not east of that major thoroughfare, as originally planned. GoTriangle engineers said a “historic” water tower is in the way, [see pages 177-178] among the factors that forced the change. (The water tower is seen in old mill photos, but considering Durham allows the demolition of other historic structures, this is a weak argument.)
For a neighborhood already disconnected by bridges, highways, [page 181] and existing rail, this is yet another obstacle for residents to get to the train station. To them, it’s another indication that their concerns aren’t being considered as carefully as those of the well-heeled interests downtown.
“We were looking forward to it and didn’t receive it. How do you think that makes us feel?
We are also part of Durham.” —James Chavis
The train will run along East Pettigrew Street, which is penned in between the North Carolina Railroad Corridor and the Durham Freeway. Neighborhoods north of the tracks are disconnected by these manmade geographic barriers. Another barrier is the lack of sidewalks. I seem to be the only person walking from downtown to the neighborhood. From Fayetteville Street east, sidewalks are only intermittent until you approach the Alston Avenue bridge. Beneath that bridge, homeless people have tucked bedding and other belongings in the dark crevices at the top. With the traffic above and below, it’s a wonder how they sleep.
Heading back downtown, the John Avery Boys & Girls Club is quiet; school is in session. In front of the building, on the club’s sidewalk, children have scribbled messages, expressing their love for the place and the people.
Census figures within a half-mile of the proposed station at Pettigrew and Colfax streets
(Source: Durham Neighborhood Compass; numbers have been rounded)
North of Pettigrew Population 1,278
Latino 20% Median household income $20,654
White 7% Renter-occupied housing 76%
African-American 72% Rent is 30%+ of income 54%
Under 18 25% Households receiving SSI (disability) 12.5%
South of Pettigrew (two census block groups) Population 2,753
Latino 7-10% Median household income $16,000-$19,000
White 2% Renter-occupied housing 70-74%
African-American 85-88% Rent is 30%+ of income 53-66%
Under 18 20-37% Households receiving SSI 7.5-9.5%
©2015 Lisa Sorg