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.
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.
Initially, 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.
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 truth.
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.
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 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.)
I find this promise of “negligible effects” very hard to believe.
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.
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
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?”
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.
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.”
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.)
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.