Las Amazonas: No Loitering

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Formerly an amusement park on a trolley car line, the Lakewood Shopping Center now  looks threadbare, with a Food Lion, Dollar General and a dozen or more vacant storefronts.

A few doors down from B&T Tobacco,  Las Amazonas was a Mexican restaurant and bar that seemed to keep erratic hours. I never went, but some (male) friends who had been there said Latinas were hired to dance — and only dance — with male customers, mostly Latino.

Las Amazonas appeared to have closed a while ago, although it’s hard to say when. I passed by the place this morning and noticed someone had broken its window. But when I looked through the hole and saw the wall mural, I realized the purpose of this place was to remind its patrons of home.



Filling the empty lots: Durham development

Gary Kueber of Open Durham called this lot “the strangest downtown property.” The former furniture warehouse lot at 120 W. Parrish St., between Alley 26 and the old Jack Tar motel, had been abandoned for years. And then it was redeveloped by Arthur Rogers — he did the Citizens Bank building, home of Bar Virgile — into artful small office/start up space.



Photo by Lisa Sorg ©2014

Rogers had to navigate a lot of bureaucracy to build an here: Nearby Mechanics & Farmers Bank actually owned a sliver of the property, which was designated by a metal inlay in Alley 26. As creative infill development, this lot illustrates that imaginative, positive placemaking is possible.

There’s a lot of anxiety about a changing Durham, some of which is documented in an exhibit, Durham Under Development at Pleiades Gallery, on view through March 6. This photo, shot from the parking deck of the Jack Tar Motel in December 2014, is part of the show. I remember looking over the edge of the deck (I’m a bit afraid of heights) and after my queasiness dissipated, recognized the striking geometry of the scene. And Doodleman, the yellow figure in the alley, is peeking over the edge.

I share the anxiety — about affordability, about displacement and gentrification — and have covered it extensively for the INDY and Bull City Rising. However, I also have hope and no small amount of fascination about our changing city. The changes need to be equitable and inclusive. The changes must not diminish Durham’s most endearing qualities: Its diversity, and what the Japanese would call wabi-sabi, the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

We want progress, but we don’t want sterility and exclusivity. Fortunately, Durham CAN, People’s Alliance, the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit are all keeping important issues in front of city officials, who, for the most part, are equally concerned.

These days, you can’t — or I should say, it’s difficult — to get to the top of the old Jack Tar because it is also under development. It’s being transformed from a ’60s motel that eventually became squatters’ quarters and an old-school coffee shop , which was displaced for construction, into a swinging boutique hotel, due to open in a year.

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Photo by Lisa Sorg ©2014

This photo is also in the show. In November 2014, I met several boys playing in the shell of the future Center for Child & Family Health. It is part of the Kent Corner development that includes the Durham Co-op.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and the boys were horsing around in a building under construction, as boys  and girls  will do. (I could definitely envision myself doing the same at that age, and apparently even at the ripe old age of 49.)

All My Children Day Care and the West End Community Center used to be on this property, but they were demolished. While it’s too soon to assess the impact of Kent Corner—it opened about a year ago—on the largely African-American neighborhood, it’s important to ensure that the development does not displace longtime residents.

A wall was outside of the frame, and another boy was hurling himself over it. That explains the silhouette of his feet. In addition to the geometry of the shot (yes, I’m into geometry), there’s a certain innocence about this young man that I felt endeared to.

What will Durham look like when he grows up? Will he benefit from the city’s progress? Or will he be excluded? We owe it to him that he has more educational, vocational, and personal opportunities as the result of the renaissance.

Only the only: the odd beauty of Ahoskie

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The town of Ahoskie, North Carolina, welcomed me with a speeding ticket, and send me back home with images of a place I have yet to make sense of.

Like most small towns, it is struggling to keep its place in the world. Jobs have evaporated. Shopping has been exiled from downtown to the suburbs or nearby cities. That said, I found the town beautiful because it lived up to its nickname.

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At 36.28 degrees latitude, Ahoskie, population 5,000, is nicknamed “The Only One,” because it is the only such named town in the world. True: I have never seen a church decked out in green and white like the one in Ahoskie. Or a painting in a storefront like the one on Main Street. Or a metal sculpture of a soldier like the one in No Man’s Land Park.

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On the street, a found painting ©Japan


japanese painting 2.jpgInitially, I paid little attention to the gray bench seat, apparently from a van, slumped on the curb along Kent Street. Then I saw the discarded painting, propped up on a cushion, and realized this could be one of the greatest street finds I’d ever encountered.

To say it’s a painting sells it short. The lake and sky are painted in what appears to be watercolor, but the rest of the piece is constructed of natural materials: bark, wood and moss.


The paper on the back of the painting is stamped with ©Japan, which means these pieces of nature were likely collected in that country. Since there is no artist’s signature, perhaps the artwork was mass produced. Nonetheless, it bears the mark of the individual. Somebody tapped those metal brads into the wooden island, glued the moss and the bark.


I came home, and my husband, Dennis, and I immediately hung it on a living room wall. We shined a lamp on it so we could analyze it more closely.

“You know, it’s kind of sophisticated,” I told him.

“Sophisticated enough for us,” he replied.




Found in southwest-central Durham: Trust issues at 1:09 a.m.

It was trash day. This is traditionally the best time of the week to find discarded letters, to-do lists and other leavings that have escaped the waste bins on their short journey from the curb over and up into the garbage truck.

On a July morning last summer, I came upon these scraps of blue paper woven in the grass. I gathered all that I could find, and returned the next day to sift through the grass some more. While piecing them together, it became clear there were two sheets of paper, and that I was assembling two jigsaw puzzles at the same time.

We are at our rawest and most vulnerable in the late night/ early morning. Free of societal niceties and expectations, it’s when we feel emboldened to tell the issues page 1 blog copy trust issues page 2 blog copy

Found in Durham Central Park: a $35 kiss between friends

When I worked at the INDY, I wrote a column—or I should say it wrote itself—called Urban Archaeology. It consisted of found objects, overheard conversations and other ephemera that documented life’s small moments. The column became quite popular; when people met me, they often said, “Oh, you’re the person who picks up stuff off the ground.”

Yes, that’s me. And I’m still finding gems like this. I stumbled upon it on Halloween in Durham Central Park. Scroll down for more links to other prosaic discoveries.

Found in Durham Central Park north of the playground
Found in Durham Central Park north of the playground

A box of prayer requests from 2001, found outside the Center for Responsible Lending, West Main Street:

A note from the Durham County jail

A child’s critique of modern art at the Ackland Museum:

Dancing in the streets, found music

The boulevard of broken toys

When people disrobe in the street

A Christmas wish list that does not include a library card

Winged Invasion: When 6 million blackbirds descended on Scotland Neck

“The birds just kept coming.” Photo by David Persoff

Forty-six years ago, the residents of Scotland Neck, North Carolina, could not walk downtown on a sunny day without carrying an umbrella. They could not hang their laundry on the line. The cacophony of cawing was the soundtrack to 1969.

A couple of years ago as part of the Center for Documentary Studies’ Anytown project, I made a film about how Scotland Neck coped with a persistent blackbird invasion—not just 1,000 birds, but 6 million that decided to encamp in the trees of this small town near the Virginia border.

Last night, this short documentary—8 minutes and change—screened at the Strange Beauty Film Festival in Durham. It continues today at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. with more inventive films that look at the world through an odd lens.

I Walk the Line: Bound for the ‘burbs + no one on Cornwallis wants the ROMF

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Run, deer! Here comes the train! Al Buehler Trail, March 2015

Story and photos by Lisa Sorg

I have to say, I was dreading this part: Noisy highways, strip malls, concrete and asphalt. The only respite was to be a trek along a segment of the Al Buehler Trail. Instead of realigning the trail, as originally proposed (and which would have horrible), the light rail line will be elevated over part of the trail and the Duke golf course. To accomplish this, GoTriangle will have to acquire 5.6 acres of Duke Forest. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement says there will be “negligible effects related to visual and noise conditions.” (See page 4-121 at the link above.)

  1. I find this promise of “negligible effects” very hard to believe.
  2. The construction and maintenance will likely damage the flora and fauna in the area, caused by a loss of trees and understory.

Duke biologists, chime in.

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From here, the line cuts to Cornwallis Road, near the Jewish Community Center, the JCC Day School, Carter Charter School and Western Boulevard/U.S. 15-501. Here, GoTriangle has considered building the ROMF—rail operation maintenance facility—at a former Pepsi plant. It would require a rezoning of the land but with less bureaucracy than other sites.

Not so fast, said the JCC. Several JCC members and leaders are concerned the facility would also gobble up 2.5 acres that the Jewish Federation owns, and has plans for building recreational areas.

“I am also concerned with the potential impact on synagogue activities,” wrote Pam Barth, a JCC board member to GoTriangle. “Placing a 24-hour maintenance enterprise adjacent to a house of worship is likely to have an adverse effect on the atmosphere and intent of our worship services.”

“Imagine a worship service, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, or even a funeral, interrupted by the clanging of tools or the squealing of wheels as a rail car turns into the ROMF for maintenance.”—Pam Barth, JCC board member

Now, to be fair, ROMFs don’t have to be ugly or noisy.  Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 10.06.38 AM

And it’s worth mentioning that there’s an imbalance of political power when it comes to siting these types of facilities. DATA’s bus maintenance facility is on Fay Street, near a largely minority (52 percent African-American, 40 percent Latino) and low-income ($21,463 annual median household income, well below the $50,000 AMI for Durham) neighborhood.

Contrast those figures with the $79,000 AMI, 80 percent white demographics in the Cornwallis neighborhood.

Thus, Farrington Road area (80 percent white, $86,000 AMI) is the (very controversial) ROMF choice for now. However, Councilwoman Diane Catotti said a couple of weeks ago that she still wants Cornwallis to stay on the table.

The line continues down Western Parkway, paralleling U.S. 15-501. Someone is building a storage facility along this stretch, probably biding his/her time, collecting some income, until he/she can sell the land for more when the line is built. We pass the old Herald-Sun building, and as I write this, I wonder, “Why not build the ROMF there?”

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Could we some day read a headline: “ROMF to be built at old Herald-Sun site”?

Paxton Media, which owns the H-S, has been trying to sell that building for at least a couple of years. It could be torn down and a ROMF built in its place. A ROMF requires 15-25 acres, and the H-S site is only eight. Adjacent properties could bring that total to about 12. But there are condos behind the old H-S building. In that case, never mind.

I Walk the Line: Leaving downtown to Duke Hospital, Crest Street neighborhood

Favio, a former patient at the Duke Medical Center

Story and photos by Lisa Sorg

A man limped in short stutter steps as he pushed an empty wheelchair onto the sidewalk along busy Erwin Road between LaSalle Street and the Duke Medical Center.

“Do you need some help?” I asked, only then noticing he had only prosthetic legs. He seemed unsteady, unwell, as if perhaps he should still be under a doctor’s care. His white medical bracelet read “Favio,” and listed his birthdate as 1960.

“I’m looking for a Mexican grocery,” he replied in English. He was fluent, but he spoke haltingly, as if the words were floating above his head and he had to catch them. “Someone told me there’s one about a mile up the road.”

I didn’t remember a tienda being in either direction, but began checking for one on my phone.

“Are you sure you’re OK?”

He showed me his right arm, which although apparently healed, was crooked and could not be extended. The side of head, asymmetrical in shape, also looked like it had been injured in the past.

“May I ask how you lost your legs?”

“In Mexico, my wife took my children and I decided to kill myself.”

“Did you jump?”

“No, I sat on the train tracks, and then …” He made a sweeping motion with his arm.

“I’m very sorry that happened to you.”

I gave the man $2, enough for a bus trip to downtown and back. I pushed him in his wheelchair across the street to the stop in front of Duke hospital. On the way, a pedestrian was nearly hit by a car that was turning into a parking lot.

“Seis o once (the 6 or the 11)” I told him when we arrived. “Buena suerte.”

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One impetus for the light rail line is to connect Duke, particularly the medical center, to UNC, particularly its medical center.

There will be two stations along Erwin Road, one at Flowers Street, near the John Hope Franklin Center, and the other farther west, at LaSalle.

If you just travel down (the very congested) Erwin Road, you might think the only apartments are for ramen-eating graduate students or well-heeled doctors and medical faculty. But north of the VA and the hospital lies the historic Crest Street area, formerly known as Hickstown, named for landowner Hawkins Hicks. (Open Durham has an excellent history of this area.)

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In the 1970s and 1980s, this modest, predominantly African-American neighborhood, endured great upheaval at the hands of transportation gurus who built the Durham Freeway through the heart of the area. After a federal civil rights lawsuit, the state transportation department had to come up with a mitigation plan: Sixty-five houses and their residents were relocated; others were demolished and rebuilt. The New Bethel Community Church and the W.I. Patterson Center, which abut Crest Street Park, remained. Graves at the church’s cemetery were dug up, then reburied in other Durham cemeteries. So obviously, GoTriangle and the city have to take great care in ensuring the low-income neighborhood—it now has a larger Latino population than African-American—benefits, not suffers from the light rail line.

Crest Park ballfield, with part of the medical center complex looming in the background
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Doctors headed home after work, Erwin Road

I Walk the Line: On Ninth Street, a beer, a book and a train

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Man sleeping by the railroad tracks near Ninth Street

Story and photos by Lisa Sorg

Candace Mixon, her dog, Jelly, and Matthew Lynch were spending a perfect fall afternoon sipping beers at a picnic table outside Sam’s Quik Shop. (To clarify, Jelly was not drinking.) They looked young and metropolitan, like people who might know  which end of the regional day pass to stick in the card slot.

It turned out they were ardent public transit fans, and using our own code, we traded observations on buses and trains in the way that regulars and commuters do.

“The 400 and the 405 used to take forever, an hour just to get to Chapel Hill.”
“It’s better now that they don’t go to New Hope Commons.”
“I take the bus to Cary.”
“Is that the 100 to the 300?”
“I sometimes take the Amtrak to Raleigh. And I used to commute to Greensboro on it.”

And so on. It’s not that they or I oppose cars—we each own one—but driving has become a drag.

“15-501, I despise driving it.” —Candace Mixon

“The roads aren’t set up for bikes, There needs to be an option besides driving.”—Matthew Lynch

Once the train leaves Buchanan Boulevard for the Ninth Street station, the rail line will be no longer run along a street but will be elevated instead. It will climb through a forest—part of which will need cut—behind the Center for Documentary Studies, swing in front of the Hillside Convalescent Center, two institutions already accustomed to trains. (In my previous coursework at CDS, audio/video recording occasionally had to stop while a train passed.) It will continue over Swift Avenue to the Ninth Street station, where people can take an elevator from the platform to the street level, right across from Sam’s Quik Stop.

(I admit I waxed nostalgic for a future chilly fall evening, sitting for a spell with a book I will have just purchased from The Regulator up on Ninth, sipping a bottle of Porter and waiting for the train to arrive. More likely though, it will be a blazing hot day in July 2025, I’ll have gulped the last of my water and be sweating it out on the platform, only for the train to be late.)

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Urban garden, Center for Documentary Studies

I wonder how the station’s placement south of Main Street will help or hurt the businesses up on Ninth.  I also wonder how or if the train will co-exist with the Bull City Connector, the free bus that goes from Golden Belt to the medical center. The routes are similar, as is the timing—about every 17 minutes—and I could see the BCC cannibalizing the train ridership.

On one hand, the train could help alleviate some of the Ninth Street neighborhood’s parking issues. On the other, it could further buttress the Great Wall of Erwin Road, the underpass that if not for Sam’s, few would traverse. But for a six-pack of beer, people will cross a nasty intersection beneath the Durham Freeway.

The question is, will they cross that intersection for pancakes at Elmo’s Diner? (I would.) The latest issue of Mental Floss? (Ditto.) Some flowers or a tchotchke? (Double ditto.)

A lot of people will live near the Ninth Street Station. While Duke University housing encompasses most of the neighborhood south of the station—thus, precluding any significant development there—to the north, it’s a housing bonanza if you have a grand to drop on a one-bedroom. Nearly 1,500 apartments have recently been built or are in the pipeline, and that does not include all the seasoned single-family bungalows in Old West Durham.

There is still room for development, though—a Duke parking lot on Hillsborough Road, for example—and some workforce/affordable places sure would be nice for the workers at Harris Teeter or any of the Ninth Street businesses.

Here are the census figures for the block group that includes much of Old West Durham (Source: Durham Neighborhood Compass)

Total population: 1,963    Latino 15%     White 69%    African-American 7.6%
Median age: 28.7, which is much younger than the county average of 37
79% of residents are renters, and of those, 54% spend more than a third of their household income
on housing and housing-related costs