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
doctors at medical center
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


I Walk the Line: Protecting affordability near Buchanan Boulevard

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Pauli Murray mural on the side of an old warehouse on Buchanan Boulevard. The warehouse is now part of the Duke Transportation Center

Story and photos by Lisa Sorg

Note: The public comment period on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement ends Oct. 13. You can comment via .

Near Brightleaf Square, an eerie stretch of West Pettigrew Street parallels an active rail line. Part of the “street” is gravel, and more closely resembles a cowpath. It then crosses Gregson, and curves past the remains of an old, brick house, its lot strewn with trash. Beneath some leaves, I find a woman’s bracelet.buchananbricks


Pettigrew Street dead-ends at the Duke University transportation center and impound lot, site of the future Buchanan Boulevard station. For now, though, buses await their scheduled maintenance, garbage trucks nap between routes and discarded parking lot booths transform into terrariums as vines climb inside them. Cars, having violated Duke’s strict parking rules, have been jailed until their owners bail them out.

The line originally was to run near Smith Warehouse, but considering the building’s historic significance, the railway was deemed too close. So now, it runs a tad south, through the Maxwell Street parking lot, parallel to the Durham Freeway. As planned, the station would be couched off the street, and take out an old, brick warehouse, emblazoned with a mural of Pauli Murray, the Episcopal saint and civil rights activist.


But Durham Area Designers, a volunteer group of urban planners and architects who’ve scrutinized the proposed plan, believe the warehouse can be saved and reused. They submitted public comment, complete with drawings, showing a different proposal that not only preserves the building but also provides more space for transit-oriented development and better connections with the neighborhoods. Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 11.09.03 AM

150930_DAD_Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project

These neighborhoods—in particular, West End and Burch Avenue, and less so, the already tony Trinity Park, which borders Duke East Campus—are vulnerable to the effects of gentrification: Displacement of low- to moderate-income residents and local businesses along West Chapel Hill Street that have stuck by this neighborhood through thick and thin.

West Chapel Hill Street

“We’re seeing changes in neighborhoods now. Now is when the planning is happening. Now is when decisions are being made.” —Selina Mack, director of Durham Community Land Trustees, a nonprofit that preserves and creates affordable housing

At Durham CAN meetings, residents have been focused on how to preserve affordable housing around station areas, including the West End and Burch Avenue. Affordability is very much at risk. Mel Norton of the Durham People’s Alliance analyzed 10 years’ of sales data in these neighborhoods, which shows home prices have increased more than 100 percent.

 “There will be a significant increase in rents and property values. It’s happened nationwide. We want the benefits of light rail but not the displacement.” —Patrick Young of the Durham City-County Planning Department

As for renters, a UNC study released this year (see page 36 at the link below for this particular neighborhood), indicated that 78 percent of dwelling units within a half-mile of the station are rentals. Forty-five percent of dwelling units are considered to be affordable; however, very few are subsidized, meaning that increases in property values could compel private landlords to increase rents beyond their tenants’ reach—or flip the houses altogether. The study is here: affordablehousing_possiblesites

No touching: Duke University impound lot

This is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city, home to the annual Our Lady of Guadalupe parade, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, the Islamic Center and Joy of Tabernacle storefront church. It sustains the Durham Co-op and the Taiba Middle Eastern Grocery. It’s certainly worth protecting.

Census figures for Burch Avenue neighborhood, from the Durham Neighborhood Compass

Total population 584
Latino 12%
White 51%
Black 31%
Youth under 18 13%
Median household income $24,943
Percentage of residents who are renters 83%
Percentage of renters who spend more than 30 percent of income on house 64%